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.