The catalyst for change?

Last weekend, Karun Chandhok returned to the Formula 1 commentary box, partnering David Croft for the Russian Grand Prix on Sky Sports F1.

Fans enjoyed the partnership, the first time the two had worked together for the race itself since 2011.

Should Sky take the praise for Chandhok as an opportunity to review their commentary options ahead of the 2021 season? Motorsport Broadcasting investigates…

Learning from Sky’s football offering
Since Sky started covering F1 in 2012, the broadcaster has stuck with the same tried and tested commentary line-up.

Sky’s current lead commentator David Croft started his F1 commentary duties in 2006, commentating for BBC Radio 5 Live for six seasons, before making his move over to Sky.

Joining Croft in the box is a man who needs no introduction. Next year will mark Martin Brundle’s 25th season in the commentary box, having commentated for ITV, BBC and now Sky.

In recent seasons, Brundle has stood away from the booth at a handful of races, with Paul di Resta substituting him.

The exception was this past weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, where it was Karun Chandhok who replaced Brundle. Fans universally praised Chandhok’s appearance, arguably more so than di Resta’s stand-in efforts, through no fault of di Resta’s own.

Nevertheless, once all the statistics add up, across Sky’s nine seasons covering F1, the broadcaster has only utilised four commentators on race day: Croft, Brundle, Chandhok and di Resta.

Sky have used other voices, such as Anthony Davidson and Jenson Button to provide additional analysis, but not in a formal co-commentator capacity on race day.

Compare the above to Sky’s coverage of the football Premier League.

During their Premier League offering last season, Sky used seven lead commentators, with eleven co-commentators.

Martin Tyler, Rob Hawthorne, and Bill Leslie featured most in the lead role, with Alan Smith, Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville, and Andy Hinchcliffe commonly alongside them.

Compare the (at least) 12 different commentary ‘options’ on their Premier League coverage with just the 2 different ‘options’ last season for Formula 1, and only one lead.

I accept that there are far more football games than F1 races aired live on TV, and COVID-19 skews this fact further, however it also shows the breadth and depth across Sky’s Premier League operation. No Martin Tyler? No problem.

Tyler and Neville, Sky’s main Premier League combination, are both fantastic at what they do.

The former is synonymous with Sky’s offering since the league began in 1992, whilst Neville has forged a strong broadcasting career since his retirement from the game in 2011.

Although a great commentary team, hearing Martin Tyler and Gary Neville together on the majority of Premier League covered by Sky would become painstakingly dull (ignoring the logistical hurdles that prevents this).

Eventually, hearing them on most games would dilute the quality of their commentary, they would run out of interesting comments to make, they would revert to banter and ‘small talk’, all whilst reducing the amount of variety on offer.

Some of that sound familiar?

Brundle is a great commentator…
Before I move further, this is not a piece calling for Sky to get rid of either David Croft or Martin Brundle, far from it, because both are great commentators.

As mentioned earlier, Brundle has been in the F1 commentary hot-seat since 1997, working alongside Murray Walker, James Allen, Jonathan Legard, David Coulthard, and now Croft.

Brundle’s grid-walks (before COVID-19) are still worth watching, whilst his commentary and analytical viewpoints are second to none, offering a perspective no one else can.

> Flashback to 2016: Davidson and Brundle highlight strengths and weaknesses in Sky’s F1 team
> Flashback to 2019: Button stands out as Sky celebrates their 150th F1 race

However, Brundle retired from Formula 1 racing at the end of 1996, and has no wheel-to-wheel experience in the current generation of F1 machinery, outside of demonstrations for Sky’s vignettes; unlike Sky’s other F1 analysts Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg and (to a lesser degree) di Resta. Two of them are World Champions!

Is Brundle therefore as relevant to current F1 in 2020? For the actual pre- and post-race punditry, it matters very little, but for the mechanics and the machinery involved, more so. Does it matter?

