Last weekend’s German Grand Prix was an instant classic, as Max Verstappen stormed to victory in a wet-dry race at Hockenheim.
Off the circuit, the weekend marked Sky Sports’ 150th race covering Formula 1, having started back in 2012. Seven and a half years later, I look at Sky’s season so far…
Strength in numbers
Despite the ever-changing world of broadcasting, remarkably Sky’s Formula 1 line-up is still mostly intact compared with their original 2012 team.
Simon Lazenby has presented every race from track side, with David Croft in the commentary box. Martin Brundle has remained alongside both most of the time, as has Ted Kravitz.
In addition, Natalie Pinkham, Anthony Davidson, Johnny Herbert, and Damon Hill remain with Sky. Recently, Paul di Resta and Nico Rosberg have also joined the line-up. Heading into 2019 and the start of a new broadcasting deal, Motorsport Broadcasting expected change, and predicted such changes two years earlier.
The appointment of Scott Young as Sky’s new Head of Formula 1 at the end of 2017 meant that the coverage was bound to move in a different direction over time.
In the off-season, Sky added 2009 champion Jenson Button and Karun Chandhok to their roster. 2019 started on a rocky note, as a decision to drop Kravitz from Sky’s line-up was u-turned from within, the saga badly handled throughout as this site exclusively revealed at the time.
Irrespective, both Button and Chandhok have proven to be fantastic additions to Sky’s line-up during the first half of 2019, bringing a fresh perspective with them.
Chandhok brings all the expertise and knowledge with him from his three years at Channel 4, whilst Button is arguably the best new on-screen personality on the UK F1 broadcasting scene in years.
The signs of a great broadcaster were present throughout Button’s racing career during interview segments, and it is no surprise the way he has easily settled into his role with Sky, even if he is only with them for five races this year. Button’s contributions are insightful, yet down to earth, in equal measure.
Chandhok was unfairly criticised in the opening races for ‘not being Ted,’ Kravitz’s commitments cut down to 14 races this season.
Both are excellent broadcasters in their own unique way, Kravitz with his Notebook output, and Chandhok with his analytical Sky Pad segments alongside Anthony Davidson, the latter of which continues to be a highlight of Sky’s F1 coverage.
With 14 people now part of Sky’s F1 on-air team (including Rachel Brookes and Craig Slater), does the broadcaster run into the risk of having ‘too many cooks’ present? Of course, Sky uses most of the 14 in rotation, with seven to nine people present during a race weekend.
Is that too much? In my view, the amount of on-air people is fine, but the way Sky uses them can be improved.
Feeder series stay neglected
Which brings us to the ‘feeder series problem’ that continues to be a problem for Sky.
Sky have made small, positive steps in this area recently. Most Formula Two sessions now contain a brief build-up, with Lazenby, Chandhok and Davidson engaging in brief chatter.
On occasion, we also hear a pre-recorded interview with one of the Formula Two stars, such as Jack Aitken and Nyck de Vries, helping introduce fans to the future stars. But Formula Two continues to feel like the unwanted bit on the side.
Sky’s F1 qualifying coverage should seamlessly link into the first F2 race, yet Sky have never experimented on this front, whilst each F2 race features zero analysis and wrap-up.
The social media element has suffered so far in 2019, with few tweets from the official @SkySportsF1 Twitter account for either Formula Two or Formula Three. Will Esler, who was one of Sky’s main F1 social media reporters and built up Sky’s F2 and F3 social content, left their team towards the end of 2018, resulting in a significant drop in quality.
Both feeder championships deserve promotion during Sky’s main F1 programming. Formula 1 themselves are finally realising the value of F2 and F3, promoting both championships across social media, but Sky are not following them.
Coincidentally, the lack of promotion extends to Sky’s IndyCar coverage, with Sky only sporadically referencing IndyCar during their commentary, despite Sky airing IndyCar on the F1 channel this season.
During the British Grand Prix weekend, Sky stayed on-air live during the Friday lunch break. However, apart from two live links from Lazenby, the remaining 55 minutes of the hour featured two extended pre-recorded VTs and adverts.
Sky could have spent the hour focusing on the stars of tomorrow, producing a nice bit of television for the aficionados, in a similar vein to BT’s MotoGP offering, but Sky opted not to.
To make matters worse, Sky had 13 of the 14 on-air team on hand at Silverstone, making it difficult to justify why Sky did not use the hour wisely.
If Sky want to take extra cooks to a race, fine, but Sky should use their cooks across a variety of menus (F1, F2 and F3) instead of sticking to the same recipe (F1).
Documentaries come to forefront with strong storytelling
One of the areas where Sky have improved this season is with their documentaries strand, their storytelling the strongest in a long time.
It also highlights that when Sky’s coverage is good, it can be fantastic, as the segments that aired during the British Grand Prix weekend proved.
The broadcaster aired an hour-long documentary focusing on Sir Frank Williams’ 50 years in Formula 1, an excellent piece of television, and the kind of material you would expect a dedicated F1 channel to air.
