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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Scheduling: The 2021 Indianapolis 500

After almost 40 hours of practice and 7 days of on-track action, it comes down to this. Welcome, to the 2021 Indianapolis 500!

Scott Dixon is on pole for the race from the brickyard, can he convert pole to victory to win his second 500?

Joining Dixon on the front row are Colton Herta and Rinus VeeKay, both young chargers looking to win their first Indianapolis 500.

There are five ex-Formula 1 drivers on the 2021 grid, led by Alexander Rossi in 10th place.

Indianapolis 500 – the coverage

Live coverage of the Indianapolis 500 airs exclusively on Sky Sports F1, with the broadcaster’s offering coming live from McLaren’s Technology Centre in Woking.

Natalie Pinkham presents Sky’s broadcast, with Tom Gaymor and McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris joining her.

Sky’s coverage will serve as a wrap around to the main US offering, meaning that UK fans will not miss a second of NBC’s US coverage. Sky will build-up to the US coverage from 15:45, before handing over to NBC at 16:00.

From 16:00 onwards, UK fans will hear Sky’s line-up during the frequent US ad-breaks over the hours that follow.

Leigh Diffey leads the commentary line-up for the third year running, with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy joining Diffey.

Down in pit lane, Marty Snider, Kelli Stavast and Kevin Lee will keep fans abreast of developments as the race progresses.

Meanwhile, Mike Tirico, Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson, and Steve Letarte will provide additional views from NBC’s on-site studio, whilst Rutledge Wood will be out around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Friday 28th May
16:00 to 18:00 – Carb Day

Sunday 30th May
15:45 to 21:00 – 105th Indianapolis 500
=> race starts at 17:45

Full UK scheduling details for the 2021 Indianapolis 500. Scheduling details correct as of Monday 24th May and are subject to change.

Elsewhere, MotoGP heads to Mugello for round six of the 2021 season. Ducati’s Jack Miller will be looking to win three races in a row after winning a changeable French Grand Prix last time out.

MotoGP – the coverage

After airing live on ITV4 for Le Mans, coverage airs this weekend exclusively on BT Sport, with ITV returning to the frame later this year for the British Grand Prix.

For BT, the weekend marks a big milestone on the return to normality, as the broadcaster begins a phased return to the MotoGP paddock.

Since the start of the pandemic, BT’s MotoGP team has based themselves in the UK, firstly in Hinckley at Triumph’s headquarters, before moving to the BT Tower in London.

While BT’s main presentation and commentary will remain at the BT Tower for now, a small crew led by Natalie Quirk, will be present on-site interviewing the stars of the show. Joining Quirk on-site is 2014 World Superbike champion Sylvain Guintoli who will be part of the team for the remainder of the season.

ITV4’s highlights airs later than usual at 23:00 due to live coverage of French Open tennis.

Friday 28th May
08:00 to 10:45 – Practice 1 (BT Sport 2)
=> 08:00 – Moto3
=> 08:55 – MotoGP
=> 09:55 – Moto2
12:15 to 15:00 – Practice 2 (BT Sport 2)
=> 12:15 – Moto3
=> 13:10 – MotoGP
=> 14:10 – Moto2

Saturday 29th May
08:00 to 16:15 – Practice and Qualifying (BT Sport 2)
=> 08:00 – Moto3: Practice 3
=> 08:55 – MotoGP: Practice 3
=> 09:55 – Moto2: Practice 3
=> 11:35 – Moto3: Qualifying
=> 12:30 – MotoGP: Practice 4
=> 13:10 – MotoGP: Qualifying
=> 14:10 – Moto2: Qualifying
=> 15:15 – Red Bull Rookies Cup: Race 1

Sunday 30th May
07:30 to 14:30 – Races (BT Sport 2)
=> 07:30 – Warm Ups
=> 09:15 – Moto3: Race
=> 11:00 – Moto2: Race
=> 12:30 – MotoGP: Race
=> 14:00 – Chequered Flag
14:30 to 15:30 – Red Bull Rookies Cup: Race 2 (BT Sport/ESPN)

Monday 31st May
23:00 to 00:00 – Highlights (ITV4)

Full scheduling details for the 2021 Italian MotoGP. Scheduling details correct as of Tuesday 25th May and are subject to change.

It promises to be an exciting weekend of action on both two wheels and four wheels, with plenty to whet the appetite over the Bank Holiday for UK readers.

Last updated on Tuesday 25th May.

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W Series to remain live on Channel 4 for 2021 season

The W Series will remain live to UK fans on Channel 4 for the upcoming 2021 season.

Series organisers officially confirmed the news on Saturday evening (May 22nd) in a vignette promoting the new season on their Twitter feed.

Their inaugural season in 2019 saw the championship supporting DTM, with Jamie Chadwick winning the series in a tense final race at Brands Hatch.

After the COVID-19 pandemic halted plans for 2020, this season the series will support Formula 1 at all eight rounds.

The tie up prompted suggestions that the series may air exclusively on Sky Sports F1 for UK fans, given their existing F1 commitments.

However, organisers have confirmed that W Series will remain free-to-air on Channel 4, with every qualifying session and race airing live via the broadcaster.

