ITV showed that when it mattered, they could cover an unfolding event properly. Even though it was a low point for Formula 1, the 2005 United States Grand Prix was a high point for ITV’s coverage. When it became clear that there was a chance that the race would go ahead without the Michelin runners, ITV ripped up the running order and covered the unfolding scenario almost as though it was a rolling news channel.

When the Michelin runners pulled in at the end of the formation lap, ITV could easily have chosen to dump the coverage. Apparently, some channels around the world did. But ITV, to their credit, stuck with the race which was in a prime-time slot, knowing that what was happening was a huge story for Formula 1. The coverage itself was superb, striking just the right balance and bringing across to the viewer just what a farce it had become.

As James Allen says:

Commentating on the ‘race’ was completely different from any other race, as the story was as much about how the situation had arisen, how the crowd was taking it and where the sport would go next as it was about race action.

And Ted Kravitz points out:

Open hostility amongst the teams, the drivers literally powerless, and us on ITV broadcasting a meaningless race with six cars and ripping into the product we were meant to be promoting: a business that had forgotten it should be a sport.

That edition was nominated for a Bafta, but it didn’t win. Instead, ITV won Baftas for its coverage of the first race wins for Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. In both instances, the coverage was not particularly good for a host of reasons which I have outlined before.

ITV pulled off a master-stroke by selecting Martin Brundle has Murray Walker’s co-commentator. By all accounts, Brundle was a revelation as a television presenter, apparently leaving producers agog at his seemingly natural talent in front of the camera. It is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Martin Brundle didn’t even want to be with ITV — he was still after a race seat!

Martin Brundle’s gridwalks have been one of the few must-see aspects of ITV’s pre-race coverage. However, over time it has become more and more farcical, as Brundle was increasingly asked by producers to interview irrelevant celebrities, and drivers continually give him the cold shoulder.

Mind you, the gridwalk has provided one of ITV’s finest comedy moments.

It wasn’t the only time a potty-mouthed driver let rip on live television. One of the most memorable was Mark Webber being interviewed after Sebastian Vettel crashed into him at Fuji last year. Live on British breakfast television, he explained, “It’s just kids. They do a good job, then they fuck it all up!”

And in Australia 2008, David Coulthard actually threatened to kick “three colours of shit out of the little bastard” Felipe Massa.

Meanwhile, Louise Goodman has said that this classic DC moment was her most memorable interview at ITV. Check out the professionalism of Jim Rosenthal!

In the background of that clip you can hear pundit Tony Jardine trying his hardest to stifle his laughter. The analyst was the only person other than Murray Walker to make the leap from the BBC to ITV in 1997, albeit in a different role (he was pitlane reporter at the Beeb). Tony Jardine remained with ITV until a few years ago. The decision to dispose of him in favour of Mark Blundell is one of the many questionable decisions that ITV have taken in recent years.

Simon Taylor used to work alongside Tony Jardine as pundit. He provided another comedy moment in 1997 when ITV inadvisedly presented the coverage for the Monaco Grand Prix from a yacht in the harbour. The boat bobbed up and down so much that Simon Taylor was unable to broadcast because he became seasick! I think a few viewers probably felt a bit seasick as well. ITV opted to present its Monaco coverage from a balcony in later years.

Simon Taylor was less engaging as a pundit and did not feature in ITV’s coverage for long. In fact, looking at the retrospective on ITV’s own website, it is as though Tony Jardine and Simon Taylor never existed.

All-in-all, I think the story of ITV’s coverage since 1997 is one that started off earnestly but dropped off over the years. The decision to hire experienced and respected analysts like Tony Jardine and Simon Taylor along with Murray Walker was the right move. It kept the F1 purists happy.

It certainly made up for the decision to employ Jim Rosenthal, someone who had no interest in F1 at the start, as the show’s anchor. I thought Jim Rosenthal did a very good job considering his inexperience of F1, and I think his understanding of the sport was very good by the time he left ITV-F1 a few years ago.

