Flashback: 2005 Australian A1 Grand Prix

What do the last names Verstappen and Yoong have in common? Yes, both were Minardi drivers in Formula 1. But both also competed in the inaugural season of A1 Grand Prix, and that is where the latest instalment of flashback takes Motorsport Broadcasting to.

A1 Grand Prix launched 15 years ago to much fanfare, with a glitzy season opener at Brands Hatch. Just four years later, financial issues confined the World Cup of Motorsport to history. Although the series itself ended into 2009, it took until 2015 for the company itself to be dissolved.

But, memories of the series remain scattered across the web. Unfortunately, this is not in one centralised place, and given that A1 Grand Prix has long gone, the chances of that happening at all is unlikely. One can dream, however…

> What went wrong with A1 Grand Prix?

In terms of its position and scheduling, A1 Grand Prix was the Formula E of 2000’s, although the latter has outlived the former. Life for Sky Sports in the UK before Formula 1 consisted of A1 Grand Prix and IndyCar, amongst other forms of motor sport.

Initially, Sky gave A1 lots of attention, so much so that the first ever race day from Brands bumped the football Super Sunday off Sky Sports 1!

Once the initial attention drifted, the series settled down, and flashback takes us to the Eastern Creek Raceway in Australia, which played host to the fourth round of the season.

  • Date: Sunday 6th November 2005
  • Channel: Sky Sports 3
  • Time: 02:00 to 05:30
    • 02:30 – Sprint Race
    • 04:00 – Feature Race
  • Presenter: Georgie Thompson (Sky)
  • Reporter: Lee McKenzie (A1)
  • Reporter: Gareth Jones (A1)
  • Commentator: Ben Edwards (A1)
  • Commentator: John Watson (A1)
  • Analyst: Andy Priaulx (Sky)
  • Analyst: Keith Huewen (Sky)

A1’s race day offering consisted of two races: a 30-minute sprint race and a 60-minute feature race. Both had lap counters, although as we discover in Australia, both end up going to time for differing reasons.

Back in the day, most sports that Sky covered live had the luxury of wrap-around studio coverage from their base in Osterley, jumping in and out of the World Feed along the way. For Eastern Creek, the 30-minute build-up to the sprint race consisted of just that.

Sky’s own colour consisted of Georgie Thompson, Andy Priaulx and Keith Huewen. An initial discussion around qualifying, which saw France’s Nicolas Lapierre qualify on pole, at the start of the programme shows how A1 tried to stand out. Qualifying for each event consisted of four segments, with the best two lap times for each country forming the grid.

Thompson reminds viewers that it takes three Boeing 747 jets to get the 50 cars over to Eastern Creek from Europe, a big achievement for a young series.

From that point onwards, we are in and out of the A1 feed, with Lee McKenzie interviewing a young Lapierre, and Ben Edwards giving viewers an excellent virtual guide of the circuit, the graphics looking decent for 2005! The overriding feeling is that Eastern Creek is an old school track and rough round the edges. A1 loved virtual graphics, with the 24-car grid also covered in virtual form later in both build-ups.

Ad-breaks are an unavoidable part of Sky’s pre- and post-race offering, but the races themselves air uninterrupted on the pay TV outlet. Sky miss some World Feed segments as a result, such as pre-race interviews with New Zealand and Australia, however this does not detract from the programme.

2005 Australian A1 GP - on-board Italy.png
On-board with Italy’s Enrico Toccacelo as he tries to get past Canada’s Sean McIntosh during the sprint race.

There is some repetition in the sprint race build-up (not convinced viewers needed to hear from Lapierre, or see the virtual grid graphics, twice), however there were a good sample of grid interviews, with McKenzie chatting to Canadian driver Sean McIntosh as well as Great Britain’s team principal John Surtees.

Both grids were quiet compared to Formula 1 or Formula E, but also the Eastern Creek Raceway had a vast amount of space, so perhaps is not the best comparator. The main thing here is that the attendance looks really healthy for A1’s first appearance down under.

After the national anthems, it is race time!

Sprint race
The A1 Grand Prix liveries look so distinctive and awesome, certainly the chances of wrongly identifying a car is slim.

