In conversation with David Croft

From Three Counties radio, to travelling around the world as part of his Formula 1 work, David Croft’s broadcasting career to date has spanned 25 years.

During the Autosport Show weekend in January, I caught up with Croft (@CroftyF1) for a chat to talk about his journey from local radio through to Sky Sports F1 commentator.

F1B: How did your stint in radio begin?

DC: I started covering Stevenage Borough for the local papers in the early 1990s, but my first radio broadcast was Stevenage Borough and Altrincham in 1994. The regular reporter couldn’t make it and they called me up as a last-minute replacement. Stevenage won 2-1, Martin Gittings scored the winning goal with his hand, which as you can imagine was controversial! BBC Three Counties radio paid me £6 for covering the game.

I thought I was utterly dreadful, and I had a phone call from Ken Wilson, who was the Sports Editor at the station, the very next day saying he thought that it was really good, and asking if I’d like to cover Luton Town versus Sheffield United the next week. I got £10 for covering that, a bigger game than Stevenage! Bit by bit, I started doing more and more, I used to go into the station on a Friday night to learn how to edit, produce, write scripts. I wanted to learn so was more than happy to give up my Friday evenings.

Mike Naylor, who took over as sports editor taught me what I needed to know. In all honesty, I owe Mike and Ken, and everyone in those early years a debt of gratitude because without their help and patience, I would have never been able to take my career further. As time went on, I started to take on more gigs. My first proper commentary job though was covering the Toulon Under 20 Football tournament for their world feed. France beat South Korea 1-0 in my first match, former Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires scored the goal and I met him in Monza a couple of years ago and had a chat about the match, he actually remembered it. But the key was never saying no to any opportunity, even if deep down you didn’t really think you had the experience needed.

F1B: I guess at that point in your career, it is whatever comes your way.

DC: You want to get heard, you need to get experience. Eventually, Three Counties asked me to present the breakfast sports bulletins each morning. I initially said no, I was working full time in my day job, as a Theatre Publicity Officer and working Saturdays, commentating for West County TV. But I, rather cheekily, said that if they wanted me then they should give me a full-time job and I’d be happy to do it. Later that day, Dave Robey, the station manager phoned me up and said that if I wanted a full-time job as a BBC Sports Reporter he’d give me a one-month contract and if I was any good, there would be a chance that I’d stay on. Well one month became three months became nine months and I stayed at BBC 3CR for over three years, eventually becoming the Sports Editor there.

In December 1998 I moved to 5 Live, working as a producer via the BBC Local Radio Attachment scheme. It was a brilliant scheme as it gave those working in local radio a chance to show what they could do for BBC Sport on a national level. Once again it was initially for a month, but I stayed for much longer and managed to convince the powers that be that I was a better broadcaster than a producer and I was given a full-time contract with BBC Radio Sport.

I could be heard presenting sports bulletins for Simon Mayo or Fi Glover, covering football matches on a Saturday, and eventually presenting Sport on 5 during the summer of 2004 and 2005. I’d worked at the 2002 World Cup and 2004 Olympic Games but I wanted to specialise on a particular sport and in the Autumn of 2005, I got my chance.

As a kid, my dream job was to be a sports commentator. I was into all sorts of sports, cricket, F1, football, boxing and of course, darts! Peter Jones was my absolute idol as a commentator, this guy was magnificent in the way he could capture tension and emotion in a couple of sentences, even if your team was winning 6-0, you wouldn’t switch the radio off. I used to listen to him on Sport on 2, smuggling my old Roberts radio under the covers and hoping that Mum and Dad didn’t hear that I was still awake listening to the midweek matches.

At the weekend I’d watch Grandstand or World of Sport and dream of doing what Murray Walker or Barrie Davies, Sid Waddell or Richie Benaud did. I’d listen to Test Match Special a lot in the summer too, my Dad played village cricket and passed a love of the sport on to me. Brian Johnson had me enthralled, not only with his ability to paint pictures in my mind, but the way he would break away from the cricket and move on to random topics such as the latest goings on in Neighbours. He was a huge fan of that soap opera and never missed an opportunity to wax lyrical about it.

So, this was my dream job, still is and I pinch myself that I’m doing what I dreamt of all those years ago.

