Steve Jones has confirmed that he will continue to present Channel 4’s Formula 1 programming this year.
Jones has hosted Channel 4’s coverage since its inception in 2016, presenting both their live and highlight races. With Channel 4’s coverage changing for 2019 because of Sky’s exclusive Formula 1 deal, Jones will present the races in highlights form, as well as live coverage of the British Grand Prix.
Writing on his Twitter feed, Jones said “I’m back in 2019! Here I am in the gym pumping some serious iron, like the drivers, I need to be in peak condition to hold some heavy @C4F1 mic this season. See you in Melbourne.”
In his presenting role, Jones has impressed during the past three seasons, gelling well inside the Formula 1 paddock and with the on-air pundits alongside him including David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan, and Mark Webber.
Lee McKenzie and Karun Chandhok are not returning to Channel 4’s coverage for 2019, McKenzie focusing on activities outside of Formula 1, whilst Chandhok has signed up with Sky Sports for this season.
As revealed before Christmas, John Curtis, who previously worked with Sky, is now leading up Whisper Films’ F1 production team, with Mark Wilkin stepping aside, whilst the length of the individual race edits are set to decrease slightly compared with previous years.
An official announcement on Channel 4’s finalised coverage plans for the 2019 season is expected imminently.
From print media, through to the small screen and now across multi-platform, James Allen is a name that is familiar with Formula 1 fans in the UK and beyond. Allen’s career has spanned multiple decades, but he was most famous as ITV’s lead Formula 1 commentator from 2002 to 2008 alongside Martin Brundle.
Now part of the Motorsport Network ship, I caught up with Allen during the Autosport Show weekend to look back at the three chapters in his broadcasting career to date. In the style of his own blog name, this post is ‘James Allen on…’ as he reflects on his story so far.
…the start of his broadcasting career
“My first broadcasting job in Formula 1 was in 1992. I had been working with Screensport, which was a forerunner of Eurosport, on their coverage of the Le Mans 24 Hours from 1990 and 1991. I got a call from ESPN, as their pit lane reporter couldn’t do the 1992 Hungarian Grand Prix, and we’d done Le Mans as a co-production between Screensport and ESPN the previous year. It was the race where Nigel won the championship, and I got a great interview with Nigel.
“I enjoyed myself very much doing the live pit lane work, so much so that ESPN offered me the job as broadcast reporter for 1993. ’93 was the season of Ayrton Senna and Michael Andretti as team mates, obviously Andretti being an American driver was exciting, so I was in the middle of all of that.
“I went to America to do Nigel Mansell’s second IndyCar season in 1994, Nigel and I got on really well. I spent a very happy year covering IndyCars and making the show for ITV working with Chrysalis, which went onto be North One.
“I carried on working with ESPN in Formula 1, until the BBC lost the UK rights in 1996 to ITV. ITV were looking for a production company from 1997 onwards, and I drafted part of the bid to win the production contract for Chrysalis, having worked with them on IndyCar, and that was the beginning of the ITV F1 adventure.”
…becoming pit lane reporter for ITV
“I’d done a lot of broadcasting before I became F1 pit lane reporter, I’d done Le Mans for two years running, which was 24 hours in the pit lane! It was much freer in those days, you could do whatever you wanted.
“There was a lot of scope for improvisation, I had a live camera with me, I could do anything I wanted with that live camera. I could interview anyone I wanted, doorstep anybody, it was a very deregulated environment back then. It did become progressively more difficult as the years went on, but it was great fun on the whole.
“I brought an American training to it, I’d spent four years by then working with really, really good sports TV directors and producers. I was very lucky to be mentored by some of the best US sports directors, so I knew exactly how to engage the audience, what kind of stuff they were looking for, how to think beyond the obvious, don’t just say what’s happened, but what that means for what happens next, and all that kind of thing. I was very lucky and brought that to the coverage on ITV.
“Editorially I had worked at Autosport for two years, and prior to that I worked for Brabham with Martin Brundle, so I knew him very well from those days. Having worked on the inside of a Formula 1 team, I knew how that worked, how it operates, how it succeeds, how it fails.
“The pit lane role involved looking around for stories, looking around for insights. I’ve always been interested in providing insight and analysis wherever possible. I think the who, what, where and when is great, but I’ve always been interested in the how and the why.”
…his first F1 commentary
“I stood in for Murray when he bust his hip at the 2000 French Grand Prix, which was very useful because I was always the understudy, in case there was a ‘what if’ moment. I’d done a lot of commentary early in my career, Paris Dakar, Formula 3000, you name it, thousands of hours that hardly any people saw in the early satellite days. It was a great opportunity to commentate with Martin, to have a look at it and see how it sounded.