It was clear that ITV was proud that it had F1 coverage in 1997. I recall that in the run-up to their first race in Australia, ITV broadcast an entire evening of F1-based programming including a one-off chat show presented by Clive James and featuring several drivers, and a showing of the classic film Grand Prix.

And check out the original title sequence. It is dark, mysterious, and classy — a complete world away from the cheese-fest that ITV-F1 has become.

Looking at some of ITV’s programmes from the early years, which can be easily found on YouTube, the tone of the programme is surprisingly different. The pace is slower, as though the coverage is being given room to breathe — very different from the frenetic Hamilton worshipping of later years.

Over the years, the best aspects of ITV’s coverage were stripped away one-by-one. Murray Walker’s retirement was a big blow which I don’t think ITV ever quite recovered from. While in the early years ITV hauled a dedicated studio around the world to present its track-side coverage from, more recently the poor presenters have been left shouting above the noise of engines in the pitlane — completely pointless.

The decision along the line to ditch its respected analysts in favour of the more populist Mark Blundell was questionable. And the general focus on light features and Hamilton-hype in the later years left a sour taste.

Having said that, F1 coverage has undoubtedly come on leaps and bounds. Occasional technical features fronted by Martin Brundle were excellent. And it has to be said that the hour-long build up that ITV typically offered was a tremendous commitment, even if all too often the post-race analysis was hurriedly wrapped up if the race was longer than expected (i.e. any time it rained, or any grand prix shown in prime time).

And you have to feel sorry in a way for ITV. When they picked up the F1 rights in 1996, they will have been expecting F1 to be on the cusp of a Damon Hill era, thereby guaranteeing British bums on seats. Unfortunately, the Damon Hill era fizzled out even more quickly than it began, as Hill drove for the hopelessly uncompetitive Arrows team in 1997. Then ITV had to suffer the ignominy of covering the dull years of Schumacher dominance and Ferrari dirty scheming.

So it’s worth saying thank you to ITV and North One for the work they have put into bringing F1 to our homes for the past twelve seasons. We complained about the adverts and James Allen, but they also brought F1 coverage in the UK to a new level and the BBC have been given a tough act to follow.

As well as David Coulthard’s career, the Brazilian Grand Prix brought down the curtain on another fixture of Formula 1 life. ITV broadcast their last grand prix before Formula 1 moves back to the BBC for 2009 onwards.

ITV’s first race was way back in 1997, the Australian Grand Prix. “Do not adjust your sets,” said anchor Jim Rosenthal. “This is Formula 1 on ITV.” My recollection is hazy. I was just 10 at the time. I had begun watching Formula 1 in 1995 or 1996, right at the tail end of the BBC’s F1 coverage.

Up until that point, Formula 1 was only ever shown on the BBC and in a lot of ways it was unthinkable for the sport to move over to commercial television. The first BBC Grand Prix was broadcast in 1976 — on a circuit that, albeit radically altered, is still used by F1 today: Fuji.

Their last grand prix was also in Japan, at Suzuka in 1996. For the occasion, they put together a package that really highlighted just how much of the history of Formula 1 — both good and bad — the BBC had brought to British homes over the years.

At the time, the downside of Formula 1 moving to ITV was obvious: the constant commercial breaks. This was a sad reality of Formula 1 coverage on ITV, and there was no use in complaining about it. For as long as F1 was on ITV, it was going to be interrupted by adverts.

That doesn’t make the pill any less bitter though. It has been estimated by Keith Collantine that over the course of its 206 grands prix, ITV took enough commercial breaks to miss 31 races’ worth of action — almost two entire seasons. The number of important events that ITV missed are almost too countless to mention. Lewis Hamilton’s gearbox failure in Brazil 2007, Michael Schumacher’s engine blowing in Suzuka 2006 and the infamous incident when ITV interrupted an intense battle between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher in the final few laps at Imola 2005 are just a few examples from recent years.