F1B: Was it an easy decision with 5 Live to travel round the world for Formula 1, or were there other factors to consider?

DC: Jason Swales, the F1 producer, asked me to audition, as he knew I liked and knew F1. When he wasn’t producing 5 Live F1, Jason would come in and produce bulletins and various other stuff [for 5 Live], so we knew each other quite well. He said that we needed a new commentator, and that the contract was going out to an independent production company. We produced a dummy commentary as part of the pitch for USP Content and they won the contract. So, on December 23rd 2005 I was told I was the new 5 Live F1 commentator by Moz Dee, who was the assistant editor at the station at the time. Moz then promptly asked when I would be leaving as I couldn’t stay on a BBC Staff Contract, the F1 coverage was being independently produced. I went freelance, another risk, but this was an opportunity I was never going to turn down.

The next challenge was to learn more about the sport, prepare for the start of the 2006 season and work out just how you commentate on Formula 1, having never done it for real before I headed off to Bahrain for the first race of the season. I spent six years at 5 Live Formula 1, and it was brilliant. Holly Samos, Jason Swales, Maurice Hamilton, Ant Davidson, myself, and Natalie [Pinkham] were a small team, bringing a great sport to people on the radio, thoroughly enjoyable and hopefully the fun we had always came across on air.

F1B: How did you find your first year, just settling into the paddock?

DC: Frightening! The paddock is a scary place at first to find yourself in. But there are a lot of genuine, lovely people in it, and once you establish a level of trust and rapport, build relationships with people and gain more and more experience, you feel less scared. I asked a lot of stupid questions along the way, apparently there’s no such thing as a stupid question but I’m sure I challenged that theory. I always remember Jason’s adage, keep it simple, don’t try and do anything complicated, leave that to the experts.

It went from frightening, to a little bit daunting and then after about three years you feel that you fit in. People to start to ask your opinion on certain subjects and you feel more qualified to give it! You spend a long time at first listening to people, and I had the likes of Maurice Hamilton, Ian Philips, and the late Alan Henry to listen to, and what a complete delight it was to listen to their stories and opinions. And I was hugely lucky to have Jason as our producer and Maurice and then Ant Davidson as co-commentators, to help me along the way.

F1B: F1 moved to BBC TV in 2009, did anything really change from a radio perspective?

DC: A little, we were able to broadcast our commentary on the red button, which increased our audience, especially for the practice sessions. But I don’t go thinking “right, there’s more people listening today, that’s brilliant.” When I’m broadcasting I imagine I’m only talking to one person. There might be a lot more of that one person, but you’re having a conversation with that person, you’re trying to imagine whatever they’re doing and hoping that you’re engaging enough to make them stop what they’re doing and focus on what’s going on. I imagine there’s an old lady sat doing her knitting, if we’re getting her on the edge of her seat, and she’s stopped knitting for a while, then we’re doing a great job!

F1B: So, you guys were doing well at the BBC, and then we come to 2011. I think people still remember that practice session in Hungary, where you and Ant were getting deluged for something that wasn’t your fault.

DC: I walked into the track on Friday morning, and got a phone call from 5 Live Breakfast, saying that the F1 TV news was the lead story at 08:00! So, as correspondent, could I come on and talk about it.

Now, the BBC decided that they couldn’t afford to continue to cover F1 in the way they were at the time and approached Sky. For me, that was an important thing, because yes, there was a strong reaction from some of the fans, but I wasn’t going to take sides and join in with that strong reaction, I wanted to present the facts as I understood them to be.

I was a massive viewer of Sky Sports at that time, and have been for many, many years, and I love what they did to football, to darts, to cricket. Actually, I thought, it might be good for Formula 1. Sky will come in, give it the Sky treatment, and the sport will become very important within the Sky stable, and I truly believe that has happened.

Yes, there was a negative reaction, but 6 years on, it’s really interesting when we meet the fans and they give us their feedback. The people we meet at races, or even randomly out and about recently, tell us they enjoy what we do at Sky F1. Have we ruined people’s love of the sport as one listener said would happen back in 2011? Certainly not, I hope we’ve proved not only how much we love this sport, but how hard we want to work to deliver a really good product for the fans.

F1B: Was it an easy decision to move to Sky?

