Two months, 26 days and 18 hours. That is the length of time from the BBC’s Formula 1 television exit on Monday 21st December 2015 to the start of the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday 20th March 2016.
Putting a television programme together of a high-quality standard is an immensely difficult task. From the on-air team, through to the editorial team, creating the visual graphics, and so on. So, how did Channel 4 and production company Whisper Films perform in their first season covering Formula 1?
Jones impresses as lead presenter
For any broadcast, it is critical that the lead partner is up to standard and can steer the ship. Ask anyone who worked on Channel 4’s athletics coverage in 2011 about Ortis Deley and they will tell you how throwing someone into the deep end can undermine the reputation of an entire programme.
A motor racing presenter needs to be able to present in all conditions, outside the confines of a studio and into the heat of Malaysia or the soaking wet weather in Interlagos, whilst ad-libbing as guests appear or disappear with a moment notice. Before 2016, Steve Jones had never presented a live sporting event. When I found out that Jones was going to be presenter, I was surprised. An unusual and unexpected option. But, we can safely say an inspired choice. Nervous in Bahrain, Jones has evolved throughout the year into his own style.
Occasionally, his presenting comes across as ‘hammy’ but overall, I’ve enjoyed listening to him this year. Jones has been better than I imagined. Early indications are that Jones will remain with Channel 4’s team in 2017. The best part is that Jones does not imitate other presenters before him. He is not the next Jake Humphrey, or the next Suzi Perry. He is the first Steve Jones, and that is clear from his delivery. I hope we see Jones around for the next few years.
Jones was helped by those who provided expert opinion alongside him. I enjoyed seeing Mark Webber, David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan as pundits throughout the year. Webber and Coulthard have great rapport with one another, whilst Susie Wolff was a pleasant surprise as well.
The winning commentary formula continues
Whilst Channel 4 made changes on the punditry front compared with the BBC, one area they kept the same was commentary. Across the year, we heard some fantastic commentary calls, including one of the best modern-day commentary moments I think we have heard in a long time. It is critical that the lead commentator can concisely sell and get ‘over’ the key moments in the season. Ben Edwards’ commentary on Lewis Hamilton’s retirement in the Malaysian Grand Prix was a season defining moment with commentary to back it up:
Ben Edwards: Hamilton’s in trouble! Hamilton’s engine has blown! His race is run here in Malaysia! And when it looked like he was going to take the lead in the championship, would you believe it! He has never had a non-finish here.
Lewis Hamilton [Team Radio]: Oh no, no!
Ben Edwards: But he’s had a non-finish when it counts in Malaysia, only his second of the year!
Sometimes it is easy to over exaggerate the gravitas of a moment, but the commentary in the moment from Edwards was perfect. People don’t remember the 88 minutes of commentary in a football game where nothing happened and it is the same in Formula 1. The race defining calls have to be perfect, and this one was. You won’t get them all spot on, but the call in Malaysia was on the money. Similarly, Edwards and Coulthard conveyed the drama of Abu Dhabi well I felt.
The Edwards and Coulthard combination is now heading into season six. I enjoy the combination, but would appreciate hearing more of Mark Webber in the commentary box next season. Webber joined Edwards and Coulthard for commentary at Silverstone, but the three-team team was not repeated elsewhere. However, Channel 4 used Karun Chandhok and Lee McKenzie more during the race as the year progressed, which was a welcome change compared to how McKenzie has been used in the past. I hope we see more three-team commentary line-ups in 2017. I hear someone called ‘Jenson’ has a little experience in this area too…
When Channel 4 announced their line up in March, there were promises of a rotating line-up. This didn’t happen as much as I had hoped for throughout the season. Alain Prost was announced as part of their line up but only utilised properly in Spain (with a fleeting appearance in Abu Dhabi).
Nicolas Hamilton, Alex Zanardi and Bruno Senna were all announced but never appeared despite a fantastic VT being shown during the press morning with relation to Zanardi (he ended up appearing in a segment during Sky’s Mexican Grand Prix coverage). Senna appeared as part of Channel 4’s Brazilian Grand Prix opener, but no further. Considering how much Senna brought to Sky’s coverage in the early years, it was disappointing that he was not a regular part of Channel 4’s team.
The tip here is to only announce people who you intend to use on air regularly. Don’t announce stars who are unlikely to be around, as this will only annoy the watching punter. I did feel that the quality of the programming dropped slightly in the second half of the season, and adding a bit of variety would have helped in that respect, or even bringing Chandhok into the pre-race build-ups.
Channel 4’s 2016 live punditry line-up (excluding David Coulthard)
Bahrain: Mark Webber, Eddie Jordan, Susie Wolff
Spain: Alain Prost, Susie Wolff
Europe: Eddie Jordan
Britain: Mark Webber, Eddie Jordan, Susie Wolff
Hungary: Susie Wolff
Belgium: Mark Webber
Italy: Eddie Jordan
Malaysia: Mark Webber
Mexico: Mark Webber, Eddie Jordan
Abu Dhabi: Mark Webber, Eddie Jordan, Susie Wolff
It is a minor gripe, but one that should be noted, the last thing Channel 4 wants to happen is to head into ‘Skyfall’, that is the trap that Sky have fallen into in recent years of having the same standard line-up at every race weekend. Eventually, this becomes a turn off, which Channel 4 will be acutely aware of. I’m not suggesting that Coulthard and Webber were turn offs in Belgium and Italy, but more I’m thinking of ways to keep the programming fresh with new opinions.
Whilst Britain and Abu Dhabi unsurprisingly had the ‘hands on deck’ treatment, it is important not to neglect the rounds in between, which might have happened slightly this year. It was noted pre-season that Channel 4’s line-up would be adjusted depending on how the season progressed, but not many visible changes occurred. I won’t be surprised if this was unavoidable given the number of races in such a short period. There will probably be changes for 2017 if Channel 4 try to rope in the likes of Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and Nico Rosberg for a few appearances throughout the year.
Overall though, when you consider the amount of time Channel 4 and Whisper Films had to prepare for F1 2016, the channel and production company did a fantastic job to gather the team that they did for 2016. They will go into 2017 in better shape knowing what works and what doesn’t, which can only be a good thing for those watching their programming.
The second part of the 2016 Verdict looking at Channel 4’s programming will be posted around the 17th December.