F1 on the BBC: A new era of F1 coverage

Even in this most interesting of races, at the most interesting of times, with all sorts of interesting rule changes and an interesting off-season, one of the most fascinating things about the weekend was the television coverage. After a gap of 12 years, F1 returned to BBC television.

Although ITV undoubtedly raised the bar, F1 fans were always frustrated by the need to interrupt the race to show adverts. So in this sense alone, the BBC’s coverage is superior. But apart from that given, how did the BBC do in their first race back? Very well in my view. They are not quite as slick as ITV were. But you would expect that in their first broadcast.

First things first. The title sequence. There was much rejoicing when it was confirmed that ‘The Chain’ would indeed be the theme tune. But on first viewing I thought the title sequence was a bit naff. However, it has grown on me a lot after repeat viewings. And as neiltc13 pointed out to me on Twitter, it’s not half as naff as ITV’s title sequence from the past few years.

It is no accident that the two people who seemed most at ease during the broadcast were Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz. Both now have several years of broadcasting F1 on ITV under their belt, and it is very much business as usual. The only difference for them is the logo on their shirts.

I have seen a lot of complaints about the new main commentator, Jonathan Legard, which I think are completely unwarranted. The most ridiculous criticism comes from Planet Hamilton, which spat: “what do you expect from the BBC’s 2008 Football Correspondent.” Amusing of them to talk about someone being ill-informed, while spelling their name incorrectly throughout.

Jonathan Legard may have been the “BBC’s 2008 Football Correspondent” (actually, he was Radio 5 Live’s football correspondent from 2004 until getting the F1 gig). But before that he was Radio 5 Live’s motorsport correspondent and main Formula 1 commentator, a role he held for eight seasons. He has also written about F1 for newspapers. So those people assuming Legard does not know enough about F1 are saying more about their own ignorance.

The real problem with Legard’s commentary at the moment is that he is used to commentating on the radio, which requires quite a different style. Some rustiness was also to be expected since he hasn’t commentated on a Formula 1 race since 2004. But the fact is that he is one of Britain’s most experienced Formula 1 broadcasters. He was always going to be near the top of the list of candidates.

Legard was clearly nervous during qualifying, but this is perfectly understandable. This is a big gig, and the spotlight was on him. After the shaky qualifying performance though, Legard seemed much more at ease during the race.

It is true that there is a lack of chemistry between Legard and Martin Brundle, but this is something that will develop over time. The pairing will need a few races to get used to each other’s rhythm, then they will begin to gel much better.

At points Legard seemed strangely lost for words. Two such moments stood out for me. One was when it became clear that Heikki Kovalainen’s car was damaged, at which point Legard simply started repeating the driver’s name a number of times. The other was when Fisichella missed his pit box, when Legard just said, “Oh dear. Dear, dear.” That didn’t add much to our understanding of the situation.

But I felt that Legard read the race very well, especially when you consider he has not had to do it since 2004. He was very quick to spot that the soft tyres were simply not working. When Brundle said he thought that Kubica was managing the soft tyres well, Legard was instantly able to point out that Kubica’s lap times had actually become very slow, at which point the Pole peeled into the pits. Legard read this unfolding situation much better than Brundle did, which is no mean feat.

Lee McKenzie also seemed very good for her first live F1 television broadcast. She has plenty of experience in other categories of motorsport though. Jake Humphrey is a seriously good television presenter, and despite worries about his knowledge of the sport he actually seems pretty clued up. As an anchor, I find it difficult to see how he could be bettered.

David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan do not yet have the chemistry to cope with each other, though they both have plenty of opinions. Unfortunately, Eddie Jordan simply does not know when to stop gassing on. He was constantly interrupting his colleagues and, frankly, he hogged the airtime.

David Coulthard seemed almost intimidated by it, and seemed to give up even chiming in towards the end of the broadcast. Sometimes I thought Jordan made good points, but he does shoot from the hip a bit too much. Overall, he was an obnoxious presence, and I hope the BBC manage to rein him in.

DC needs to be encouraged to speak more. He is a good speaker, with interesting opinions and an ability to relay that to the viewers. But he’s not as natural as Martin Brundle and does seem slightly wooden for the time being. As the only person on the BBC television team with recent driving experience, he needs to be used more.