Compare F1 to football, whereby Neville and Carragher retired in 2011 and 2013 respectively, with Smith and Hinchcliffe retiring in 1995 and 2002. Only Smith sits comparably alongside Brundle.

If you are reading this and think “you can’t possibly compare F1 and football” given the respective talent pools available, I would counter argue to say that Sky do have recent F1 experience available within their own pool (as highlighted above) who may offer a new view on the different phases of the Grand Prix.

They just choose (through necessity or otherwise), not to utilise them in the formal co-commentary role alongside Croft. Yes, they bring in other voices from time to time to comment on the racing, but not in a formal capacity.

The point being that, in my view, Sky rely too heavily on Brundle in the commentary box, and need to review his commentary commitments in the years ahead.

Chandhok showed in Russia that having an alternative perspective on commentary can only be a good thing.

A rotating co-commentator chair would keep the show fresh; it gives others an opportunity, and may also bring in new, or lapsed, F1 viewers who may not have previously watched the sport on Sky.

…as is Croft
David Croft is also a great commentator.

Fans remember with fondness his commentary stint with Anthony Davidson on BBC Radio 5 Live, for good reason because the team, with Holly Samos in pit lane as well, was a great trio.

His commentary with Brundle has also been great, and when there is a great F1 race, you can guarantee the two of them together will excel.

To the contrary, at times the commentary feels overproduced, and sound-bite-like in nature. Do not treat every DRS overtake the same in terms of volume. In addition, to compare Sky’s football offering to F1, the latter features more ‘banter’ in commentary than the former.

Whether this is the fault of Croft, or whether it is general editorial direction at Sky, I do not know. Maybe it is natural that, after 10 races in three months, talking points will dry up.

> Flashback to 2018: In conversation with David Croft

Or maybe, with 20 of the best drivers’ in the world on the grid, the commentators of the day should be able to discuss the driver in focus – their past, present and future, without heading towards a cliched sentence (for the record, Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul does not yet have a tattoo).

Do not underestimate though just how difficult sports commentary really is.

In the same vein that Tyler does not lead on every Premier League game for Sky, the same statement should apply to Croft’s F1 commitments. Less is more.

So should Croft, and Channel 4’s Ben Edwards, and whoever else, step aside for a handful of races each season? But…

Addressing a wider problem for a second: there are a lack of opportunities for motor sport commentators generally wanting to break through. Efficiency savings in recent years have reduced opportunities in the industry, and the COVID-19 pandemic will exasperate this issue.

The more broadcasters that take the World Feed of the sport they are covering (i.e. many territories taking Sky’s F1 offering), the fewer opportunities there are for younger personalities, although initiatives such as Formula E’s Talent Call as well as the rise of Esports will help.

One person making a more than decent impression is Alex Jacques.

After a shaky start succeeding Will Buxton as F1’s feeder series commentator, Jacques has quickly become a fan favourite, thanks to his partnership alongside the likes of Alex Brundle and Davide Valsecchi.

Whilst lead Formula Two commentator, Jacques has commentated on Charles Leclerc’s meteoric rise, also handling the tragic death of Anthoine Hubert with compassion, calmness, and gravitas.

It is easy to forget that Jacques is already in his sixth season covering Formula Two and Formula Three (then GP2 and GP3). More recently, Jacques has led F1’s Pit Lane Channel feed, putting him an excellent position to take on the World Feed duties, if such as opportunity presented itself.

Should Jacques therefore lead commentate on the World Feed, and by de facto be part of Sky’s F1 coverage, at a select few races next season?

In my view, yes.

Some reading this will consider the move a demotion for Croft, but as referenced, it is not radically different to Tyler, Hawthorne, and Leslie all lead commentating on Sky’s football coverage.

Or, to look at another sport, golf, it is no different to Ewen Murray and Nick Dougherty sharing lead commentary duties for Sky, as they currently do.

Why is motor sport considered different bearing in mind the amount of travel required each season?

What might 2021 look like?
No one really knows what next year will look for F1, but Sky need to start preparing for the future.

