Memories of ITV-F1

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.

1 comment

  1. I share many of your points of view here Vee, except the Murray Walker point. I though he was dreadful in his later years with ITV and perhaps should have gone earlier. I watched the 1999 Australian GP the other night and had to turn it off as Murray was not able to keep up with the action or what Brundle was saying, and often talked over the closing parts of his sentence just to repeat exactly what Brundle had just said.

    Don’t get me wrong I loved Murrary, I grew up with him, but we seem to cut him so much slack. He was horrifically patriotic to British drivers in the same what James Allen gets critised for favoring Button and Hamilton.

    I actually enjoyed ITV without Murray as the commentating style changed from random shouting to informed analysis from James and Martin who could actually tell you what was happening in a race.

    That DC clip is brilliant though.