DC: I could have stayed at the BBC, and don’t get me wrong, I loved working there. But let’s go back to when I first joined local radio, I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to stretch myself. When Sky became interested, we had a few conversations; myself and Martin [Brundle] talked too and both said that it could be fun! I love Sky and their coverage of sport. It was flattering that they were interested in me, and in the end, for many reasons, it was an easy decision to make.

It’s a risky decision, because it might not have paid off going from radio to TV, it’s a very different job. I’ve gone from a job where I say what I see, and I paint pictures, to working for a company that provides those pictures, in glorious Ultra High Definition now. Half of what you do on radio is describing and setting the scene. You can’t really do that on TV because people can see it, so you have to find a different way to tell the story.

Luckily, I’d covered the darts on BBC TV since 2004, so I had a little bit of TV experience there, and of course my first commentating experience as such, was for television, Toulon tournament and Westcountry TV. I had that to fall back on.

And I was going from a role where at 5 Live I commentated, reported, presented, and interviewed to the role of lead commentator. So, it was an adjustment there. Martin Turner, our first Head of F1 at Sky put together a fantastic team, very different people, but all of whom fitted in with everyone else and enjoyed each other’s company. There’s no pretence, we’re just a happy bunch of people travelling the world doing something we really love. Martin and the producers brought together creative people, hard-working people, talented people. It’s the best team I’ve ever worked with. Things have changed a bit since the first race, some staff have left, some have come in, but there’s no conflict or friction behind the scenes, and I think that’s really important for the show.

And as we speak there’s not long to go till we’re all in Melbourne for the first race of the season, and I’m sure, like me, everyone can’t wait to get going again for what will be the 13th season for me as an F1 commentator, which considering my first race, Bahrain 2006, still seems like a very short time ago, is a pretty scary thought.

My thanks go to David Croft for spending the time with me on the above interview.

No live F1 testing coverage ahead of 2018 season

Formula 1 fans hoping to see more than a sneak peek of the 2018 machinery may be disappointed, as there will be no live coverage of testing ahead of the new season, I can confirm.

At the back-end of 2017, there were rumblings that Formula One Management (FOM) would provide enhanced testing coverage this year. The suggestions were amplified by comments made during Sky Sports F1’s coverage of the season-closing Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where pit lane reporter Ted Kravitz noted that commentator David Croft would be “standing in a commentary box” for long periods of time during testing, alluding to the potential of live coverage.

The idea was that FOM would use Sky’s personnel on commentary for their coverage of testing, with coverage airing on Sky’s F1 channel, and via FOM’s new over-the-top platform or YouTube. However, I can now reveal that plans have not come to fruition. The news means that the first-time fans will see cars in live action will be during the Australian Grand Prix weekend in late-March. The one time testing aired live was in 2013, the move primarily designed to promote Sky’s 3D offering.

I understand that FOM will provide a similar level of coverage to last year’s testing season, with clips, such as on-board footage, shared via social media, and live segments from the paddock on Facebook during the on-track lunch break.

Many make the comparison between MotoGP and Formula 1. MotoGP does produce a live feed of their post-season test from Valencia; however, all their production equipment and facilities are already on-site following the final race of the season two days earlier. Dorna’s pre-season coverage of testing from Sepang largely consisted of updates at various points of the day (around three hours in total), with footage of riders on-track, live reports from pit lane and extended interviews.

In comparison, IndyCar produced a live stream of testing from ISM Raceway earlier this month, but this consisted of one static camera situated on the start-finish straight. So, there are ways and means, but unless you already have the facilities on-site, there is reluctance to produce a World Feed, as the cost outweighs any benefits it would bring. Famously, IndyCar did stream Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 rookie orientation day live last year, but they were extremely unique and unprecedented circumstances.

For me, the best scenario would be to go on-air with an hour of testing left each day, with some analysis after the chequered flag. Of course, the ‘hour’ of testing could consist of footage compiled from earlier in the day, along with key developments. A show of this nature would do the job nicely, giving each team ample air-time, as well as showing off as much of the cars as possible, whilst removing the need for a full circuit production.

ESPN’s US coverage to take Sky’s UK commentary
Overseas, ESPN have confirmed that their US coverage will take Sky’s UK commentary line-up of David Croft and Martin Brundle. The agreement between ESPN and Sky Sports was “arranged by Formula 1”, likely a result of the fact that Sean Bratches, Formula 1’s Managing Director for Commercial Operations, used to work for ESPN.

