The first half of the 2013 Formula One season has been exciting both on and off the circuit. On the broadcasting side of things, 2013 has seen some things remain the same, and also some new faces on both BBC and Sky Sports F1. As is now tradition on this blog, it is time for ‘The Verdict so far’. For those unfamiliar, through a series of blog posts, I will look at and analyse all things F1 Broadcasting in the United Kingdom:
– part 1 will focus on each member of the BBC F1 television and radio team
– part 2 will focus on each member of the Sky Sports F1 television team
– part 3 will focus on BBC F1’s programming
– part 4 will focus on Sky Sports F1’s programming
– part 5 will look at the ratings picture and emerging trends
The format is identical to this time last year in case you wish to compare and contrast. Unlike last year, I will look at the BBC radio team as well as the television team. I haven’t listened to a huge amount of their coverage, but have listened to enough for me to do a small piece for each person.
Allan McNish – @AllanMcNish
Despite nearly making Formula 1 several times in the late 1990s, only once did Allan McNish break into the sport with Toyota in 2002. An unreliable car meant that he failed to score any points in their debut season. McNish however is more famous for his efforts in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, having won the famous race three times. McNish failed to secure a drive for the 2003 Grand Prix season but remained a part of the Formula 1 paddock, appearing several times as a member of the ITV F1 team alongside Jim Rosenthal and Tony Jardine.
It would be another nine years before a UK broadcaster would pick him up, that being Sky Sports F1 as McNish became a regular member of the team last year from the Monaco Grand Prix onwards. He appeared at several races for the remainder of the season. Thanks to his ability to convey technical information over the microphone, McNish was the only person to surprisingly transfer from side-to-side during the off-season, heading from Sky to BBC. I’m interested to know whether Sky put any fight to keep him on board for 2013. Saying that, I don’t think he was a significant loss for the Sky side. Yes, they probably wished he was with them, but it wouldn’t have made a major difference.
What was amusing here was that BBC touted his move as some kind of big announcement, when in fact he was only scheduled to appear at six out of the nineteen races! It begged the question “who will fill his void” at the other races. Nothing against McNish, I was just surprised that BBC have not tried to get more weekends out of him. It was a coup for BBC to get McNish, but it doesn’t do much for the listeners if he is only going to be present for less than a third of the year.
Ben Edwards – @BenEdwardsTV
Now in his second season as BBC F1 lead commentator, Edwards started his commentating exploits twenty years ago. When his racing career did not get off the ground, he turned his attention to commentary. His first race was the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix, commentating alongside John Watson for Eurosport instead of Allard Kalff. The role became permanent from 1995 with Edwards and Watson soon bonding as a commentary pairing. When Eurosport (and BBC) lost the rights to screen Formula 1 at the end of 1996, Edwards turned to American racing, specifically Champ Car at the start of the millennium, still with Eurosport.
Edwards and Watson reunited for Sky’s F1 Digital+ service in 2002, but when Bernie Ecclestone pulled the plug at the end of the year, it again left Formula 1 audiences without his commentary. Still, he had yet to hit the mainstream, after all at this point Eurosport and F1 Digital+ were in front of the die hards. A1 Grand Prix followed, also on Sky Sports and alongside Watson, before a stint with ITV Sport as lead British Touring Car Championship commentator. The latter would spring him towards a bigger audience with the series being broadcast on ITV4. The question as to why ITV overlooked him in 1997 and 2002 for the F1 commentary role, and for BBC in 2009 will probably never be answered, but 2012 was to be his foray back into the Formula 1 world.
Alongside David Coulthard, Edwards has commentated on Formula 1 for the BBC since the beginning of 2012. The beauty of Edwards commentary is his pants on fire style, which is synonymous with viewers as that is the same style that Murray Walker used for his commentary. The great thing with Edwards and Coulthard is that the pairing after a year and a half feels natural which is fantastic to see. Of course, at the same point, Edwards does well to keep the viewer interested and engaged during the BBC TV live practice sessions. It is a pity therefore that BBC viewers only get to hear his full commentary at half of the races, whereas overseas viewers get the BBC live feed for every race. Sometimes, the highlights can take away from the commentary as it is all excitement, with the breathing, less exciting bits being removed. I do see a fair bit of criticism for Edwards over social media, but that unfortunately comes with the territory when you are commentating to a much bigger audience than previously. Nevertheless, I hope the Edwards and Coulthard combination continues for a few years yet.