The opening laps of the sprint race give us a chance to analyse the graphics package on offer, which reminds me of not only F1’s ‘slant’ package from 2010 onwards, but also the classic 1994 to 2003 graphics set due to the black and yellow colour combination for the numbering. The package follows the ‘keep it simple, stupid’ principles, making it straightforward for viewers to follow.

As an example, all A1 cars have a power boost system, which drivers can use four times in the sprint race and eight times in the feature race, giving a tactical element to the racing. No fancy graphics used, just a simple number, which the television feed highlights when a driver activates it.

The timing wall cycles through five cars at once, however there is no sign of Team Radio, a sign of the era more than anything else. From a camera angle perspective, the director opted to use the heli-cam at the rolling sprint race start, with sporadic on-boards used throughout helping to show the ragged nature of the machinery.

As usual, Edwards and Watson are a joy to listen to, the two covering movements further down the field, even when not aired on the World Feed.

Wonderful topography of this Eastern Creek Raceway where they’re up and down, they’ve got off camber corners to deal with. It’s a little bit like Oulton Park in the UK or Mid Ohio in the United States, there’s a lot of thinking to be done, it’s quite technical in places.

Overtaking is obviously not easy, there are a few opportunities that we’ve seen though. – A1 commentator Ben Edwards talking about the circuit

Separate incidents involving Czech Republic’s Tomas Enge and Germany’s Adrian Sutil prompt two Safety Cars during the race, but it is a dull affair outside of that, with France winning the time limited race over Portugal and Brazil, continuing their dominance of the series so far.

Break between Races
Reaction to the sprint race is thin on the ground from Sky, with some brief analysis from Huewen and Priaulx in the studio, followed by the press conference, before moving on to a variety of segments.

Having an hour between the races gave broadcasters enough breathing room in one sense, but not in another. Sky have around 40 minutes to play with (excluding commercials) between the end of the sprint race and the start of the feature race, which is not much. However, for a new series it makes sense, I can see the logic in not wanting to drag proceedings on for too long.

2005 Australian A1 GP - virtual grid graphics width=

Cutting to the studio immediately after the sprint race meant that Sky lost some of the track atmosphere, but avoided them having to brutally crash in and out of the World Feed, reminiscent of ITV’s Formula E studio coverage.

Sky added their own flavour in the form of a segment with Thompson and France’s Alexandre Premat, the two sitting underneath the Eifel Tower to reflect on Premat’s domination in the Portuguese round. The segment was more of a quick-fire Q&A, with no flashy music, doing the job nicely in introducing fans to the characters.

Multiple segments from the World Feed followed, which Sky played out ‘as live.’ The first covered the battle between Australia and New Zealand, with Gareth Jones narrating (a story A1 hyped up throughout the broadcast), and a second looking at what the drivers have been doing in the run up to the weekend.

Next up, McKenzie is in pit lane chatting to Japan’s Hayanari Shimoda after the sprint race, before another A1 piece, this time with the drivers out surfing on Bondi Beach. If anything, this part of the programme is VT heavy, however Sky are reliant on whatever content A1 are sending to them from Australia. Of course, the Sky Pad did not exist back then…

After an ad-break, we head into the feature race build-up, following a similar structure to the sprint race, with McKenzie and Jones chatting to the likes of Ireland’s Michael Devaney and New Zealand’s Jonny Reid on the grid.

The only difference this time round is that it is A1 Grand Prix’s founder Sheikh Maktoum who gives the starting command, which was always a nice touch. “Gentlemen, for the pride of your nations, start your engines!”

Feature race
The TV direction and commentary at the start was subpar, not helped by an unusual choice of camera angle, which failed to spot Portugal’s Alvaro Parente jumping the start. France lost the lead to them as a result, whilst Ireland took a trip through the gravel trap.

The pre-race tactics that the commentary team discussed quickly come to fruition, as Britain’s Robbie Kerr used power boost to get past Brazil on lap two.

2005 Australian A1 GP - feature race leaders.png
The A1 Grand Prix field hurdles towards turn one on lap two, with Portugal leading the way. Behind, Brazil activates power boost as they try to fend off Great Britain.