Whatever, it is good to have a couple of pundits with forthright opinions. This is a world away from ITV, where the post-race analysis was utterly bland in comparison. Steve Rider is a competent enough presenter, but he now seems staid in comparison to Jake Humphrey. Meanwhile, Mark Blundell’s punditry was seldom insightful, and he was often little more than Steve Rider’s yes-man. What a change, then, to see some energetic debate on the BBC!

As for the production of the programme, I think this is also promising. While ITV’s programme was nauseatingly biased in favour of Lewis Hamilton, the BBC seem to have struck a much better balance. In fairness, given McLaren’s woes, the BBC doesn’t have much space to hype up Hamilton, but the coverage of Button’s win didn’t seem overly patriotic either.

Some of the features were a lot more interesting than what ITV came up with. The piece about Mark Webber’s recovery certainly towers above “Cooking with Heikki”. I think fans will be much more comfortable with the BBC programme.

I was initially disappointed that the BBC decided to send Jake Humphrey, DC and EJ to the race, where they were left trying to scream above the loud cars and, at the worst moments, aeroplanes. This does not make for good viewing, and was one of the worst aspects of ITV’s coverage. I was surprised that the BBC did not try to avert this, particularly in light of ITV’s experiences. Rumour has it that the BBC has farmed off GP2 coverage in order to fund this, so I was not happy.

However, the programme absolutely came into its own during the ‘Interactive Forum’ on the red button. This gives enthusiasts the chance to indulge in an hour-long post-race discussion. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this element of the coverage. It is a very welcome innovation. It makes sending the pundits to the races worth it, as they were able to conduct interviews, and Martin Brundle was able to join in the conversation.

Unfortunately, the analysis appears to have been totally ghettoised to the red button. Lee McKenzie was hardly used at all during the race, and I felt we should have heard a lot more from her. Meanwhile, neither the race re-run nor the BBC Three highlights programme had anything in the way of post-race analysis whatsoever, and very very little in terms of interviews. This is one thing that ITV was much better at, and I hope the BBC will reconsider this approach for future races.

Another thing that was better about ITV’s coverage was the fact that their online stream switched away from the ITV1 feed to show the FOM World Feed. This option was nowhere to be seen on the BBC’s website, which meant that viewers didn’t see the full press conference or the FOM-produced highlights package.

The other interactive elements of the F1 coverage are what really brings the BBC into its own. All practice sessions are being shown on television (via the red button) for the first time, which is excellent.

During the race there is, for the first time in the UK (with the exception of F1 Digital+), the option to watch a dedicated on-board channel. This is the sort of coverage that a couple of countries in Europe get on pay per view. We are very lucky to get this stuff for free in the UK.

Unfortunately, the option seemed to be suffering from some technical problems. The caption telling you which driver we were on board with failed very early on, and never returned. The rolling leaderboard and news updates also did not display for a while. Meanwhile, the insert that shows the world feed was almost too small to be of any real use. Personally, I would prefer the on board channel to be full screen, but that is because I had two screens. It is true that I didn’t often watch the on board channel, but I may make more use of it in more processional races (so it’ll come in useful for Valencia).

The other interactive channel is taken up with rolling highlights. This seems to be a staple of BBC Sport coverage, but I personally don’t see the point of it. I won’t stop watching the race to watch highlights, knowing that I might miss something happening live. Presumably people use it though, since the BBC often offer it for many sports.

Another novel feature is the option to choose your audio. Those worried about the lack of chemistry between Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle can opt to listen instead to Radio 5 Live’s David Croft and Anthony Davidson, who get on like a house on fire.

There is also a CBBC commentary, but I don’t see this lasting. There was one slightly amusing moment when the CBBC commentators pretended they had a microphone inside the Safety Car and decided to listen into the conversation:

(Via the people on the Digital Spy F1 coverage thread.)

It’s obviously designed to be used during a boring moment while the Safety Car is out, so it’s just a shame Fisichella’s pit lane mess-up happened while it was being played! A nice humorous touch though. I can’t help but think the CBBC commentary is a waste of money and bandwidth though.

All-in-all, the BBC’s coverage had a few teething problems, but this was absolutely to be expected. Most of the problems so far are quite minor and I envisage that they will be sorted soon enough. We really are very lucky to be getting such great coverage in the UK now.

21 comments

  1. I really don’t understand the point of the CBBC commentary. I watched races in the 90s when I was at their target age and while a lot of the info went right over my head, I did appreciate the racing.

    I don’t think I would have enjoyed it that much back then if I was being patronised.

    Hopefully the BBC can replace the CBBC commentary with the raw audio. I’d love to have the option of watching the race with no commentary whatsoever.

