Archive: James Allen

There have been four grands prix in 2011 so far, and they have been widely hailed as a great success. There is no doubt that the races have been action-packed, with something always going on.

But I wasn’t feeling it quite as much as many others were. I thought the Chinese Grand Prix was okay. But the reaction of others left me perplexed. All kinds of platitudes were bandied about. “The best dry race in decades!” “The best since Japan 2005!” Really? I wasn’t feeling that at all.

But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was leaving me cold about F1 in 2011. There have been a lot of changes for this season, which has led to a very different style of racing. But what was it about the new F1 that was leaving me less thrilled than others?

It took me some time to work it out. But once I hit on it, the worse it seemed — and it has left me feeling a bit pessimistic about the prospects for truly good racing in 2011.

A pain in DRS?

A lot of attention has been focused on the brand new drag reduction system. Results of the DRS have been patchy.

At some races — particularly Australia — the DRS has been just enough to allow a driver behind to catch up. At the opposite extreme, in Turkey it was obvious that the DRS zone was far too long, and drivers were making easy passes that were not pleasing to watch.

The core problem is that it gives one driver and advantage over another — a significant deviation from the purity of racing. Comparisons to turbo boosts in the 1980s are no good. It may be a button that drivers can press, but there the similarity ends.

Back then, all of the options were open to everyone. You could choose to have a turbo or not, and you could use it whenever you wanted. But to say who can use a device and when they can use it is not on.

To artificially give the trailing driver a speed advantage is taking us into Mario Kart territory. As a friend said to me, “It’s like they have allowed cheating”. It is fundamentally wrong and does not belong in any event that calls itself a sport.

I love the idea of moveable rear wings, but the implementation is all wrong. I don’t even understand why it can only be used in one part of the circuit. As Niki Lauda said, why is it the FIA’s job to say where drivers can pass each other?

Moreover, the hit and miss nature of the DRS zone is leading to different sorts of results in different races. The zones change size, and sometimes the FIA have got it wrong. They have even changed the position of the DRS activation point during a race weekend. What other word is there for this apart from ‘manipulation‘?

This may be a device designed to “fix” the “problems” with overtaking. Instead, we have come one step away from fixing the results.

F1 has sold its rubber soul

But I am more concerned about the situation with the new Pirelli tyres. While the DRS is widely criticised, people have been much kinder about the tyre situation. Indeed, one of the more popular refrains this year has been “thank you Pirelli”. But I am in no mood to thank them.

They are designed to degrade artificially quickly. This is a significant deviation from the concept of F1. Formula 1 is now no longer about the best drivers in the best cars. It’s about the best drivers in the best cars — with the worst tyres.

While technical regulations have always restricted cars (it is the “formula” in Formula 1, after all), the tradition has always been to maximise the performance to create the fastest car possible that adheres to the formula of the day. That is what brings us radical ideas like the double diffuser and the F-duct, that many F1 fans love to talk about.

With the tyres, Pirelli have deliberately made them perform badly. Come on, this is supposed to be elite motorsport.

Moreover, these dodgy tyres have now become the central issue of a grand prix weekend. I have long bemoaned the dominance of tyres in F1. If a car has better aerodynamics, you can see it. If an engine is faster, you can hear it. But the tyres? They are just black boxes that sit in the four corners.

But there is no getting away from it — tyres are hugely important to the performance of a car. What I don’t understand is why you would want to accentuate that.

Critics of F1 often complain that the drivers of the best cars always win. What these people misunderstand is that F1 is all about engineering excellence, just as much as it is about great driving.

But now we have now reached a stage where the deciding factor is neither the driver nor the car. It is now all about strategy — driven by deliberately dodgy tyres — above all else.

They are now so important that the situation is now threatening to make qualifying a complete non-event. After all those years spent tweaking the format of qualifying in the name of “the show”, you have to laugh when further changes totally break a format they finally got right.

The reason? Because you need as many fresh sets of tyres as possible to last the whole race. This means less track action on Saturday, as teams are fearful of using too many sets of tyres. What is this, Formula 1 bean counting, or Formula 1 motor racing?

Divergent strategies reduce real racing

In addition to spearing Saturday action, it is my view that the tyres situation is making Sundays less exciting too.

Take the experience of Mark Webber. He climbed from 18th on the grid to finish 3rd in China. You’d think if anyone would be excited about the wheel-to-wheel action in 2011, it would be him. Not so much.