The feature race features a mandatory pit stop, with A1 opting to display the whole pit lane time on the screen, not just the stationary time.

South Africa was the first country to crash out on lap five. Portugal’s lead was short-lived because of the jump start, although their jump start is not obvious from the replays, so I do have some sympathy with Edwards and Watson here. Like in race one, the Safety Car found itself in the lead most of the time.

The first caution period comes because of a collision at turn two (the main trouble spot) between Mexico and Russia, during which most of the field opt to pit. The exception is 25-year-old Basil Shaaban who now finds himself leading for Lebanon!

Shaaban tumbles down the field once the Safety Car pits, but Watson quite rightly calls his performance “outstanding,” as the Lebanese driver held his own. The on-board angles are again awesome, and a real plus point for the television offering, showing how difficult the cars are to control.

Czech Republic and Austria are the next pair to collide into one another, resulting in the second Safety Car period. France leaves the rest of the field trailing on the restart, as Ireland re-overtakes New Zealand.

Some of the direction and camera work is sub-standard, but in the context of this being A1’s fourth race weekend, it is solid in my view for what is a very hectic race.

A huge accident for Japan’s Shimoda at turn one brings out the final Safety Car of the race. The violent nature of the accident separated the car into two, however Shimoda escaped relatively unscathed. A1 officials pause before showing the replay, but when they do show it, it is clear just how big the accident is, the Lola chassis doing its job.

2005 Australian A1 GP - on-board New Zealand.png
On-board with New Zealand’s Jonny Reid during the feature race.

As in race one, the race switches to time format. Nothing can stop France from continuing their clean sweep of the weekend! Kerr holds on for second place for Great Britain, defending from Switzerland and Netherlands behind.

A little like Formula E has tried to do, A1 Grand Prix helped fill the void doing the traditional motor racing off-season, arguably better than Formula E has ever accomplished in that respect.

Yes, the electric series has outlived A1, but the latter was a genuine winter championship. The first season of the World Cup of Motorsport ran from September to April, with six race weekends between November and February, more than Formula E has ever had in the equivalent period.

The highlight of A1 for me? Seeing Jos Verstappen for Netherlands win the Durban feature race during season one by overtaking Switzerland’s Neel Jani on the very last lap. There is not much better than this moment, with Ben Edwards on commentary declaring “The Netherlands have taken the lead,” is there?

A1 may not have lasted long, but for those that followed it race in and out, it certainly is much missed.


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Alex Jacques joins W Series broadcast team for 2020 season

Alex Jacques will be W Series lead commentator for the 2020 season which begins in May, the series has confirmed.

Jacques, who took over as Formula Two lead commentator at the beginning of 2015, replaces Claire Cottingham in the commentary booth. In making the announcement, series organisers say that they have “made a conscious effort to fulfil its mission of continuing to develop emerging talent on and off track.”

Cottingham was commentator throughout the first season of the all-female series, commentating alongside the likes of David Coulthard and Allan McNish.

Motorsport Broadcasting understands that the decision to replace Cottingham was made by W Series themselves, as opposed to Whisper, who produce coverage of the series.

“I’ve followed W Series with great interest throughout its first season, 2019, and I’ve been extremely impressed by what I’ve seen, so much so that when I received the call inviting me to become its lead commentator, it was a very easy decision to make,” Jacques said.

“But, in addition to the spectacle and appeal of W Series, I’m truly delighted to be taking this opportunity to make a positive impact on a sport and industry that I’ve come to love and respect.”

Speaking to Motorsport Broadcasting at the Autosport Show, W Series’ CEO Catherine Bond-Muir defended the decision to replace Cottingham with Jacques.

“Now we’ve had one season, I think we’re much better placed to go out and get the best lead commentator in the world, and we believe that Alex is one of them,” she said.

“He’s young, incredibly enthusiastic and has got a fantastic voice. I think it’s a real feather in our cap that we can get a commentator of that quality.”

“From the beginning, I was very keen to get as many women involved at all. But what we must remember is that we are a business that promotes women in motor sport,” Bond-Muir continued.

