Revealed: Motorsport Broadcasting’s dream F1 presentation team

Over the past 50 years, many voices have graced the small screen to broadcast Formula 1 to the masses in a wide range of territories: from the UK to the US, from free-to-air to pay TV and beyond.

But how many would make Motorsport Broadcasting’s on-air team, and why? To answer that question is incredibly difficult, when trying to account for the different eras, the different broadcasters, the age of the talent in question, and so on.

The fan that ITV was trying to attract in the late 1990s may be different to the fan Sky is currently trying to attract to their offering.

As part of the selection process, I am assuming that age is not a factor, that time has no bounds, alive or deceased.

The cast assembled in my opinion brings together the best of the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Sky Sports into a super team, with a few surprises thrown in for good measure. Think of it as my version of the Avengers, for use of a better term!

Of course, this is all judgemental (I admit to being openly biased for the next 2,000 words) and that there is no right or wrong answer to this question. The line-up comprises of:

  • 2 x presenters
  • 3 x analysts
  • 2 x pit lane reporters
  • 2 x technical reporters
  • 2 x commentators

So, who is in, and who is out? Revealed, Motorsport Broadcasting’s dream F1 presentation team…

Presenters
Every good on-air presentation team needs a presenter to fit the bill. For me, watching Formula 1, there are two presenters that brought warmth with them whenever presenting the sport.

First up, the BBC’s Formula 1 presenter from 2009 to 2012, Jake Humphrey. Humphrey worked his way through the BBC ranks, from children’s television into BBC Sport, and eventually onto BBC F1 for the start of F1’s return to the Beeb in 2009.

Humphrey’s style was a departure from his predecessors Jim Rosenthal and Steve Rider on ITV. Both Rosenthal and Rider are excellent, top-tier presenters, but Humphrey brought with him an additional element. During that period, it felt like Humphrey was one of us: a fan who happened to be living the dream as F1 presenter.

In my view, Humphrey helped bring us closer to the sport that we love, thanks to his presenting style, bouncing off his co-presenters where necessary.

Alongside Humphrey anchoring the show is Georgie Ainslee (nee. Thompson). Ainslee has been round the motoring circles for years, having been part of Sky’s A1 Grand Prix coverage in the mid-2000s.

2012 Australian GP - Sky Pad.png
Georgie Thompson and Anthony Davidson analyse the action on the Sky Pad, during Sky’s inaugural race weekend in 2012.

Ainslee was part of Sky’s F1 coverage in 2012, presenting elements of their programming including The F1 Show, but quietly left prior to the 2013 season, with reports at the time suggesting that she wanted a bigger role within the team.

One presenter anchoring the entire weekend is too much, so having two presenters in equal capacity feels the best way to handle the situation.

Back in 2012, I really enjoyed Ainslee’s Sky Pad contributions with Anthony Davidson, and it is unfortunate that she left in the manner that she did, considering she was one of the better parts of Sky’s offering in their inaugural season.

Analysts
This is where the choices get tough, given that there is a plethora of personalities to choose from spanning across the BBC, Sky, Channel 4, and ITV. Narrowing the choices down to three or four stars, past and present, is an extremely difficult challenge. But hey, we did say that this is a dream team.

All three of my choices are natural broadcasters, and all three were part of Sky’s Formula 1 line-up last season. We start with Martin Brundle, 2020 marking his 24th season on the microphone in the commentary box.

Brundle could double up as a third co-commentator, although this piece for brevity keeps Brundle primarily in an analytical role. Alongside Brundle are Sky colleagues Anthony Davidson and Jenson Button, both of whom have shown why they are worthy of being in a dream team in recent years.

Davidson’s broadcasting life started in 2008 alongside David Croft in the BBC Radio 5 Live commentary box, moving over to Sky for the start of their coverage in 2012.

Button joined Sky for five races last year. The thing that lets Sky down is that both Davidson and Button appear on-screen too infrequently across the season, but that is a wider issue surrounding the number of races as opposed to a Sky-specific problem.

On the Sky Pad, Davidson is a wizard, whilst Button has the same characteristics as Humphrey from a broadcasting perspective: a warm style, and a down to earth personality.

If you are looking for entertaining features, maybe this is not the trio for you, it really depends what you are after from a programming perspective.

2019 W Series - Ted Kravitz.jpg
Ted Kravitz dissects the W Series action during his Notebook segment.

For me, I want analysts who live and breathe F1, who know it like the back of their hand, and can articulate their knowledge back to the viewer at home in a digestible manner. Brundle, Button and Davidson tick those boxes for me.