After the race he told the BBC, “Sometimes the overtaking moves aren’t that genuine because the guys really have nothing to fight back with. It’s more tactical now, and a bit less racing.” During the BBC’s broadcast from Turkey, Martin Brundle revealed that Webber had told him privately that he got no satisfaction out of the progress through the field in China. James Allen further hinted at Webber’s distinct unhappiness at the situation.

Following Turkey, Jenson Button lay the blame for his poor result squarely on his strategy. Asked about what happens when his tyres go off, Button said, “You’re not racing any more. You’re trying your best to get the best out of the car, but you’re not racing anyone around you because you are a sitting duck… They just come past you and you can’t do anything.”

Overtaking has looked like it’s too easy this year, and it is not just because of DRS. The situation with the tyres means that drivers are dealing with such radically different levels of grip that the slower driver does not even bother to defend any more.

Many celebrated Lewis Hamilton’s pass on Sebastian Vettel for the lead of the Chinese Grand Prix. But for me, it killed the race as soon as it happened. I was hoping for Vettel to be able to defend, but he simply couldn’t. As it was, the pass was inevitable for laps in advance.

In the laps between Hamilton’s pitstop and his pass on Vettel, the McLaren driver was an average of 0.9s a lap faster than the Red Bull. (At one point he set a lap time 1.6 seconds up on Vettel.) To put this into perspective, during Q1 in China, a 0.9s gap to the fastest driver would have earned 18th on the grid.

Is it really exciting to watch a car that’s got an advantage of around one second a lap breeze on by? Not for me. This isn’t overtaking — it’s merely passing. It’s hardly Dijon 1979, is it? Today René Arnoux would flip his flap, press his boost button and head off into the distance on his superior tyres — race over.

The performance differences are huge, and it is all down to decisions that are made by computers far in advance. It is out of the driver’s hands. What is this, the Excel Grand Prix of Spreadsheet?

It is right that strategy plays a part in a race. But this year the balance has been tipped way over the edge, to the point where the driver’s influence on the outcome of the race has been severely diminished. You almost may as well hold the grand prix on a computer where all of the strategies have been put in.

To open up strategy options for this season without resorting to crap tyres that create crap pseudo-racing, they could simply have ditched the rule whereby drivers are forced to run on both compounds. This would have opened up the possibilities of running a 0, 1 or 2 stop strategy.

Instead, we are now seeing record-breaking levels of pitstops — upwards of 80 pitstops a race — for no good reason. This has taken away the emphasis from the on-track action, and has made huge amounts of the “racing” totally irrelevant.

It wasn’t broke, so why “fix” it?

The most disturbing thing about all the changes this season is the fact that there was very little wrong with Formula 1 in the first place. I didn’t complain that Formula 1 is dull. And while there was room for improvement, I have long bemoned the gimmicky thinking that has come about through efforts to “improve the show”. Now it is in danger of jumping the shark.

I love Formula 1 motor racing. I have done since the mid-1990s. There were lots of other people who claimed they also loved F1 — but at the same time complained about “processional races”. They said that F1 was too dull. Yet, for some reason, they still watched it anyway, and demanded changes. Huh?

I feel like the sport I love has been hijacked.

I also believe that the criticisms of the new format have been misunderstood by some insiders. It is not “too much overtaking” or “too much of a good thing”.

James Allen said, “it’s a bit like going into a sweet shop and eating half the stock, when you’ve only been used to getting a packet of Polos at best.” That’s not how I feel. It’s actually more like going into a nice restaurant expecting a good meal and being served a Big Mac instead.

Time to end the fixation with “the show”

Don’t get me wrong. I am still deriving satisfaction from Formula 1 this season. But the wheel-to-wheel action has become a lot more insipid this year, and bland passing has become so prevalent that overtaking has become devalued.

Kers is great for Formula 1. But the tyres situation, combined with DRS, is threatening to spoil the party. It wasn’t broke, but they fixed it anyway. But in “fixing” the racing, we have come just one step away from fixed races. The positioning of the DRS zone, determined by an FIA mandarin, could potentially make the difference between who wins and who loses.

Somewhere along the line, F1 has become so fixated on “the show” that it has forgotten about the race. There are now too many gimmicks and complications that deviate from the core concept that has served motorsport well for over a century: put a bunch of cars on a track and discover which is the fastest.

