Behind the scenes with RTL F1 reporter Kai Ebel

In a guest article for Motorsport Broadcasting, Edmund Wareham reports in from overseas again, giving insight on a recent podcast featuring RTL’s F1 reporter Kai Ebel. For those that missed Edmund’s first piece on RTL’s Florian König, head over here

There are few F1 pitlane reporters who have rap songs written about them. But in 2010 the German rapper Eko Fresh produced Kai Ebel Style, in honour of the German TV legend that is Kai Ebel, renowned for his striking fashion sense and his exuberant interviewing style.

Following on from their interview with König, the German podcast Starting Grid caught up with Ebel, who would have been reporting on his 28th F1 season this year but instead is biding his time at home.

“I should have been coming back from Vietnam at this point, but instead I’ve just come in from my garden.” In the wide-ranging interview with Kevin Scheuren, Ebel discusses his long career in the pitlane, how he reacts to criticism and how he makes no apology for regarding F1 as entertainment.

Ebel’s entry into F1
As with König, Ebel studied sport’s journalism at the German Sport University in Cologne and in 1988 was able to secure a four-week internship at RTL during UEFA Euro 1988 which West Germany hosted.

In 1992 RTL lost coverage of the Bundesliga football rights and Ebel considered whether it was better to leave what he feared at the time could be a “sinking ship”, however their decision to ask him to join the channel’s F1 coverage swayed him otherwise.

Ebel admits that he was not a fan before (he uses the same phrase as König: “I didn’t have petrol in my blood”) and as with his on-screen colleague saw this as an advantage. “You don’t see the bigger picture as a fan. I could learn from a distance and then gradually get closer,” Ebel told the podcast.

When Ebel first joined RTL, he believes F1 teams underappreciated the value of the press and media. The media conducted post-race interviews in a mixed zone (like football), where broadcasters and journalists vied to get a word with a driver. Together with a group of other broadcasters, Ebel was a driving force behind the introduction of the more professionalised media pen.

1994
He also had the idea of introducing live interviews during the race from the pitlane, arguing that it could break the monotony of more boring races. RTL first introduced this at a weekend which still leaves a mark on Ebel. Over the course of his long career, Ebel has been present at some of the most important junctures of F1’s history, and none more so than Imola 1994.

Ebel recalls interviewing a “super worried” Ayrton Senna on Saturday, after Rubens Barrichello’s crash on Friday and Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal accident on Saturday.

On the Sunday, broadcasting live, “I just simply tried to function.” He tried to do as many interviews as possible. In his final task of the day, he had to appear on RTL’s evening news bulletin, and after the broadcast it sunk in what had happened. “I broke down and just cried. I was unbelievably battered,” Ebel said.

Over the course of 1994, as Schumacher chalked up victory after victory, viewing figures continued to rise, culminating in the “thriller” that was Adelaide 1994. Ebel believes over the course of the season Schumacher was a better driver than Damon Hill, but that he “committed a foul” to win the title that year.

Whilst Ebel remains good friends with Heinz-Harald Frentzen, his relationship with Schumacher was more functionable, calling it “respectful and reliable.” Ebel admired above all Schumacher’s hard work.

He recalls the 2000 Japanese Grand Prix, when Schumacher wrapped up his first title for Ferrari, and the newly crowned champion coming to the interview with a Bacardi and Coke. Wondering why Schumacher had yet to finish his drink, he explained “I have to go to my debrief.”

Dealing with criticism
Under YouTube videos featuring Ebel you will read a comment saying “Kai Ebel, you can’t be more stupid” with the reply underneath “there’s no one better.” Ebel is in many respects a polarising figure and openly admits that he is not your usual pit lane reporter. Over the course of his career he has faced a lot of criticism for the questions he asks and his unique style.

Boxing is Ebel’s favourite sport and he draws on the sport to explain how “factual criticism above the belt is absolutely OK but anything below, that’s not on.” But he accepts he has made mistakes.

In 1997 in Jerez, for example, he recognises in retrospect that he treated Schumacher too lightly after he had tried to ram Villeneuve off the track. Over time and with more experience he has learned to see criticism at more of a distance.

Despite opinions that he is not serious enough, Ebel makes no apologies for the fact that he regards F1 as a show. He remembers Bernie Ecclestone approaching him at the Nürburgring asking him to conduct podium interviews for the first time and demanding “entertainment. I do not want boring questions.”

Ebel loves meeting the celebrities who come to the grid, whether securing an exclusive interview with Usain Bolt thanks to a tip off from the head of Puma or boldly walking up to Al Pacino deep in conversation with Bernie.