David Coulthard – @TheRealDCF1
Born in Twynholm in 1971, Coulthard made his motor racing debut at the age of 11. Quickly, Coulthard moved up the ranks, becoming Williams test driver in 1993. His first Formula 1 race start came sooner than expected at the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix, due to the death of Ayrton Senna. Coulthard remained part-time with Williams in 1994, deputising for Nigel Mansell for a few races and becoming full time in 1995. It was there that he won for the first time in his Formula 1 career, at the 1995 Portuguese Grand Prix. The Scotsman moved to McLaren for 1996, spending nine seasons with the team and finishing runner up in the 2001 championship.
It was Red Bull where Coulthard finished his fifteen year career, joining them in 2005. He spent four years with the team, stepping aside for Sebastian Vettel at the end of the 2008 season. Coulthard remained in the paddock, joining the newly formed BBC team for the start of the 2009 season alongside Eddie Jordan and Jake Humphrey as part of the pre and post race analysis. The three were an instant hit with the viewers and made the analysis worth tuning in for, unlike the style ITV took previously where the boundaries were seemingly pushed very little with Steve Rider and Mark Blundell.
Coulthard moved up to commentary in 2011, firstly alongside Martin Brundle and then Ben Edwards. Like I said above in the Edwards section, I enjoy the combination in the box. Commentary is a tough beast if you are not used to it, but I think a season and a half in that Coulthard has settled in well into the role. He has also settled well on the grid walk, and doesn’t go for the barging in approach, instead just waiting his turn to get drivers, which probably earns their respect more than taking the first method. Of course, he is also alongside Suzi Perry during the build up and post race reaction, and again is a reliable pair of feet should things go wrong around him. Now a year and a half into the new seven year contract, I don’t see Sky poaching Coulthard and it seems Coulthard is happy where he currently is at the BBC. If anything, he would have been lost in the shuffle at Sky, so I’m glad he remained with the BBC.
Someone who I don’t think will stay around with the BBC F1 team for many more years though is Eddie Jordan. Jordan is most famous for founding the Jordan Grand Prix team at the beginning of 1991. It was with Jordan that Michael Schumacher made his Formula 1 debut, before being poached by Benetton three races later. Jordan became a consistent mid field team, achieving their first podium thanks to Rubens Barrichello at the 1994 Pacific Grand Prix. It was the famous 1998 Belgian Grand Prix where Jordan’s team secured their first victory, Damon Hill leading a one-two with Ralf Schumacher close behind.
The team remained at the front of the mid-field pack, but soon money struggles emerged towards the end of 2001 and the team dropped down the pecking order. Giancarlo Fisichella’s win in a red flagged 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix was their final highlight before the team was sold in early 2005. Jordan disappeared from the Formula 1 paddock for a few years, returning in 2009 as part of the BBC F1 team. Jordan’s opinionated style, as I noted above has in the past four years made the build-up and forum shows must watch as a result.
Jordan is also famous for breaking big Formula 1 driver transfers, Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes to name one. The decision was made at the beginning of 2012 for Jordan not to appear on the BBC F1 highlight shows which has weakened his contribution significantly compared with 2011 and before. Whilst it has been fantastic to have Jordan’s perspective from a team owner perspective, I do wonder how many more years he will stick around for – assuming BBC see out their contract. Jordan turned 65 this past March. In March 2018 (ie, in the last year of the current contract) he will be 70. I’m not so certain about whether I see him still with the team in five years time. I don’t think he will formally leave the team, but instead the amount of races he attends will simply drop as he years pass.
A major factor in the Jordan team being moderately successful was Gary Anderson, who was technical director through Jordan’s years in the sport. Before Jordan, Anderson worked as mechanic for Tyrrell and McLaren in the 1970s and 1980s. Anderson’s Jordan stay lasted from 1991 to half way through 1998, when he joined Jackie Stewart’s Stewart Grand Prix team. With Stewart, he was part of the 1999 European Grand Prix winning team, but it was not long before Anderson was back at Jordan however, returning for 2002 and 2003.
Like Coulthard did with racing, Anderson jumped straight from technical director to broadcasting, becoming part of RTE’s Formula 1 team and later Setanta Sports in Ireland. Alongside this, he regularly writes features for AUTOSPORT. With Ted Kravitz moving to Sky Sports F1, BBC went for Anderson as their pit lane reporter from 2012 onwards. At the time, it was definitely the most logical choice, and also helps balance out the broadcast as it meant that BBC had a former team boss, former driver and a former technical director, whereas Sky is loaded with former drivers, but very little in other departments.