Missing out by small margins are Mark Webber, Karun Chandhok and Allan McNish. On a different year in history, the choice may be different.

Also, it is worth bearing in mind that I am looking at this from a UK broadcasting perspective, so opinions may vary depending on where you are based.

Pitlane
Roving the pit lane are two faces, one of whom has never appeared in an official F1 capacity for a UK broadcaster, either through choice or because they overlooked him at every opportunity.

Enter Will Buxton. Currently Formula 1’s digital presenter, Buxton first made a name on the F1 broadcasting scene as GP2 and GP3 lead commentator. More recently, fans stateside heard Buxton’s voice during both Speed’s and NBC’s coverage of the sport from 2010 to 2017.

Despite being around the sport for nearly twenty years, Buxton has never worked in an F1 capacity for Sky, Channel 4, the BBC or ITV at their respective times. UK’s loss was America’s gain over the past decade.

During NBC’s coverage, Buxton and producer Jason Swales hosted several behind the scenes documentaries on the sport, including the ‘Road to…’ series, which was well received by fans.

Joining Buxton is Channel 4’s Lee McKenzie, who has been part of the UK’s free-to-air F1 output since 2009, grilling the drivers on a variety of topics.

Outside of the small screen, both McKenzie and Buxton are brilliant journalists in their own right, both with a unique ability to get the best out of their interviewee on any given occasion: whether in a pre-race vignette, or during the post-race media pen interviews.

You might think two reporters in pit lane and beyond is excessive. But remember, F1 consists of ten teams, 20 drivers, and hundreds of people that help bring the show to life. It is Buxton and McKenzie that get beneath the skin of the sport, helping to tell the stories that may otherwise go unnoticed.

NBC's Road to Mercedes.png
Will Buxton and Jason Swales at Reims for the Road to Mercedes documentary.

Technical
On the technical side, Ted Kravitz leads the output, having been part of the broadcasting scene since the 1990s. Kravitz moved to ITV’s F1 on-air team in a full-time capacity following Murray Walker’s retirement, staying in that role until 2008.

Kravitz moved with F1 to the BBC in 2009, and then again to Sky in 2012, where he has remained ever since, narrowly avoiding the chop from their team prior to the 2019 season. Well-liked by fans, Kravitz’s Notebook has been a fixture of Sky’s F1 coverage since its inception, along with the Development Corner segment.

What Kravitz has never had though, is a good wing man in the technical space, someone to bounce off from time to time. And that is where the second technical expert comes in the form of Craig Scarborough.

With the resources that he has, Scarborough does a great job dissecting the technical innovations across social media, sometimes with Peter Windsor in toe. Both were dropped by Motorsport Network in the latter half of 2018 as part of their cost-cutting exercise at the time.

I suspect no UK broadcaster has ever picked Scarborough up because he has never worked with in an F1 team as technical expert, unlike the likes of Gary Anderson, who was part of the BBC’s F1 offering in 2013 and 2014 before they dropped him.

Nevertheless, if you want an all rounded team that covers both the human element and technical element in equal detail, then you need two technical experts, and Kravitz and Scarborough are the two for me.

Commentators
The beauty of having a broadcasting dream team is that there is no right, or wrong, answer. I started watching Formula 1 in 1999, so caught the later years of Murray Walker‘s commentary.

I met Walker twice: once at a book signing back in 2002, and more recently at Channel 4’s Formula 1 launch in 2016. And, thanks to the internet, many classic races feature his commentary.

  • “And it’s Go! Go! Go!”
  • “Three point three six seconds! Damon Hill wins the Japanese Grand Prix!”
  • “And he exits the final corner for the fifty-third and last time, to win the 2000 Japanese Grand Prix, and the World Championship, for the third time!”

Commentary lines such as these will live on in Formula 1’s history. And it is for that reason that Murray, and his Murray-isms, feature in my dream team. Yes, Walker made mistakes.

1997 Australian GP - Qualifying.png
Martin Brundle and Murray Walker on the balcony during ITV’s coverage of the 1997 Australian Grand Prix qualifying session.

But, if I had a choice between a commentator that could make paint dry sound exciting, with a few mistakes here and there, or someone who struggled to capture the excitement that F1 brings, it is the former all day long.

To put it simply, Walker’s voice is infectious, and we are lucky that he stayed in the commentary box for as long as he did. Walker will always be F1 to me, and for a whole generation of fans in their late 20s and onwards.

On the other side, one of Walker’s colleagues left this arena far earlier than they should have. James Hunt passed away at the age of 45 in 1993, days after commentating on the Canadian Grand Prix. Had Hunt opted to retire at the same age as Walker, Hunt would still be commentating on F1 today at the age of 72.