Fashion and music
Ebel has also come under the spotlight for his fashion choices. Clothes have always been important to him so it was not his choice to have to wear race overalls in the pitlane following Jos Verstappen’s fire in Hockenheim 1994.

“I was just interviewing Mika Häkkinen and in the middle of the interview his eyes just dilate in this horrified way and he walks away,” Ebel recalls. “You think: the question can’t have been that bad! What was up? Behind me Jos Verstappen’s Benetton had just burst into flames.”

The gallery on Ebel’s website gives just a small insight into some of the very colourful shirts, shoes and ties that Ebel has worn over the years. Eddie Jordan pales into insignificance.

Music has been another important part of Ebel’s life and another way in which his profile has been beyond the pitlane. In 2004, Ebel made a guest appearance in the music video of the song Runaway by the band Groove Coverage. Four years later he made his debut as a singer, releasing Sie schrei’n Ebel, a song which originated as a bit of fun but which his bosses wanted to promote.

Whilst his musical career never had the same longevity as his time in the pitlane, the sense of fun which Ebel brings to his role is palpable. Whatever one’s views, there is no denying that he brings colour, energy, and humour to a sport which from the outside could be seen as sanitised.

Behind that is his dedication to the job and desire to convey some of the excitement of the F1 paddock back home to viewers. He has been at the forefront of a pivotal period in the sport’s history. “I find the whole job a privilege,” he says.

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Channel 4 grabs ‘And We Go Green’ rights

Channel 4 will show a new feature-length documentary surrounding the electric Formula E series, championship organisers have confirmed today.

Directed by Fisher Stevens and Malcolm Venville and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, ‘And We Go Green’ gives viewers a behind the scenes look at 2017-18 season.

The documentary first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, and will get its inaugural UK showing on Channel 4 on Tuesday 2nd June from 00:05 to 01:50. Following transmission, the film will be available on demand via All 4 for the next twelve months.

The film primarily follows five of Formula E’s leading racers: Sam Bird, Lucas di Grassi, Andre Lotterer, Nelson Piquet Jr, and eventual champion Jean-Eric Vergne.

Formula E’s founder and chairman Alejandro Agag, who also appears in the film, said: “The documentary encapsulates the true mission and purpose of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship, to show how competition drives technological development and how the excitement of sport can have a meaningful social impact and alter perceptions of electric vehicles.

“This notion is how the title And We Go Green came about. Not only does it signal the start of our races, but it also indicates an urgent need to put the brakes on devastating and irreparable damage already caused by fossil fuels.”

“I’m proud to have worked with such great talent and a production team who share the same common values around sustainability and making a positive impact in the fight against climate change.”


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F1’s ‘Silverstone II’ race in 2020 set to air exclusively live on Sky

One of the two races that Formula 1 is set to hold at Silverstone this season looks likely to air exclusively live on pay television, Motorsport Broadcasting can reveal.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the curtailment of the first half of the 2020 season, with the season now expected to begin with a double header in Austria on July 5th and July 12th.

Current plans indicate that Silverstone will play host to rounds three and four on July 26th and August 2nd, circuit bosses confirming today that F1 had reached a deal with the circuit “to host two races behind closed doors this summer.”

However, it appears unlikely that both races will air live on free-to-air television. Since 2012, the free-to-air broadcaster in question (BBC until 2015 and Channel 4 thereafter), have been able to air the British Grand Prix live on free-to-air television.

Up until this point, it has not been clear whether the free-to-air broadcaster could also air other races that took place within the UK. The last time two F1 races took place in the UK in the same year was 1993, when Donington Park played host to the European Grand Prix.

Speaking to this site, a Channel 4 spokesperson has confirmed that the broadcaster will cover the race F1 officially calls the British Grand Prix live. In other words, if F1 decides to badge the second weekend as the European Grand Prix, then it will air exclusively live on Sky.

The key here is the official name of the Grand Prix weekend, not the location F1 are holding the race in.

Of course, the second round from Red Bull Ring also could be called the European Grand Prix, but geographical boundaries suggest that the Slovenian Grand Prix would perhaps a better fit, and there is past precedence in situations like this (see: Imola and San Marino or the Nürburgring and Luxembourg 1997).

The alternative is that F1 badges the second British Grand Prix as ‘British Grand Prix race 2’, in a similar vein to Formula E’s double header weekends. If that happens, well, your guess is as good as mine. Or, alternatively, maybe F1 can finally have their London Grand Prix. Just a 90-minute drive away…


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Behind the scenes at Sky F1’s Ultimate Quiz

The past two months have felt like an eternity, with coronavirus dominating the news scene worldwide.

