The rise and fall of BBC F1

The BBC’s return to Formula 1 has been a rollercoaster ride that began almost eight years ago. Here, The F1 Broadcasting Blog tracks the past eight years, in which the team went to a high never seen before in this country, to a low just four years later…

March 20th, 2008 – It was announced that Formula 1 would be return to BBC television, starting with the 2009 season. It was a five year rights agreement, set to continue through to the end of 2013. Roger Mosey, then Head of BBC Sport, said: “…we’re absolutely delighted F1 will be back on the BBC this time next year.”

November 24th, 2008 – Rider and Blundell out, Humphrey, Jordan and Coulthard in. The BBC were keen to bring fresh faces to their coverage, and they made their intentions clear towards the end of 2008. Alongside the trio at the head of BBC’s coverage, it was announced that Jonathan Legard would lead the commentary, replacing James Allen, with Martin Brundle joining from ITV. Meanwhile, behind the scenes in production, the BBC were already realising what a financial error this new Formula 1 deal was going to be. I quote Steve Rider’s book: “When [senior BBC producer] was told there would not be much change out of £8 or £9 million [in production costs] there was silence, then ‘Oh shit…’, and the line went dead.”

February 24th, 2009 – The BBC confirm their coverage plans for the 2009 season, including every practice session live and a one-hour interactive forum after each race, both behind the Red Button service.

March 4th, 2009 – Called “The World’s Greatest Car Chase”, the BBC unveiled their pre-season trailer, with that famous bass riff at the end…

March 26th and 27th, 2009 – Every session live, with one hour build-ups and a ton of reaction. Formula 1 had returned to the BBC, with Jenson Button winning in style. A peak audience of nearly seven million viewers watched across live and repeat.

July 25th, 2009 – Probably the first real low point of BBC’s Grand Prix coverage. Immediately following the crash of Felipe Massa during the Hungarian Grand Prix the team, notably Jordan, discussed Massa’s condition, with Jordan speculating about ‘rumours’ that he had heard minutes after the crash happened.

The first BBC F1 forum at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Jake Humphrey (l), Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie (top r), David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan and Martin Brundle (bottom r).
The first BBC F1 forum at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Jake Humphrey (l), Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie (top r), David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan and Martin Brundle (bottom r).

November 1st, 2009 – BBC’s first season came to a successful conclusion with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. From a personnel perspective, the team was well received, the exception being Legard, however the decision was made to retain him for the 2010 season.

July 11th, 2010 – The production team consolidated what they had in 2009 with more fantastic features airing during the 2010 season. Viewing figures increased, and notably the team stayed live on BBC One until 15:40 during the British Grand Prix. Over two million viewers stayed with them during the hour of post-race analysis on BBC One (excluding the forum that followed!), showing how much the audience liked and appreciated the BBC coverage. The trio of Humphrey, Coulthard and Jordan quickly built rapport with each other and it showed on air. It was clear that Formula 1 in the UK was heading into a golden age…

January 11th, 2011 – As good as BBC’s coverage was, it was clear that something was not quite right with the commentary team. The decision was made at the beginning of 2011 to remove Legard from the team, with Coulthard now co-commentating alongside Brundle. It was a marked departure from the usual set-up, with now two ex-racers commentating on the action.

June 12th, 2011 – “He’s gone wide, he’s gone wide! Button leads the Grand Prix!” Just two hours earlier, they were talking about ducks floating in the water. Of course, it could only be the Canadian Grand Prix, probably one of the best races I have watched. A peak audience of 8.5 million watched on the BBC, as the dramatic race tore up BBC’s primetime schedules. Their coverage was flying high. Sebastian Vettel may have been dominant, but viewing figures were still soaring. BBC’s F1 coverage was on top of the world. And then…

July 29th, 2011BBC and Sky awarded rights in new Formula 1 deal. The deal had been done. The costly error not to negotiate with Formula One Management three years earlier, plus the new licence fee settlement meant that half the races from 2012 would be aired exclusively live on pay television, an irreversible move. At the time, Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, said: “We are absolutely delighted that F1 will remain on the BBC. The sport has never been more popular with TV audiences at a 10-year high and the BBC has always stated its commitment to the big national sporting moments. With this new deal not only have we delivered significant savings but we have also ensured that through our live and extended highlights coverage all the action continues to be available to licence-fee payers.”