Of course, motorsport must always seek to entertain the audience. It wouldn’t exist otherwise. But you also need to remember why fans of motorsport tune in. Clue: it’s because they want to see a motor race. There are plenty of other places where you can be entertained by contrived or fictitious means.

But sport is supposed to be based on merit. It needs to be real.

When Renault’s James Allison said “We are an entertainment business,” it showed how wrong this whole approach is. We are dangerously striding towards WWE territory. If James Allison wants to work in an entertainment business, he can go to work in Hollywood. I want to watch a race.

The toxic focus on “the show” needs to stop.

This is a show:

This is a race:

Now, let’s go racing.

Next weekend sees the start of the Formula 1 season. So for this week’s television presentation gem of the week, I had to feature The Chain. This week there is a campaign to get The Chain to number 1 in the charts for the start of the Formula 1 season.

Here is the title sequence to Grand Prix from 1979, the first Formula 1 season to be broadcast in full by the BBC.

Like many BBC Sport theme tunes, The Chain has gone into legend. Just as Soul Limbo is inextricably linked with cricket, so The Chain goes hand-in-hand with Formula 1. This is despite a 12 year break in which it was never used in ITV’s coverage of the sport.

I fondly remember this 1995 title sequence, which was being used when I was first getting into F1 (unfortunately this is the best quality I could find).

The Chain is one of those elements of Formula 1 broadcasting that have become almost religiously important to many of the sport’s followers. Murray Walker is another.

There is almost a folklore of F1 broadcasting which has made F1 fans particularly protective, and often critical of even the highest quality broadcasting. Commentators James Allen and Jonathan Legard have both learned that to their cost.

When F1 returned to the BBC for the 2009 season, they had no choice but to choose The Chain (albeit with a lot of sound effects added).

Who is the most controversial man in F1? Is it Bernie Ecclestone with his bizarre comments about Hitler and Jewish black female drivers? Is it Max Mosley with his political posturing and Nazi German prisoner themed sex orgies? Nope — it’s Michael Schumacher.

When it was announced that Michael Schumacher was preparing to replace Felipe Massa at Ferrari while the Brazilian convalesces, the great ideological gulf among F1 fans suddenly re-emerged. I can’t remember seeing such strong reactions on any issue about any subject, let alone F1.

For some people, Michael Schumacher might as well be Jesus. You could produce video evidence of him killing a kitten and he would still be the greatest man on earth. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t appreciate genius when they see it?

For others, there is nothing that can redeem Michael Schumacher. He is a serial cheat whose team-mates were all hamstrung and whose seven World Drivers’ Championships are among the least deserving ever awarded. You must surely see that he is the most evil man on earth?

My view is slightly more nuanced. He was a bit of both. His record speaks for itself, and he must take credit especially for his ability to build a team around him. But I hated the way he went about racing.

The Edge of Greatness cover Incidentally, for a fair-minded assessment of Michael Schumacher, I highly recommend James Allen’s book, The Edge of Greatness. I always thought James Allen as a commentator was too biased in favour of Schumacher, but his book displays a very measured and nuanced assessment of his qualities as a driver, and his failings as a sportsperson.

I must come straight out and say that I have never been a fan of Michael Schumacher. Never. And for me, his talent was tainted by his tendency to bend the rules whenever he had the slightest opportunity.

I don’t even rate him much as a racer. For me, his wheel-to-wheel skills were rather poor, and he disguised this by being overly aggressive. That was why he often panicked under pressure, such as at Jerez in 1997. If he found himself in the midfield, he sometimes had very clumsy races indeed — his botched move on Takuma Sato at Suzuka in 2003 springs to mind.

Schumacher was famous for relying on Ross Brawn strategies to “overtake in the pitlane” rather than try to make a genuine overtaking move. I highly doubt that Schumacher would have won as many Championships if refuelling wasn’t legal. I won’t lie: 2000–2004 were my least favourite years of watching F1 since I first fell in love with the sport in the mid-1990s.

Since Schumacher left F1 I do feel as though I have started to enjoy F1 a lot more. Even though some of the drivers are not perfect in terms of their adherence to the rules or their spirit of fair competition, it feels a lot less like a dark cloud such as Rascassegate will come rumbling over the hills at any moment.

