Behind the scenes with RTL F1 presenter Florian König

In a guest article for Motorsport Broadcasting, Edmund Wareham reports in from overseas, giving the low-down on a recent insightful podcast featuring RTL’s F1 presenter Florian König, as well as his own thoughts on RTL’s F1 offering in Germany…

One of the few benefits of the current crisis is that those who would normally be crisscrossing the world with the F1 circus now have the time on their hands to discuss their experience in the paddock. The good folk of Starting Grid, a German F1 podcast, were recently able to sit down with Florian König, the moderator of RTL’s F1 coverage, and chat for almost two hours about his time behind the microphone.

Starting Grid is a podcast on the meinsportpodcast.de platform, moderated by Kevin Scheuren and Ole Waschkau, in partnership with Christian Nimmervoll, chief editor of Motorsport-Total.com and Formel1.de. I can highly recommend the podcast for anyone who speaks German (and even those who are learning!), not least for the in-depth way in which they tackle topics.

British viewers may well be familiar with RTL’s F1 coverage through Kai Ebel, the channel’s pit lane reporter and interviewer, who has conducted podium interviews and whose sartorial choices rival that of Eddie Jordan. Florian König is presumably less well known in the UK but vital for what he describes as the “well-oiled machine” that is RTL’s coverage.

I thought it would be interesting for readers of this site to pull out some key headlines from König’s interview and consider the F1 broadcasting perspective from the German point of view. I watch F1 in the UK (Channel 4 at home or Sky in the pub) but always watched RTL’s coverage when I lived in Germany for a couple of years and when I still visit the country.

König’s Relationship with Lauda
König began his broadcasting career for Süddeutscher Rundfunk, a radio and television station based in Stuttgart, reporting on the Bundesliga, the Barcelona Olympics and the 1993 World Athletics Championships. In 1994, König moved to RTL, becoming the moderator of their F1 coverage two years later, during the rise of one Michael Schumacher.

Speaking on the Starting Grid podcast König admits that, despite watching the odd race before, he was never an F1 fan, much preferring to watch football, but argues that this distance gave him a certain advantage in his role as presenter.

“It wasn’t just F1 fans, insiders and specialists who sat in front of their screen to watch RTL,” he says. “The sport before Schumacher wasn’t a mass phenomenon in Germany, so it wasn’t actually all that bad to have someone with a significant role who could give the viewing public a voice, to ask questions which people at home might also ask.”

Triple F1 champion Niki Lauda joined König on-screen from 1996 until 2017 and some of the most interesting parts of the interview concern König’s relationship with the Austrian. Lauda’s forthright opinions and extensive contacts across the whole paddock made for excellent viewing.

Their partnership was not without its challenges, from Lauda running away to catch a flight before a RTL broadcast ended, to a controversial moment in May 2010 at the Monaco Grand Prix.

Lauda called Robert Kubica a “polack” (an ethnic slur for Polish people) live on-air and maintained that the term was not derogatory in Austria. König challenged him directly in the broadcast and hurriedly had to cut to a feature with Ebel. At the behest of RTL, Lauda later apologised to Kubica.

Controversy notwithstanding, there was an obvious chemistry and understanding between the two. König says that it was “an absolute gift” to work with him.

“He was so clear. He always said what he thought. Of course, on the next day he always thought something different and would then say so,” König retells. When König asked Lauda how they imagined things would work between them, Lauda put it simply: “You ask the questions, I’ll answer them.”

In 2017, to the shock of König who had no inkling of what was to come, Lauda announced live on air that he would no longer be part of RTL’s coverage. “That was first a surprise, secondly live, thirdly emotional. That was really intense. That was very Niki,” he says.

Schumi TV?
Around the turn of the millennium, an average of ten million viewers per race were watching RTL’s coverage, thanks to the raised profile of the sport in Germany through Schumacher’s domination. Fans dubbed RTL ‘Schumi-TV’ in this era, something König openly and honestly admits would be different today.