I was too young to watch Hunt’s commentary live – I had not even turned one when Hunt passed away. But what I do know is that Hunt in the commentary box was passionate about the racing that was unfolding in front of him, telling it how it was.

It is a testament to the relationship between Hunt and Walker that the pairing lasted 13 years, from 1979 until Hunt’s untimely death.

In a parallel universe, Hunt would have been commentating alongside Walker for many years to come, but alas, it was not too be. In a dream broadcasting line-up, both Hunt and Brundle would be part of that team (clearly, I am bending the rules in the name of fun).

If time had no bounds, this is Motorsport Broadcasting’s dream F1 presentation team:

  • Presenter: Georgie Ainslee
  • Presenter: Jake Humphrey
  • Commentator: James Hunt
  • Commentator: Murray Walker
  • Analyst: Anthony Davidson
  • Analyst: Jenson Button
  • Analyst: Martin Brundle
  • Pitlane: Lee McKenzie
  • Pitlane: Will Buxton
  • Technical: Craig Scarborough
  • Technical: Ted Kravitz

Like with any team, whether the eleven would blend together on-screen is a different question, in the same way that two world class drivers in the best team may go pear shaped.

You want a line-up that is flexible. You do not want a commentator that just commentates, or a technical expert that cannot interview drivers. In the scenario above, Walker would still interview drivers, and Brundle could still commentate, for sake of argument.

Notable by their omission are David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan, amongst other high calibre candidates, which shows how difficult it is to select a dream team cutting across different eras. Had I been focusing on current generation only, then Coulthard and Jordan may well have made the cut.

To bring gravitas to the production is Channel 4’s F1 producer Whisper, but with backing from Sky Sports. Sky bring with them the Sky Pad, the paddock stage set up, as well as the extensive air-time, whilst Whisper bring with them some excellent VTs and a graphics package that is second to none. The best of both worlds, in my view.

And that is my dream Formula 1 broadcasting line-up. What is yours? Have your say and debate the question in the comments below.

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In conversation with Tony Jardine

From reporting on radio in the early 1980s, to analysing Formula 1 for audiences across the globe, Tony Jardine’s broadcasting career has spanned nearly four decades.

I reminisced with Jardine at the 2018 edition of the Autosport Show, as we looked back at his broadcasting career.

How did your broadcasting career begin?

It was by accident! I was at the 1982 South African Grand Prix, working as the JPS Lotus press officer, when the infamous drivers’ strike took place.

The Independent Radio News (IRN) news reporter at the time was not in the press box, and I took a phone call from IRN. IRN distributed the radio news, and they were desperate, they needed a voice piece. I said “I can’t do that,” and they were like “Just tell me what you see down the pit lane.”

I did my first ever broadcast from Kyalami about the strike. IRN asked me to do more pieces, and I ended up becoming their Formula 1 correspondent, as well as doing the day job.

From IRN you moved to the BBC, how did that gig come about?

The BBC deal was a very different kettle of fish, in as much that Murray Walker had a conflict between the British motorcycle Grand Prix and the German Grand Prix. The BBC decided they wanted him to do the bikes, and asked me to make my commentary debut in ’85 alongside James Hunt.

That led to me becoming the full-time pit lane commentator with the BBC, and race commentator for South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). I did a lot of live broadcasts for them, but I do want to stress that broadcasting was never my main job. The PR and communications company that I am involved with (HPS Jardine) is still my main mode of employment nearly 40 years later!

The role of pit lane reporter I imagine was quite different back then, given the archaic technology on offer.

It was quite difficult being in the pit lane as communications were not very sophisticated. It was very ancient equipment, you had to carry a lot of batteries, microphones, and headsets around with you. I was always trying to get in touch with the producer to say “I’ve got a story,” but they couldn’t always hear me.

We also could not do a proper grid walk at the BBC, as you were restricted as to where you could go by FOM.

I was literally arrested by Pasquale Lattuneddu, Bernie’s number two man, by going over some yellow line, and had to sit outside the [Formula One Management] office for several hours like a naughty school boy! You were limited as to what you could do on the grid, but I used to go to the edge of the pit lane and report in from there.

Was the pit lane role your main role with the BBC, or were there other roles you played a part in during their F1 coverage?

I started to get involved with the highlights on BBC Two in the early ’90s. One year, we did the British Grand Prix highlights opening live on stage from the post-race concert, with David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert! I was trying to hear the opening bits of music, so I could make my cue. When I thought there was a gap, I just went for it! I could not hear a word, it was very raw, rough, and ready.

