In conversation with Rachel Brookes

Rachel Brookes has been an integral part of Sky’s Formula 1 coverage since 2013.

Now in her ninth season with the team, Brookes presents coverage of Formula Two and Formula Three, as well as Sky’s magazine programme The F1 Show on Thursday evenings.

New for 2021, Brookes also commentates on the first Friday practice session alongside the likes of Karun Chandhok and Paul di Resta in the booth.

Ahead of the 2021 season, Motorsport Broadcasting caught up with Brookes to discuss her broadcasting career to date, how COVID has impacted broadcasting, amongst other topics.

We start off by talking about how Brookes ended up part of Sky’s F1 team…

When I joined Sky Sports News, I was just reporting on anything and everything, and one day an editor came into the edit suite I was in and asked whether I know anything about cricket. I said ‘yes, I know a little bit,’ and he said ‘we need you to cover a cricket match tomorrow!’

I turned up and started reporting on cricket from the boundary edge. Sky seemed to like it and then they kept sending me to cricket after that. I loved cricket as a sport but I would never have imagined essentially commentating on it from the side of the pitch! I really enjoyed it, though.

And then when we bought the rights to Formula 1 [in 2011], I was a pain in the neck to the bosses saying ‘I want to work on it!’ They put the job out there, and Craig [Slater] and I both applied.

We went through an interview process, I had to put a presentation together like anyone else would, sit there and tell the why. Luckily, I got the job on Sky Sports News, and then moved over to Sky Sports F1 full-time in 2016, but I started working on F1 in 2013.

What sparked your interest in motor sport, is it something you’ve wanted to be involved in from an early age?

My Dad did endurance records before I was born. 24 Hours of Le Mans was nothing, he did 7 days and nights and that record still stands today, I don’t think anyone else has been crazy enough to beat it.

In our living room at home there was a picture of him during one of his record runs, I would always see that as a kid and ask questions about it. I used to watch it with my brothers, because they were older and they were the cooler ones!

Then one of my brothers started racing in the Polo Super Coupe Cup, followed by both my brothers doing some Radical Racing together, so I used to follow them around. I’ve been around motor sport since I was young and it was always something that intrigued me.

When I went to the races my brother did, there was always such a lovely family atmosphere in the paddock that I knew it was a sport I’d enjoy if I got into it in the end. You’ve still got that same atmosphere in F1 that we had at the races at Brands Hatch or Cadwell Park.

We heard recently about the passing of Murray Walker. Do you have any memories of meeting or interviewing Murray?

I never got to interview him, but I did get to meet him, funnily enough when I worked at the Power FM radio station on the south coast [between 2000 and 2005]. Murray was quite local and he used to come into the radio station to do his voiceover work, so I met him on a couple of occasions then.

He was such an idol in my eyes that I was too nervous to speak to him properly. I met him to say hello and to say that I loved watching Formula 1, and that was it, and I really regret actually not stopping and having a really good conversation with him.

He’s the sound in my ears when I think of watching Formula 1 as a kid, I hear Murray, I think most of us do. He really brought the sport alive for so many people. I think he’ll always be the voice of F1 and so he should be.

People call it a childlike enthusiasm, but it was just his genuine passion for the sport and doing what he loved that was awesome, and I think all of us can learn from that.

This year is Sky’s tenth season of broadcasting F1, and your ninth with the team. Do you have any standout features that you remember?

The Sergio Perez trip to Mexico, to see him at home, is always something that sticks out in my mind, probably because it took nine months to set up.

It’s not easy to persuade a driver and their family to let you into their house with cameras and film them and their family. It’s also because of the environment, he was really open, saying that he’d given up on his Ferrari dream and all this sort of thing. That was one that really sticks out, that I really enjoyed.

I’ve got a couple of people at the moment who are tentative yeses. One solid yes, but COVID has just put pay to doing it, which is a real shame. If the solid yes comes off, it’ll be amazing, I’m keeping everything crossed that it happens.

I really enjoy those just because getting them out of the racing environment makes such a difference and seeing what makes them tick when they’re not at a race track is something I enjoy finding out.