“In retrospect, if I may say so, we concentrated insanely on Schumacher,” König tells the podcast. “We were intoxicated by his success and the very high viewing figures so that we didn’t question our approach. We would do it a bit differently today.”

König is critical of the way RTL presented Schumacher’s championship rivals on-screen, especially Damon Hill.

“We didn’t report enough on the other drivers and we weren’t fair about his competitors. Naturally Damon was the antagonist, the baddie. That was the narrative of the time, we reported in a very black and white way. That is how it was then and the state of things.”

But at the same time, he argues that RTL’s coverage was driven to a large extent by what people wanted to see, noting how RTL treated Schumacher’s other championship rival Mika Häkkinen much more favourably, in part because of his exposure on German TV in adverts for companies such as Mercedes-Benz.

The changing relationship between drivers and broadcasters
Pictures on König’s personal website show him first broadcasting from the paddock in jacket and tie but now, as seems de rigueur with sports’ presenters, it is the open neck shirt look. Fashion trends aside, over the course of 25 years covering the sport, König is in an excellent position to see how it has developed from a broadcasting point of view.

When König first started with the channel, only a handful of races aired live on location, with all other programmes filmed in the studio in Cologne, before switching in the early 2000s to circuit-based presentation.

Nowadays, production, editing, and sound mixing all happen back in Cologne, meaning the size of the team having to be on site at races has become markedly reduced from the sixty or so people who used to travel.

König’s first task for RTL in the F1 arena was to produce a feature on Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the 1995 French Grand Prix. In the podcast, König recalls spending the whole day pacing the Magny-Cours paddock hoping to catch a word with the Sauber driver, at time when there were not even dedicated press schedules.

In the intervening years relationships between teams and broadcasters have become far more professionalised. Whilst this obviously makes planning things easier, he does feel that the human element has become lost, such as joining other German journalists in drinking schnapps and singing songs with Norbert Haug after a race.

As with many broadcasters one of the aspects he most enjoys is forty minutes before lights-out and the unscripted pre-race grid walk. “It’s a challenge, but it’s what makes the programme so fun,” he says. While there are several German speakers in the paddock (Verstappen, for example, conducts interviews in German), there is the further demand placed on broadcasters of having to ask many of their questions in English.

The Future of F1 in Germany – and a future for RTL?
F1 in Germany faces its challenges and, with the retirement of Nico Hülkenberg last year, Sebastian Vettel remains the only German driver on the grid. The 2020 season also sees no race in Germany. But König says that viewing figures remain healthy with around four million viewers tuning in, especially with the much greater choice that is now available to viewers, which just was not the case when he first started out covering the sport.

In Germany viewers have two choices: either to pay a subscription to watch uninterrupted coverage on Sky or to watch free-to-air coverage on RTL with advert breaks. Figures from Motorsport.com show that a peak of 5.26 million viewers tuned into RTL’s coverage of Monza last year (a market share of 32.3%), whilst a further 450,000 viewers watched on Sky (2.8%).

The adverts breaks and constant competition plugs are obviously frustrating and remind this writer of the ITV days, but the figures demonstrate, especially when seen in comparison to the UK, that watching the event live has an obvious pull.

F1’s current deal with RTL was signed at the end of 2017 and runs until 2020. On F1’s future with RTL from 2021 König won’t be drawn and only says that “RTL would like to keep F1.” It will be interesting to see how the disruption of this season affects the negotiation of rights going into 2021 and whether König will be on Germany’s F1 screens in the future.

König, a self-styled “great friend of this sport” has done much over the last twenty-five years to promote F1 in Germany in his professional, down-to-earth, and articulate manner. As we await with uncertainty whether we will see any F1 this season, it is good to have these sorts of high-quality podcasts with their interesting insights available so that, in the words of the podcast Starting Grid’s slogan, we can “Keep Racing!”

Thank you to them above all for putting together such a wide-ranging and insightful interview.

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