Having considered the past of ITV’s Formula 1 coverage, it is time to turn our attention to the future of the BBC’s F1 coverage.
The first thing to point out is that, of course, just about everything is pure speculation for the time being. We have been given a few hints of what to expect — HD coverage, internet and mobile coverage and things like that. This all sounds like a very good step in the right direction. (It is ironic that this year ITV’s coverage is sponsored by Sony’s HD products — and it’s taken a move to the BBC for F1 fans to enjoy the sport on Sony’s HD products!)
Obviously the move to the BBC is popular for one overriding reason — races will be broadcast uninterrupted, without adverts. Beyond this, though, is the move to the BBC going to be the best thing for F1 coverage in the UK?
A note of caution must be struck. First of all, as pointed out by Ben Evans today, ITV revolutionised F1 coverage in the UK. While we may cringe at the fluffier elements of the pre-race show on ITV, at least there is one! On the Beeb, F1 was usually part of a packed Sunday Grandstand programme. Sometimes coverage basically started when the race started.
Even more amazingly, races were not guaranteed to be shown live until 1995! And coverage of qualifying was by no means a certainty either. You have to hand it to ITV on this front. They might have shoved F1 away to some of their more obscure digital channels from time to time, but I don’t think they have ever opted not to broadcast a race live (although there were a few difficult moments in the days before Freeview!).
Of course, there is nothing to say that the BBC will treat F1 in the same way as they did in the mid-1990s. Television has changed a lot — sports coverage especially so. Nevertheless, the BBC has a packed schedule. As far as I can tell, they seldom have problems filling their Sunday afternoon schedules — either on BBC One or BBC Two (let’s face it — the EastEnders omnibus, love it or hate it, is an institution).
The Beeb does have one thing going for it. The red button service essentially gives the BBC two extra channels at most times of the day. There will be opportunity costs here as well though, and F1 will have to compete with other BBC interactive services.
But if it is true that it was Bernie Ecclestone’s decision to pull the plug on ITV’s F1 coverage, it seems likely to me that he has sought guarantees from the BBC about the quality of coverage. It is not impossible that a guaranteed live terrestrial slot is part of the deal.
Also, a lot of people have pointed out that the BBC does not have much in the way of sporting events these days. And with Hamilton hype reaching overdrive, the BBC could have an opportunity to present F1 as the crown jewel of its sports coverage.
A survey out today shows that Formula 1 is now the UK’s fifth most popular sporting “category”. Ahead of it are the FA Cup, Wimbledon, FA Premiership and Six Nations rugby. Of these, the BBC has the rights to only Wimbledon and the Six Nations — events that are highly concentrated in just a few weeks of the year.
But for this reason, anyone hoping for an end to coverage utterly fixated on Lewis Hamilton will surely be disappointed. The BBC may not be a commercial organisation, but it can be every bit as populist. It also has to draw in the viewers in order to justify the money it has spent on F1 (estimated to be around £200m). The Beeb’s coverage will probably focus on Hamilton just as much as ITV do.
On a related note, many have expressed their unease at the rumours that Top Gear will be heavily involved. My feeling is that far too much has been read into a few comments about Top Gear. The most extreme one I can find is this:
Coles has also said that the success of BBC’s revamped Top Gear programme will be a major influence on the tone of their F1 coverage in 2009.
“When Lewis Hamilton did a test lap on Top Gear it got more viewers than the Brazilian Grand Prix,” he explained. “Bernie (Ecclestone) was very impressed with the Top Gear proposition and there will be cross-fertilisation between the show and the races.”
Now, that could mean anything. It could simply mean trails for the race being dropped into the Top Gear programme. As for “influence on the tone” of the coverage, this does not necessarily mean actually involving the Top Gear presenters. As has been pointed out by many, this would be a mega mistake — the Top Gear presenters frequently express their dislike for F1! The BBC would be foolish if they actually thought that it would be a good idea to have such people presenting F1 coverage.