Now, of course, he is back in F1 and it has changed again. It amuses me greatly that even weeks before his first grand prix back is due to start, he already sought ways to cheat, to unfairly gain an advantage over his competitors. It says it all about him in one action.

Williams are not my favourite team either, but they were totally right to block this blatant infringement of the rules. Just a couple of weeks before, Toro Rosso’s new driver Jaime Alguersuari was refused a similar request, and he did a perfectly adequate job. Quite why a supposedly great 7 times World Champion needs to practice so much is not clear to me.

Ferrari’s enormously arrogant statement in retaliation against the blocked request sums up why I can’t stand the team so much. Apparently they think the red rule should still exist. What happened to that spirit of cooperation they were supposedly so keen on? I guess now that the Concorde Agreement is signed, cordial relations are not so important any more.

It is clear that the testing rules need amending. I have been saying so for a long time now. But until a new set of rules are agreed upon, everyone needs to adhere to them, otherwise you may as well just rip the rulebook up (some would argue Ferrari have ripped up the rulebook and written their own anyway).

This is all a sign that Michael Schumacher does not intend to simply go through the motions. I had wondered quite what was in this comeback for Schumacher. I saw easily why Ferrari were interested. But what could possibly have motivated Schumacher?

After all, he potentially has so much to lose. With his wife and kids — and we know his wife is concerned because he says he has made an “arrangement” with her that health is the top priority — he surely doesn’t want to be doing something so dangerous. He cannot possibly need the money, and he certainly doesn’t have anything else to prove (unless he wants somehow to prove that he can be a good sportsperson, but that opportunity has already been shot).

He also risks being embarrassed because of his waning ability. At 40, he is the oldest driver to compete in F1 since Nigel Mansell in 1995, and let us not forget that Mansell’s last period as an F1 driver was not exactly a roaring success. And after two and a half years out of competitive grand prix racing, there is every chance that he will be rusty during his forthcoming races.

But now we know what motivates him — it is his sheer, ruthless competitiveness. He may have initially agreed out of “loyalty” to Ferrari, but once he’s a driver again he is up to the same old tricks, looking for the slightest advantage wherever it may come from.

Of course, many would say that this is what sets him apart from everyone else.

Commentary

The BBC’s lead commentator Jonathan Legard has come in for a lot of stick on the internet. In my view, most of it is wholly unwarranted. Indeed, I am quite confused at the negative reaction he has been getting. I used to listen to him from time to time when he was on Radio 5 Live, and I was a fan of him then. In my view, it took years for the station’s Formula 1 coverage to recover from his departure. He has a good voice and is clearly passionate and highly knowledgable about F1. I like his tone and his sense of humour.

Most importantly of all for his job is that he almost never makes mistakes. The internet collapsed in a heap of laughter when he committed the heinous crime of mistaking a replay for live action during the Malaysian Grand Prix. Name me a commentator who has never done that? There was even a mitigating factor then, as FOM’s replay graphic was playing up during the race. Apart from that, I can’t think of any time when he has made a bad mistake, misidentified a driver (except for the odd mixed-up Red Bull for a Toro Rosso — we’ve all been there) or misread a situation. He has had a couple of bad race starts, but once the race settles in he is fine.

In contrast, Brundle has made a few errors this season, including a mega clanger when he spent half the race in Spain confusing the prime and option tyres, which actively ruined viewers’ understanding of the race. During qualifying at the British Grand Prix he spent an entire lap talking about Räikkönen even though we were watching Massa, a fact backed up by a FOM caption. He made a few mistakes during the German GP as well.

Some criticise Legard’s reliance on crutch phrases, which I would agree is one jarring thing about his commentary. But let us face it, at times Murray Walker may as well have had a drawstring coming out of his back, and everyone found that endearing. Why it should be different for Legard I don’t know.

It is true that the chemistry between him and Martin Brundle has not been very good, but that was inevitably going to take time to build up, no matter who Brundle was commentating with. Legard has a good conversational style which I like. It is a potentially great way to cover duller moments of the race without resorting to James Allen’s trick, "let’s listen to the engine [while I think of something to say]".

Unfortunately Brundle doesn’t seem to know how to deal with Legard’s conversational style. He seems not to know how to respond to Legard, often choosing not to respond at all.