ESPN follows in the footsteps of many broadcasters around the world who take Sky’s UK commentary, such as TSN (Canada) and FOX Sports (Australia). Sky Sports will also produce special segments to supplement ESPN’s television coverage, something they do not currently do for other broadcasters.

A variety of outlets have reported this deal as ESPN taking Sky’s coverage, which may be stretching the truth. ESPN say that a further announcement on their content plans is coming in forthcoming weeks. If Sky’s pre and post-race segments turn up, I suspect it will form part of ESPN’s online offering given that race start times have already adjusted to suit their needs.

Whilst Sky’s UK coverage is excellent compared to many broadcasters, and stateside fans will love hearing Martin Brundle’s commentary, American fans deserve to have a broadcaster covering Formula 1 who are prepared to invest time, money, and home-grown talent into the sport.

To NBC’s credit, they produced content tailored to their audience, with Will Buxton, Jason Swales, Leigh Diffey and more at the helm. Viewing figures may go up, but audience appreciation of the raw Formula 1 television product in America could decrease because of the ESPN deal.

Kay stands out as North One takes Channel 5’s Formula E coverage trackside

After an underwhelming first season covering the sport, Channel 5’s Formula E coverage has started its second year off on a fine note, with a little help from the electric series’ new production partners.

For the first four seasons, Aurora Media Worldwide produced Formula E’s World Feed, with UK broadcasters ITV and Channel 5 left to their own devices. As regular readers are aware, both broadcasters opted for studio-based coverage, although Formula E filmed features on-site on their behalf. All of that changed for this season.

Strong UK production…
Whilst Aurora remain involved, the addition of North One Television has bolstered Formula E’s UK presentation. Alongside their World Feed responsibilities, North One are also producing Channel 5’s programming, meaning that for the first time ever UK viewers get tailored, on-site coverage at every round.

North One have experience in this field: historically they produced ITV’s Formula 1 coverage until 2008, and have produced BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage since 2013. The production company relied on their two-wheeled personnel, led by British Superbikes director Richard Coventry, to produce Channel 5’s Formula E output.

In front of the camera, Vernon Kay replaced Andy Jaye as lead presenter. Kay’s appointment generated unnecessary criticism across social media, even though he has presented sporting events before on Channel 4. As I remarked at the time of his appointment, Kay is “enough of a veteran for me to feel that he will be just fine in the role.” Four races in, and I stand by this viewpoint.

Kay has interviewed drivers and team personnel, alongside his own miniature grid walk, something he looks like he has been doing for years. It helps that the Formula E grid is sparser than Formula 1, nevertheless you cannot help but be impressed by his work so far. Importantly, Kay has done his research, and is clearly passionate for Formula E on-screen, and has done his research, a vital asset for a series in its infancy.

2018 Santiago EPrix - Vernon Kay and Felix Rosenqvist
Presenter Vernon Kay interviews Mahindra driver Felix Rosenqvist.

Because of the changes behind the scenes, Channel 5’s programming has felt significantly more polished than last season’s output. The build-up has contained a mixture of pre-recorded segments, such as the track guide, and a grid walk. The pre-recorded segments add to the programme, with Kay interviewing drivers prior to qualifying.

There is a tendency to focus on the British contingent of racers, but considering the stage Formula E is at within its life cycle, this is an understandable directive. The commentary team, consisting of Jack Nicholls, Dario Franchitti and Bob Varsha also have their own segment with Kay, helping viewers put a face to the voices.

Commercials have generally been well-timed, a vast improvement on the early offerings in their first season. Impressively, despite airing the race on a tape-delay, Channel 5 covered the whole of the red-flag period during the Hong Kong E-Prix broadcast.

…but poor scheduling lets down Channel 5’s coverage
If I gave the production standards a first-class rating, then the scheduling fits into the lower second-class category. Short-term pain, long-term gain should be Channel 5’s motto here, but I worry if Channel 5 are in this for the long-term.