In addition, Sky aired a segment in which Ross Brawn reunited Button with his championship winning Brawn BGP001.
Unlike other car segments which Sky have aired across the years, this segment held a connection bigger than the rest, which was plainly obvious (in a positive way) in the output, the whole segment well done I felt.
Sky also dealt with the tributes to Niki Lauda and Charlie Whiting appropriately in the first half of 2019, both with the right balance in my view. The Whiting tribute was lovely, yet heart wrenching at the same time, with a clearly emotional Bernie Ecclestone paying his respects.
Archive material has played its part on Sky this year. From F1’s 100th race celebrations, to reminiscing about Red Bull’s and Johnny Herbert’s first victories, it does feel like Sky are making greater use of the F1 archive than previously.
One rumour Motorsport Broadcasting heard earlier this year was that Sky were planning on packaging archive races together into smaller edits, accompanied by a voice over, so it will be interesting to see if that comes to fruition moving forward.
In an era of efficiency savings, it is difficult to see Sky repeating the success of ‘Senna Week‘ from 2014, but nevertheless I am pleased to see Sky producing excellent documentary material again.
Weekend structure not quite there
Sky’s changes were noticeable from the very first seconds of their 2019 coverage, as Outlands by Daft Punk replaced Alistair Griffin’s Just Drive, which has been front and centre of Sky’s coverage since 2012, as the opening theme.
Their weekend offering has felt more ‘all rounded’, with the addition of a practice round-up show to their Friday schedules. ‘The Story so Far’ gives viewers a digestible wrap-up of Friday’s action, allowing Sky to dissect the practice action, interviewing personalities we may not always see on screen.
If anything, The F1 Show filled this area previously, but Sky opted to move The F1 Show to Saturday’s at the start of 2018. Now in its second year on Saturday’s, I still feel that The F1 Show should revert to its Friday time slot.
It is disappointing that Sky continues to prioritise the magazine show over either Formula Two analysis, or F1 qualifying analysis, the latter a kick in the teeth considering Kravitz’s post-qualifying Notebook is no more this season.
BT Sport airs Premier League Tonight, which is a magazine show following their football coverage, tackling on and off-pitch issues that no other show in the football television landscape covers, generating conversation across social media in the process.
You would never imagine the current iteration of The F1 Show – or any show currently on Sky F1 for that matter – covering the kind of issues that PL Tonight covers.
The bugbear of Sky’s split-screen cutaways remains during their practice coverage. The odd cutaway is fine, but Sky utilises the split-screen far too often for my liking, sometimes hiding Formula 1’s own on-screen graphics.
Practice sessions can be dull, and I understand the desire to add detail, but cutting to the pit lane too much during practice risks alienating the core audience watching who just want to see cars on circuit.
Race day content continues to improve
With Sky Pad analysis and excellent VT’s, Sky’s build-ups have had some excellent moments during 2019 so far. The variety of Sky’s line-up has helped to this effect as well.
The quality of Sky’s build-ups has fluctuated this year, from the lows in Bahrain (an excessive amount of celebrity and Paddock Club coverage), to the highs of Canada and Britain, you do sometimes wonder ‘which Sky will turn up this weekend.’
However, it does feel that the quality of coverage that Sky are putting out there has improved significantly over the past few races. It is difficult to pin point the exact moment, rather it just feels like a trend in the right direction more than anything else.
Supporting Sky’s race day broadcasts this season are the usual analytical voices on hand to offer their expert opinion, led by Brundle and Davidson, with Chandhok joining the fray this season.
Sky tried to change their post-race coverage in Australia, making use of their paddock studio base, but viewers panned the change across social media (even if this writer did enjoy the fresh style).
The change reminded me of BBC’s original F1 Forum from 2009 and had the potential to evolve into something new. The change lasted one race, with the old post-race style soon returning, although I do wish Sky tried a bit harder with implementing what they had in mind instead of giving up after Australia.
One of Sky’s initial problems for the fly-away races was the ‘hard close’ at the top of the hour, resulting in a shorter post-race than in previous years, to cater for the race repeat that followed, meaning that there were always some time constraints, despite being a dedicated channel.
Sky’s post-race is enjoyable, although you need a juicy moment in the race for the post-race content to light up, as we saw in Canada with the incident between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
A post-race broadcast can only be as good as the race, a poor race lends itself to a poor post-race broadcast, and vice versa. When F1 is on top, the whole broadcast bounces up with it.
Inevitably, a calendar of 21 races means that some race weekends will not feel special, which is the risk Formula 1 as a collective take when they expand the calendar. Is it therefore unfair to blame them if one of two of their build-ups do feel ‘run of the mill?’
Sky has a vast amount of resources on offer, yet BT Sport’s MotoGP platform and WRC All Live can produce a similar level of coverage, with fewer resources.
After all the points outlined above, has Sky’s coverage evolved positively since 2012? Have your say in the comments below.