A typical example of this happened during the German Grand Prix, when Brundle responded unneccessarily sarcastically towards Legard’s inquisitiveness over Brundle’s statement that it would be a shame to for refuelling to be banned. It was almost as though he felt threatened that his viewpoint was being questioned. Speaking personally, I disagree with Brundle’s point of view (strategy plays a role, but if you allow it to dominate is just replaces racing with mathematics), and the rude way he expressed it totally alienated me.

Sometimes listening to Brundle you think he deliberately sets out for a scrap. Maybe it is his way of spicing it up by playing devil’s advocate. But I get the feeling that being combative is the only way he knows how to operate. He did, after all, make his name by constantly correcting Murray Walker, and later James Allen. He never stops "correcting" people. You almost get the sense that, given the chance, he would "correct" Michael Schumacher on the subject of being a seven times World Champion.

It probably doesn’t help that he is now working with a commentator who doesn’t constantly need to be corrected, which means he now has to adapt his style to that of a colour commentator rather than encroaching on the main commentator’s role as he has always done before. This is new territory for Brundle, and I don’t think he is coping well.

Some people suggest that you could solve this problem by making Martin Brundle the main commentator. It might be worth experimenting with, but I can easily see Brundle’s ego soon dominating the entire show if he was to be given that role.

I have to admit that sometimes I wonder now if I would miss Martin Brundle. I spent most of last year listening to Radio 5 Live, sans-Brundle, and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the races. Given that he is almost certainly the most expensive person on BBC F1 team, I wonder if it is not time for him to be given another role, because for me he is probably the least value for money.

He does have a good turn of phrase, and is an engaging talker on F1, so I wouldn’t like to see him go for good. Perhaps he could be given a smaller role such as that of post-race analyst. The colour commentator role can go to someone with more recent experience of an F1 car such as Anthony Davidson, because Brundle increasingly seems at a loss to explain some of the technical elements of team radio conversations.

And can someone explain to me why Brundle hasn’t been taken aside and politely asked to pronounce Sebastian Vettel’s name correctly? He must be the only person in the world who appears to mistake this ace F1 driver for some kind of telecommunications company, or a brand of bottle watter. Vett-tel? It’s ‘fettle’. Really, really annoying.

The interactive forum

The BBC have a lot of great points to their coverage, but this is possibly the greatest innovation they have come up with. For an hour or so after the BBC One programme has finished, they continue analysing the race on the Red Button. This is something that simply would never have happened on ITV, so this is another great reason why the BBC is the right home for F1.

ITV’s post-race programme always felt like a rush job. The BBC’s probably would too if I stopped watching when BBC One stopped broadcasting it. But that extra hour feels just right. An extra hour to immerse myself in F1 news, interviews, analysis, footage, insight and knowledge. And there are a few viewer questions thrown in for good measure. Great stuff.

Red Button extras

Here is something else that you couldn’t have got on ITV — extra material on the red button. There are the rolling highlights, which I have personally never used and don’t really see the point of. It seems like a waste of a stream to me, but then again the BBC probably don’t have anything else to put on this stream (I understand that they are not allowed to broadcast the official timing screens).

But the on-board channel is a great addition to the coverage. I always have my laptop open with the on-board stream running. For one thing, it often catches incidents that are missed by the World Feed. It is notable that a lot of the BBC’s post-race analysis consists of footage from this channel — it is valuable stuff. During the German GP, they even interrupted the World Feed on BBC One to show a replay from the on-board channel! It is also interesting to watch the on-board channel during lulls in the race. I’m sure it will come in handy for Valencia.

The BBC also provide a handful of alternative audio options, though I never make use of them. I like Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle is still interesting to listen to even if he grates more these days. But for those who haven’t taken to Legard, it is no surprise that the Radio 5 Live commentary option with David Croft and Anthony Davidson seems to have gone down a storm.

CBBC commentary seems less popular. I wonder if it is used very often. I can’t imagine I would have used it as a child. It’s like Newsround. No-one ever watches it because if you’re too young to be interested in the news, you simply don’t watch it. But if you’re old enough to be interested in the news, you watch the proper news, not the kiddy patronising version. CBBC commentary seems like a waste of an audio stream to me.

Pit lane reports

There are some very noticeable changes in the way the BBC deal with reports from the pitlane as opposed to ITV. On ITV, whenever there was a pitstop they would throw to Ted Kravitz who would then commentate on it. It wasn’t good. Usually he would just say, "yes, the fuel hose is in. And they have put new tyres on. And he’s away, good stop!" It felt pointless, although I guess it punctuated the commentary in a way. But I prefer it when Legard and Brundle commentate on pitstops, and for Ted Kravitz to be used when something genuinely interesting happens in the pitlane.