But, before COVID-19 hit the UK, there was a time when Formula 1 was looking forward to the 2020 season, beginning with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday 15th March.

As part of the pre-season build-up, Sky Sports invited selected media – including this writer – to their season launch event at the Westwood Sports Pub & Kitchen in White City, London for an evening of entertainment.

Instead of the usual chatter that goes alongside these events, Sky treated guests to what they billed as The Ultimate Quiz, pitting members of their F1 team against each other.

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Sky’s Ultimate Quiz set, the Westwood Sports Pub & Kitchen kitted out in full Sky F1 gear.

Think of the BBC’s long running quiz show A Question of Sport, or Sky’s A League of Their Own, but this version pitched towards F1 fans.

With Sky’s regular F1 presenter Simon Lazenby ill on the day of the recording, David Croft stood in as Master of Ceremonies for the 90-minute affair.

On one side, Johnny Herbert led a team that included him, Karun Chandhok, Natalie Pinkham, and Paul di Resta.

On the other side, Sky’s pit lane reporter Ted Kravitz joined Rachel Brookes, and special guest Lando Norris alongside Martin Brundle. Norris was a late surprise to the taping because of Lazenby’s absence.

Off-camera, some of Sky’s production team were present, including their Head of F1 Scott Young, whilst guests could have a swirl on the Sky Pad if they so desired.

2020 Sky F1 Quiz - crew.png
Left to right – Lando Norris, Rachel Brookes, Ted Kravitz, Martin Brundle (team Brundle), David Croft (host), Johnny Herbert, Natalie Pinkham, Karun Chandhok and Paul di Resta (team Herbert).

The quiz itself lasted six rounds, with rounds varying from general knowledge through to ‘What happened next?’ clips from the F1 archive.

Overall, it was a fun, light-hearted evening and worth the five-hour round trip. Croft managed to keep the ship steering in the right direction throughout (just about!). I will save the spoilers for this piece, other than saying it was a close affair throughout.

The first few rounds did overrun somewhat, meaning that the final section was shortened, the crew wrapping up filming at 21:00.

Transmission details are unclear as of writing, although I understand that it will air in some form over forthcoming weeks, so keep an eye on both Sky’s F1 social feeds and the F1 channel itself.

2020 Sky F1 Quiz - behind the camera.png

Revealed: Motorsport Broadcasting’s dream F1 presentation team

Over the past 50 years, many voices have graced the small screen to broadcast Formula 1 to the masses in a wide range of territories: from the UK to the US, from free-to-air to pay TV and beyond.

But how many would make Motorsport Broadcasting’s on-air team, and why? To answer that question is incredibly difficult, when trying to account for the different eras, the different broadcasters, the age of the talent in question, and so on.

The fan that ITV was trying to attract in the late 1990s may be different to the fan Sky is currently trying to attract to their offering.

As part of the selection process, I am assuming that age is not a factor, that time has no bounds, alive or deceased.

The cast assembled in my opinion brings together the best of the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Sky Sports into a super team, with a few surprises thrown in for good measure. Think of it as my version of the Avengers, for use of a better term!

Of course, this is all judgemental (I admit to being openly biased for the next 2,000 words) and that there is no right or wrong answer to this question. The line-up comprises of:

  • 2 x presenters
  • 3 x analysts
  • 2 x pit lane reporters
  • 2 x technical reporters
  • 2 x commentators

So, who is in, and who is out? Revealed, Motorsport Broadcasting’s dream F1 presentation team…

Presenters
Every good on-air presentation team needs a presenter to fit the bill. For me, watching Formula 1, there are two presenters that brought warmth with them whenever presenting the sport.

First up, the BBC’s Formula 1 presenter from 2009 to 2012, Jake Humphrey. Humphrey worked his way through the BBC ranks, from children’s television into BBC Sport, and eventually onto BBC F1 for the start of F1’s return to the Beeb in 2009.

Humphrey’s style was a departure from his predecessors Jim Rosenthal and Steve Rider on ITV. Both Rosenthal and Rider are excellent, top-tier presenters, but Humphrey brought with him an additional element. During that period, it felt like Humphrey was one of us: a fan who happened to be living the dream as F1 presenter.

In my view, Humphrey helped bring us closer to the sport that we love, thanks to his presenting style, bouncing off his co-presenters where necessary.