Based off the 2019 calendar, and considering who was on-site from Sky’s existing portfolio at that time, here is what a proposed system could look like:

Race Date Was… Proposed…
Australia 17/03 Croft and Brundle Croft and Brundle
Bahrain 31/03 Croft and Brundle Croft and Rosberg
China 14/04 Croft and Brundle Jacques and Brundle
Azerbaijan 28/04 Croft and di Resta Croft and di Resta
Spain 12/05 Croft and Brundle Croft and Brundle
Monaco 26/05 Croft and Brundle Croft and Brundle
Canada 09/06 Croft and Brundle Jacques and Button
France 23/06 Croft and Brundle Croft and Brundle
Austria 30/06 Croft and Brundle Croft and Chandhok
Britain 14/07 Croft and Brundle Croft and Brundle
Germany 28/07 Croft and Brundle Jacques and Brundle
Hungary 04/08 Croft and Brundle Croft and Davidson
Belgian 01/09 Croft and Brundle Croft and Brundle
Italy 08/09 Croft and Brundle Croft and Rosberg
Singapore 22/09 Croft and Brundle Jacques and Brundle
Russia 29/09 Croft and di Resta Croft and di Resta
Japan 13/10 Croft and di Resta Jacques and Hill
Mexico 27/10 Croft and Brundle Croft and Button
USA 03/11 Croft and Brundle Croft and Brundle
Brazil 17/11 Croft and Brundle Jacques and Brundle
Abu Dhabi 01/12 Croft and Brundle Croft and Brundle
21 x Croft 15 x Croft
18 x Brundle 12 x Brundle
3 x di Resta 6 x Jacques
2 x Button
2 x di Resta
2 x Rosberg
1 x Chandhok
1 x Davidson
1 x Hill

Brundle and Croft would remain Sky’s main commentary pairing, but instead of teaming up for 18 rounds, they would team up for eight of the 21 rounds, with a much more even spread across the current Sky F1 team. The two would remain together for F1’s biggest races: the season opener in Australia, Monaco and Britain.

In addition, the inclusion of Alex Jacques for six race weekends (when Formula Two is not racing), adds a layer of variety to the line-up, increasing the amount of potential combinations for Sky.

Brundle would commentate on 12 events, four of these alongside Jacques. The likes of Button, Rosberg, Davidson, and Hill also get a run out in the commentary box for a full race.

The fact that Davidson and Croft have only worked on one race together for Sky (Hungary 2017) is bewildering considering the two worked together for three years on BBC Radio 5 Live.

If you like variety, you will like this approach, but if you like hearing consistency, then you may not be fond to hearing a different voice in the box each week.

Is having the same commentary team for the full season the right approach when (prior to COVID-19), the F1 calendar is expanding? F1 themselves have rotated their in-house commentary team during the COVID affected season, with a wealth of faces joining Jacques on commentary.

The point of these changes would be so that, when we do get Brundle and Croft in commentary, they are both at their best, and neither is running through the motions, as has appeared the case at several stages this year.

By being away from the box, it gives both an opportunity to refresh, taking the time to bring in new insightful information from elsewhere. And best of all, they would remain part of the line-up for at least the next five to ten years with a streamlined schedule, essentially extending their stay.

This should not be a contentious change, given it would bring Formula 1 in-line with the Sky’s other major sports, and future proof the team.

However, we must also remember that countries take Sky’s F1 coverage in all areas of the globe, so Sky are unlikely to make any rash decisions without full consideration.

More variety can only be positive, in my view, inside and outside of the commentary box, across the spectrum.

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14 thoughts on “The catalyst for change?

      1. Yeah I had a feeling Anthony Davidson commentated once on race day with Sky. Forgetting Channel 4 for one moment, I think adding Ben Edwards commentating with the likes of Chandhok or Brundle would be fantastic & also if James Allen made a return to F1 commentary too would be great.