The other thing I provided is what they call a ‘guide commentary.’ When neither Murray or James were overseas, for example in Canada or Japan, but they needed to know what happened, I would lay down a ‘ghost commentary’ over the action. Murray and James would listen to the ‘ghost’ version before they did their own commentary on several hours later.

Towards the end of 1995, we found out that ITV had grabbed the rights to the F1. Did that come as a shock to you and the team?

I was offered a new contract at the end of 1995 and was asked to present the BBC Two highlights from 1997 onwards, as well as doing the pit lane reporter gig. Three days later, the news came through that the BBC had lost [the F1] and ITV had won. I was gutted, as the BBC had empowered me, I said I’d give it a shot.

Jonathan Martin [BBC’s Head of Sport] believed he had a strong relationship with Bernie, and there is a view that he was quite arrogant. “Oh, Bernie wouldn’t do that to us!”, that kind of thing, and then gone.

Tony Jardine during ITV’s coverage of the 2005 Canadian Grand Prix.

Even though my company were involved in promoting the BTCC in the ’90s, I never really thought about staying with the BBC. My expertise was very much from working in Formula 1.

However, as luck would have it, I knew some of the production companies that were bidding for the ITV coverage. One of the guys from ITV saw me individually, and in the end, ITV said to the successful production company [Chrysalis] that they had to take me too! So, I wasn’t selected by them, but ITV had chosen me already.

That’s when they decided that I become an analyst in the studio. I did nine successful years with ITV and thoroughly enjoyed it, in TV terms that is a very long time.

How did the viewing public react to ITV’s offering in 1997?

I think it was quite warmly received. There were a lot of people waiting to criticise, the adverts were a big issue. However, we had our own studio, we had new graphics, we took it up another level.

At the time, it was unheard of to have a team that size, two analysts, guests, two pit lane reporters. Apart from some of the things we missed because of the ad-breaks, I don’t remember us receiving any massive criticism. Jim [Rosenthal] was one of those consummate professionals that does the job wherever he is, and he’s still working today.

The big difference too was that ITV gave it time. With the BBC, one race would air live, and the next would air as highlights, until 1995 when the Beeb started showing everything.

One of the major revelations about ITV’s coverage was Martin Brundle, so much so that he is still involved in F1 broadcasting to this very day.

I used to regularly go to Martin, both from my company’s perspective, and from a broadcasting perspective, as he was always great at talking. Martin could explain technical things in a very simplistic manner, not talking down to people, but just bringing it to a language you could understand, and maybe even have a little quip to boot.

Towards the end of the BBC’s tenure, Jonathan was with Murray in the commentary box and they brought Martin in as a third commentator. Brundle saw the race unfolding, and made a prediction which Palmer disagreed with, and the rest of it. But, what Brundle said was concise, he had a great idea of the strategy, and it was a great drivers’ perspective of what was going on.

It was a no brainer for ITV to bring him on-board. He took all that incredible knowledge, wit, wisdom, connectivity with drivers into the grid walk which we know and love.

Post-ITV, you have been involved with many different broadcasters on various things, close to home with Sky but also overseas.

I went back to Sky after ITV, and worked the live A1 Grand Prix races with Georgie Thompson, even doing my own grid walk from Brands Hatch!

I did some Sky Sports News work as well, previewing each Grand Prix using the touch screen from 2012. I would do two previews in a day building up to a race. I would script it, say what images I wanted, and Sky would get all the graphics.

On stage, I would talk to the presenter, talk through a lap of the circuit on the touch screen and play in all the video, never once using an autocue. The nightmare of course is that sometimes the touch screen would freeze, you’re live and you only have a certain amount of time, as Sky Sports News are constantly going from sport to sport.

More recently I’ve worked with Angus Scott, another former ITV man, on BeIN Sports’ live F1 shows. Many people in that production were also ex-BBC and Sky people, and BeIN really looked after me and listened to me editorially.

I am very fortunate to have had a lot of different jobs within broadcasting, all of which I have enjoyed. The art of good broadcasting is that you make it look easy, but believe you me, when you are doing it, it’s not.

My thanks go to Tony Jardine for spending the time with me on the above interview.

James Allen on…

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.

1997 Australian Grand Prix Qualifying - Allen and Hill
In ITV’s first live qualifying show at the 1997 Australian Grand Prix, James Allen interviews Arrows newest recruit and 1996 champion Damon Hill.

“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.

2008-australian-gp-allen-and-brundle
Allen and Brundle here analysing the 2008 Australian Grand Prix qualifying session. Little did they know at this point was that 2008 would be ITV’s final year covering F1.