Alongside Humphrey anchoring the show is Georgie Ainslee (nee. Thompson). Ainslee has been round the motoring circles for years, having been part of Sky’s A1 Grand Prix coverage in the mid-2000s.

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Georgie Thompson and Anthony Davidson analyse the action on the Sky Pad, during Sky’s inaugural race weekend in 2012.

Ainslee was part of Sky’s F1 coverage in 2012, presenting elements of their programming including The F1 Show, but quietly left prior to the 2013 season, with reports at the time suggesting that she wanted a bigger role within the team.

One presenter anchoring the entire weekend is too much, so having two presenters in equal capacity feels the best way to handle the situation.

Back in 2012, I really enjoyed Ainslee’s Sky Pad contributions with Anthony Davidson, and it is unfortunate that she left in the manner that she did, considering she was one of the better parts of Sky’s offering in their inaugural season.

Analysts
This is where the choices get tough, given that there is a plethora of personalities to choose from spanning across the BBC, Sky, Channel 4, and ITV. Narrowing the choices down to three or four stars, past and present, is an extremely difficult challenge. But hey, we did say that this is a dream team.

All three of my choices are natural broadcasters, and all three were part of Sky’s Formula 1 line-up last season. We start with Martin Brundle, 2020 marking his 24th season on the microphone in the commentary box.

Brundle could double up as a third co-commentator, although this piece for brevity keeps Brundle primarily in an analytical role. Alongside Brundle are Sky colleagues Anthony Davidson and Jenson Button, both of whom have shown why they are worthy of being in a dream team in recent years.

Davidson’s broadcasting life started in 2008 alongside David Croft in the BBC Radio 5 Live commentary box, moving over to Sky for the start of their coverage in 2012.

Button joined Sky for five races last year. The thing that lets Sky down is that both Davidson and Button appear on-screen too infrequently across the season, but that is a wider issue surrounding the number of races as opposed to a Sky-specific problem.

On the Sky Pad, Davidson is a wizard, whilst Button has the same characteristics as Humphrey from a broadcasting perspective: a warm style, and a down to earth personality.

If you are looking for entertaining features, maybe this is not the trio for you, it really depends what you are after from a programming perspective.

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Ted Kravitz dissects the W Series action during his Notebook segment.

For me, I want analysts who live and breathe F1, who know it like the back of their hand, and can articulate their knowledge back to the viewer at home in a digestible manner. Brundle, Button and Davidson tick those boxes for me.

Missing out by small margins are Mark Webber, Karun Chandhok and Allan McNish. On a different year in history, the choice may be different.

Also, it is worth bearing in mind that I am looking at this from a UK broadcasting perspective, so opinions may vary depending on where you are based.

Pitlane
Roving the pit lane are two faces, one of whom has never appeared in an official F1 capacity for a UK broadcaster, either through choice or because they overlooked him at every opportunity.

Enter Will Buxton. Currently Formula 1’s digital presenter, Buxton first made a name on the F1 broadcasting scene as GP2 and GP3 lead commentator. More recently, fans stateside heard Buxton’s voice during both Speed’s and NBC’s coverage of the sport from 2010 to 2017.

Despite being around the sport for nearly twenty years, Buxton has never worked in an F1 capacity for Sky, Channel 4, the BBC or ITV at their respective times. UK’s loss was America’s gain over the past decade.

During NBC’s coverage, Buxton and producer Jason Swales hosted several behind the scenes documentaries on the sport, including the ‘Road to…’ series, which was well received by fans.

Joining Buxton is Channel 4’s Lee McKenzie, who has been part of the UK’s free-to-air F1 output since 2009, grilling the drivers on a variety of topics.

Outside of the small screen, both McKenzie and Buxton are brilliant journalists in their own right, both with a unique ability to get the best out of their interviewee on any given occasion: whether in a pre-race vignette, or during the post-race media pen interviews.

You might think two reporters in pit lane and beyond is excessive. But remember, F1 consists of ten teams, 20 drivers, and hundreds of people that help bring the show to life. It is Buxton and McKenzie that get beneath the skin of the sport, helping to tell the stories that may otherwise go unnoticed.

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Will Buxton and Jason Swales at Reims for the Road to Mercedes documentary.

Technical
On the technical side, Ted Kravitz leads the output, having been part of the broadcasting scene since the 1990s. Kravitz moved to ITV’s F1 on-air team in a full-time capacity following Murray Walker’s retirement, staying in that role until 2008.