  1. How about having 3 in the booth, rotating the third person? They have 3 in the booth for nascar and sometimes 4. They have a lead and 2 summarisers usually, one like Brundle who used to drive 20 years ago and someone with much more recent experience, like Chandhok, Davidson or Button.

  2. Couldn’t agree with this more! I love both Crofty and Brundle and they do a fantastic job at each race weekend. While I’m not a huge fan of Edwards, on the occasion I tune into Chanel 4s coverage I find it refreshing to hear different voices and different opinions.

    I also fear that Crofty is making more mistakes in the com box than he used to. Getting drivers mixed up etc. And for whatever reason it doesn’t have the same charm as when Murray Walker did it.

    My only counter argument is that it’s hard to compare F1 to football, as even pre COVID, there could be a good four of five games on TV in a weekend, and asking the same two blokes to prepare notes on 4 diffrent football matches would be quite a challenge.

  3. Although I agree that it would be a good idea to switch up the commentary team a few times a season to keep things fresh, I can’t agree with some of your proposed pairings. Hill and Rosberg are passable as occasional pundits, but they are certainly not co-commentator calibre, World Championships or not!

    Anthony Davidson on the other hand, is excellent, and should definitely be in the mix more often with Butrton, Chadhok and di Resta.

    I think where Sky’s coverage lets itself down, and needs a revamp, is in the anchor presentation and pundit analysis side.

    I would cetainly approve of the anchor role on the race show being shared equally between Simon Lazenby and Natalie Pinkham.
    Natalie was excellent, and a breath of fresh air at the Spanish Grand Prix, and we need more female representation in motorsport!

    I feel that Ted Kravitz is somewhat under used, especially on the technical analysis side, and I’d love him to be more involved – plus Ted’s Notebook is a must watch when he’s at a race!

    Johnny Herbert on the other hand is way over used, and rarely has anything of any real substance to say other than stating the obvious interspersed with various verbal crutches he relies on, “sort of” (most irritating), “at the end of the day” etc. He was a great driver, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if he was dropped from all of the races except maybe the British GP – he’s a fan favourite there so maybe make an exception for that!

  4. Given in the post-covid world, we are expecting most companies, Sky, F1 and support championships included, to need to cut costs. Could Sky for example afford to pay Alex Jacques for 3 days of commentating, even if only at selected rounds, to cover F1 and Porsche Supercup, in addition to his normal F2 and F3 duties? Or alternatively, move David Croft to Darts coverage full time and take him out of the pool of travelling presenters, pundits and commentators? Could we (and I’m being VERY hypothetical here obviously), even see Sky go to Liberty before the end of the current contract at the end of the 2024 season, asking for changes to the current contract for Sky to bring in another broadcaster, as Sky look to make cuts? What sports or other areas would Sky be prepared to make cuts in?

    It’s not just a lack of young talent coming through, but a lack of people looking for carer changes being given the opportunity. I know of friends who would have gone for the formula E talent call, but are too old (between 25-40).

  5. I think it’s always worth re-examining things like this. Personally, I think Brundle is an F1 treasure and I very much want to keep hearing is commentary. I like Croft but I find his escalating over-the-top histrionics, esp at the beginning of the races to be grating. If he could dial it back *a lot* I’d be content with him but I don’t see that happening. Having said all of that, I think substituting other commentatorscommentators for a few races a year would be very welcome

  6. 1/2

    IIRC David Croft is the only presenter/commentator that has attended every race for Sky since they began covering the sport?

    I remember his commentaries on the practice sessions when BBC Red Button showed the World Feed pictures with radio commentary and it’s almost like Croft is a different person now.

    Croft then, I enjoyed listening to. Croft now is hard to listen to. I could give a long explanation to why, but will limit to three reasons:

    1=The (Sky-induced?) “Crofty” persona. There are one, sometimes two people with him in the box during practice sessions. Let them speak sometimes!

    2=’Lights out and away we go’. Every. Single. Time… surely he can vary his description of race starts or has he trademarked this over-used catchphrase?