The stuff away from the track we really miss, so the sooner that comes back, the better.

From an interviewing perspective, how has COVID changed the interview dynamic? Have you found yourself adapting your questions a lot more than previously?

It’s really hard because so much of the interview is the connection between you and the person you’re interviewing and that face mask is a physical barrier, and that’s a real shame because you lose quite a bit of that connection.

On a practical side, doing interviews in the pen being 2 meters away, and wearing masks, you can’t hear what they are saying at all, so for the first couple of rounds of interviews, I was thinking ‘this is crazy, I need to find a way around this.’

In the end, I plug headphones into the camera next to me and I hear it through the camera in one ear and then try and hear other stuff in person through the other ear and listen to what’s going on.

I didn’t realise how much of a difference it made until I did an interview [before Bahrain] with Lewis, where we didn’t wear face masks.

We sat probably more than two meters away to be fair, but we could do it on the track, and without face masks, and it completely changes the interview. It’s much more relaxed without masks.

It feels like yesterday since the F1 channel started, its already like I said the tenth season. The plan this year is for 23 races, which is a lot.

It’s going to be a very long, very tough season.

I’m fortunate in that I don’t do every race, Natalie [Pinkham] and I share the role, so for me it’s not as tough, but for those going to every race and for the teams, I can’t imagine how difficult it’s going to be. That’s a very long time for people to be away from home, away from their families and kids.

In 2020 there was always something different every race we went to, there would always be a new story.

I really, really enjoyed last year, seeing different drivers on the podium, having different race winners really helped in what was quite a tough year to carry out on the ground in terms of all the restrictions. It was a great year, and it looks like this year might be even better.

Formula 1 as a sport last year did so well to make sure we managed to complete the season and Sky as a team didn’t have any on-site positive tests.

We [Sky] probably played it safer more than anyone else, none of us went to restaurants, we sat in our hotel in a conference room to have dinner and things just to keep us all safe. Formula 1 saw that it worked and we managed to keep on the road last season when other sports couldn’t.

Moving onto a different topic, there’s been a lot of good work done to get more women into motor sport, and the W Series being on the F1 calendar this year should only help in that regard.

Absolutely. I’ve always said that you can’t be what you can’t see, and a perfect example was my niece who went to a Dare to be Different day.

She came along and we all assumed that she’d get in the go kart and love it. Actually, it was the STEM engineering that she loved. They made a hovercraft and made it fly, and for her, she hadn’t done any of that at school, and she was like ‘I love this, I want to do this.’ 

I think the big message we need to get out there is it’s open to everyone, absolutely everyone, and the more we can showcase all of the different people that work in the paddock, that work in motor sport, the better.

We’ve got some fantastic women working in Formula 1 right now, we had Claire [Williams] as a deputy team principal, but we’ve got strategists, we’ve got aerodynamicists, we’ve got people working in the pit stops that you don’t see because they’ve got helmets on, but let’s showcase these people more, and show what they can do.

W Series is another brilliant example, and just this morning there was a tweet from Top Gear with an interview with Chris Harris and Jess Hawkins who’s a stunt driver. Let’s publicise these people, let’s really put them on a platform and say ‘you can do anything.’

It doesn’t just apply to women, it applies across the board, let’s make sure that everyone is given a fair opportunity to show what you can do and what’s open to you, and then hopefully kids growing up will think ‘I can do anything’ which is exactly what they should be able to think.

It’s not soundbite, it’s action that is needed.

My thanks go to Rachel Brookes for spending the time with me on the above piece.

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MotoGP performs solidly as live action returns to free-to-air TV

MotoGP’s first live race on free-to-air television in the UK in over seven years saw viewing figures increase, in-depth analysis by Motorsport Broadcasting shows.

Muddying the picture however is the fact that highlights of the race slumped because of the live coverage.

Consolidated data via BARB, which accounts for viewers who watched within seven days of the original transmission, allows us to draw some conclusions.