On-site coverage is fantastic for Formula E. But, was that a decision by Formula E, or did Channel 5 influence the decision? Who is paying for the extra expenses in producing on-site coverage? If the answer to that question is Channel 5, then surely that would have served as an incentive to broadcast races live on their main channel…

And there is the crux of the problem. Both Hong Kong races aired on tape-delay, so whilst the production was excellent (by Formula E’s UK TV standards to-date), the races were not live. Arguably, it did not matter as much in Hong Kong, a tape-delay meant that the races aired at a more sociable hour.

2018 Santiago EPrix - pre-race standings.png
A new-look broadcast package for Formula E’s fourth season. Here, the Drivers’ Championship standings is displayed prior to the race.

Marrakesh was live on Channel 5, but Santiago less than a month later aired on sister channel 5Spike, as the time difference meant that the race flowed into prime time. According to overnight viewing figures supplied by, Channel 5 averaged 604k (3.1%) from 18:30 to 20:30 on Saturday 3rd February, not a great number considering a quarter of that covers the relaunched Blind Date.

The Buenos Aires E-Prix from February 2017 averaged 426k (2.2%) on Channel 5 in a similar time slot. Last weekend, the Santiago E-Prix struggled on 5Spike (even compared to 5Spike’s own numbers), averaging just 86k (0.4%), with Eurosport 2 adding a further 32k (0.17%), down on the combined Marrakesh number of 245,000 viewers.

In other words, viewing figures dropped by half the moment Formula E lost any sort of coverage on Channel 5’s main channel. Furthermore, Channel 5 failed to air a repeat of the Santiago round on their main channel, a strange decision. Mexico City is also airing on 5Spike, and Punta del Este is likely to follow suit.

How can Formula E gain momentum with inconsistent scheduling? If you are going to produce coverage on site, at least give the series a chance and air Santiago on the main channel. Airing the European phase of the season on Channel 5 is not enough, by that point the attention of the motor racing world is on the traditional season.

New broadcast package for season four
A new season, a new graphics suite. In their fourth season, Formula E are already on their third graphics set, a ‘throwing the kitchen sink at the wall and seeing what sticks’ approach.

The first set lasted for two seasons, however the broadcast package introduced at the start of season three only lasted for one season, despite being a vast improvement on their opening effort. I can forgive this change with North One coming on-board, but Formula E needs to build an on-screen identity, and you cannot do that by constantly changing the graphics.

2018 Santiago EPrix - progression.png
Jean-Eric Vergne leads in his Techeetah, whilst the timing wall graphic on the left shows the number of positions a driver has gained or lost.

The third graphics set is an evolution of the second set, moving away from a sky-blue suite and more towards a blue and purple style (claret and blue might be the right phrase here). The major change for fans is that the timing tower now updates frequently at every sector, as opposed to once a lap.

Formula E has taken inspiration from MotoGP with their timing tower. MotoGP ‘groups’ the riders together based on who they’re battling with, however Formula E has gone a step further, grouping drivers but spreading them down the tower based on the size of the gap, a nice innovation. The tower also displays when a competitor has jumped ahead of their rival by switching colour, and shows progression (or lack of) for a driver.

For the opening races, an “activate start” VT sequence aired immediately prior to the start of the race, however did not appear in the Santiago show. Frustratingly, the World Feed direction remains troublesome. With Formula E in its infancy, it needs to knuckle down to hook new viewers.

Switching between battles constantly, yet failing to capture this information on-screen only serves to confuse the audience. On a new street circuit with no history, the viewer is unfamiliar with the layout so will be unaware if the director has jumped ahead or behind on the circuit. A simple caption ‘Battle for 8th’ for example, listing the drivers involved would solve the problem.

A second problem with the direction is the length it takes to react to incidents. In Santiago, the graphics indicated that reigning champion Lucas di Grassi was dropping out of contention, but the production team was far too slow to pick this up. You get the impression that no one in gallery is monitoring the timing graphics, otherwise the director would be faster in reacting to such developments. As social media demonstrated days later, further on-track incidents were unnoticed by gallery.

There are other smaller problems on the production side: too many reaction shots, arguably worse than F1 in this respect (use picture-in-picture where possible); and the pit lane car swap still disturbs the flow (but is no longer a problem from season five onwards).

Overall, Formula E’s coverage of season four in the UK has started promisingly with major strides compared to previous seasons. Elsewhere, the World Feed is not terrible by any stretch, but I feel tweaks are necessary moving forward.