    3=Stating car A has over-taken car B, when car A has been ahead of car B (and defending) for some laps.

    And breathe…

  7. 2/2

    Jacques would be a great addition to the line-up. The way he covered the Spa F2 races this year shows how good he is.

    Brundle I regard highly, right from the start when he guested on Eurosport in 1995 (the races he didn’t take part in). I like his role when co-commentating trackside on Fridays (split-screen aside). He has adapted well to understanding modern-day F1 which is so very different to when he was driving.

    It’s understandable he doesn’t do all the races these days, the same for Kravitz also. Like a lot of other people I miss them when they’re not there.

    Of Brundle’s stand-ins, I like both Chandhok and Davidson. Between the two Davidson just edges ahead for me, but was pleasantly surprised with Chandhok during the Russian GP weekend. Di Resta has been the historical shoo-in for Brundle but it would be great to see these three rotate also.

    It’s interesting that Sky have had different lead presenters this year, instead of Lazenby all the time we’ve seen Brookes and Pinkham too.

    There have been different co-commentators, different lead presenters on a race weekend, different presenters of shows like the F1 Show, Welcome To The Weekend, The Story So Far, etc. The only constant is the lead commentator.

    The rotation of other personnel this year shows that Sky can do this and I look forward to what next year brings.

  8. All pairings presented are still all-male and miss a big opportunity. In some of this years F2 races Alice Powell co-commentated and did a terrific job and added a new perspective no mentioned here.

  9. NBC in INDYCAR has had to play with fire when Leigh Diffey is on assignment with other events, so they’ve played around Rick Schweiger (NASCAR) and Kevin Lee (pit reporter) to replace him at the lead during selected events during the season. In fact the 2019 Dixon-Rosenqvist battle at Mid-Ohio was called by Lee, and you could hear the difference. There used to be the time, as Fox NASCAR’s Mike Joy noted, commentators came up the ranks. They would start out as a public address announcer for a local circuit, including interviewing drivers and calling action while also doing publicity for the local circuit. Then, they would gain experience with radio in doing “sectionals” where they called sections, which Joy himself did F1 at Watkins Glen on the radio calling a section of The Boot for now NASCAR-owned MRN Radio, which ran the radio rights for F1 at The Glen. Then, many top commentators made it to the host’s position on radio before getting a television pit gig. From there, they moved up from pit lane to the lead television post.

    The list of such commentators include Joy, Bestwick, Jenkins, Arute, among others. When CART started Paul Page was on the helm (legendary Indy 500 radio commentator), and he hired Bob Jenkins, who had done Turn 4 at Indianapolis, to be his pit reporter. Jenkins later became the catalyst in becoming one of the most revered voices in US motorsport. Adam Alexander, Fox’s No. 2 (Xfinity) NASCAR commentator, did both INDYCAR and MRN before getting the Fox-produced TNT package from 2007-14, first as a pit reporter than doing lead. Vince Welch, Fox’s No. 3 (Truck) NASCAR commentator, was heavy on INDYCAR Radio and ESPN before Fox made him a premiership pit reporter and then replaced the late Steve Byrnes (who had been slated to be that series’ lead commentator before his untimely death from cancer) as the lead commentator for the third-tier series, and also spends his offseason calling basketball. His son Dillon drove dirt cars in youth and even an occasional race or two while rising up the ranks at MRN Radio before NBC put him on NASCAR, INDYCAR, and IMSA pit reporting assignments to get extra reps — I expect him to get some opportunities to be a lead commentator soon.

    In each case, the commentator may take a practice day off and the second-tier commentator is given the chance to call. Fox has also used NASCAR to allow active premiership drivers to work lower-tier races mentored by one analyst and the always popular Drivers Only broadcast where drivers take the mic mentored by their commentators.

    It does make sense in F2 or F3 to try the Fox NASCAR model of bringing an active F1 driver to call races with Alex Jacques and a permanent analyst. There’s something about that active driver who sees what is happening. Not having that ladder that used to be prominent is hurting commentator development.

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