“I had a very intense post-French GP debrief with ITV’s Head of Sport Brian Barwick, who was very good to me and a very big influence on my career. He meticulously went through that commentary, what I’d done wrong, what I could have done better, what I done well, we spent hours going through it.
“It meant that the following year, when we did the transition where I did five races and Murray did the rest, I knew what I was trying to do. There was never any doubt in my mind about being commentator, it’s what I wanted to do since I was 15 years old.”
…succeeding Murray Walker
“It’s a double edge sword. On the one hand, the timing was good, plenty of other people would have liked to have followed on from Murray, but he kept going for a very long time. He and I worked very close together for the first four years [with ITV F1], and I drove him round Europe, he didn’t like driving in Europe so I always did the driving. We spent a lot of time together, which was wonderful, some very rich memories.
“It’s the job I always wanted to do, mass market, free-to-air TV in UK, Australia, South Africa, Canada, tens of millions of people watching, but on the flip-side he’s probably one of the most popular sports broadcasters there has ever been. You’re never going to be him, but nor should you ever try to be.
“I just said ‘listen, he has to stop’ because he’s 77 years old and can’t do this anymore, physically, it was taking its toll on him, and he wanted to go out on the top, so someone’s got to take over from him, and it might as well be me! I took it as a responsibility, I knew that there would be plenty of people who didn’t like it, I knew that there would have been people who did like it.
“Barry Davies, the football commentator whose daughter worked at Jordan at the time, said to me, ‘listen, you’re probably taking on the toughest job in sports broadcasting. If I can give you one piece of advice: stay philosophical, don’t listen to the people who cane you, and don’t listen to the people who think you’re the best thing since sliced bread, because you’re neither of those things. You’re neither a complete loser or the best thing since sliced bread, just somewhere in the middle, and be yourself’, and that was great advice, and that’s the way I played it for eight years.”
…commentating on motor racing
“What makes it tough is that there’s not one point of focus. If you commentate on a horse race, yes, you’ve got 20 horses, but they tend to focus on what is going on at the front because they all tend to be tightly packed together. If you are talking about a football match, or pretty much any ball sport, you basically follow what the ball does. Cycling is another one where you’ve got to talk about multiple narratives in one commentary, and it goes on for four hours.
“I always looked at it in terms of a front race, a middle race and a back race. I would do it 60 percent front race, 30 percent middle race and 10 percent back race, so I gave a balanced narrative to the coverage. I always got on very well with Martin, he was very supportive. We had a lot of things that we wanted to try, we were always thinking about ‘let’s try this, let’s try that’, we never wanted to stay the same, we wanted to try to move forward. Having a racing driver like him alongside you means you’re always improving things with the broadcast coverage.
“We had some very difficult seasons to cover, ’01 was great, ’02 and ’04 were difficult, but a lot of people think that the 2005 to 2008 period is their favourite period in Formula 1. There was a lot of different winners, the cars were exciting to watch, and we had a great time.”
…ITV’s F1 exit
“We went out on a high with Lewis winning the World Championship. It was the only time in our twelve years of doing Formula 1 that we had a British champion crowned on our live coverage. It was a great moment, with 13 million watching, mass-market free-to-air TV, it was just fantastic.
“The contract we had with Formula 1 ran until 2010, and in my head, I was thinking I’d get to 2010 and do something else outside of commentary. I had a young family at that point with two young sons, and had been to every single race for 16 years. It was a little bit of a shock in ’08, when ITV decided to prioritise Champions League over Formula 1, and the BBC got the rights.
“But equally, I had also started exploring the digital media space with blogs, and so I went into that. I realised that there was a very good business to be had there, around the monetisation of blogs with sponsored brands and things. It was about leveraging my personal brand that I’d built up on the broadcast side on a blog, and then working with companies that wanted to attach themselves to it. That was like chapter two of the story, which was really interesting.
“Would I still have been commentating on Formula 1 on television in 2011 or 2012? No. I’m a bit restless, I do things for a while, then I feel like I want to move on.”
…his post-ITV exploits
“I did the blog thing, which you’re now doing very successfully, and then the BBC came knocking in 2012, to ask me if I wanted to be their F1 correspondent on 5 Live. The only reason I said yes was because I had never done radio, ever. Most people do it the other way round, they do radio first then go into television.