Live action performs well across BT Sport and ITV4

Since 2014, BT Sport have aired MotoGP exclusively live, with audiences regularly hovering between 150,000 and 250,000 viewers.

Pleasingly for the pay-TV broadcaster, who will continue to cover MotoGP until at least 2024, figures for their live French Grand Prix programming on Sunday 16th May were in-line with expectations.

An average audience of 176,000 viewers watched Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP on BT Sport 2 from 09:30 to 14:08, as weather conditions changed throughout the day in France.

Two weeks earlier in Jerez, an average of 174,000 viewers watched BT’s programming across the same time slot.

In other words, BT was unimpacted by the choice on offer for the French round, showing how highly fans regard BT’s coverage.

ITV4’s free-to-air coverage, which took MotoGP’s World Feed commentary for the duration, averaged 213,000 viewers from 09:45 to 14:15, a solid number from a standing start.

An average audience of 389,000 viewers watched the live action from Le Mans, across all three classes, an increase of 124% on the BT-only figure from Jerez.

When focussing only on the MotoGP class, an average of 238,000 viewers watched the race via BT Sport, compared with 236,000 viewers for Jerez.

ITV4’s figure for the MotoGP segment (from 12:35 to 14:15) is unknown, however we can draw some conclusions from publicly available data.

Motorsport Magazine reports that a one-minute overnight peak of 425,900 viewers watched the Le Mans race on ITV4, and live sport does not add additional viewers on within the seven-day consolidation window.

Thus, it is fair to conclude that ITV4’s coverage peaked with around 430,000 viewers, averaging around 300,000 viewers for the MotoGP segment itself, including pre-race build-up and immediate post-race analysis.

Motorsport Broadcasting’s analysis suggests that an average audience of 538,000 viewers watched the MotoGP race, an increase of 128% on the BT-only figure from Jerez.

But highlights slump shows that live viewers were not returning fans

While the surge in MotoGP’s live audience is excellent, and shows why MotoGP needs the live free-to-air presence, ITV4’s highlights audience slumped the day after the race.

According to industry website Thinkbox, which publishes BARB data on a rolling week-by-week basis, highlights of the Le Mans round on ITV4 averaged 91,000 viewers, the 40th most watched show on ITV4 that week.

In comparison, highlights from Jerez a fortnight earlier averaged 296,000 viewers, and was the 6th most watched show on ITV4.

Looking at the MotoGP segment in isolation, the audience figures in totality suggest that an average of around 628,000 viewers watched the MotoGP action for Le Mans, with between 550,000 viewers and 600,000 viewers doing the same for Jerez.

So, whilst the change between Jerez and Le Mans did result in more viewers watching MotoGP live, these viewers were not new (in most cases).

Instead, all that happened was that around 70% of ITV4’s regular highlights audience jumped ship to the ITV4 live show on Sunday.

How many viewers were new, or returning, is difficult to quantify, but Motorsport Broadcasting’s analysis suggests that this figure is below 100,000 viewers, which makes the figures in totality look less spectacular than first suggested.

The headline here is that more people watched MotoGP live, with MotoGP recording its highest live average since 2013, thanks to its free-to-air presence, but that these viewers were not ‘new’ in the wider context.

The deal to air two races live across ITV’s network was broken first on Motorsport Broadcasting, with other news outlets following suite. However, an official press release was only issued by MotoGP’s commercial rights holder Dorna two days before the race.

If Le Mans was going to break through and capture more viewers, organisers needed to announce the deal far earlier rather than it coming across as an eleventh-hour deal. The timing very much felt like all parties were testing the waters to see what the reaction would be.

If fans knew before the season that ITV4 were airing races live, it may have given some an extra incentive to keep in touch with the highlights package throughout the season rather than jumping in cold.

An unscientific poll over on this site’s Twitter page suggests that BT’s audience may see a small bump over the months ahead thanks to Le Mans airing live on free-to-air television.

MotoGP has another bite of the free-to-air cherry in August, as Silverstone airs live on ITV’s main channel, and thus has a much bigger chance at attracting a wider audience who would never normally watch the championship.

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