“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.”

The evolution of the grid walk

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Martin Brundle’s grid walk, a much-loved segment of Formula 1’s pre-race programming. Here, we look at how the grid walk has evolved, from inception to present day.

The origins of the grid walk go back to the late 1980’s. It was the 1989 British Grand Prix, Nigel Mansell’s first season in a Ferrari, when he played a part in the first ever grid interview. But, things did not quite go to plan between him and BBC presenter Steve Rider.

Writing in his book, Rider recalled “Nigel caught my eye, winked and nodded, even though he was still wearing a full-face helmet. At exactly the same moment the floor manager indicated that Murray Walker had handed down to me with Nigel Mansell.”

“I had to go for it. I shoved the mike into his helmet and he seemed to be giving me a lucid, animated reply, although with no off-air sound I had no idea what he was saying.”

“But, suitably encouraged when he stopped talking I asked another question. It went on like this for a few minutes, and it was only later that I was told that Nigel, in fact, was talking to his pit-crew and was desperately trying to get me to shut up.”

For a variety of reasons, logistics notwithstanding, the BBC did not attempt a full Formula 1 grid walk in their original stint up until the end of 1997.

“We didn’t think of doing a proper grid walk at the BBC, and it’s also the fact that you were restricted as to where you could go by FOM,” explained Tony Jardine, who worked as the BBC’s pit lane reporter at the time.

“I was literally arrested by Pasquale Lattuneddu, Bernie’s number two man, by going over some yellow line, and had to sit outside the [Formula One Management] office for several hours like a naughty school boy!”

In the BBC’s later years, the broadcaster interviewed selected British drivers on the grid. As time went by, the gates opened to the introduction of a fully fledged grid walk, which ITV used to their advantage, starting in 1997. Louise Goodman, ITV’s pit lane reporter for the duration of their coverage, watched events unfold.

“It was ITV’s first year of covering Formula 1, and we wanted to do something special to mark our home race, the British Grand Prix,” Goodman noted, in a chat to me at the Autosport Show. “We wanted to do something new, bringing the viewers closer to the drivers and cars, making the sport more accessible not only to current fans, but to bring in a new audience to Formula 1.”

2001 German GP - Brundle and Montoya.png
The grid walk segment shines a light on all angles of Formula 1. From the glitz and glamour, through to the technical directors, as well as interviewing drivers at both ends of the grid. Here, Martin Brundle interviews pole sitter Juan Montoya prior to the 2001 German Grand Prix.

The responsibility was placed on the shoulders of Martin Brundle, who retired from Formula 1 racing at the end of the 1996 season, having started 158 races. Being at the forefront of the sport for the previous 15 years meant that Brundle was well equipped to interview the stars of the show, even if there was trepidation to begin with.

“When Neil [Duncanson, executive producer at Chrysalis] first floated the idea to Martin, Martin wasn’t actually that keen on doing it,” Goodman tells me. “It’s an unpredictable live TV situation, and Martin was only in his first year as a broadcaster at that point, so I can understand why he was a little bit apprehensive to do it.”

Of course, walking the grid was not just a Formula 1 thing. At the same time in the mid-1990s, Jonathan Green and Steve Parrish started doing the same for Sky Sports’ coverage of World Superbikes, as did other personalities elsewhere in the motor sport spectrum, but it was arguably Brundle that took the concept mainstream.

“People think that Martin is just wandering around on the grid, but there is a lot of organisation that goes into it. You’ve got to have that knowledge to fill those moments where you are just wandering around looking for your next person to talk to,” explains Goodman, who herself has been in the grid walk role now for the past nine years with ITV’s British Touring Car Championship coverage.

“It is a daunting task to have a camera on you for five or six minutes. I remember when I first did it for touring cars, it was like ‘oh my god, I’ve got to fill all that space!’ And now, everybody does a grid walk. It was Martin’s character and personality, alongside his knowledge that made it what it was.”

“During the grid walk, you have three or four other people talking in your ears, so you’re trying to hear the driver, but you’re also hearing all the production chat that’s going on.”

“You learn to go with the flow of it, you could have had an interview set up, and when it comes to it, and this happens quite frequently in touring cars, the driver you planned to start the grid walk with, his car is not there, so you then make it up as you go along, grab somebody else, the first person that comes to mind. It’s a very fluid environment.”