“The radio has been reinvented by the internet, you can really do a lot with radio, and I just wanted to see if I could do it, and actually, it’s much more difficult than television. I set myself a challenge, I really wanted to master this. I had four years in that role which I really enjoyed. I enjoyed working with the BBC radio network, trying to provide insights for people alongside running the blog and the business. Four years was just about enough, time to move on.
“I’m in the third chapter of my career now, which is building this unique vision we have at Motorsport Network. I’m in a management role, I manage 500 to 600 people in 21 countries. We’ve got the Autosport Awards, Autosport International, Autosport.com, Motorsport.com, all the digital media platforms.
“It’s a very interesting business, three different segments, media, experiences and eSports, we’re talking in the back of the Le Mans eSports truck. We’re the only ones that are across everything, it’s a unique project, no one has ever tried it before and will ever try it again. So far, it’s going well, it’s really difficult, it’s a big challenge, but I love it.”
Sky Sports F1’s newest recruit Karun Chandhok says that there was a “genuine interest” from the broadcaster for him to join ahead of the 2019 Formula One season.
Following his departure from racing in F1, Chandhok initially joined Sky’s F1 team in a supplementary role from 2012 to 2014, before joining Channel 4 in 2016 as their regular pit lane reporter. Now, Chandhok is back with Sky, although he says the decision to switch was not straightforward.
“It wasn’t an easy decision [to join Sky] because I’ve enjoyed my time at Channel 4,” says Chandhok, talking to me at the Autosport Show. “We’ve had three fun years, the people were lovely, and they all knew each other from the BBC days. I was the new person lobbed into it, but they were very welcoming.”
“I really enjoyed working with them, but when I started speaking with Sky around the middle of last year, I realised that there was a real genuine interest in wanting me to join the team. Scott Young [Sky’s Head of F1] made a really good case for wanting me there, and really made me feel wanted.”
“For me personally, I was going back to a team that I knew, that I’d worked with in the past, they’re all people who I call friends, even when I was with Channel 4. I’m looking forward to working with them again.”
The former F1 driver joins Sky’s existing roster of talent for 2019, which this year also includes 2009 Drivers’ Champion Jenson Button, who joins Sky for five races after a one-off appearance with them at last year’s British Grand Prix.
Chandhok, who says that he will be with Sky at most races this season, added that Channel 4 were aware of his negotiations with Sky early in the process, and was complimentary of the Channel 4 team on his exit.
“I signed a three-year deal with Channel 4 at the start [in 2016], so it’s a natural point, it’s not like there is any breaking of contract. As far back as the British Grand Prix in the Summer, I told Mark Wilkin, Sunil Patel, and Stephen Lyle at Channel 4 that I was talking with Sky, so they already knew.”
“I left things in a good way, Sunil sent me a lovely Christmas present for my little one, and I still trade texts with Mark [Wilkin] and DC. I’ve left on good terms, which for me is very important, it’s like changing race teams.”
“You’ve built up a relationship as friends,” he added. “There is a professional side, you make decisions for your professional life, but there’s also the personal side. While I’ve changed professionally from one side to the other, personally I’m still friends with these people.”
“At the very first race in 2016, I said to Mark [Wilkin], ‘I don’t want to know what I’m doing well, tell me what I’m not doing well’, and DC was like that, he would never want people to praise him, he only wanted people to tell him what he was doing wrong.”
“I think that’s the same with most racing talent, you come into the pits, you look at the data. You don’t look to see what you’re doing well, you look at the data to see the bits you need to improve on, and I think in many ways racing drivers carry on that same mentality to everything they do in life.”
Ahead of 2019, Sky’s first year of their new contract which runs until 2024, Chandhok is excited at the potential that Sky has to offer.
“Sky’s resources are amazing. We’ve got opportunities to do stuff with historic F1 cars,” he said. “Sky are really embracing the history of F1 through new marketing material that is coming out soon. They’ve got such a massive team of resources that we can tap in to, there’s great potential for great television and we have the air time to do that.”
“If you look at it today, Sky are the biggest investors in F1, bigger than any sponsor. To be a part of that programme, you know your part of something that’s in it for the long-term and believe in the sport.”
“They’ve been doing a great job ever since they arrived in F1 in 2012, if you’re a keen fan, and you’ve paid to be a subscriber, then I think Sky tick a lot of the boxes. There’s always opportunity to juggle things up, and I think in some way that’s where I come in, just to change it up. It’ll be interesting to see what we make this year.”
As the first round of the 2019 World Rally Championship concludes in Monte Carlo, it looks increasingly unlikely that the championship will have a presence on free-to-air television in the United Kingdom this season, this site can reveal.
