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:
|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.