July 29th, 2011 – Martin Brundle on Twitter: “BBC/Sky/F1 2012+. Found out last night, no idea how it will work yet I’m out of contract, will calmly work through options Not impressed”

January 12th, 2012 – With Sky taking Brundle and Kravitz from BBC’s TV team, the BBC regrouped. Veteran motor sport voice Ben Edwards led the way alongside Coulthard in the commentary box, with former Jordan technical director Gary Anderson joining the team as analyst.

Moments to last a lifetime, beamed to millions of viewers. Sebastian Vettel's championship celebration, during the 2011 Japanese Grand Prix post-race forum show.
Moments to last a lifetime, beamed to millions of viewers. Sebastian Vettel’s championship celebration, during the 2011 Japanese Grand Prix post-race forum show.

March 17th and 18th, 2012 – A new era began. The 2012 Australian Grand Prix was broadcast exclusively live on Sky’s new Formula 1 channel to a peak audience of just over one million viewers. The BBC aired an extended highlights programme later that day in a two-hour timeslot. One aspect which frustrated fans to begin with was the lack of forum for non-highlight races. One of the best aspects of BBC’s programming had disappeared.

September 18th, 2012 – The highlights aspect was not for everyone. That included Jake Humphrey, who exited the BBC’s revised Formula 1 coverage after just one season, joining BT Sport’s Premier League team.

December 21st, 2012 – It was announced that Suzi Perry would become the new presenter of BBC’s Formula 1 coverage, following in the footsteps of Steve Rider, Jim Rosenthal and Humphrey. Perry said: “I am so excited to be joining the BBC. Working alongside such an eminent team and the F1 world is a huge honour and I can’t wait to get started.” The low-key addition of Tom Clarkson (a relative unknown) halfway through 2012 meant that arguably BBC’s team was stronger than ever before, despite not covering every race live.

Summer 2013 – I described the BBC team “as close to the perfect time as you would find” and that their programming is “still up there with the best.” Therefore, the very next point makes perfect sense.

January 13th, 2014 – Understanding your audience is important. In a move that baffles me to this day, the news was broken on this blog that Gary Anderson and the BBC had parted company. We found out later that, according to Anderson, the BBC thought viewers were not interested in technical analysis. Tom Clarkson filled Anderson’s role throughout 2014 and 2015. As good as Clarkson is, the move to reduce Anderson’s input was not well thought through and in the end resulted in something that no one benefited from. 72 percent of you believed that BBC’s Formula 1 coverage needs a technical expert.

November 23rd, 2014 – A peak audience of 6.5 million watched Hamilton win his second world title on BBC One. One year later…

October 25th, 2015 – A peak audience of 1.7 million watched Hamilton win his third world title exclusively live on Sky Sports F1, with an average of just over two million viewers watching on BBC One. 2015 was Formula 1’s lowest rated season in the UK since 2007, according to overnight viewing figures.

The BBC F1 team close their final ever F1 Forum at the 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The BBC F1 team close their final ever F1 Forum at the 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

November 18th, 2015 – Another licence fee settlement, another round of rumours. This time, the BBC were set to chop Formula 1 completely.

November 19th, 2015 – Multiple reports stated that the BBC went to Bernie Ecclestone in his Kensington office to renegotiate the financial side of their contract. It was reported that Ecclestone declined any offer the BBC made to him.

November 29th, 2015 – Unbeknown to the viewing public at the time, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix aired for what would be the last live race under the current contract on the BBC.

December 17th, 2015 – Broadcast reported that ITV will broadcast Formula 1 from 2016.

December 21st, 2015 – A press release officially confirms BBC’s departure from Formula 1 after covering the sport for seven seasons.


2 thoughts on “The rise and fall of BBC F1

  1. Those Humphrey years were what brought me fully back into the F1 world and by god I miss them. My time with Sky has come to an end though, I can’t justify an extra £40 a month year-round just for 10 extra live races.

  2. BTW Channel 4 sports coverage has been exceptional for decades now so I’m keen to see what they bring to the table. I’m thinking in particular of Horse Racing and the TDF.

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