Meanwhile, Lee McKenzie is doing a fine job for her first season in F1 full time. She has plenty of experience in motorsport, so there are no real issues with her there. There have been one or two hairy interviews, particularly when she clearly got at Lewis Hamilton who responded tersely after being asked how it felt to be lapped by Button. But in a way that revealed a lot about Lewis Hamilton’s mindset.

In fact, Lee McKenzie seems quite good at that. Rubens Barrichello completely opened up in an unprecedented way after the German Grand Prix, all as a result of a simple but carefully-worded question: "It was going so well, what went wrong?" You could argue that it was never really going well for Barrichello, but the question obviously confirmed in Barrichello’s mind that he was on for a good result, hence his amazing rant.

On ITV, Louise Goodman often got some very interesting quotes out of drivers, but normally of the post-watershed variety. Not good when Webber is talking about kids fucking it up on breakfast television.

Louise Goodman was certainly good at finding drivers very quickly after they had retired. At the start of the season, it was noted by some that Lee McKenzie appeared to be much slower at tracking down the drivers. It transpires that the BBC are choosing to pre-record these interviews, probably to save money.

I also wonder if there is a different approach among F1 journalists in general this year. For the first time, drivers are mandated to conduct interviews after they have retired. Perhaps the BBC are going for the safe option, remaining in the designated area for a 100% chance of getting an interview, albeit one that is slightly late, rather than taking a gamble by going on a hunt to get a quicker interview at the risk of missing the driver completely.

It is noticeable that Lee McKenzie isn’t getting much airtime during the races though. This is probably because there are very few retirements in F1 these days. Given now that Ted Kravitz doesn’t have to do the whole "they’re putting fuel in his car!!!" schtick, I wonder if there is really a need for there to be two pitlane reporters. I wouldn’t know, but it seems as though they are doing less work than they did on ITV.

Something I would like to see from the pitlane reporters is more input in terms of analysing strategy. ITV were always good at this, because James Allen is a genius at working out strategies. Even if he wasn’t a great main commentator, he was always excellent as a pitlane reporter, and always had the edge when it came to reading the strategic elements of the race.

But reading strategy now appears to be the biggest weakness of the BBC’s coverage. I would like to see Ted Kravitz try and think about strategy more. Or, if Ted is not up to the task, bring James Allen on board as a strategy analyst.

For a long time, Kimi Räikkönen has been the subject of much innuendo. He is often criticised for his known partiality to a tipple and condemned for being apparently disinterested. A few races ago BBC pundit David Coulthard described his former team mate as “the laziest driver you ever saw”.

After the Malaysian Grand Prix, regular commenter Andy asked:

How is Kimi viewed by the Tifosi? His apparent indifference at driving for Ferrari (and sometimes in F1) annoys even me (and I am not a Ferrari fan). We know the guy is quick, and can produce some stunning drives, but sometimes he just looks like he can’t be bothered if he’s not winning. We laughed at Massa’s ability in the Silverstone rain a couple of years ago, but at least the guy was trying to push, and has eventually come out as a more respected driver.

I have long been curious of the Tifosi’s attitude towards Kimi Räikkönen. Back in 2007, Räikkönen’s first year at Ferrari, Keith at F1 Fanatic ran a story about how the Tifosi appeared not to be warming towards the Finn.

Keith had attended the Italian Grand Prix and noticed that the fans’ affections were largely saved for Felipe Massa. Meanwhile, the famous Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport was lukewarm about Räikkönen’s efforts. The attitude stands in stark contrast to the view that I would assume most non-Ferrari fans seem to hold — that it is Felipe Massa whose driving skills are rather variable while Räikkönen is a proven winner.

The Tifosi don’t always take well to Ferrari drivers at first. I read in James Allen’s book, The Edge of Greatness, that Michael Schumacher didn’t quite capture the imagination of the Tifosi straight off the bat. But once Schumacher got a grasp of quite what the history and heritage of the Ferrari brand means to so many fans, he quickly became an excellent ambassador for the team and the rest is history.

