From print media, through to the small screen and now across multi-platform, James Allen is a name that is familiar with Formula 1 fans in the UK and beyond. Allen’s career has spanned multiple decades, but he was most famous as ITV’s lead Formula 1 commentator from 2002 to 2008 alongside Martin Brundle.
Now part of the Motorsport Network ship, I caught up with Allen during the Autosport Show weekend to look back at the three chapters in his broadcasting career to date. In the style of his own blog name, this post is ‘James Allen on…’ as he reflects on his story so far.
…the start of his broadcasting career
“My first broadcasting job in Formula 1 was in 1992. I had been working with Screensport, which was a forerunner of Eurosport, on their coverage of the Le Mans 24 Hours from 1990 and 1991. I got a call from ESPN, as their pit lane reporter couldn’t do the 1992 Hungarian Grand Prix, and we’d done Le Mans as a co-production between Screensport and ESPN the previous year. It was the race where Nigel won the championship, and I got a great interview with Nigel.
“I enjoyed myself very much doing the live pit lane work, so much so that ESPN offered me the job as broadcast reporter for 1993. ’93 was the season of Ayrton Senna and Michael Andretti as team mates, obviously Andretti being an American driver was exciting, so I was in the middle of all of that.
“I went to America to do Nigel Mansell’s second IndyCar season in 1994, Nigel and I got on really well. I spent a very happy year covering IndyCars and making the show for ITV working with Chrysalis, which went onto be North One.
“I carried on working with ESPN in Formula 1, until the BBC lost the UK rights in 1996 to ITV. ITV were looking for a production company from 1997 onwards, and I drafted part of the bid to win the production contract for Chrysalis, having worked with them on IndyCar, and that was the beginning of the ITV F1 adventure.”
…becoming pit lane reporter for ITV
“I’d done a lot of broadcasting before I became F1 pit lane reporter, I’d done Le Mans for two years running, which was 24 hours in the pit lane! It was much freer in those days, you could do whatever you wanted.
“There was a lot of scope for improvisation, I had a live camera with me, I could do anything I wanted with that live camera. I could interview anyone I wanted, doorstep anybody, it was a very deregulated environment back then. It did become progressively more difficult as the years went on, but it was great fun on the whole.
“I brought an American training to it, I’d spent four years by then working with really, really good sports TV directors and producers. I was very lucky to be mentored by some of the best US sports directors, so I knew exactly how to engage the audience, what kind of stuff they were looking for, how to think beyond the obvious, don’t just say what’s happened, but what that means for what happens next, and all that kind of thing. I was very lucky and brought that to the coverage on ITV.
“Editorially I had worked at Autosport for two years, and prior to that I worked for Brabham with Martin Brundle, so I knew him very well from those days. Having worked on the inside of a Formula 1 team, I knew how that worked, how it operates, how it succeeds, how it fails.
“The pit lane role involved looking around for stories, looking around for insights. I’ve always been interested in providing insight and analysis wherever possible. I think the who, what, where and when is great, but I’ve always been interested in the how and the why.”
…his first F1 commentary
“I stood in for Murray when he bust his hip at the 2000 French Grand Prix, which was very useful because I was always the understudy, in case there was a ‘what if’ moment. I’d done a lot of commentary early in my career, Paris Dakar, Formula 3000, you name it, thousands of hours that hardly any people saw in the early satellite days. It was a great opportunity to commentate with Martin, to have a look at it and see how it sounded.
“I had a very intense post-French GP debrief with ITV’s Head of Sport Brian Barwick, who was very good to me and a very big influence on my career. He meticulously went through that commentary, what I’d done wrong, what I could have done better, what I done well, we spent hours going through it.
“It meant that the following year, when we did the transition where I did five races and Murray did the rest, I knew what I was trying to do. There was never any doubt in my mind about being commentator, it’s what I wanted to do since I was 15 years old.”
…succeeding Murray Walker
“It’s a double edge sword. On the one hand, the timing was good, plenty of other people would have liked to have followed on from Murray, but he kept going for a very long time. He and I worked very close together for the first four years [with ITV F1], and I drove him round Europe, he didn’t like driving in Europe so I always did the driving. We spent a lot of time together, which was wonderful, some very rich memories.