The championship has enjoyed mixed success in the UK over the years. The series was a mainstay on BBC’s Grandstand in the 1990’s, before moving over to Channel 4 and then ITV1 in the early 2000’s. Viewing figures dropped off as the series switched from ITV1 to ITV4 in 2007, and then onto Dave one-year later.
Audiences continued to slip on Dave, leading to the championship’s exit from free-to-air television beginning with the 2011 season, arguably its lowest ebb. It was not long before WRC returned to free-to-air television however, ITV4 picking up the action from the third round of the 2013 season. Liking what they saw, Channel 5 snatched the rights at the start of 2016, airing highlights in the week following the event at 19:00.
However, sources close to the situation have told this site that there will be no extension to the Channel 5 deal. It is the second time in recent months that Channel 5 have not renewed one of their motor racing contracts (either through choice or not), the first being Formula E last November.
Since moving to Channel 5, an average audience of around 300,000 viewers have watched the WRC highlights programme, according to overnight viewing figures supplied by Overnights.tv. In 2016, an audience of 337k (1.8%) watched highlights, but figures have dipped in the past two seasons to 275k (1.5%) and 281k (1.6%) respectively.
Although the viewing figures are much higher than what WRC attracted than when the series was not on free-to-air television, the viewing figures are below Channel 5’s average audience in that slot. Perhaps crucially, WRC’s figures are below what MotoGP has attracted in the same slot in recent years, the bike series regularly attracting more than 400,000 viewers.
It is currently unknown if MotoGP highlights will air on Channel 5 this season. It may be that Channel 5’s bosses have simply fallen out with motor sport and have decided to head in a different direction rather than WRC wanting to seek other alternatives.
I understand that WRC’s organisers are happy with their new multi-year contract with BT Sport, and that a new deal with a free-to-air broadcaster currently looks unlikely. Of course, that is subject to change, as we saw in 2013 when ITV4’s deal kicked in from round three onwards.
Aside from BT Sport, and WRC’s over-the-top All Live platform, the free alternative online is Red Bull TV which has highlights of each day on their website, and has had for many years.
As fantastic as these platforms are, in my opinion the sport still needs that one-hour free-to-air television shop window for those viewers who want to dip in and out of the action throughout the season. If the championship does not secure a slot soon on one of the main Freeview channels, I will be very surprised.
But, for the moment, rallying is again without a free-to-air home in the UK. Both Channel 5 and WRC were unable to offer further comment.
Whilst many motor racing publications tend to focus on Formula 1 or MotoGP’s broadcasting exploits, elsewhere in the motor sport spectrum, a quiet revolution has been taking place that deserves far more attention than what it has received.
To discover more, this writer took a trip up to Deeside for the 2018 Wales Rally GB to see what the fuss was about for a three-part series. If you missed the first two parts, head over here and here…
On track, 2018 was an amazing year for the World Rally Championship, with a three-way battle between Sebastien Ogier, Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak going down to the wire in Australia. Neuville and Tanak faltered, with Ogier coming away as champion for a sixth consecutive season.
For the fans watching the action at home, 2018 was just as good, with the introduction of All Live, WRC’s over-the-top service that aimed to bring fans closer to the action by airing every stage live.
Although All Live arguably revolutionised rallying for its core fanbase, WRC’s Editor in Chief Kevin Piper emphasises that other outlets, such as the traditional highlights programme, are still important.
“The other content is still crucially important for the territories and broadcasters that rely on those. Recently social media has become far more important over the past five or six years, so you’re feeding that as well,” Piper tells me.
“The News [segments that we release] we appreciate is massively important because that’s bite-size, free-to-air content that major broadcasters may pick up on if there’s been a big moment, that’s great exposure. All Live has come on top of all of that, and added a whole new dimension for the rally fans and hopefully wider audience.”
The rotating army
On-air, All Live featured an array of talent during 2018, with different people coming in and out of the setup during each rally weekend. The studio team rotated throughout, with Abi Griffiths, Kiri Bloore and Alex Legouix sharing presenting duties. The three of them also doubled up as a reporter alongside Molly Pettit during the Service Park gaps.
Similarly, Becs Williams, who is All Live’s lead commentator, also interviewed the key players. The likes of Jon Desborough, Julian Porter, Nicky Grist and Ben Constanduros joined Williams in the commentary booth, and Piper is happy with the strength of what he calls a “versatile” team.
“One of the greatest strengths of this team, and we played our part in thinking about who comes to work for us, apart from the expertise, the experience, the motivation and the enthusiasm is we’ve got, partly by design, partly out of natural evolution, partly necessity, a group of versatile people who are capable in different disciplines,” Piper says.
