Flashback: 2009 Australian Grand Prix

After twelve years of F1 on commercial television in the United Kingdom, Formula 1 returned to the BBC ten years ago this weekend, with live coverage of the 2009 Australian Grand Prix.

To celebrate the anniversary, Motorsport Broadcasting looks back at their race day offering from the opening race. The BBC’s offering was over a year in the making, with ITV pulling out of the sport in March 2008.

Every session live, multiple video streams, a new presentation team led by Jake Humphrey, 2009 marked the start of a new era of Formula 1 broadcasting in the UK.

ITV’s coverage ended on a high note the previous year, with Lewis Hamilton winning his first ever championship in dramatic fashion. Now, it was time for BBC to stamp their authority on the sport that they arguably neglected thirteen years earlier.

  • Date: Sunday 29th March 2009
  • Channel: BBC One / BBC Red Button
  • Time: 06:00 to 09:00 / 09:00 to 10:00
  • Presenter: Jake Humphrey
  • Reporter: Lee McKenzie
  • Reporter: Ted Kravitz
  • Commentator: Jonathan Legard
  • Commentator: Martin Brundle
  • Analyst: David Coulthard
  • Analyst: Eddie Jordan

Only Ted Kravitz and Martin Brundle made the jump from ITV to the BBC in the off-season.

The BBC’s in-house commentator Jonathan Legard, who previously was the voice of F1 for Radio 5 Live, joined Brundle in the box, whilst Lee McKenzie joined Kravitz as the BBC’s roving reporter.

In addition, the BBC’s radio offering, with David Croft, Anthony Davidson and Holly Samos leading the coverage took on added impetus, as the BBC not only covered practice in audio form, but now visually via the Red Button.

> BBC archive blog: F1 editor, the best job in the world (Mark Wilkin, Editor – Friday 06/03/09)

Formula 1’s return to the corporation was supported by a significant cross-platform campaign spanning digital, radio and television, bringing the sport into the digital age. Their pre-season trailer, filmed in South Africa, depicted a car chase between a yellow car and black car, which ended with a familiar bass riff. Welcome back, ‘The Chain’…

But before The Chain, there is the small matter of ‘The Scream of Science’, an 80 second promo intended to get the heart racing. Voiced by Louis Mellis, it is one of the best trailers for Formula 1 full-stop, and one that fans watch ten years later, which is a sign of just how good it is.

The BBC’s actual title sequence, produced by Liquid TV, was fully computer generated (CGI), ending with various racing cars converging into one, with The Chain in full voice in the background.

“A brand-new season, and a new channel,” were the words that greeted viewers, as Humphrey walked down the Albert Park pit lane. The BBC ditched ITV’s ‘blazer style’, which had greeted their coverage for the past three years in favour of a more casual style.

As a collective, the BBC’s coverage focused heavily on the Brawn story. The team, led by Ross Brawn, rising from the ashes of Honda in spectacular style. The story went beyond Formula 1, and into sporting history. Think Leicester City style for readers unfamiliar with the Brawn story.

Interspersed with the Brawn angle were video edits shining the light on the remainder of the 2009 field, with Legard providing voiceover. Kravitz provided his own voiceover for the qualifying report.

The main feature in the build-up focused on the bushfires that hit Australia in the weeks before the Grand Prix, as a film crew travelled with Red Bull driver Mark Webber through the aftermath to meet some of the victims, a stark reminder of the contrast beween F1 and some of the outside world.

2009 Australian GP - BBC pre-show
The BBC’s presentation team of Jake Humphrey, David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan in pit lane before the race.

As the discussion becomes more fluid in the half hour before lights out, it is clear Humphrey has done a huge amount of research, coming across to the viewer as knowledgeable, yet down to earth, for what is his first Grand Prix presenting. At this stage, the show and discussion feel raw, with all three new to their paddock roles.

Pleasingly, the build-up strikes a balance on Formula 1’s technical aspects (diffusers, otherwise known as ‘confusers’ in Jordan’s dictionary), explaining them without alienating the casual viewer, whilst giving an introduction on key motor sport terminology through a ‘Behind the Formula’ segment narrated by Brundle.

The CGI which featured in the opening title sequence is a running theme through the BBC’s 2009 output, with CGI fly-overs of the Melbourne circuit leading into the calendar graphic, as well as being utilised during the track guide with Brundle and Coulthard. The track guide is informative, both using their previous Melbourne experience to their advantage, aiding the broadcast.

