Looking at BBC’s 5 Live Formula 1 output

Throughout the past year and a half, most of focus on this site has been on the Formula 1 television coverage provided by Channel 4 and Sky Sports. If you have access to both of those channels, like myself, you probably do not consume much content that the third UK F1 broadcaster produces.

Whilst the BBC exited its Formula 1 television contract at the end of 2015, it extended its radio commitments until the end of 2021, also retaining a strong website presence. Jack Nicholls leads BBC’s radio coverage, with Tom Clarkson alongside him. Jennie Gow, Mark Gallagher and Allan McNish are the other regular experts, but this varies from race to race depending on their other commitments.

BBC’s 5 Live offering in terms of hours produced has stayed the same since the television team departed, but the resource involved has decreased. Cut backs meant that commentary on some of the fly away races occurred from 5 Live’s London studios. One race that fell into this category was the Canadian Grand Prix. Despite the obvious hurdles, the output that is as strong as ever.

At most races, a one-hour preview show airs preceding each race weekend, a staple of 5 Live’s programming since 2001. The Thursday show wraps up the day’s interviews along with some opinion and analysis, looking ahead to the weekend ahead. The BBC team was joined for the Canadian weekend by Nicholls’ former Blancpain sparring partner John Watson, Watson joining Nicholls in their London studio.

The main thing I appreciate about the preview show is the in-depth conversation that occurs. The preview show in Canada featured free-flowing conversation between Nicholls, Watson, Clarkson, and BBC website reporter Andrew Benson, as they discussed Ferrari’s Monaco race and Lance Stroll’s performances so far, this season (before his magnificent podium in Baku).

The big difference between commercial television and BBC 5 Live is that the latter can ‘afford’ to have chat of that nature, which the F1 team uses to their advantage. With commercial television, there is always pressure to get to the next feature or advert break, which is not an issue on radio. Yes, there may be pressure to hit the half hour news bulletin, but the pressure on commercial television producers is far greater in my view.

5 Live also airs live coverage of every practice session and qualifying, either online or through their digital radio station 5 Live Sports Extra, when there are no other sporting clashes. Their coverage focuses on the World Feed output only, with no additional analysis before or after the session. Additionally, the official F1 App takes the 5 Live commentary all season.

Most of the attention and resource is on the race itself, which can have up to half an hour of build-up, with some reaction provided afterwards. This amount is dependent on other sporting clashes, and with Formula 1 no longer on BBC television, motor sport inevitably it loses out in the event of a clash (as was the case one race later in Baku). Following the race, the team also produces a podcast for listeners to download.

Despite Nicholls and Watson presence in London, you would have not known that from a cursory glance at their commentary. If anything, the difference for being ‘off tube’ in 2017 is significantly less than twenty years ago. The BBC would have used a single monitor, a microphone and a ghost commentator back in the 1990s, whereas nowadays you have monitors showing multiple feeds (World Feed, on-board, driver tracker). There is also social media, which will help commentators (irrespective of location) gather facts if the World Feed does not pick something up. So being off site is less of a disadvantage in 2017 than previous eras.

The post-race discussion after the podium is concise, allowing 5 Live to head off to their next sporting commitment. However, the BBC team produces a post-race review show, also in podcast form for listeners to download, useful for the Monday morning commute. Whilst I listen to the podcast far less than what I probably should, on this occasion it is an enjoyable listen, with a variety of interviews from drivers and team personnel.

At 24 minutes in length for the Canada podcast, there is enough time to discuss the Mercedes and Ferrari battle, with discussion not just on Hamilton and Vettel, but also on the number two role that Valtteri Bottas played. The Force India squabbles (which boiled over one race later) and the contrasting fortunes of the Red Bull drivers were also up for discussion. The only disappointment is that Lance Stroll’s strong performance (at the time) only got a passing mention, so there is some restriction on the time length involved, the show is replayed overnight in a 30-minute slot, which may explain the restriction.

The BBC deciding to get out of their television contract at the end of 2015 inevitably had a knock on effect for their radio coverage, who no longer had the TV team alongside them to share personnel with. Nevertheless, BBC’s 5 Live output for Formula 1 remains remarkedly strong from a programming perspective despite the obvious funding constraints: yes, being in London for the flyaways is not an ideal situation, but on the other hand I’m grateful that we (as a result, you could argue) hear voices that we don’t usually hear – and I would be keen to hear Watson more in 5 Live’s output.

2 thoughts on “Looking at BBC’s 5 Live Formula 1 output

  1. Wasn’t actually aware that they don’t bother going to the flyaway races anymore! Makes sense from a cost-saving point of view, obviously just sending Jennie and/or Tom over is more than enough for them. I watched a stream of FP1 and FP2 for Canada, muted and with 5 Live commentary instead, and wouldn’t have guessed they weren’t on location – Jack’s commentary is as good as ever and I enjoyed John Watson’s input alongside him. I also tend to listen to the post-race podcast during the week and it’s good, if a bit short.

    Clearly the end of the TV contract has meant for a dip in resources for them but I think they’re doing a good job nonetheless.

  2. I would have thought if the commentary is for the official F1 app as well as BBC Radio, FOM would want their commentators on site, and would fork out a bit to get them there.

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