I could well imagine that Schumacher’s apparent aloofness may have rubbed some people up the wrong way. But I wondered quite what it was that turned the Tifosi off about Kimi Räikkönen. Was it the fact that he was a former McLaren driver? Not likely — plenty of Ferrari drivers also raced for McLaren, notably Alain Prost. Maybe it was his reluctance to learn Italian, or his nonchalant demeanour.

Stories about the Tifosi’s apparent indifference towards their new driver unsurprisingly took a back seat immediately after Räikkönen won the World Drivers Championship in 2007. But over the past year or so they have gone into overdrive, and now most onlookers openly question the driver’s commitment to the sport.

Even the team itself sometimes appears to have little patience with their expensive big-name star. And every so often rumours that he will be replaced by Fernando Alonso resurface. We’ve heard those rumours before of course. We were told that Alonso was headed towards Ferrari for 2009 — then Räikkönen signed a contract extension until 2010.

Today James Allen wrote on his blog about the fresh rumours. Alonso is becoming a bit more effusive about Ferrari and Italian culture. He has also moved to the Swiss / Italian border — handy if you want to work with Ferrari.

Rumours that Alonso is arriving at Maranello now go hand-in-hand with the question marks over Räikkönen’s role at Ferrari. It used to be assumed that Alonso moving to Ferrari would be unworkable because he would replace Massa, and having two high-calibre drivers at a top team would not work. On the back of a seriously impressive 2008 campaign though, it doesn’t look like Massa will be the one who has to walk the plank.

Says James Allen:

The word I’m hearing is that these next few races are pretty important for Kimi Raikkonen. Although he has a contract for 2010, the suggestion is that he has certain criteria to meet and that an agreement, which is in place with Alonso for 2011, has a clause which could bring it forward to 2010. The next couple of months will be decisive.

One GP driver I spoke to recently said that in the briefings and at moments when the drivers are all together, Kimi seems like he doesn’t care any more. It’s as if he’s going through the motions. It’s a shame if this is true, as Raikkonen is one of the most exciting and most talented drivers in F1.

That sort of thing is what we hear about Räikkönen all the time — that he is lazy, can’t be bothered and no longer cares. The implication, though, is that this is now even more the case.

Kimi Räikkönen’s qualifying session in Monaco today goes a fair way to dispel that notion in my view. Ferrari have not looked close to getting pole position all season, but it was only a scarcely-believable lap by the ever-improving Jenson Button in the vastly superior Brawn that prevented the Finn from grabbing pole today.

Meanwhile, Felipe Massa, who took pole last year, looked a bit lost during qualifying. He spun in a low-pressure situation during Q1, damaging his car. Massa only qualified 5th on a very similar fuel load to Räikkönen.

Could this be Räikkönen’s resurgence? He badly needs it, and although his performance today is a good sign there were also a few false dawns last season.

It could be, though, that Räikkönen’s reputation is irreparably damaged. Here is one sign that he simply does not have the respect of the Tifosi. This is a video which I saw over at Axis of Oversteer. It is an advert for a Ferrari branded mobile phone.

Schumacher is depicted as the flawless ambassador. Räikkönen is depicted as a slow, unintelligent dork. And this is an advert aimed at Ferrari fans!

I know that not many people are thinking about this just now, especially as attention has turned to the diffuser debate. But I have only just found the time to write about it here. You may have seen me mention this elsewhere, including in the comments to this blog. But I haven’t yet included it as a separate post.

I first mentioned this in a comment to one of the posts below. Afterwards I decided to write a comment about it on James Allen’s blog. He then saw fit to use my comment as the foundation of a separate post which he called “Fresh insight into McLaren case“.

He had mentioned that the WMSC may find it difficult to prove that anyone other than Dave Ryan and Lewis Hamilton was involved in the decision to lie to the stewards at the Australian Grand Prix. But I remembered an interview that Martin Whitmarsh had with the BBC’s Ted Kravitz which I found very interesting. You can watch the video here, but it is only available to UK users. In case you can’t see it, I have transcribed the relevant part below:

…there’s some debate about whether it’s a 3rd place at the moment given that Trulli fell off and re-passed under the Safety Car…

[Ted Kravitz asks him to expand on this.]

…At the end, under the Safety Car, Trulli fell off onto the grass and Lewis had no choice but to go past him. He was not on the racing circuit. Trulli then re-took the place under the Safety Car, which ordinarily you wouldn’t do.

I know that the FIA are looking at it at the moment and doubtless we’ll have a ruling in due course.