“David [Coulthard] said ‘you’ve got to see this guy Matt Bishop’, but I had no interest in having a male as communications director, because in quite a sexist thought in my head, I thought ‘at least we should have the comms director being female’. In hindsight, Matt was so much better than anyone else.”

“I had an early problem with having so many men involved, but actually what we needed to have, are the people who are the best in the business in their roles in order to complete all of our aims.”

“What’s quite important is that we don’t positively discriminate against men too,” she added. “We are an equal opportunities employer, but I do understand the point that you make. I think Claire is fantastic, she’s a great friend of ours.”

“Having someone of Alex’s calibre, who is really in demand, the fact that he is so keen to get involved in W Series I think is a great feather in our cap.”

W Series plan to make further announcements about their on-air team soon. Last year, Lee McKenzie presented the World Feed output, with Ted Kravitz reporting from pit lane.

One mooted suggestion is that a female could partner Jacques in the commentary box, continuing the gender split.

The all-female series clashes with the Italian round of the Formula Two season, meaning that Jacques will miss one of the two events. I understand that Jacques is continuing with his Formula 1 commitments for the 2020 season, covering the Pit Lane Channel, Formula Two and Formula Three.

Organisers of the championship have also confirmed that Whisper are remaining on-board as production partners for a second season, but no news is yet available regarding the status of the series on Channel 4 in the UK.


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New publication The Race to enter the motor sport landscape

A new motor sport media entity is to launch ahead of the 2020 season, Motorsport Broadcasting can reveal.

Earlier this week, @wearetherace appeared on Twitter, stating that the outlet would soon be operating, followed shortly be the creation of pages across Facebook and Instagram.

Investigation by Motorsport Broadcasting shows that the concept has been in development for several months. ‘The Race Media Limited‘ was officially created on September 30th, 2019, with Darren Cox listed on Companies House as company director.

Heavily involved with eSports in recent years, Cox has been in and around the motor sport industry for over twenty years. I understand that Andrew van de Burgt is heavily involved in the project, having left Autosport as Editor-in-Chief at the end of September.

The publication has signed up former MCN journalist Simon Patterson to cover the MotoGP action on two wheels, whilst several former Autosport journalists are expected to also be joining The Race, with official announcements due shortly.

Comparisons between The Race and traditional motor sport website, such as Autosport and MCN only go so far though. I understand that The Race is following The Athletic‘s path, with long-form content.

The Athletic, which focusses on a variety of sports, launched in 2016, moving into the UK-space last Summer. However, it is unknown as of writing if The Race will be subscription only, like The Athletic.


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How the World RX is setting the benchmark with its coverage

In a guest article ahead of the season finale in South Africa on November 9th, Nigel Chiu (@NigelCJourno) looks at the World Rallycross Championship and why in his view it is setting the benchmark where motor sport broadcasting is concerned...

The 2019 FIA World Rallycross Championship has been the most exciting, entertaining, and unpredictable season you could possibly ask for.

Whilst the on-track action has been outstanding, the television coverage has matched the quality of the racing.

Coverage of any sport can make or even break how you feel about that sport. It might be the most thrilling Formula One season ever but a poor broadcast can be detrimental.

Conversely, you could be witnessing a boring, predictable season but the coverage can salvage things somewhat and keep you interested.

Easy to watch in the UK
Something that makes World RX unique in some respects is that it airs live and free-to-air on Freeview, a rare breed for motor sport these days.

The series airs live on FreeSports, with coverage also available via BT Sport. In addition, fans can watch coverage online via both Facebook and YouTube.

With a strong presence across social media coupled with the championship airing on one of Britain’s biggest free-to-air sports channel, already, this is a massive plus before even discussing the actual coverage itself.

Since 2018, every qualifying session has aired across World RX’s Facebook and YouTube channels, with coverage extending to their support categories as well, including RX2 and European RX.

The semi-final and final of each race weekend airs live on the two mentioned social media platforms as well as BT Sport and FreeSports.