For Jardine, Brundle’s knowledge and expertise shone out prior to his ITV days. In 1995, as well as car-sharing with Aguri Suzuki at Ligier, Brundle spent the remainder of races alongside Murray Walker and Jonathan Palmer in the BBC commentary box. “Martin could explain technical things in a very simplistic manner, not talking down to people, but just bringing it to a language you could understand, and maybe even have a little quip to boot.”

“Towards the end of the BBC’s tenure, Jonathan was with Murray in the commentary box and they brought Martin in as a third commentator. Brundle saw the race unfolding, and made a prediction which Palmer disagreed with, and the rest of it. But, what Brundle said was concise, he had a great idea of the strategy, and it was a great drivers’ perspective of what was going on.”

“It was a no brainer for ITV to bring him on-board. He took all that incredible knowledge, wit, wisdom, connectivity with drivers into the grid walk which we know and love. The art of good broadcasting is that you make it look easy, but believe you me, when you’re actually doing it, it’s not.”

2005 French GP - Brundle and Friesacher.png
The grid walk became an opportunity for viewers to learn about drivers’ further down the starting order. Here, Brundle interviews Minardi’s Patrick Friesacher prior to the 2005 French Grand Prix, a face and voice that was unrecognisable to the UK audience at that point in time.

Although Brundle’s first grid walk at Silverstone 1997 was prone to technical difficulties, the foundations were there for years to come. Fast-forward over twenty years, and the grid walk is now a staple of motor racing television worldwide. Imitation here is absolutely the sincerest form of flattery.

Natural progression and evolution suggests that grid interviews would have become commonplace at some point in time, but Brundle helped stamp his authority on the segment that no one else has since.

Brundle made the format his own, with memorable grid walks across his years at ITV, BBC and now Sky Sports. One of the Brundle’s more memorable grid walks that garnered attention worldwide came with the 2005 United States Grand Prix, Brundle attempting to play peace keeper whilst the Formula 1 spectacle imploded around him.

Many broadcasters have walked in Brundle’s footsteps, including David Coulthard, Jennie Gow, Neil Hodgson, Will Buxton and Goodman herself.

Because the grid walk is now so frequent across all motor racing output, it has lost some of its edge that it had in the early years. However, some of that is a result of drivers being heavily PR trained rather than anything a particular broadcaster has done wrong.

Despite the drivers being more media savvy than yesteryear, the grid walk still creates memorable, special, off the cuff moments that broadcasting rarely has in the modern age.

As for the next twenty years? The aim of the grid walk in 1997 was to bring fans watching around the world closer to the drivers and the cars, which remains ever true today. Since then, and into the digital era, broadcasters have gone beyond the grid walk.

In 2014, Sky went behind the scenes with Williams at the Italian Grand Prix, following their every movement immediately before the race, from garage through to the starting grid, removing a barrier typically there for viewers.

And as 2018 begins, fans have access to every single car through F1 TV Pro, a service that aims to revolutionise Formula 1 viewing. But, for everything that changes, the basics remain the same.

The grid walk is ingrained into motor racing broadcasts that it is difficult to see it disappearing. At least, not just yet…

Flashback: 1997 Spanish Grand Prix

2017 marks twenty years since ITV’s Formula 1 coverage first hit our television screens. Their inaugural season covering the sport was a roller-coaster ride, with the championship battle between Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher going down to the wire in Jerez.

Here, we turn our attention to the 1997 Spanish Grand Prix, which marked round six of the championship. Through the early fly-away races, the season had been a very competitive affair, dominated by the tyre war between Goodyear and Bridgestone. The previous round in Monaco saw Schumacher dominate in the pouring rain. Would Villeneuve be able to bounce back in Catalunya?

At this point in proceedings, ITV’s coverage was beginning to gel together into a cohesive unit. Here is how the team lined up for the weekend:

  • Date: Sunday 25th May 1997
  • Time: 12:35 to 15:10
  • Presenter: Jim Rosenthal
  • Reporter: Louise Goodman
  • Reporter: James Allen
  • Commentator: Murray Walker
  • Commentator: Martin Brundle
  • Analyst: Tony Jardine
  • Analyst: Simon Taylor

In the early years, ITV’s build-up for the European rounds would typically last around 25 minutes, expanding into the early 2000s to the typical one-hour length that we currently see for live free-to-air broadcasts.

Pre-Race
After an opening interlude from Jim Rosenthal highlighting Schumacher’s Monaco success, Jamiroquai plays in ITV’s F1 coverage. We are straight into a qualifying wrap up, with Louise Goodman providing voice over. It is a quick-fire round-up, no fancy graphics or music, just Goodman narrating with Walker providing the commentary over the key bits. The grid graphics (more fancy for 1997!) follow on.