Once, ITV even opted not to show the United States Grand Prix live on ITV1, shifting it to the digital-only ITV2. This was in the pre-Freeview era, at a time when digital television viewers were very much in a minority. The decision to leave F1 fans in the lurch like this was a real slap in the face. Thankfully, ITV never repeated this stunt with any other race, although a good few qualifying sessions have been shown on digital-only channels over the years.

The adverts were not the only issue people had with ITV’s coverage. The obsession with Lewis Hamilton was almost suffocating. Their previous fixation with Jenson Button was more muted, but more ridiculous since Button was not even a fraction as good as Hamilton.

Other elements of the ‘pre-race show’ were also criticised for their light nature. Cooking with Heikki Kovalainen, anyone? Then there were the countless tedious reports about “glamorous” events.

The commentary has been another focal point for criticism. James Allen is a good writer (I’m a big fan of his book about Michael Schumacher, The Edge of Greatness). He was also good as a pitlane reporter. However, his commentary grated with many, including me.

There is no doubt that it is a tough job, and some of the sheer vitriol that was written about James Allen by some people was not justified. But I never understood why ITV did not give another commentator (such a Ben Edwards) a chance given that the unpopularity of James Allen was so widespread.

Then there is Ted Kravitz, who is an excellent journalist. But too often he got over-excited in the heat of the moment and sometimes regressed into stating the obvious. He was never too far from saying something like, “They’re putting on some new tyres. And, is that?… YES, some fuel is going in as well.” It is fair to say that when Murray Walker retired, the quality of ITV’s coverage took a step backward.

ITV’s coverage was not all bad though. There is no doubt that Formula 1 coverage in the UK has come on leaps and bounds since ITV gained the rights in 1997. It is worth remembering that the BBC did not even show qualifying often until its last few years of coverage. In this respect, ITV has fewer blots on its copybook, although I don’t doubt that the BBC would have moved in a similar direction. After all, broadcasting in general has changed a lot over the past twelve years.

In its final moments, I felt that ITV were pretty open about the shortfalls of their coverage. Steve Rider wrapped up the highlights of the Brazilian Grand Prix saying, “no more awkward commercial breaks”. I can only imagine the embarrassment that the producers must have felt whenever something important happened during a commercial break.

James Allen has also responded to his critics, saying:

I was always pretty confident that when Murray decided to retire I would get the gig, but never anything less than utterly self-critical and seeking to improve with every race and every year, which I think I’ve done.

It’s a very difficult and high-pressure job, because with 20 cars there are 20 different points of focus…

Of course there are many people at home in their armchairs who think they could do it better and one of the challenges for me was that I replaced Murray just as the internet opened up to allow everyone to have their say in chat rooms and forums.

But I know from market research and viewer feedback that the pros massively outnumber the vocal minority of cons.

Despite the criticisms though, I think overall ITV and North One can be proud of what they have done over the past twelve seasons. Tomorrow I will look at some of my memories from ITV’s coverage over the years.

ITV F1 have won their second Baftas in two years. For the many non-British readers of this blog, the Baftas are the most prestigious television awards in the country — our equivalent of the Emmys.

Can you guess which race they won it for?

*drum roll*

The Canadian Grand Prix

The most dire F1 broadcast of last year. The programme was so bad that ITV were inundated with complaints and even offered an “apology”, although it was more of a “lame excuse” if you ask me. Strangely, however, the apology has completely disappeared from the ITV-F1 website, Stalin-style. In its place is a mysterious article entitled ‘How BMW turned its form around’ that contains no text. Were ITV worried in case the Bafta academy saw it? (The original article lives on in the Web Archive.)

But F1 fans are not fools. We know a bad broadcast when we see one and we don’t have fish-like memories. Here is Keith Collantine’s post about it. You can also read mine.

Even if you are a Lewis Hamilton fan, ITV’s coverage of the Canadian Grand Prix was less than fitting of the Brit’s maiden win. The coverage was abruptly cut short immediately after the podium ceremony. There was no press conference and not even a sniff of analysis — just a rushed wrap-up.