Kravitz moved with F1 to the BBC in 2009, and then again to Sky in 2012, where he has remained ever since, narrowly avoiding the chop from their team prior to the 2019 season. Well-liked by fans, Kravitz’s Notebook has been a fixture of Sky’s F1 coverage since its inception, along with the Development Corner segment.

What Kravitz has never had though, is a good wing man in the technical space, someone to bounce off from time to time. And that is where the second technical expert comes in the form of Craig Scarborough.

With the resources that he has, Scarborough does a great job dissecting the technical innovations across social media, sometimes with Peter Windsor in toe. Both were dropped by Motorsport Network in the latter half of 2018 as part of their cost-cutting exercise at the time.

I suspect no UK broadcaster has ever picked Scarborough up because he has never worked with in an F1 team as technical expert, unlike the likes of Gary Anderson, who was part of the BBC’s F1 offering in 2013 and 2014 before they dropped him.

Nevertheless, if you want an all rounded team that covers both the human element and technical element in equal detail, then you need two technical experts, and Kravitz and Scarborough are the two for me.

Commentators
The beauty of having a broadcasting dream team is that there is no right, or wrong, answer. I started watching Formula 1 in 1999, so caught the later years of Murray Walker‘s commentary.

I met Walker twice: once at a book signing back in 2002, and more recently at Channel 4’s Formula 1 launch in 2016. And, thanks to the internet, many classic races feature his commentary.

  • “And it’s Go! Go! Go!”
  • “Three point three six seconds! Damon Hill wins the Japanese Grand Prix!”
  • “And he exits the final corner for the fifty-third and last time, to win the 2000 Japanese Grand Prix, and the World Championship, for the third time!”

Commentary lines such as these will live on in Formula 1’s history. And it is for that reason that Murray, and his Murray-isms, feature in my dream team. Yes, Walker made mistakes.

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Martin Brundle and Murray Walker on the balcony during ITV’s coverage of the 1997 Australian Grand Prix qualifying session.

But, if I had a choice between a commentator that could make paint dry sound exciting, with a few mistakes here and there, or someone who struggled to capture the excitement that F1 brings, it is the former all day long.

To put it simply, Walker’s voice is infectious, and we are lucky that he stayed in the commentary box for as long as he did. Walker will always be F1 to me, and for a whole generation of fans in their late 20s and onwards.

On the other side, one of Walker’s colleagues left this arena far earlier than they should have. James Hunt passed away at the age of 45 in 1993, days after commentating on the Canadian Grand Prix. Had Hunt opted to retire at the same age as Walker, Hunt would still be commentating on F1 today at the age of 72.

I was too young to watch Hunt’s commentary live – I had not even turned one when Hunt passed away. But what I do know is that Hunt in the commentary box was passionate about the racing that was unfolding in front of him, telling it how it was.

It is a testament to the relationship between Hunt and Walker that the pairing lasted 13 years, from 1979 until Hunt’s untimely death.

In a parallel universe, Hunt would have been commentating alongside Walker for many years to come, but alas, it was not too be. In a dream broadcasting line-up, both Hunt and Brundle would be part of that team (clearly, I am bending the rules in the name of fun).

If time had no bounds, this is Motorsport Broadcasting’s dream F1 presentation team:

  • Presenter: Georgie Ainslee
  • Presenter: Jake Humphrey
  • Commentator: James Hunt
  • Commentator: Murray Walker
  • Analyst: Anthony Davidson
  • Analyst: Jenson Button
  • Analyst: Martin Brundle
  • Pitlane: Lee McKenzie
  • Pitlane: Will Buxton
  • Technical: Craig Scarborough
  • Technical: Ted Kravitz

Like with any team, whether the eleven would blend together on-screen is a different question, in the same way that two world class drivers in the best team may go pear shaped.

You want a line-up that is flexible. You do not want a commentator that just commentates, or a technical expert that cannot interview drivers. In the scenario above, Walker would still interview drivers, and Brundle could still commentate, for sake of argument.

Notable by their omission are David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan, amongst other high calibre candidates, which shows how difficult it is to select a dream team cutting across different eras. Had I been focusing on current generation only, then Coulthard and Jordan may well have made the cut.

To bring gravitas to the production is Channel 4’s F1 producer Whisper, but with backing from Sky Sports. Sky bring with them the Sky Pad, the paddock stage set up, as well as the extensive air-time, whilst Whisper bring with them some excellent VTs and a graphics package that is second to none. The best of both worlds, in my view.

And that is my dream Formula 1 broadcasting line-up. What is yours? Have your say and debate the question in the comments below.

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