1997 Spanish GP - ITV's grid graphics
ITV’s grid graphics for the 1997 Spanish Grand Prix.

Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve gives his post-qualifying opinion to James Allen, describing his last lap as “near perfection”. All the above occurring within the first five minutes, unsurprising when there is not much build-up time to play with for ITV.

The studio atmosphere between Rosenthal, Taylor and Jardine is good (there is enough time to mention Taylor’s seasickness from Monaco, for example!). ITV strike the right tone, with discussion varying from personality driven to one of a technical nature.

A feature of ITV’s coverage from day one was an on-board lap of the circuit, but in 1997 this took the form of a virtual tour. The channel used an early version of the F1 1997 PlayStation game for the virtual lap, with Martin Brundle narrating. There are no additional features during the build-up, with the remainder of time allotted to covering grid interviews and studio chat.

Allen and Goodman provided the grid interviews, interviewing Damon Hill, Eddie Irvine, David Coulthard and Jean Alesi. Studio chatter interspersed the interviews, but this did not work well, and you can quickly see why ITV introduced a grid walk later in the season. Whilst the studio segments are good, you do not get a sense of the atmosphere building, in the same way you do in later years with the grid walk format that Brundle made popular.

Nevertheless, the studio discussion does produce some excellent technical conversation tailored to the casual fan, with Taylor dissecting why Ferrari are struggling around the Barcelona circuit.

JR: Again, for those coming to grips with the world of Formula 1, why should the Ferrari win in Monaco, which I know was a very different sort of circuit, and you say now this place just doesn’t suit them at all, with all the testing, all the money, with all the things like that.

ST: The real problem here in Barcelona is long, fast corners. And if you have a car that understeers, that’s a car that wants to go straight on in a fast corner, then you won’t get a good time. That’s Ferrari’s problem, they can’t get the grip in the long, fast corners. They can get the grip in the tight turns of Monaco. Here, it is very abrasive, they’re worried about tyre wear particularly on the front left tyre. So, it’s not looking good for Ferrari, but you can never discount them.

We see the championship standings much closer to the race start than usual instead of at the start of the broadcast, in the context of Benetton’s disappointing year so far following Alesi’s grid interview.

Race
There is no batting around the bush about what to expect for the race, with Walker calling Villeneuve the “hot favourite” for the Grand Prix. The five minutes before the race are great from the local host director, as there is a take on Formula E’s segway with the camera man focusing on each car one by one, which is a nice touch. During the segway, Walker mentions the driver change at Sauber, Gianni Morbidelli replacing Nicola Larini.

In 1997, the Barcelona circuit was one of the newer races on the calendar, then in its seventh season nevertheless the crowd, whilst smaller than other races, is still a healthy number. Ralf Schumacher stalled his Jordan car at the first start, resulting in an aborted start. At this stage, Walker and Brundle have access to team radio information from the Jordan team, with material relayed back to the viewers. An abandoned start is a good thing for viewers at this stage, as it meant that ITV could take an advert break without ‘losing’ any laps, meaning that the first 19 laps were live and uninterrupted.

1997 Spanish GP - on-board Coulthard
On-board with David Coulthard’s McLaren as he hunts down the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher.

Whilst the pre-race angles on the grid were good, the first lap was a mess from the local director. Multiple camera operators were far too slow to respond to the cars, resulting in cameras that panned to action half way through the field instead of the action up front. We can just about pick out, as does Walker, the “meteoric” start from Schumacher’s Ferrari, although Walker does make it sound better than it was, which Brundle points out half way round lap two! (Stating he started 9th and not 7th). The replays do make up for the host directors’ inefficiencies, with a helicopter replay, and a replay showing on-board footage of Schumacher’s start, which is amazing to watch and decipher.

The early laps are close between the front-runners, the excitement in Walker’s voice is loud and clear, even if Brundle proclaims that Villeneuve will “run and hide”. The attention is on the battle between Schumacher and Coulthard, with a queue quickly developing. Walker covers the rest of the action as best as he can at that phase in the Grand Prix, but the director is right to focus on the growing train behind the leading Ferrari.

It is a tyre dependent formula, which explains and justifies ITV’s pre-race stance to explain this element adequately to viewers. The local Formula One Management director uses helicopter shots to show the growing gap between Villeneuve and Schumacher. Coulthard finally makes the move before his first of three stops. ITV use James Allen during the pit stop sequence, pointing out a near collision between Schumacher and Benetton’s Gerhard Berger in the pit lane.