“We have people who can produce, script and voice. We look for people who can do a bit of everything. We try to make each event unique, here for GB, we’ve had Nicky Grist and Robert Reed, who have added fantastic value to the co-commentary alongside Becs.”
The multilingual team is necessary in a multilingual paddock, which plays into the commentary throughout the weekend.
“I think we’ve been very good when Becs is commentating,” says Marko Viitanen, WRC’s television director. “We have different nationalities in our team who can always translate a language, if there’s something wrong with the Finnish guys I can always translate and get that back up to her, we have Swedish, German, Spanish, French, we can get those little insights.”
“I think All Live to a certain extent has changed the whole sport, because now the drivers cannot hide anything. They can’t say ‘we just overshot a corner’, when it never happened, so that’s changed a lot.”
As covered earlier, the All Live setup also allows the on-air team to speak to people from outside of rallying during the service breaks, such as former football player Sammi Hyypia, with a similar setup expected for this upcoming season.
The numbers game
In-Car Cameras – 48 cameras
45 – On-Board (3 x 15)
3 – Exta FX GoPro On-Board
Action Cameras – 24 cameras
15 – Highlights
9 – TV Live (Line Cut at SS)
Other Cameras – 14 cameras
7 – All Live (4 with RF kits)
4 – Manufacturer Area Fixed
2 – Drones
1 – Helicopter Cineflex
Behind the lens, there is an army of people putting the All Live product together, as Viitanen explains.
“There’s between 70 to 80 people in the crew in total, in operations at one time for All Live, it’s a crew of 50 to 55 people. You always see the cameramen, when you come into the production truck, you see guys doing slow-mos, mixing the pictures, you see those in action.”
“But there’s a lot of guys on the RF (radio frequency signal) and plane side that you never see or hear from, and All Live would not be possible without them. We cannot afford to put 10 or 20 cameras on every stage, across a whole event that would be impossible to manage, so the RF guys are really the heart of the operation.”
86 cameras, 1 event
Although rallying covers a wide amount of terrain, all the production for All Live is done back at Service Park.
“We’ve changed our production dramatically. Rallying is kind of a remote production, all of our production happens here at base,” explains Viitanen. “We get the ground cameras, the on-boards, the heli, the RF cameras, back via either the plane or via satellite, and the whole programme is combined here to create the package that fans see. We put graphics, slow-motions and the like, all that on top of it here.”
In total, there are around 86 cameras per event, although some shots are not available to use live. Special shots, such as the drone and various action angles, are utilised exclusively in the non-live wrap-up programme. The quality of the RF images is critically important to the success of All Live, meaning that the RF team must position the plane accurately during each stage.
“We’re doing over a 100km stretch here as well on the Saturday, the stages are so far away, so there’s more than a hundred kilo meters from base that we actually have the plane flying,” Viitanen explains. “We have two pilots in the air and two technicians, then there is one guy here who controls the plane, so he tells them from the ground where they should fly.”
“His job is to position the plane in a way so that he can receive the start camera, the finish camera, the on-boards and the helicopter. It’s always a combination of how the weather is up there, how much wind there is, what kind of stage you have, if you have mountains on this side or that side, so you have to move the plane from start to finish.”
“We’ll learn from everything this year  and come back next year  with more knowledge,” Steve Turvey, WRC’s Location Director adds.
“You’ve got to remember that every single event we are doing is brand new for everybody. The level of return we are getting now is absolutely staggering, we’re all amazed. To get that amount of data back, three signals from each car with telemetry, everything out in the right order is just a phenomenal achievement.”
Looking forward to 2019
Heading in 2019, what do Viitanen and Piper make of their first year of All Live?
“I think All Live has really succeeded on the way that we have put the technique to work for us, and I think that’s one of the highlights of the production, still with limited technical resources,” says Viitanen. “I have friends who’ll do F1, they cannot believe how much smaller the technical resources that we have compared to them.”
“You can compare the production style to the Tour de France, but the bikes don’t move as fast as rally cars, so that gives us a bit of a headache!”
“All Live has made this whole operation even more interesting, more complex from a technical point of view,” Piper adds, excited for what the future holds. “It’s a great challenge, a great new adventure, and after being involved in sports journalism and broadcasting for more years than what I can remember now, this is the icing on the cake.”
2018 has been year one for All Live. For fans worried that All Live was a one-year experiment, fear not. This weekend in the south of France, and at every rally in 2019, the team go again, but with the knowledge of 2018, this year promises to be even better for rallying fans.