How does the World RX format work?
Saturday
Q1 (4 to 5 cars race)
Q2 (4 to 5 cars race)

Sunday
Q3 (4 to 5 cars race)
Q4 (4 to 5 cars race)
Semi-Finals (top 12 drivers from qualifying, 2 races with 6 cars each)
Final (top 3 from each semi, first to finish wins)

If you do not catch the qualifying sessions, then needn’t worry as the first of the two-hour television show on Sunday’s covers the best of the qualifying action to get you up to speed with who has made it to the final stages of the event.

In addition, rather than ignoring the support categories, the two-hour show covers the support categories immediately after the main WRX race so viewers are more likely to continue watching.

‘Mega’ Commentary
Something that helps World Rallycross is the brilliant commentary team of Andrew Coley and Dan Rooke which, to use one of Coley’s popular words, is mega!

Both are very knowledgeable, forming a great commentary duo. The two have formed part of World RX’s coverage at every event this season, a departure from previous years where the likes of Andrew Jordan, Guy Wilk and Tim Harvey were alongside Coley.

The chemistry was not always apparent between Coley and his co-commentator in previous seasons. Having one or two co-commentators across the season works better than having five or six different commentators in my view which is what used to happen.

2019 World RX - Latvia final.png

Coley commentates like he is a top, former driver (despite having only raced in minor rally events) and is now the ‘voice of rallycross’ with his passionate and unique commentary which fans love.

Usually, the co-commentator talks about most of the technical aspects of the sport, but Coley not only acts as lead commentator, he also gives the viewer a fascinating insight into the world of rallycross.

He clearly does his research before events and has an excellent relationship with the drivers, conducting the press conferences as well as interviewing the drivers for features.

How he does all this as well as commentating on up to ten hours of live coverage, plus having to voice over the highlights and narrate over the TV show is staggering.

Somehow, Coley keeps a high level of intensity throughout the weekend, making very little mistakes (correcting himself when he does) and still has a voice by the end of it despite the fierce action!

Rooke is the perfect companion to Coley with a calm approach which interweaves nicely into Coley’s style.

The 2017 RX2 runner-up has great observations skills, noticing and understanding the actions of the car, and is very quick at spotting if someone has a problem (for example if a driver is suffering a puncture).

Something that many modern day commentators forget is to tell the viewers what is happening outside of the pictures that fans can see, except Rooke’s simple but highly effective comments (such as whether a driver has the gap to take their joker lap and come out in clean air) are very helpful to the viewer.

Coley himself does a good job with this but Rooke adds that something extra, noticing anything that Coley may miss to form the perfect commentary.

In a way, it is very similar to the BBC’s Formula 1 commentary pairing from 2011 of Martin Brundle and David Coulthard which personally I believe was the best commentary pairing F1 has had in the UK. So much knowledge, passion and enthusiasm which suits both the hardcore fans and the casual audience.

Presenting, analysing, and reacting to the situation
Laura Winter and Neil Cole present the World RX qualifying show, gathering the opinions of drivers just minutes before they line-up onto the grid. The drivers are always up for a chat, with refreshing honesty on offer from all.

Post-race, the team interviews the winner of each qualifying heat in a ‘WRC-style’ manner with the sound of the 600bhp engine harping away in the background with the driver still full of adrenaline.

If there has been a major incident between two drivers, Cole or Winter will always get an interview with them as soon as possible which is exactly what the fans want to see.

The production team rips the script up, placing emphasis on the incident, ensuring that the team covers all angles – both in terms of analysis and interviewing perspective.

Clearly, the producers, directors and everyone involved behind the scenes are excellent at reacting to the situation as it comes rather than going off a script. This mindset and methodology is the right way to go about motorsport coverage (as ITV showed back in 2005 with the Indy fiasco).

During the actual on-track action, the choice of camera angles and what to show is generally spot on.

We see in-car onboards of the drivers pumping themselves up moments before the race and once the lights go out, the director chooses to always focus on the cars, only showing the fans or the team personnel in the spotters’ tower after the race or in between races.

With so much going on in rallycross, occasionally the director fails to spot things, but key moments such as two cars getting close at the joker lap merge, or cars going nose to tail are always shown with onboard cameras used at the right time to enhance the intensity of the battle.

In my view, the World RX is arguably the most unpredictable motor sport out there, and if they can do the television side well, delivering an exceptional broadcast, then other motor sport categories can too.