Anderson I felt started off slowly at the beginning of 2012, but has grown on me significantly since then. Instead of the interactivity on the iPad that Sky offers, Anderson gives his analysis using a pen and paper. It does the job perfectly at a much lower cost, so why not? As well as this, Anderson regularly gives his thoughts on strategy and predicts, mostly correctly, what he expects the teams to do in the race. Arguably, the technical analyst role is the most difficult to convey information to a casual audience without alienating them, but in my view, Anderson is doing just fine at the moment. Alongside his BBC television commitments, he is regularly alongside James Allen in the radio commentary box (hopping from the TV to radio box and vice versa), a first in UK F1 broadcasting to have a technical analyst alongside the lead commentator. It is an interesting dynamic to get the strategy side of things updated in real time. I have not had a proper chance to listen to the 5 Live commentary outside of sound bite form, but it seems to be going down well.
James Allen – @JamesAllenOnF1
One of the few people to make a return to Formula 1 broadcasting, Allen’s pit lane exploits began with ESPN in the early 1990s until the end of the 1996 Formula One season. It was in 1997 that UK viewers were introduced to Allen as ITV appeared on the radar. Allen would roam and interview drivers up and down the pit lane alongside Louise Goodman, also a new voice to the UK audience at the time. Allen continued the role until he succeeded Murray Walker as lead commentator. His first race commentary though was on the 2000 French Grand Prix which Walker missed due to recovering from a previous operation.
Allen took over full time from Walker at the beginning of the 2002 season, commentating on ITV’s coverage alongside Martin Brundle until their coverage ended in 2008. Allen’s commentary was criticised though, partially as a result of Walker’s boots being extremely tough to fill, and also because of some ‘debatable’ commentary calls. I probably don’t need to remind readers of the scream at the end of the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix, or some of the Lewis Hamilton ‘love in’ in 2007 and 2008 (although admittedly the latter was probably a call from above rather than Allen himself in order to improve viewing figures).
At the end of 20008, Allen disappeared from the UK scene, to concentrate on running his own website whilst making sporadic appearances with Channel TEN in Australia. Allen maintained that he did not want to return to television commentary in the UK, but with radio posing a new challenge, he came back in 2012 to the 5 Live Formula 1 team. Since 2008, I think Allen’s commentary has toned down significantly, and also turned into a more relaxed style to cater for the radio audience. With ITV, his commentary at times did feel forced, whereas now with 5 Live it feels more natural.
Jennie Gow – @JennieGow
Like Suzi Perry, Gow’s first foray into the broadcasting world was on two wheels. It was 2010 when Gow replaced Perry to present the MotoGP coverage on BBC. Despite a solid first year, Gow was dropped at the end of 2010 with the coverage now being produced by Century TV and replaced by Matt Roberts. Although that was probably a cost-cutting move, at the time I didn’t really agree to Gow being dropped after just one season, but clearly other forces were at work.
Gow was not out of the motor sport spotlight for long though. Half a year after being dropped as presenter of BBC’s MotoGP coverage, she had swapped four wheels for two, as part of the BBC Radio 5 Live team at the 2011 Canadian and Hungarian Grand Prix’s, stepping in for Natalie Pinkham. It was this which led to her becoming full time pit lane reporter from 2012 onwards, a role she has continued this season. Gow also occasionally appears on BBC television’s free practice coverage in the pit lane alongside Tom Clarkson.
Alongside her usual pit lane commitments, she has presented the 5 Live Formula 1 discussion shows, such as ‘Slicks-o-Six’ after the British Grand Prix. I personally enjoyed the ‘Slicks-o-Six’ show from Silverstone, it is not often we get Formula 1 phone in shows straight after the race of that nature, so I hope we see it again. Also at some point in the future, I’d like to see Gow move up to the television team if any changes occur on that front in the future as I feel she has gelled into the 5 Live team nicely since joining them.