Even James Allen’s usually awful commentary reached a pretty low nadir as he messed up Hamilton’s chequered flag moment. He started his “winning yelp” far too early which just made him sound a bit silly: “LEWIS HAMILTOOOOON……… … … … [checks watch]… … [reads newspaper] ……WIIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNS!” (Check the audio here.)

Furthermore, no other Grand Prix last year was littered so much with adverts. 17 minutes and 15 seconds of race action was missed by British viewers because of ITV. That is over 16% of the race. It is also around three minutes more than even the next most advert-interrupted race. If this happened during a football match there would be nothing short of outrage, and you can bet your bottom dollar it wouldn’t win a Bafta.

ITV won a Bafta last year for its coverage of the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix. This also “happened” to be another maiden win for a Brit, Jenson Button. But that was also if anything a sub-standard ITV broadcast as Martin Brundle, the only decent person on the ITV F1 team, was not present.

As with Craig from Craigblog, I am spotting a pattern here. No matter how bad their coverage is, ITV F1 will win a Bafta as long a Brit wins a Grand Prix for the first time. We all know that no matter how good their coverage was, ITV would not have won that Bafta unless Lewis Hamilton had won. In which case, the Bafta should go to Lewis Hamilton, not ITV / North One. And last year’s should be handed to Jenson Button.

Bafta are an absolute disgrace. If academy members had carried out even a cursory web search they would have found out that ITV’s coverage of the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix attracted several complaints. Moreover, they would have found out that the vast majority of F1 fans are less than enamoured about ITV’s approach towards F1.

I wrote about ITV winning their Bafta last year. Today, it is one of the most popular posts on the blog (908 visits in the last week alone, compared to 520 for the 2nd most popular post and 255 for the third most popular).

Let us not also forget that no less an authority than Ross Brawn has criticised ITV’s coverage of Formula 1. And I haven’t even touched on the overwhelming Hammy-hype. We F1 fans really have got a bum deal from ITV, and the fact that they are showered with praise in MSM backslapping events just rubs salt into the wound. It widens the ever-growing divide between we fans on the ground and our overlords in the mainstream media.

All I can say is, thank goodness F1 coverage is moving back to the BBC next year. I don’t think I can stand much more of this.

Now where’s the sick bucket?

Read more on this travesty at F1Fanatic.

The world of Formula 1 will be waking up to a very different world this morning. Some say that Michael Schumacher is very important to Formula 1, that his success has attracted fans who want to be able to say to their grandchildren that they watched the greatest racing driver of all time.

I don’t buy that. Michael Schumacher is famous because he is a good Formula 1 driver. Formula 1 isn’t famous because Michael Schumacher was dominant. There are probably a great many sportsmen who are dominant in their field, but are completely unknown because their field is anonymous. Formula 1 was big before Michael Schumacher and it will be big after Schumacher. It might even be bigger in his absence as we see closer competition.

Michael Schumacher is unquestionably the most successful Formula 1 driver in history. He was just one victory short from having as many wins as the two next most successful drivers (Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost) put together. Dizzyingly, he has won more than a third of the 250 races he has entered.

He also has more pole positions, more front-row starts, more fastest laps than anyone else (and actually more than the next two drivers — Prost and Nigel Mansell — put together), more podiums than anyone else, led more laps, scored more points and — of course — won more World Championships than anyone else. Put simply, he has achieved every record worth setting, and then some.

What is also incredible about Michael Schumacher is that he has looked capable of winning every single World Championship since 1994 (apart perhaps from 1996 when he was driving a dog of a Ferrari — and he even managed to score a good few race victories in that).

But these records are just lists of numbers. You can argue that a lot of this is just down to the nature of modern-day Formula 1 racing. In the 1950s and 1960s there were far fewer races per season — sometimes in the single figures compared to today’s eighteen in a season.

So what about Schumacher’s actual racing? This is where there is great debate about Michael Schumacher’s status as one of the sport’s true greats. The phrase “flawed genius” is a bit of a cliche, but it might as well have been invented for Michael Schumacher. It is difficult to think of a more controversial driver. Almost all of the most negative publicity in Formula 1 over the past decade and a half has involved Michael Schumacher in some form or another — last year’s exploding Michelin tyres at the US Grand Prix being the exception.

