Formula 1 has been broadcast on British television since it’s inception in 1950. The first known live race in the UK was the 1953 British Grand Prix, which was live on the BBC. Between 1950 and 1980, races were rarely shown live in their entirety, with races either being given highlights on ITV or BBC, or in some cases not being broadcast at all. From 1979, the BBC had exclusive rights to broadcasting Formula 1 in the UK, with commentary being provided by Murray Walker.
BBC’s coverage from 1979 onwards grew, and by the early 1990’s they were broadcasting the majority of the races live. Qualifying was not shown, unless you were lucky to have Eurosport, in which case you were treated to live Qualifying and the Race with commentary from John Watson and Allard Kalff (Ben Edwards replacing Kalff from the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix). BBC’s coverage was mainly presented from their London studios, with Steve Rider at the helm. For the European races, Tony Jardine patrolled pitlane, with Murray Walker and James Hunt in the box. When Hunt sadly passed away in 1993, he was replaced by Jonathan Palmer.
The BBC had a contract until the end of 1996, and were expected to retain the rights for 1997 and beyond. On December 13th, 1995, however it was announced that ITV were to screen Formula 1 exclusively from 1997, with BBC and Eurosport losing the rights to screen Formula 1 in the UK. In his book, Murray Walker noted that ITV “were sick of being cut to ribbons by Grand Prix on Sunday afternoons”, adding that the deal was £60 million over 4 years. Although viewers would now have to cope with adverts interrupting the coverage, ITV advanced their coverage up several levels with more on-site presence compared to what the BBC had previously. ITV opted to have Jim Rosenthal at the helm, with Tony Jardine and Simon Taylor as pundits in their new studio which would be transported around the world. In the pit-lane would be Louise Goodman and James Allen, with Murray Walker partnering Martin Brundle in the commentary box. Brundle had previous experience working with Walker – Brundle commentated alongside Walker and Palmer during several F1 races in the 1995 season when Brundle was sharing his Ligier drive with Aguri Suzuki. 1997 was where we seen the first, and now traditional, grid-walk, Brundle beginning the famous gridwalk at that years’ British Grand Prix.
As well as the extended pre-show and post-race shows, ITV also had Murray & Martin’s F1 Special which aired on Saturday evenings, although this was dropped in 2000 as Walker neared his retirement. In the early days Qualifying typically had a 20 minute build-up with the Race getting 40 minutes, both of these lengths increasing as the contract got longer. Not all Qualifying sessions were shown live, GMTV interfering multiple times, which will probably make for an interesting subject in the future in it’s own blog post. When Walker retired at the 2001 United States Grand Prix, James Allen became his successor in the commentary box alongside Martin Brundle, with Ted Kravitz filling Allen’s void in the pit-lane. In 2002, ITV went up against the ill-fated F1 Digital+ service. The service, however, with Matthew Lorenzo presenting and Edwards and Watson commentating, bombed, and was axed at the end of that season. Taylor left the ITV team soon after their debut, with Mark Blundell becoming a pundit – a role he maintained until the end of their coverage in 2008. Jardine and Rosenthal left at the end of 2005, with Steve Rider returning to present the Formula 1 presentation alongside Blundell. For the 2008 season, ITV showed Friday’s practice sessions live on their website, for the first time since they won the rights in 1997.
Although ITV had a deal through to the end of 2009, it was announced on March 20th, 2008 that Formula 1 would be returning to BBC after a twelve year absence, with the BBC deal lasting for five years. The only two members of the ITV team to make the jump to BBC were Brundle and Kravitz, with the rest of the team new or being hired from within BBC. It was announced in November 2008 that Jake Humphrey would present the output, with Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard alongside him. Lee McKenzie joined Kravitz in the pit-lane, and Jonathan Legard replacing Allen as the lead commentator. BBC broadcasted every session live, with practice sessions being broadcast live via the BBC Red Button service, with commentary for those sessions coming from BBC Radio 5 Live’s David Croft and Anthony Davidson. At the end of 2010, BBC opted to change the F1 commentary team, with Legard dropped from the main commentary role. Brundle inherited the main commentators’ position, with Coulthard juggling his punditry duties with commentating duties for 2011. Their partnership would last only one year…
An irreversible step was taken on July 29th, 2011 when it was announced that BBC had agreed a deal with Sky Sports and Formula One Management. The deal meant that Sky Sports would be screening every session of the 2012 (through to 2018) season live, with BBC only screening ten races live. The remainder would be covered as highlights. The change was due to the new licence fee settlement between the BBC and the current government in October 2010. Humphrey, Jordan, Coulthard and McKenzie remained with BBC (although Humphrey parted ways with the F1 team a year later), but the rest of their team joined Sky. Sky’s output was presented by Simon Lazenby, with a vast array of pundits and talent alongside him. Suzi Perry became BBC’s Formula 1 presenter at the start of 2013, but it was not long before the rumours surrounding their coverage began circulating. In November 2015, it was reported that the BBC were set to exit the coverage. A month later, it was official. But who were the incumbents? Channel 4! In a move that surprised most experts, Channel 4 were announced as BBC’s replacement, stepping in to the fray and partner Sky Sports.
The current Channel 4 and Sky Sports deal to cover Formula 1 runs until 2018. It is Channel 4’s turn to make their mark in the history books. What do they have planned, only time will tell…