For fans overseas, details around F1’s over-the-top platform will be confirmed in due course.

Lee McKenzie, David Coulthard and Ted Kravitz remain part of their broadcast team for the 2021 season and, as originally announced before the pandemic hit, Alex Jacques will join them as lead commentator.

As is currently the case for Channel 4’s F1 offering, Billy Monger joins Coulthard and Jacques in the commentary box.

The W Series presentation team for the 2021 season. Copyright: W Series.

Anna Woolhouse, who is Sky’s lead boxing presenter and has previously presented the F1 Midweek Report for Sky, joins the team as presenter alongside McKenzie.

In addition, Amy Reynolds, who has been part of the MotoGP World Feed team for the past six years, joins as pit lane reporter, whilst W Series driver from 2019, Naomi Schiff completes the line-up.

In a separate announcement, production company Whisper have confirmed that they will continue to produce the W Series broadcast.

Catherine Bond Muir, W Series’ CEO, said “I am delighted that W Series’ founding broadcast partner, Channel 4, has reinforced its commitment to showcasing women’s sport and our talented racing drivers.”

“Live free-to-air motorsport coverage is rare, but our partnership with Channel 4 is a key part of W Series’ plan to create more visible role models to inspire girls and women to be a part of motorsport, whether that is on track, on screen or behind the scenes, and the expertise and insight provided by our brilliant commentary team will be instrumental to our efforts,” Bond Muir believes.

Louisa Compton, Channel 4’s Head of News, Current and Affairs and Sport, added “W Series aligns brilliantly with Channel 4 – it’s exciting, bold and breaking down barriers.”

“I’m sure viewers will relish the opportunity to watch this exciting season of top motorsport as it unfolds on Channel 4.”

Last updated on May 26th.

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NENT Group extends F1 reach to Netherlands, Ziggo Sport contract to end following 2021 season

The Nordic Entertainment Network Group (NENT Group) will broadcast Formula 1 in the Netherlands from 2022 to 2024 after outbidding current rights holder Ziggo Sport.

Ziggo Sport, a joint venture between Vodafone and Liberty Global, have aired Formula 1 since 2013 across cable, satellite, and internet.

From next season however, coverage will air via NENT Group’s streaming service platform.

Viaplay, which has yet to launch in the Netherlands, will cover every F1 season live, with NENT promising “in-depth coverage from every event and innovative programming.”

Six races will be available on a free-to-view basis, including the Dutch Grand Prix.

Despite the change in broadcast rights, F1 has confirmed that their own streaming service, F1 TV Pro, will remain available to fans in the Netherlands, as it has been since launch at the start of 2018.

The announcement increases NENT Group’s stranglehold on F1 in the Nordic regions. Earlier this month, the group announced that they would be airing F1 exclusively in Poland from 2023 onwards.

Today’s news brings the total number of territories that they hold, or will be holding, F1 rights in to ten (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden).

Commenting on their Twitter, Ziggo said that they were no longer able to afford F1, with NENT, along with a third party, increasing the asking price.

NENT are understood to be paying around €30 million per year to broadcast F1 in the Netherlands, a 36% increase on the €22 million that Ziggo are paying currently.

NENT’s arrival in Netherlands part of a much bigger jigsaw

Ziggo has benefited significantly in recent years from the rise of Max Verstappen, the Dutch driver now in his 7th F1 season.

The opening race of 2021 in Bahrain averaged 2.51 million viewers across their television channels, with more than 18% of the population watching the race.

Although not truly free in the sense of the word, the small fee involved to watch F1 in Netherlands during Verstappen’s rise has not resulted in interest in the sport stifling. How NENT’s emergence from 2022 will change interest in the sport, time will tell.

NENT will be hoping that the Verstappen hype will translate into new subscribers on their service. The quote from NENT Group President and CEO Anders Jensen gives a sense of where NENT want to head.

“The Netherlands is an ideal market for Viaplay and a very attractive next step towards our ambition of becoming the European streaming champion,” Jensen says.

“Our long-term and multi-market partnerships with key sports rights owners, together with our ever-increasing line-up of original and exclusive content, will enable us to offer Dutch viewers something new and unique.”

“When bringing Viaplay to a new market, we look for clear opportunities to grow, innovate, collaborate, and take leadership. The Netherlands delivers on all counts.”

For the NENT Group, Formula 1 is a small part of the jigsaw, but an important one as NENT attempts to break into what they believe is a strong market for streaming.

Note how the quote from NENT curiously fails to mention F1, but does reference NENT’s goal of “becoming the European streaming champion.”

NENT sees itself in a long-term battle with Netflix. In the territories where NENT is active, NENT holds a strong second spot, only behind Netflix.

If NENT, which targets 4.5 million international subscribers by the end of 2025 for Viaplay, can expand into further European territories, it has long-term potential to dent Netflix’s position in the market.

There is a lot of movement in the streaming sector currently, following news earlier this week that AT&T and Discovery are to create a new streaming giant.

This is the first time that a ‘streaming first’ entity has taken on Formula 1 rights in a big market. It is, I suspect unlikely to be the last.

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