How committed to F1 is the BBC?

There was some alarming news for F1 fans yesterday. According to The Guardian, the BBC is considering ditching F1 coverage as a result of budget cuts.

Easy target

I used to think the chances of the BBC dropping its F1 coverage at the end of the current contract were fairly high. For critics of the BBC, F1 is an easy target.

For one thing, the image of F1 as a glamorous, expensive sport for rich men doesn’t help. Nor, indeed, does the perception that it is environmentally unfriendly.

There is also a myth that Formula 1 can be adequately covered by commercial broadcasters. Anyone who actually tried to sit down and watch a race on ITV will know that this is simply not true. But the fact that it has only been back on the BBC for two years so far means that it is not seen as a BBC jewel.

Hugely popular

But since it regained the rights in 2009, the BBC have done such an exemplary job of covering the sport that it has become a matter of even greater importance to many F1 fans. It’s not just about the lack of advert interruptions, which was a huge barrier to ITV gaining acceptance from fans. It is the sheer breadth and depth of the BBC’s coverage.

The quality of the programme itself is top-notch, despite apparently having a much lower budget than ITV. All practice sessions are broadcast on the red button or online. And post-race analysis often goes on for as long as the race itself. There is plenty of archive footage on offer too.

As a result, ratings for Formula 1 are generally much higher than they were by the time ITV was finished with it. A recent BBC Trust report revaled that Formula 1 coverage was exceeding all of its targets and enabled it to reach a young male audience that the BBC otherwise finds difficult to reach.

The other sporting event that was regarded as a ‘hit’ by all measures was Wimbledon. This is the other sport apparently being considered for the chop.

So are the BBC planning to do a 6 Music, and demonstrate that BBC coverage of these events needs to be saved as a result of strong viewer opinion? Or is F1 genuinely being lined up for the axe?

Budget cuts

It’s pretty clear that the BBC’s F1 coverage has faced a budget cut for the year. The BBC took the odd decision of removing the well-respected commentator Jonathan Legard, and failing to properly replace him. Instead, the rest of the existing team has been reshuffled and each member of the on-screen team will be spread more thinly.

David Coulthard and Martin Brundle

For instance, it is expected that Martin Brundle will continue to do his pre-race gridwalk, do a full race commentary, and participate in the post-race analysis. David Coulthard will continue in his punditry role both before and after the race, in addition to being the co-commentator during the race. This would normally amount to four or more hours of continuous live broadcasting (more if the race is delayed for some reason), without much in the way of a break.

As former grand prix drivers, there is no doubt that Martin Brundle and David Coulthard have stamina. But I think even the most seasoned broadcasting pros would find this sort of workload to be a tough act.

So why not bring someone new on board? Is it just a case of a salami slice budget cut, or is the BBC preparing to wind down its coverage of F1 altogether?


  1. Legard was *never* even liked, much less “well-respected,” by fans. There was nothing at all odd about the decision to replace him.

    He wasn’t even a polarizing figure — even that would have been better for him.

  2. Mort, it was only really on the internet that Jonathan Legard got flak. It was clear from the way other journalists and F1 insiders reacted to the news of the commentary change that he is seriously well respected as a journalist and a popular figure in the paddock.

  3. You Brits are spoiled by the lack of advert interruptions. As an American I am extemely jealous of the amount of coverage the BBC gives you guys; every practice, qualifying, pre and post race, plus archived races. I must say though that since I just got into F1 this past season the I went back and downloaded every race and qualy from the 2008 season and it was all ITV and I felt they did a great job, although the races from the current season that I’ve downloaded and were done by the BBC were much better. I just wish I could get all that good F1 stuff over on this side of the pond!

  4. Not to be disrepectful, but as blogs are only read by people on the internet Mort’s comment is a valid one.

    While JL was allegedly ‘respected’ by those in the sport, his commentary style did not sit well with the fans (even those not online.

    The commentary he provided was often inaccurate and he did seem to have good chemistry with MB. A co-presenter should not have to keep correcting the remarks of the anchorman.

    However it is quite correct that the BBC are saving some cash by reducing the number of people in the ‘team’.

    If I remember correctly ITV were keen to get out of F1 before their contract expired.

  5. I know the Legard debate has been done to death, but saying his detractors were “only really on the internet” misses the point that that’s the only place the viewers, the ones consuming the output, really have a voice. “Journalists and F1 insiders” would largely be at the events and therefore not sitting at home listening to him.

    I agree it’s an odd move to stretch the roles of two people so far, but replacing Legard in some way was a no-brainer IMO.

  6. “Mort, it was only really on the internet that Jonathan Legard got flak. It was clear from the way other journalists and F1 insiders reacted to the news of the commentary change that he is seriously well respected as a journalist and a popular figure in the paddock.”

    Do you know who talk on the Internet. The people watching at home. The opinion of other journalist and insiders isn’t something that anyone should give a damn about. The opinion of the people watching should be the one that matters. They are the viewers that the BBC is giving the service to and expects to attract.
    Is like telling me a politician should run the country because other politicians and analyst like him instead of his own people that hate him.
    It doesn’t seem to me like you gave it much thought when you wrote that.

  7. I wasn’t saying that Mort’s point was invalid, but Mort did say that “he wasn’t even a polarising figure”, which I know not to be true, so I was making that point.

    I didn’t decide that Jonathan Legard was well-respected. I based that comment on the words of Jonathan Noble and other articles and tweets that came out when his removal was announced.

    Then there was the apparently negative reaction from the punters at Autosport International.

    I know people from “real life” who are Legard fans, and I know of one person who even says he began watching F1 since it moved back to the BBC because “they don’t have that idiot commentating”.

    It is well-established that the opinions of people on the internet do not reflect the view of the population as a whole. As a watcher of politics too, I have seen that play out for real time and again.

    So it’s not quite so straightforward to just say “all the fans disliked Jonathan Legard”, which is the point I was making. He made mistakes, but so do all commentators. Murray Walker was a gaffe magnet, and would have been ripped to shreds in the internet age, I am sure.

    In fact, Murray Walker’s retirement was hastened by critical reviews in the press — I don’t think I have ever seen anything so critical about Legard in the press.

  8. In Ireland F1 has been covered by Setanta for the past few years, but they dropped coverage at the end of last season. While state broadcaster RTE will probably pick up coverage it hasn’t been announced yet.
    Setanta’s coverage was okay – cheap (coverage start 5 minutes before qualifying, pre-recorded bits before the race, and no extra talking heads), few ads (sometimes none during the early morning races) but still better than ITV. The problem was anyone in the country with cable has UTV/BBC, and is more likely to watch on those channels. And those of us with satellite had to pay extra for Setanta until F1 was back on the BBC.

    Not sure what my point is!

    (I didn’t mind Legard, he wasn’t brilliant, but he didn’t grate the way Allen did. Was never the biggest fan of Walker either – I preferred Eurosport’s ad-infested coverage with Ben Edwards to the BBC in the mid 90s.)

  9. Everyone loves Ben Edwards! He is the person who really should be in the commentary box, but I guess it won’t happen for whatever reason…