Damon Hill is in fifth position! Damon Hill in the Arrows Yamaha is higher than he has ever been this season, a terrific performance, whatever reason. Some of it of course will be due to the fact that people have been in for tyres and he hasn’t. Villeneuve leads, Alesi is in second position… and Hill stops! Ohh… as I say it. That is six races and six failures for Damon Hill. And even his patience and tolerance must be severely tested. – Murray Walker with the commentators’ curse

Villeneuve’s performance with one less stop is dominant. On return from the first break Rosenthal hands us over to Simon Taylor who covers Alesi’s first stop ‘as live’ (which occurred during the commercial break), before handing back to Walker, a neat move as he moved in front of Ferrari’s Schumacher. Through the first pit stop sequence and Villeneuve’s different strategy, Coulthard has closed in on Villeneuve with the gap down to three seconds, whilst Panis on the Bridgestone tyres in third before pitting.

Our TV director missed Alesi and Schumacher passing Hakkinen, instead cutting to Frentzen pitting despite the German driver being out of contention at this phase in the race. Walker and Brundle continue to bring into play the tyre situation, noting that blistering is a factor and that the Goodyear tyres are “too soft” for this race track. There is limited coverage of runners below sixth place, beyond the pit stop sequences, just one of ways that the feed became diluted in the late 1990s compared to the F1 Digital+ service that was starting across Europe. However, the gaps throughout the field are marginal meaning we see the likes of Johnny Herbert’s Sauber running in 4th place briefly, Walker describing it as an “interesting and exciting race.”

A lot of pit stop strategies have gone completely out of the window this afternoon. And as we look out of our commentary box window itself, there seem to be as many cars coming down the pit lane as down the pit straight! – ITV co-commentator Martin Brundle

The tyre war theme continues into the second half of the Grand Prix as Panis on Bridgestone tyres overtakes Coulthard’s McLaren on Goodyear tyres for third position (a beautiful helicopter shot at this moment showing Panis move ahead), Panis then comfortably pulling away from the McLaren! Clearly a Prost car overtaking a McLaren was previously unheard of, but made possible because of the 1997 formula, Walker notes that all the races so far in 1997 have been tyre dominated. Brundle seems in almost shock regurgitating to viewers that Coulthard may end up on a “four stop strategy” as ITV head to a further break. The differing strategies raises the prospect of Panis winning the race thanks to his lightning pace.

1997 Spanish GP - best vs last lap
A graphic I like in the tyre dominated formula: ‘Best Lap vs Last Lap’ time comparison helps show if a drivers’ tyres have hit the cliff.

Once the leading runners pit, the order is Villeneuve, Panis, Alesi and Schumacher. ITV take their last break with 12 laps to go, and on their return the battle for first is a battle for second between Panis, Alesi and Schumacher, thanks to backmarkers failing to move over, with Alesi gesticulating repeatedly to the marshals. Panis does close in on Villeneuve again near to the end, but Brundle clearly annoyed in commentary at how long it took Panis to clear the traffic, leaving Villeneuve to win the Grand Prix.

Like at the start, the host director struggles at the end as Villeneuve tours back to the pit lane, missing Johnny Herbert overtaking Coulthard’s McLaren on the last lap. Brundle brutal in his assessment that the local director has missed “just about everything else” this weekend.

Post-Race
ITV stick with the podium without going to an advert break. The process from parc ferme to the podium itself appears to be a lot quicker than it is now. Following the Canadian and British national anthems, it is time for the obligatory champagne! An all French-speaking podium, which might be a rare occasion.

1997 Spanish GP - ITV studio
ITV’s pundits dissect the race.

We see the classifications rundown again, as Walker outlines the key achievements including a 1-3 for Renault and a strong performance for Prost. Walker also compliments Goodyear’s 350th win against the onslaught of Bridgestone (who were successful in CART), saying “heaven knows where Grand Prix racing would be if it wasn’t for Goodyear.” This is to a degree to fill time before the press conference, ITV airing it live instead of switching back to the studio for initial post-race analysis.

At the start of the analysis, Rosenthal made it clear that the three post-race interviews would be with Patrick Head, Johnny Herbert, and Michael Schumacher. The three main subjects as a result are Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s poor performance (which the consensus is that it was not his fault, but instead a result of poor set-up) and Schumacher’s brilliant start which Jardine analyses.

The last interview with a happy Herbert, describing how his tyres got better with each set, which led into a studio discussion about the scrap involving Schumacher and Coulthard during the first phase of the Grand Prix. There is not much else covered, aside from the promos for other events, all that is left is for Rosenthal to publicise the Canadian Grand Prix and to wrap up proceedings in Spain.