Having said that, I have a feeling that Richard Hammond wouldn’t actually be a bad anchor. After all, Jim Rosenthal was self-confessedly ignorant about F1 but in the end I thought he did an okay job on ITV. These Top Gear rumours do sound as though the F1 coverage will be dumbed down quite a lot though, which is a shame. But like I said, the BBC have to do something to appeal to more than just hardcore F1 nuts.
So, Top Gear presenters aside, who else could be on the BBC’s team? I have seen a lot of people suggesting that people like David Croft and Holly Samos who already present F1 coverage on BBC Radio 5 Live could be moved along to present the television coverage. But it is worth remembering that the BBC still have rights to broadcast F1 on the radio. They might well decide to leave the radio coverage as it is while it still works, while taking the opportunity to broadcast on television as a chance to make a fresh start.
Three obvious candidates for lead commentator pop into my head — assuming James Allen is out of the equation, as most assume he is. One is David Croft. He is a bit like James Allen I think, but doesn’t put his foot in his mouth so often. Crofty gets excited in a similar way, and he is obviously very passionate about the sport. Could be a good shout, although like I said the BBC might consider him to do such a good job on radio that they might keep him there.
The second candidate is one that I haven’t seen mentioned often — Jonathan Legard. The first article I read about the Beeb winning the rights on Pitpass said, “of course” Jonathan Legard is likely to be the lead commentator. Somewhat conflictingly, the article also describes David Croft as “a shoo-in for the Allen job”, though they might have meant for ITV.
Jonathan Legard used to do the commentary on Radio 5 Live up until the height of the Schumacher domination years. He left to become the station’s chief (I think?) football news reporter. Obviously that’s a pretty good job to have anyway, but you would imagine he’d be tempted by the opportunity to be the lead F1 commentator on television. Legard’s style contrasts to David Croft’s. Legard is more analytical. It might depend on who his sidekick is. Having two analytical voices in the commentary box might not work.
Another possibility — yet another that I have seen little mention of — is Ben Edwards. It amazes me that he seems to be seldom considered as a potential James Allen replacement because he seems to do an excellent job whenever I see him commentate. He is highly experienced as a lead commentator, and he can do both the Croft style excitement and the Legard style analysis.
On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine Ben Edwards commentating with anyone other than John Watson! They must be joined at the hip.
An outside possibility is for Martin Brundle to be the lead commentator alongside David Coulthard. I have thought for a while now that Brundle would make as good a lead commentator as a ‘colour’ commentator. After all, he has had to carry James Allen for several years now, so he is used to playing the two roles.
David Coulthard has been linked to a role at the BBC as a ‘colour’ commentator. I am sure DC wants a job like this once he retires from driving, and he would be more useful in this role than Brundle because of his more recent experience as a driver.
On Martin Brundle, I am sure that most F1 fans agree that the BBC must pull out all the stops to bring Brundle to the Beeb. He is an institution now, just as Murray Walker was when the Beeb lost the rights to ITV.
An on Murray Walker, any suggestion that this will see a return to the commentary box for him is surely complete nonsense. Murray Walker didn’t retire because F1 left the BBC — he commentated on ITV for years. He retired because he was past it. He is even more so today. It’s not bad for the occasional race, but an entire season? No way.
As I said though, it’s all speculation for the time being. I am sure the BBC will give us some decent coverage though. With their red button service, it is tempting to think that we could get a watered down version of F1 Digital+, where we can perhaps go interactive to watch different parts of the race or view the timing screen. I would have thought Bernie would go along with this, seeing it as a pilot for a relaunched F1 Digital+.
Going by what Bernie Ecclestone has said, we can expect to have coverage of practice session as well. ITV have only just started that this year, online. And the BBC have a good infrastructure to provide online coverage and highlights packages over iPlayer. They already do this with MotoGP.
In summary, the move to the BBC gets my thumbs up. It will be a good opportunity for BBC to bring Formula 1 coverage in Britain up to date, just as ITV did when the won the rights. Let’s just hope their coverage isn’t too Lewis-focussed and dumbed down.
Here is how Formula 1 exited the BBC — with a look back at the highs and lows of the BBC’s twenty years covering the sport.