It was beginning to feel as though Schumacher was mellowing in recent years. And then came Rascassegate, where Michael Schumacher controversially parked his car on the track during qualifying at Monaco to prevent Fernando Alonso setting a faster time.

You can clearly see his movement in the steering wheel — he starts to steer left in the middle of a right turn. Jackie Stewart said, “This was too blatant. When you see it in slow motion, turning the wheel one way and then the other, he had plenty of time to do something.”

The incident brought back a lot of bad memories from the past decade. The July issue of F1 Racing magazine listed some of Schumacher’s transgressions. The list is long.

  • Britain 1994 — Disqualified and banned for two races after failing to take his stop-go penalty for overtaking on the warm-up lap
  • Australia 1994 — Crashed into Damon Hill to ensure victory in the 1994 Drivers’ Championship
  • 1994 season — Suspect software found on the Benetton that Schumacher drove
  • Brazil 1995 — Accusations that Schumacher delibrately put on weight for the twice-yearly weight check so that he could race underweight
  • Belgium 1995 — Blocking moves lead to the introduction of the ‘one move’ agreement where drivers can only move once to prevent being overtaken
  • Europe 1997 — Drove into Jacques Villeneuve in an attempt to secure the Drivers’ Championship. “You’ve hit the wrong part of him my friend!,” said commentator Martin Brundle. Williams put Villeneuve’s car on display to show the mark left by Schumacher’s tyre.
  • Britain 1998 — Wins the race in the pit lane by taking his stop–go penalty after crossing the finish line
  • Canada 1998 — Forces Frentzen to leave the track by abruptly joining the racing line after a pit stop, leading to the introduction of the pit lane exit line that cannot be crossed
  • Belgium 1998 — Accuses David Coulthard of “trying to fucking kill me” after crashing into the back of the Scot
  • Austria 2000 — Following a shunt, manoeuvres his car into a dangerous position in an attempt to get the race red-flagged and re-started
  • Austria 2001 — Team-mate Rubens Barrichello forced by Ferrari to pull over to let Schumacher through on the last corner
  • Germany 2001 — Once again moves his car into a dangerous position in an attempt to get the race red-flagged — this time successfully
  • Austria 2002 — Barrichello again forced to let Schumacher pass on the final corner — this time for the win. The spectators were furious. This leads to the “ban” on team orders
  • USA 2002 — A failed attempt at a “manufactured dead heat”. Some say it is payback for Austria. Once again, the fans are furious — and of all places, the USA is the one place this should not happen
  • Europe 2003 — Successfully encourages track marshals to push his beached car back on to the race track
  • Britain 2004 — Deliberately spins in quali 1 to miss the rain expected in quali 2
  • Australia 2005 — Yet again helped out by marshals who choose to ignore Nick Heidfeld who is also beached
  • Monaco 2006 — Rascassegate

The BBC has another list here.

What you have here is a man who is determined to win at all costs. Not all of these incidents were methodically planned in advance. Many of them happened when Schumacher was under great pressure. These decisions were made quickly. Schumacher is a quick thinker, and he knows how to make the best out of a bad situation. Unfortunately, it has left this otherwise outstanding driver with a somewhat tarnished reputation; a reputation as an ruthless, intimidating cheat.

Many argue that this is what you need to become a seven times World Champion. You need a bit of aggression, a do-or-die attitude, a notion that you must win at all costs. It’s just unfortunate that this trait has overshadowed his achievements.

People point at the fact that Ayrton Senna was hardly a clean racer either. He was known for stooping to low levels in order to win, probably most controversially when he crashed into his own team mate and championship rival, Alain Prost in order to win the Drivers’ Championship. Jacques Villeneuve might be known for his outspoken rants, but I think he had it spot on when he was asked about Michael Schumacher in an interview for the September issue of F1 Racing.