“It’s the job I always wanted to do, mass market, free-to-air TV in UK, Australia, South Africa, Canada, tens of millions of people watching, but on the flip-side he’s probably one of the most popular sports broadcasters there has ever been. You’re never going to be him, but nor should you ever try to be.
“I just said ‘listen, he has to stop’ because he’s 77 years old and can’t do this anymore, physically, it was taking its toll on him, and he wanted to go out on the top, so someone’s got to take over from him, and it might as well be me! I took it as a responsibility, I knew that there would be plenty of people who didn’t like it, I knew that there would have been people who did like it.
“Barry Davies, the football commentator whose daughter worked at Jordan at the time, said to me, ‘listen, you’re probably taking on the toughest job in sports broadcasting. If I can give you one piece of advice: stay philosophical, don’t listen to the people who cane you, and don’t listen to the people who think you’re the best thing since sliced bread, because you’re neither of those things. You’re neither a complete loser or the best thing since sliced bread, just somewhere in the middle, and be yourself’, and that was great advice, and that’s the way I played it for eight years.”
…commentating on motor racing
“What makes it tough is that there’s not one point of focus. If you commentate on a horse race, yes, you’ve got 20 horses, but they tend to focus on what is going on at the front because they all tend to be tightly packed together. If you are talking about a football match, or pretty much any ball sport, you basically follow what the ball does. Cycling is another one where you’ve got to talk about multiple narratives in one commentary, and it goes on for four hours.
“I always looked at it in terms of a front race, a middle race and a back race. I would do it 60 percent front race, 30 percent middle race and 10 percent back race, so I gave a balanced narrative to the coverage. I always got on very well with Martin, he was very supportive. We had a lot of things that we wanted to try, we were always thinking about ‘let’s try this, let’s try that’, we never wanted to stay the same, we wanted to try to move forward. Having a racing driver like him alongside you means you’re always improving things with the broadcast coverage.
“We had some very difficult seasons to cover, ’01 was great, ’02 and ’04 were difficult, but a lot of people think that the 2005 to 2008 period is their favourite period in Formula 1. There was a lot of different winners, the cars were exciting to watch, and we had a great time.”
…ITV’s F1 exit
“We went out on a high with Lewis winning the World Championship. It was the only time in our twelve years of doing Formula 1 that we had a British champion crowned on our live coverage. It was a great moment, with 13 million watching, mass-market free-to-air TV, it was just fantastic.
“The contract we had with Formula 1 ran until 2010, and in my head, I was thinking I’d get to 2010 and do something else outside of commentary. I had a young family at that point with two young sons, and had been to every single race for 16 years. It was a little bit of a shock in ’08, when ITV decided to prioritise Champions League over Formula 1, and the BBC got the rights.
“But equally, I had also started exploring the digital media space with blogs, and so I went into that. I realised that there was a very good business to be had there, around the monetisation of blogs with sponsored brands and things. It was about leveraging my personal brand that I’d built up on the broadcast side on a blog, and then working with companies that wanted to attach themselves to it. That was like chapter two of the story, which was really interesting.
“Would I still have been commentating on Formula 1 on television in 2011 or 2012? No. I’m a bit restless, I do things for a while, then I feel like I want to move on.”
…his post-ITV exploits
“I did the blog thing, which you’re now doing very successfully, and then the BBC came knocking in 2012, to ask me if I wanted to be their F1 correspondent on 5 Live. The only reason I said yes was because I had never done radio, ever. Most people do it the other way round, they do radio first then go into television.
“The radio has been reinvented by the internet, you can really do a lot with radio, and I just wanted to see if I could do it, and actually, it’s much more difficult than television. I set myself a challenge, I really wanted to master this. I had four years in that role which I really enjoyed. I enjoyed working with the BBC radio network, trying to provide insights for people alongside running the blog and the business. Four years was just about enough, time to move on.
“I’m in the third chapter of my career now, which is building this unique vision we have at Motorsport Network. I’m in a management role, I manage 500 to 600 people in 21 countries. We’ve got the Autosport Awards, Autosport International, Autosport.com, Motorsport.com, all the digital media platforms.
“It’s a very interesting business, three different segments, media, experiences and eSports, we’re talking in the back of the Le Mans eSports truck. We’re the only ones that are across everything, it’s a unique project, no one has ever tried it before and will ever try it again. So far, it’s going well, it’s really difficult, it’s a big challenge, but I love it.”