For me, the interview is very misleading. It is “technically true”. But Martin Whitmarsh leaves the BBC’s viewers with the distinct impression that Jarno Trulli was in the wrong — that he had overtaken Lewis Hamilton of his own accord, not having been invited to do so. The key point is that the version of events relayed by Martin Whitmarsh to the BBC’s viewers is more or less identical to what we understand Dave Ryan and Lewis Hamilton told the stewards.

This means one of three things. One is that it is an entirely meaningless coincidence, though it would be quite a remarkable one. Second, both Dave Ryan and Martin Whitmarsh independently came up with the same cover story. This in itself would say something bad about the culture of McLaren.

The third possibility is that a version of events — the McLaren party line, as it were — was constructed very soon after the race. In this scenario, Martin Whitmarsh was in on it, and Dave Ryan has become the fall guy. If this is the case, McLaren are guilty as sin and the decision to scapegoat Dave Ryan is reprehensible.

A lot of journalists sensed that Martin Whitmarsh knew more than he was letting on. The BBC interview only adds to this impression. The interview throws the spotlight straight back onto Martin Whitmarsh. What did he know about the situation? Did he instruct Dave Ryan — who by all accounts I have heard is a well-respected person within the paddock — to lie to the stewards?

A lot of the conversation on James Allen’s blog has centred on Martin Whitmarsh’s use of the word “ordinarily” in the sentence, “Trulli then re-took the place under the Safety Car, which ordinarily you wouldn’t do.” I noted in my original comment, “Yeah, you wouldn’t do it… unless the guy in front pulled over!”

I was surprised that the BBC themselves hadn’t made more of the interview. Perhaps they had forgotten about it. I note with interest now that the Telegraph is reporting that the FIA have requested a copy of the interview from the BBC.

I must point out here that I sincerely hope that any further punishment the FIA hands out to McLaren is not too over-the-top. I should think a fine (considerably less than ONE HUNDRED MEELION DOLLARS) or the removal of Constructors’ Championship points for a few races would suffice. After all, what McLaren did may have been unsporting. But they did not do anything downright dangerous, like a certain man who drove a red car was fond of doing from time to time and never got more than a slap on the wrists for.

I’ve been a bit busy lately so I’ve been falling behind a bit on the posting front. I’ve not even got all of my 2008 season review posts out of the way, and before I knew it the 2009 season had begun in the form of testing at Barcelona! But there is plenty of time in the off-season for me to discuss these things. Here are just a handful of bits and bobs to bridge the gap until my next post here.


If you follow me on Twitter you may know that I have found myself bombarded with emails from PR companies who are trying to get me to include stuff in my blogs that I have absolutely no interest in. And sometimes the tone of the emails are slightly hectoring, which doesn’t exactly make me any more inclined to feature their “story”. Well, at long last, one of these pitches has actually appealed to me and I’ve decided to include it in this blog.

Unfortunately it requires me to embed some javascript and I don’t think WordPress lets you place javascript in the posts, so I’ve positioned it at the top of the sidebar for the time being. It is quite an amusing video though, showing that McLaren do have a sense of humour after all.

Okay, so it’s a Vodafone video rather than McLaren, but it comes just a couple of months after McLaren went viral with their humorous video previewing the Singapore Grand Prix. For a team with such a grey image, it’s good to see.


It looks like the BBC’s plans for next season are finally taking shape. David Coulthard’s involvement in next season’s coverage have been confirmed through a semi-official source. Yesterday Martin Brundle revealed for himself that he will be involved.

I have also heard that USP Content have retained the contract to produce coverage for BBC Radio 5 Live. That’s good news, because I think they’ve done a great job for the past few years. I often chose to listen to the Radio 5 Live commentary rather than James Allen, even enduring a two second delay between hearing something happen and seeing it (at least it meant I didn’t miss seeing something when it did happen!).

I’m looking forward to seeing what the television and radio teams can put together for next season. Personally, I’d love to hear Martin Brundle and David Coulthard making an appearance on the Chequered Flag podcast.

Rumour has it that the BBC will be announcing something to coincide with the Sports Personality of the Year award bash, where Lewis Hamilton is expected to win.


BMW have given us a taste of what 2009 will look like. I will probably post a more in-depth article about my thoughts on testing later on in the winter. But for the time being, all I will say is: yuk!

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.