Attention turns back to the British drivers, with Brawn sponsor and Virgin owner Richard Branson joining in on proceedings, as we approach lights out, and Brundle’s first BBC grid walk!

A media scrum of sizeable proportions greets Brundle on the grid, the media trying to grab both Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, but Brundle manages to navigate through the scrums. The highlight is Brundle’s front wing analysis, suggesting that the wings would be more aesthetically pleasing with “brown paper bags over them.”

Brundle – Jenson, can you do this?
Button – Yes.
Brundle – How?
Button – By crossing the line first at the end of the race.

After the grid walk, Coulthard and Jordan wrap up the pre-show discussion, outlining what activities take place between now and lights out. Ferrari’s Chris Dyer adds additional insight on Brawn with Kravitz, giving suggestions as to why Brawn are out in front.

And then, for the first time since the 1996 Japanese Grand Prix, is a F1 race airing live and uninterrupted for UK fans!

For Brundle, 2009 was his thirteenth season in the F1 commentary box. For Legard, it was his first F1 television commentary, although at that stage he was a veteran in his own right, if not in that given context.

One of the new regulations for 2009 was that F1 teams had to declare the weight of their car following qualifying, the information sensibly used by Formula One Management (FOM) in their graphics set. However, there were no graphics related to tyres, even if they played a pivotal part in the race as various drivers hit the ‘cliff’ and slumped down the pecking order.

What a difference a year makes. Lewis Hamilton dominated this event last year, now he needs a set of binoculars to see the lights go out. – BBC co-commentator Martin Brundle commenting on Hamilton’s trajectory.

Brawn’s fortunes off the line are mixed, with Barrichello tumbling down the order, causing mayhem at turn one. Legard’s commentary at the start is far too fast (almost as if he was commentating on radio…), but he soon settles down into a rhythm.

Brundle’s expertise is invaluable from the get-go, making sense of Ferrari’s early progress, due to their soft tyres combined with the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), as well as fantastic analysis of the turn one crash.

The KERS device has a significant impact on the race as a whole, not only for Ferrari, but also Hamilton yet, speedometer aside, does not play a part in F1’s graphics set. Unlike in more recent years, when you can see the rear wing opening for the Drag Reduction System (DRS), there is no obvious way the viewer can see when a driver is using KERS to overtake.

With high-definition not yet a thing for Formula 1, the graphics set (on the BBC feed at least) remains within the 4:3 ‘safe zone’, with timing information sporadically scrolling across the bottom of the screen, although this is far too infrequent for my liking.

Despite the inferior graphics, Legard utilises the timing screens on offer to him fantastically to spot when cars are hitting the cliff and informing the viewer, although there was a feeling of repetitiveness as the race unfolded. At one stage, BMW’s Robert Kubica was six seconds off the pace due to tyre degradation before his pit stop resulting in significant field spread.

Nakajima helped close the field back up by crashing his Williams, the BBC using the Safety Car opportunity to promote their post-race forum show, no Twitter back then and instead an e-mail address!

2009 Australian GP - Hamilton and speedometer.png
On-board with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton during the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Featured on FOM’s graphic is the speed, rev counter, throttle and brake usage, and amount of KERS battery left.

The camera angles were noticeably higher at some corners here than what we have currently, FOM under Liberty Media’s ownership reverting to some of the old F1 Digital angles to capture the speed, which was not as noticeable during 2009. Saying that, I did enjoy seeing a camera angle panning down between turns five and six, showing the speed following the fast right turn.

Following Nakajima’s crash and into the latter stage, the race is all about “who is going to hit the cliff first” where the tyres are concerned. One thing that occurred to me as the race progressed was that I was complaning about the direction less, primarily because there were fewer graphics that alerted viewers of emerging battles. In other words, if the commentary team did not alert viewers that driver X was closing on Y, the fans watching at home would be totally oblivious.

The cliff eventually does hit, with Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel suffering the most: Rosberg’s Williams being overtaken by multiple drivers, whilst Vettel’s race ended in a ‘clumsy’ collision with BMW’s Robert Kubica. The drama, which is explained well in commentary, promotes Barrichello to second, and gifting Brawn GP a one-two finish on their debut!

Prior to the podium celebrations on the cool down lap, there is some good discussion between Legard and Brundle talking about Brawn’s winter, and why Brawn were right to pick Barrichello over Bruno Senna, who media expected to take the second Brawn seat.