    I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I really do prefer Allen in the commentary box to the new guy. He constantly interrupts Martin and often his comments aren’t very intelligent at all. It was a bit like Allen over the past few years, but at least he knew what he was talking about.

  2. I agree with you on the CBBC audio. Like I say, I don’t see it lasting, and it could well be replaced by raw audio like you suggest. If it’s any help, you can already listen to the on-board channel commentary free.

  3. Jake Humphrey was an improvement on Steve Ryder.

    Commentary was good.

    Eddie Jordan was irritating. Needs to let other people talk.

    Why do they always cut away from the driver’s press conference whoever does the coverage? I want to hear what they have to say.

    Also I heard that this year drivers have to be available to the media after the race. Where were the extra interviews as a result of this new availablity? Hamilton had about 10 words with someone chasing him!

    Only negative things were the repeated segments on race day from the qualifying show the day before. And also the bush fires in Australia documentary. I already know all about it and don’t expect it to be forced on me in an F1 show via some tenuous link. A driver is Australian and it happened in Australia. Hmm good job Wurz only has a testing job this season or we’d have been subjected to a documentary segment on Josef Fritzl… they are both Austrian after all!

  4. Great analysis as always!

    I think the BBC might, just might try and reign Eddie in… But more likely they’ll be pushing DC to but in more. They don’t want it to end up all pally…

    I couldn’t help but feel that they were going for more of a Top Gear kind of vibe.

    And I agree that the post race analysis was excellent. This conversation here about whether it was a good idea for Vettel to apologise for crashing into Kubica had more insight than most of last season on ITV put together:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/motorsport/formula_one/7970618.stm

  5. Alex, agreed! I really loved listening to that debate, and indeed watching the story of Vettel’s apology unfold, which simply would not have happened on ITV.

    I also remember early on in the interactive forum there was an analysis of some driving. Was it Lewis Hamilton’s early laps? I can’t remember. I do remember thinking to myself, “This is just brilliant.”

  6. Thanks for the CBBC clip I hadn’t seen any of that! Ironically, the discussion about being lost is quite appropriate for the footage of Fisichella.

    A fair few people seem to be griping about Eddie Jordan, which leads me to believe he’s doing exactly the job BBC had in mind for him – to bring some spice to the punditry. Coulthard’s great and has gigantic amounts of relevant, recent experience – but he can be a bit dry. Jordan is definitely not…

    And I’m genuinely baffled by the criticisms of Legard.

  7. I must admit I am very in-different about Legard. I have to say there were points in the coverage I didn’t even realise that he was speaking, then my brain decided to engage once Brundle was on the mic.

    I wouldn’t be too quick to say that Legard was the one who spotted things unfolding quickly as they have a third person in the commentary box (usually Mark Hughes) who is there to analyse the times and data.

    Lee McKenzie though… Hmm. There was one part she was interviewing Hamilton post-race:

    LM: Tell us about your race, Lewis.
    LH: You know about the situation right?
    (Million of television viewers): No! Explain the Trulli/third place thing!!!
    LM: (meekly) Yes.

    But apart from that. I’m sure they’ll all get better in time and iron out a few areas. If the chemistry between Legard and Brundle doesn’t pick up there is always the excellent combo of Crofty and Davidson to fall back on!

  8. Dank, if it was Mark Hughes who spotted that Kubica was going slowly, it’s a bit odd that Brundle still thought he was going quickly.

  9. Uhm….I came across this article on google now because I was a little amazed…

    I’m South African and on Sunday morning at about 8am I turned on my PVR and watched the race. I couldn’t quite understand what had happened to Jamie Allen’s voice, and why it sounded like I was watching a boring Division 2 Football match.

    I soon realised that in fact James wasn’t actually on air and that some new guy had taken his place. I was pretty upset.

    For years now I’ve been watching F1 and I just LOVED Murray Walker, with his retirement it took a bit of getting used to the new team… But it happened within the first race i heard them!

    I think this new Legard guy was pretty boring. His tone and everything was shoddy. He had nothing usefull to say (in my opinion) and he just didn’t gel with Brundle.

    I miss the pit presenter, the female one, Le-Anne I think?
    why was Ted Krawitz used like once throughout the entire right, I enjoy listening to his insight…???

    After the race we get our local analysis which as always, on Supersport, was top-notch.

    It’s just annoying to not here the team of Brundle and Allen, and I hope these BBC guys put them together again….