Scheduling: The 2018 Barcelona test 1 on Sky Sports F1

The cold, long winter is ending, and it is almost time to hear the sound of Formula 1 cars again!

As usual, Sky Sports F1 are covering both Barcelona tests. The first test features a 15-minute round-up show fronted by Craig Slater at the start of the hour. Rachel Brookes is recovering from her knee surgery at the end of 2017, so expect her not to return until Australia. After the round-up, Ted Kravitz is back with his Notebook on each of the four days.

So far, that is what we know, and can confirm. Whether any additional live elements come to fruition, as mooted during Sky’s coverage of the 2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, remains to be seen. The closer we get, the more unlikely it appears that F1’s new over-the-top service will launch in time for testing, so the best bet is for live streaming via YouTube or elsewhere, alongside live action on Sky, if FOM decide to head down that avenue.

Monday 26th February
21:00 to 21:45 – Day 1 Highlights
– round-up at 21:00
– Ted’s Notebook at 21:15

Tuesday 27th February
10:00 to 10:45 – Day 1 Highlights (R)
21:00 to 21:45 – Day 2 Highlights
– round-up at 21:00
– Ted’s Notebook at 21:15

Wednesday 28th February
10:00 to 10:45 – Day 2 Highlights (R)
21:00 to 21:45 – Day 3 Highlights
– round-up at 21:00
– Ted’s Notebook at 21:15

Thursday 1st March
10:00 to 10:45 – Day 3 Highlights (R)
21:00 to 21:45 – Day 4 Highlights
– round-up at 21:00
– Ted’s Notebook at 21:15

As always, I will update this site as and when, or if, further details confirmed.

Update on February 24th – For those of you who have not spotted the earlier post, there is no live coverage of testing.

How Formula 1’s new weekend schedule will impact UK fans in 2018

Formula 1 has today announced a raft of changes to their weekend schedule, ahead of the 2018 Formula One season.

The changes include starting every race at ten minutes past the hour. Formula 1 says this change will cater for broadcasters, such as new American broadcaster ESPN, who wish to start their coverage at the top of the hour. Previously, broadcasters who joined on the hour, missed “the tension and emotion that characterize the minutes before the start of each Grand Prix.”

A second adjustment involves moving European race weekends, and the Brazilian Grand Prix back by one hour which, according to Formula 1 will allow the sport to reach a “wider TV audience [..] later in the afternoons, especially in the summer months.”

An unintended impact, which no one has mentioned, is that the later start time will result in the podium ceremony potentially running over the top of the hour, especially for races such as Hungary. Bad news for broadcasters who want F1 confined to a specific two hour time slot…

How do the changes impact UK fans?

UK F1 2018 session start times
The times UK F1 fans can expect to see Formula 1 in 2018. Anything in red is a timing change compared with 2017.

It means that European races will start at 14:10, instead of 13:00, an arrangement which dated back to the late 1990’s. Monaco was historically the exception, races in the principality started at 14:30 local time, however this agreement ended following the 1997 season.

As predicted in December, the French Grand Prix has also moved to avoid clashing with England versus Panama in the football World Cup. The race will now start at 15:10 UK time, with the latter stages of the race clashing with Japan versus Senegal on BBC One.

Although not a timing change for this year, the switch of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix to late-April, has resulted in a minor clash with the Paris E-Prix. It means that the final moments of qualifying are likely to overlap with the start of the E-Prix, however thankfully for Formula E, that is the extent of the clashes.

For MotoGP, the Assen TT and British Grand Prix fall on the same day as Formula 1’s Austrian and Belgium rounds. In previous years, MotoGP has worked around F1’s scheduling, with the British MotoGP race starting at 15:30. However, Formula 1 may have done Dorna a favour. By moving their start-time to 14:10 UK time, it means the MotoGP main event could feasibly start at 13:00 UK time with no overlap, barring a red flag or other unusual circumstances.

Elsewhere, Channel 4’s highlights programming for the European rounds and Brazil may air an hour later, depending on what the contract between them and F1 states, starting at 19:00 instead of the usual 17:30 or 18:00 start time. Formula 1’s press release makes no reference to Formula Two or GP3, although one would hope that they benefit because of this change, and become more integrated into F1’s weekend activities.