20 minutes from chequered flag to off-air was just about enough for the BBC to squeeze in the podium, top three press conference, as well as interviews with Hamilton and Nick Fry.

The whole of the post-race segment on BBC One had a feel-good factor to it with the underdog effect playing its part, in what was a fantastic news story for the whole of Formula 1.

2009 Australian GP - Button

Of course, it was not just 20 minutes, because following the BBC One transmission, for the first time ever was an additional 60-minutes of analysis and chatter via the BBC’s interactive Red Button service.

The team decamped to the Force India area within the Melbourne paddock, with Humphrey, Coulthard and Jordan accompanied by single camera set-up for most of the broadcast.

An additional four Brawn interviews followed during the F1 Forum, with both drivers in the interview ‘pen’, Branson, and Button’s engineer Andrew Shovlin during the forum. One may argue that this is over-the-top, but the size of the story arguably justifies this.

A secondary factor is that, back in 2009, there was no concept of the interview ‘pen’ beyond the top three, meaning that it was anywhere goes in the paddock. On one hand, that is to the detriment of the broadcast meaning that we do not get to hear all the stories, but meant that we heard a variety of different voices from on and off the track as the show progressed.

During the broadcast, Kravitz interviewed team bosses Martin Whitmarsh (McLaren) and Mario Theissen (BMW), with Vijay Mallya (Force India) joining the presentation team live, all three teams discussed in detail, which may not have been possible in the ITV days with limited air-time.

> BBC archive blog: Reflecting on a memorable Melbourne weekend (Jake Humphrey – 30/03/09)
> BBC archive blog: The morning after the morning before (Roger Mosey, Head of BBC Sport – 30/03/09)

More importantly, the conversation flowed from one subject to another, instead of the BBC treating them as standalone entitles: Whitmarsh’s interview touched on Ferrari and Brawn, whilst Mallya’s interview focused on Force India’s late development due to the timing of their engine agreement, and how McLaren in turn helped seal the deal in that respect.

All of this helped the programme, which aired without significant constraints or the worry of any upcoming commercials, a breakthrough for Formula 1 broadcasting in the UK.

The three analysts referred to their own experience at various points, Coulthard leading Brundle into a conversation about Brawn’s car design, relying on Brundle’s experience from working with Brawn in sports cars.

The crew dissected the race ending incident between Vettel and Kubica, Coulthard “very disappointed” with both, whilst Brundle brought up Vettel’s past in this area, having smashed into Webber in Japan 2007. The debate led to the first of many friendly disagreements between Jordan and Coulthard, the two disagreeing on whether Vettel should have apologised to close friend and BMW boss Theissen (which the BBC’s cameras captured in the paddock).

In addition to the World Feed analysis, having access to additional race feeds meant that the BBC could play these into the Red Button broadcast, such as analysis from Hamilton’s own on-board.

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).

In later years, the forum went on for as long as deemed necessary, but to start with, the programme ran to time. Only one e-mail managed its way into the broadcast, but irrespective, the question generated an open-end discussion, paving the way for what was to come in future.

Kravitz and McKenzie joined Humphrey, Coulthard, Jordan and Brundle in the temporary Force India set-up, to reflect on their first weekend in Melbourne.

Times Like These by Foo Fighters played out the BBC’s first Formula 1 television broadcast in nearly thirteen years, a marathon four-hour broadcast across two outlets.

Overnight viewing figures quickly justified their expansive coverage: a staggering peak audience of nearly seven million viewers watched the race, with many millions more reached across digital and radio.

For Brawn, for Button, for Barrichello, and for the Beeb, Melbourne 2009 really was a fairy tale.


3 thoughts on “Flashback: 2009 Australian Grand Prix

  1. Oh, I remember this race rather fondly, chiefly because of the huge turnaround in the fortunes of the teams (Honda/Brawn were suddenly winners! mclaren and ferrari relatively nowhere) and because there were no adverts and the tawdry patriotism of ITV had gone. i realise the beeb were also pretty brit-focused but it felt less UKIPy… I also recall legard really irritating me and him fumbling his very first lines. In hindsight he wasn’t that bad but brundle and DC were my favourite combo. I rarely watch sky’s coverage now but I get a headache listening to david croft for more than about 10 seconds. is someone grabbing him by the balls? again, it has that tacky sheen of naffness that ITV always did.

  2. A reminder of when coverage was good. This trend now of constantly responding to the general public has lowered the quality of whats on offer.
    Ignore the public and treat their views with contempt seems to work best lol.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.