Michael simply isn’t a great champion because he’s played too many dirty tricks and because he isn’t a great human being. Yes, Senna played dirty tricks, too, but he did it with more class, more integrity. When he took Prost out at Suzuka in 1990, he said he was going to do it before the race. So, unlike Michael, who ridiculously insisted he was innocent at Monaco this year, Senna said, ‘Yes, I did it. But I told you before the race that I was going to do it.’ That’s very different from what Michael did at Monaco and Jerez [in 1997] and Adelaide [in 1994]. Senna wasn’t lying to his fans. Michael was.

Another dimension of the Michael Schumacher debate that has cropped up this weekend is the fact that it is difficult to remember any great overtaking manoeuvres that he has made. I was thinking the same thing myself before this weekend. Schumacher is certainly quick at getting a car around a circuit, but when he actually has to race other cars? That’s more tricky.

But in retrospect I think that might be an unfair criticism. Even today we saw a few great moves from him. Nevertheless, it has to be said that Ferrari and Michael Schumacher preferred to make gains in position through having a superior pitstop strategy rather than taking a risk on the circuit. This might be the prudent thing to do from Schumacher’s point of view, but it is a very unattractive way to win a race.

Then add in to the equation all of the races that Schumacher has won from pole position. This is another one of Schumacher’s incredible records. He has done it a staggering 37 times. Sometimes it was all too easy for him to win races, particularly in 2002 and 2004. The dominance is not good for the sport. I cannot remember a great deal of the early part of this decade.

When Schumacher hasn’t had such a dominant car it has sometimes felt like he is a bit rusty at actually racing. Nevertheless, Schumacher’s ability to make his way through the field so easily if he happened to start at the back of the grid for whatever reason is pretty much unparalleled. As far as overtaking goes, I’ll give Schumacher the benefit of the doubt.

Another, kind of related, criticism of Schumacher is that for most of the time he has been in the best car. This was certainly true for some seasons. But were the Benettons of 1994 and 1995 really the best cars? Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve benefited more from their utterly dominant Williams cars in 1996 and 1997.

The Ferrari of 1996 certainly wasn’t the best car in the field. Ferrari might have had the prestige, but it was in a horrendous barren spell which had seen little substantial success for the team since the 1970s. And Michael Schumacher can certainly take much of the credit for building Ferrari into a team of world beaters by the 2000s.

But it is true that Michael Schumacher has had little real competition. Formula 1 in days gone by has had so many greats — Prost, Senna, Clark, Stewart, Fangio and so on. But the past ten years has been a barren spell, Schumacher aside of course. Maybe this is genuinely because Michael Schumacher is simply head and shoulders above everybody else.

But really, where was his competition? In the 1990s the closest he had to a championship rival was Damon Hill, and Hill can hardly be considered one of the sport’s very greatest. And Jacques Villeneuve certainly can’t. After Mika Häkkinen won his back-to-back titles in the late 1990s, Michael Schumacher literally had no rivals for years. Now we have a crop of young promising drivers — Kimi Räikkönen and particularly Fernando Alonso look as though they have great futures ahead of them.

We’ve seen a few good seasons of Alonso versus Schumacher, so you can’t accuse Schumacher of running away as soon as the competition got tough. But everybody will remember the way he would never allow a competitive driver to be his team mate. The list of Schumacher’s team mates is hardly a hall of fame: Johnny Herbert, Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa. Then there is the fact that the entire Ferrari team was built around Schumacher’s Championship hopes. The team would do everything in its power to manipulate the result even if it meant a gain of just one point for Schumacher.

Now that Kimi Räikkönen has joined Ferrari, Michael Schumacher has jumped ship. There was an opportunity for Michael Schumacher’s talent to be measured against a genuinely quality driver racing in identical machinery. But Schumacher denied the fans a chance to judge his ability in a competitive environment. So we’ll never know. What a great shame.

Schumacher didn’t like racing. He only liked winning.

So will Michael Schumacher mainly be remembered for his amazing skill or for his questionable tactics? I think the fact that the debate even exists means that we already know the answer.

Update: Schumi comes under fire from Hill.