Have you watched the World Rallycross this year? What do you think of their broadcast offering? Have your say in the comments below.

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Behind the scenes in the BSB OB truck: the key roles and responsibilities

The 2017 British Superbike season is heading into its final stages, with the remaining three rounds forming part of the ‘Showdown’.

Silverstone was the last stop on the championship prior to the Showdown, and it was there where this writer was invited into the British Superbikes outside broadcast (OB) truck. Richard Coventry, who has been the television director for the MCE British Superbikes series for the past twelve years, is our guide to the Televideo truck. In the second and final piece, we talk about the various roles involved in live motor sport broadcasting.

As referenced in the first piece, Coventry sits on the front desk, with the monitor wall in front of him. But Coventry’s role as television director is significantly more encompassing than that. Coventry in his role speaks to all the key players around him within the British Superbikes production crew, from the producers through to the commentators, commonly known as ‘talkback’ where information travels back and forth between the various parties.

“I sit in the middle of talkback communication between myself, the Eurosport producer, the camera operators, the VT operators, the sound crew, the engineers, the presenter, the commentators, but also race control, so I can speak to the race director if I need to,” Coventry explains.

The end-to-end process between an incident happening on-track, through to the television viewer hearing the story is fascinating. Because of the communication lines that Coventry has, it means that he can gather information on a riders’ condition from the medical centre, and then relay the facts to the commentators. “I talk to everybody effectively and disseminate the information coming back.”

Sitting next to Coventry is a race producer and a vision mixer. Communication across the front desk is vital. The primary role of the race producer is to keep an eye on emerging battles, deciding with Coventry whether to switch to the battle. Following the decision, the vision mixer cuts the pictures to cover said action. The race producer sits to the left of Coventry, with multiple timing screens in front of him on the monitor wall.

“Myself and the race producer will decide whether the battle for the lead has spread out, we’ll look down for a battle for fifth or a battle for 19th. We must make a judgement call on what the best thing to follow is, it’s not always the same outcome. We’ll prioritise what battle we think is more important for the race, for the championship and we will take a view on that.”

British Superbikes - running order
The Eurosport running order for the British Superbikes qualifying programme from Silverstone on Saturday 9th September 2017.

Behind the trio on the front desk is the Eurosport programme producer and the production assistant (PA). Unlike in Formula 1 or MotoGP, the British Superbikes OB truck controls both the race feed and the Eurosport pictures, hence why there is both a race producer and programme producer. The programme producer writes the running order for the Eurosport show, whilst the production assistant at a high-level ensures the show does not fall off the air. “We do have to think on our feet, the running order has some leeway,” explains Coventry, “but everything is timed down to a second.”

“The PA tells us whether we’re over, under or on-time based on the running order and the event, whether we need to adapt the running order to keep us on-time. If there is a red flag, we might have to consider moving breaks, and it is the PA’s duty to communicate that back to Eurosport. And, to work out, further down the running order later in the day, the things that we need to change to make sure that we’re on time.”

Like with Sky’s Formula 1 programming, many other countries also take Eurosport’s British Superbikes output, and it is the responsibility of the PA to communicate any changes to the other channels. “The PA communicates with the rest of the World Feed recipients, such as Setanta Africa, Sky New Zealand, the people who are taking it live elsewhere to let them know if there’s been any changes to the schedule of the event, so they may want to change what they’re doing as well,” Coventry tells me.

Alongside the key roles, there are other important pieces of the jigsaw. Coventry also referenced the on-air presentation team, the camera operators, an editor, two assistant producers, four replay operators, riggers, amongst many more people behind the scenes. “It does go off successfully, I suppose that’s a relative term! It’s like the proverbial duck on the pond isn’t it, the legs are going ten to the dozen underneath, but the ducks are smooth on the surface!”

“It’s pretty labour intensive, you’ve got to have an operator for most cameras, if we’re live we need a live gallery PA. We couldn’t reduce this beyond where we are without affecting the output. It’s a fairly slick and tight operation. There’s a lot to consider, but fortunately there’s enough of us to think of it all.”