MotoGP fans worldwide will remember 2020 for many reasons, and not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On track, the action was thrilling, with Juan Mir stepping out into the limelight to secure his first championship in the premier class, and Suzuki’s first since 2000.
The pandemic resulted in changes across the board: a truncated MotoGP season of just 14 races started in July, culminating on November 22nd in Portugal. Some broadcasters stayed away from the paddock, including UK broadcaster BT Sport, who recently extended their deal to cover MotoGP until the end of the 2024 season.
BT based themselves to begin with at Triumph’s UK headquarters in Hinckley, before moving to the iconic BT Tower in London from September. For the personnel involved, 2020 meant a season closer to their loved ones, for the first time in years.
During the Czech Republic weekend, I mused around BT’s temporary Triumph base to see how they were adapting to the ever-changing pandemic, chatting to the stars in front of the camera, including lead commentator Keith Huewen.
But little did I, or perhaps he, know at the time, 2020 would be Huewen’s last with the BT Sport team. Following the season finale, Huewen announced that he was stepping down as BT’s lead commentator.
Here, we look back at Huewen’s broadcasting career…
The early days
Before stepping into the broadcasting arena, Huewen raced across the UK and overseas, like many before and after him, including at Mallory Park, which is just a stone’s throw away from the Triumph building where we recollect about the past.
Huewen raced into his early 30s in the 1980s, when injury forced him onto the side-lines at a “relatively early” age. “I won my last British championship when I was 30, and retired when I was 31,” he tells me.
“The fact is, at a certain age, you know as a rider, that the time is right [to retire]. Some go through denial; others are forced out through injury. For me, it was a bit of both. I had shoulder injuries that were hampering me, and it felt like the time was right to move on.”
It was during his racing days that Huewen met journalist Julian Ryder, a friendship now almost 40 years in the making, and one that has evolved over the years through various commentary stints with multiple broadcasters.
The two began their partnership with Eurosport, before moving to Sky, in an era where satellite TV was just coming to the forefront, and the sports television boom on pay-TV was beginning.
“It was pioneering back in those days,” Huewen recalls. “I always remember my mates at the BBC and elsewhere laughing their socks off when they knew I was going satellite.”
“But, of course, within two or three years, all the sports departments you had at Anglia Television and Look South had gone. A lot of the people I worked with at, say, Anglia are now working with different production companies all over the country.”
“Satellite television really took sport on and improved it in my view. There’s a lot of people that baulked at the idea that sport would cost people money to watch on TV but the fact is sport pretty much lives off the television nowadays.”
Whilst pioneering, there were fewer people involved in front of the screen compared to today, with the likes of Huewen ‘doubling up’ as both presenter and commentator.
Huewen not only presented Sky’s World Superbikes offering from Chiswick in the mid-1990s, but would then join Ryder in the commentary box straight after. Whilst “quite good fun,” Huewen does look back on certain aspects of their commentary slightly differently, and not with rose-tinted glasses either.
“TV commentary has moved on hugely since the ’90s. I listen to some of our old commentaries and cringe slightly. I’m sure if you spoke to Jules, he’d be exactly the same!”
“The professionalism involved in our television broadcast now is hugely better than it was back then, in both the production standards, and I hope in commentary standards,” Huewen believes.
As with many commentators, Huewen has bounced around various places, on both two wheels and four. See if you recognise the commentator in the clip above, published to F1’s YouTube channel, featuring Lewis Hamilton climbing from back to front during his karting days in 1998…
The second coming
With Sky moving away from World Superbikes however as the 1990s ended, the Huewen and Ryder pairing ended, for now at least.
Huewen spent the 2000s presenting Sky’s motor sport portfolio, from A1 Grand Prix to IndyCar, and whilst he admits he “could have ticked over at Sky forever,” presenting motor sport in a studio when other broadcasters were evolving their offering around him, was not where he wanted to be.
In addition, the emergence of Sky F1 at the beginning of 2012 meant that Sky’s existing motor sport rights became even less of a priority.
For Huewen, MotoGP’s move from the BBC and Eurosport to BT Sport ready for the start of 2014 season, presented new opportunities, and more importantly, a potential return to what he loved doing.
“The point here is that I really, really, really felt the loss of not being at the track covering World Superbikes or MotoGP and when BT took MotoGP on, I wanted to be there.”
The jigsaw fell into place for the Northampton-based commentator. Internal support from the powers that be at BT Sport sealed the deal for Huewen, whilst Huewen himself made it clear to Dorna, MotoGP’s Commercial Rights Holder, that he wanted to be back in the paddock.
“I’d made sure that the right people had known that we [Huewen and Ryder] were available to the point where I’d even gone out to Le Mans in 2013 to meet with [CEO] Carmelo Ezpeleta at Dorna to make sure that he knew so that if anybody from BT asked the boss at Dorna his opinion regarding commentators, he would know that I was in the marketplace,” Huewen recalls.
“Grant Best [BT’s Executive Director of Talent, Creative and Programming] at the time decided that he wanted Jules [Ryder] and I back together again. That meant that the likes of Steve Parrish and Toby Moody both very capable commentators, lost out.”
“But they lost out on the BT deal because it was decided that Jules and I were going to get back together again, and the rest is history as they say.”
Huewen is full of praise for the BT team that he leaves behind.
“The team that’s on BT is a well-oiled machine, everybody works well together. We’re very fortunate in that everybody shares information, which you don’t get in broadcasting that often. It’s an unusual situation.”
“Going back to the racing analogy, it’d be like sharing your notes as far as your data is concerned, with somebody that’s outside of your team, it’s rare.”
Commentating with Ryder and Hodgson
Contrary to what some on social media may believe, Huewen and Ryder are genuine friends, even if they sometimes did “aggravate each other” in the commentary box!
“People often ask ‘do you actually like each other.’ And we really do, we are good mates. We’re opposites in many of our viewpoints, but we always end up properly agreeing.”
“Our arguments have always been whoever can argue the most reasonably wins. If you’ve got the most reasonable argument over the other person, you win, eventually.”
“He’s never hit me. Although I think he probably wanted to.”
Hopefully not in commentary…
“It’s been close! I’ve had to stand up in front of the screen so I can get a go sometimes.”
Joking or not (reader, I will let you decide), Huewen’s and Ryder’s friendship goes beyond the commentary box, and the two still speak regularly about the action on track.
“Yeah, we still speak every week about what’s going on. We’re all connected in our field, journalists, riders, mechanics. We’ve known each other for decades.”
“Motorcycling is your life, and the fact you’re broadcasting now, even though it is a job in comparison, you’re still just as enthusiastic about it as you were then. I’ve spent nights lying in bed, looking through time sheets. Some people think that’s bloody ridiculous,” Huewen laughs.
“And it’s not because I have to, it’s because I want to!”
More recently, Neil Hodgson has succeeded Ryder in the commentary box alongside Huewen, a pairing that in Huewen’s eyes has worked “really well.”
“He’s got personality and he knows what he’s talking about at the end of the day. He’s like me, man and boy came up through the paddock. I knew his Mum and Dad for a long time, and I of course commentated on a lot of stuff Hodgy had done.”
“We have a very similar sense of humour, which always helps. We’re like brothers from a different mother, and that works really well.”
Citing the “unexpected positive effect of the pandemic,” Huewen stepped aside from BT’s offering following the conclusion of the 2020 season, but is also keen to emphasise that, like Ryder a few years earlier, he is not retiring.
What next then for both Huewen, and BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage? Who will succeed Huewen in the BT box? That is the next chapter to follow…
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