  10. I’m sorry to say that Jonathan Legard’s commentary during qualifying sounded like he was commenting on a horse race.

    Martin was very restrained in correcting his numerous mistakes except..after one appalling gaffe he corrected him saying ‘that’s a replay’

    Jonathan may have a pedigree but his commentary does apper to have little or no background knowledge at all.

  11. Just to add, Martin Brundle’s commentary was, in my view, excellent throughout, as always.
    His commentary, when not interrupted, was informed and informative.

  12. Warning: epic comments below.

    Two race weekends have passed. Two very different race weekends as it turns out and neither of them have featured the BBC F1 team in a settled, predictable environment. Funnily enough this trial by fire is probably the quickest route of getting everybody gelling together. The first weekend, which my comments pertain to on the whole, had a team who reportedly only rehearsed once before the beginning of the season. This was followed by a race weekend that threw a whole bunch of challenges at the team—testing their reflexes and initiative—whilst also requiring rogue elements from the first weekend to smooth themselves out. I think they’ve survived the ordeal handsomely and, risking hyperbole, are bringing us closer to the sport since the ill–fated 2005 US GP when ITV ripped up the running order.

    Jonathan Legard was a shock to the ears, frankly. Perhaps this is largely due to him meeting my ears previously unheard and commentating in a style I’m not used to, but I think it’ll take a few races for both him and myself to settle into this new relationship. On first impression I’d point to both his propensity to talk apace with the action on–screen, often breaking his verbal flow to meet the new pictures, and his uncomfortable idioms more suited to football commentary; both familiar criticisms. I can respect his desire to describe what is happening at that moment, because there may well be members of the audience with sight impairments who need that extra detail, but finishing up his current point and taking a breath may be less intrusive. A little more negative space in his commentary would be welcome.
    The chemistry with Legard and Martin Brundle may not light the world on fire right now but they are both very knowledgeable figures and respectful of each other and should make for enjoyable listening as the season moves on. Simply having Brundle as part of the team is so justifiably right. It would have been terrible had he not been there. As I have said before, he is as much the voice of F1 today as Murray Walker had been in his time.

    On the subject of commentary, the CBBC feed. What an insult. Admittedly I only heard the commentary in the embedded video there but the principle is broken. I started watching F1 in the early nineties, I joined my now late father in the lounge, watched the coverage unfold and had to interpret the actual, intelligent sporting coverage as well as ask questions in order to understand the sport. There is a lot to understand in F1 in order to see more than cars going around and around a track for two hours on a Sunday afternoon. Weak comedy skits amongst simplified analysis is doing a disservice to the sport and the intellect of today’s children. It encourages them to be lazy, to have this stuff spoon–fed to them as opposed to making them work a little. Had there been kids’ commentary back in the day, my father would not have been watching it with me and a regular family moment would have been lost. If the BBC are keen to promote this sport to young people then why not put together a simple 15–minute show during the kids’ spot in the schedule in the lead–up to a race weekend, presenting a suitable interpretation of current F1 news and the important factors in the coming race, and then promote the heck out of the existing coverage.

    Jake Humphrey did quite well. Again, initially I wasn’t sure about him. I didn’t find him to be a particularly commanding figure but he quickly showed himself to be keen, energetic and smart to the sport. He can walk and talk at the same time (something I suspected Steve Rider and Jim ‘The Count’ Rosenthal weren’t capable of) and adapted well to the pressures of the Malaysian broadcast. A fresh face or two amongst the seasoned veterans also can’t do the appeal of the coverage any harm. He did well to handle Richard Branson and did his best with Eddie Jordan.

    While I’m attempting to keep my language clean here, it’s very hard to do while talking about Eddie Jordan. Eddie rampaged through that first weekend like Godzilla with a sore arse. I respect his candidness, which is absolutely required, and the experience and knowledge he brings from the non–track aspects of F1, but he is presenting himself as a rather unlikeable character, antagonising the show and gulping up airtime. By the end of that first weekend I was sure that Eddie’s demeanour would be a hot topic from the production staff during the debrief. Given how Eddie was more muted and gave Jake and David room to speak uninterrupted it would appear he indeed was a hot topic and was dealt with. Eddie will bring an interesting, and perhaps often controversial, insight into events but it will be difficult to warm to his officiousness.