Lee McKenzie – @LeeMcKenzieF1
Before her BBC Formula 1 debut, viewers may have recognised her from somewhere else. Remember Speed Sunday? She was presenter of that, which was on ITV on Sunday’s in 2004. The show unfortunately did not last very long (although may not be too out of place on Sky Sports F1, if they had more rights) and was soon consigned to the dustbin. But, it was McKenzie’s foray into the motor sport world. McKenzie moved on to being the A1 Grand Prix pit lane reporter for their World Feed, a role that she held from 2005 to 2008.
It was there that she made an impression on BBC’s F1 production team, who approached her for the 2009 pit lane role, a position she accepted and has held ever since alongside presenting Inside F1 on the BBC News Channel. Whilst Jake Humphrey was presenting at Euro 2012 and the Olympics, McKenzie stepped in, presenting the Canadian, Germany and Hungary highlights rounds. It was this that made me have McKenzie down as the front runner to succeed Humphrey as lead presenter for this season onwards.
As it turned out, either McKenzie didn’t want the role or BBC chose elsewhere as Suzi Perry was announced as lead presenter last December. I was disappointed that McKenzie was overlooked, but you can see why BBC would want to go with Perry given her previous motor sport presenting experience. It will be interesting to see if McKenzie stays beyond this season, I hope she does, but at the same point if opportunities appear elsewhere, I won’t be surprised if she moves elsewhere – after all this is year five for her now in the pit lane role. She did say a little bit after Malaysia with multi-21 (I think it was on the Motorsport magazine podcast) how her role is arguably better than the presenting role as she gets to interview all the drivers’ after the race, whereas a presenter doesn’t.
Suzi Perry – @SuziPerry
Leading on nicely from the above, it was Perry that got the nod for the BBC F1 presenter role ahead of McKenzie. Perry is extremely familiar with motor sport fans, but more so for those who like two wheels, having presented BBC’s MotoGP coverage until the end of 2009. Since then, Perry has presented for The Gadget Show on Channel 5 alongside various other gigs. Jake Humphrey leaving BBC’s Formula 1 team left an opening in the presenting position gave Perry an opening, leading her to be confirmed as presenter for the 2013 season.
When Perry was announced, there were many that were saying that she “hates” Formula 1. What I don’t know is when that was said. I assume this was said around 2005 to 2007. Which, without going into a long discussion, the 2006 version of Formula 1 is significantly different to that seen this year. I would be surprised if she still hates Formula 1 considering she is currently presenting it, but stranger things have occurred. A fair comparison for Perry would be compare her first half year to Simon Lazenby’s first half year at Sky, given that both are presenting Formula 1 for the first time. I think overall the first half year has been better than Lazenby’s, but the same nervous tendencies have been displayed.
During the highlight shows, Perry is fine, with Coulthard and her generating good discussion, but things are not that way during the live shows, due to the nature of them. This was particularly noticeable last weekend in Hungary, on Saturday, BBC went live for the last two minutes of their highlights show to report on Romain Grosjean’s possible penalty, and the difference was obvious to see. It should be noted that during her MotoGP days it was 30 minutes build-up and 45 minutes post-race reaction, her Formula 1 commitments are double in both measures. Saying the above, it has been a solid start for Perry. Not as good as Jake Humphrey’s first half year, in my view, but not a disaster either. Attention for me turns to what could happen if BT Sport come knocking. I think it is within the realms of possibility that Perry could end up presenting MotoGP for them next season. Will it happen? Personally, I’d rate it as unlikely, but again, stranger things have happened….
Tom Clarkson – @TomClarksonF1
The first UK viewers heard of Tom Clarkson was during last year’s Canadian Grand Prix, who was in Lee McKenzie’s role for that race among others due to Humphrey being elsewhere. Before being introduced to UK viewers on BBC’s broadcast, Clarkson was apart of Australia’s TEN Sport broadcast and is also a writer for F1 Racing magazine.
There is not too much to say for Clarkson here as he has only been on the screen for half a year and the amount of air time then is even less. The thing with Clarkson is that he has not formally replaced anyone and is therefore sharing duties with McKenzie and Gow so at this point I’m not quite feeling his contribution to the output.
Overall, it is difficult to find any way to change the BBC team for the better, at the moment they have as close to the perfect team as you would find. The question marks lie with whether anyone is poached in the future, or if anyone decides to leave. But for the moment, I don’t see any reason why BBC should make changes to the team. In part two I will look at each member of the Sky Sports F1 team and analyse their contribution to the team, whilst parts 3 and 4 will look at each channel’s output. As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Do you agree or disagree with what I have wrote?