    A criticism that can be delivered equally to Eddie and David Coulthard is again something that should become appeased in time as both become more comfortable with their roles, and this is their interviewing technique. It is admirable that they are as involved in the interviews as the show’s chief host but, dear me, neither of them can ask a question yet. Eddie in particular waffles on, struggling to fit a question mark into what he is saying.

    DC is OK. I was expecting to get a little more of his trademark frivolity but, again, time should see his confidence increase.

    Other parts of the production are doing a marvellous job: the race day countdown clock; the brief A-Z style technical explanation VTs; the news segments; the high–quality computer graphics of the cars and tracks used throughout the weekend; Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie working the paddock… There are many deft touches throughout the coverage that show the care, attention and professionalism behind the machine.

    The title sequence is superb. To discuss why it works so well is to dispense with how poorly ITV dealt with theirs. As ITV became more eager to push the glamour aspect of the sport, in the hope of somehow transcending their coverage beyond a sporting show, the title sequence and bumpers became more confused, almost downplaying the fundamentals and saying ‘look at these dapper gents, look at these amazing images from far–off worlds, look at the jizzing champagne, look at the nice lady and LOOK, LOOK OVER HERE, LOOK AT LEWIS HAMILTON DIRECTLY IN THE EYES. LOVE HIM AND LOVE US.’ The BBC does none of this and is wonderful in its focus and simplicity. No personalities, no teams, no particular locations are defined and not one metaphor. It shows a man working with technology to race his pants off against others in a high–speed, dangerous chase in ever–changing environments. And it does all of this to “The Chain,” a song one would not immediately imagine would fit with any sport but, once connected to F1, fits like a glove. It excites like no other.

    The post–race Interactive Forum is a wonderful addition to the weekend’s coverage. Whilst sadly missing from Malaysia, the Forum shows a lot of promise despite the many hiccups from its virgin airing. It gives plenty of opportunity for viewer feedback, greater analysis from the entire team and the opportunity to cover the sort of stories that only appear after a race is through. The TV screen sat next to Jake Humphrey wasn’t really used but there was a segment during the Malaysian coverage where Martin Brundle was interacting with the same screen, controlling playback and drawing all sorts of stuff on the screen. This was fucking great. The ability to visualise things on the spot, like racing lines, and be in control of the VT while describing what is unfolding will further draw in the viewer and help them grasp often near ungraspable concepts. I hope we see more of this during the season, especially during the Interactive Forum. I hear that the BBC News Channel has a brief show on the Friday evening of a race weekend. I have yet to see this but it is another method of getting the BBC audience into a sport they’ve almost swept under the carpet during the preceding decade.

    The last thing to discuss is the fantastic online resource. Being able to watch the entire race weekend online (as well as the via Red Button) is absolutely the right thing to do, and adding to that both live text updates and a live leaderboard almost (ALMOST) trumps the need to go anywhere else online. However, both the official live timing and Twitter are also essential parts of my F1 package. While the BBC F1 homepage is a rather messy affair, not entirely sure what to prioritise beyond the lead story, there is a lot to absorb. The blogs, particularly Jake Humphrey’s and Andrew Benson’s, open the discussion and insight further, and the video & audio resource is weighty. It is simply awesome to have Murray Walker as a regular too, who is still very much on the ball. Full availability of the weekend’s coverage on the iPlayer is a heck of a boon, meaning an awesome race can be watched again and again at any time. It may not be as up to date with the news in a way that other, more dedicated news sites (such as Autosport) can, the BBC F1 site at least deals with the major stories very well.

    When it was announced the BBC would retake the reins of F1, the initial reaction was one of immense pleasure of not having to endure either commercial breaks or bad hair–metal and poodles jumped up on ecstasy pipes. I could not believe, however, there were people expecting the same BBC coverage from years gone by. ITV had raised the bar significantly over their tenure and the BBC would easily meet it if not improve on it by virtue of the additional resources at their disposal, such as the interactive features on Freeview and online, and more flexible broadcast time without commercial concerns. Every penny the BBC has spent on both the rights and the coverage itself has been worth it. I have not once complained about my license fee and I certainly won’t be starting now.

  13. Steev,

    Thanks for your great comment! I agree with you on almost everything. The BBC’s coverage is much better than ITV’s, which had become stale, complacent and formulaic over the years. The pre- and post-race shows in particular have been given a much-needed breath of fresh air, and it looks like they will develop more as the season progresses. I can’t wait to see what else the BBC have up their sleeves.

  14. I don’t know why the BBC just didn’t give the job of lead commentator to Brundle. He is the best there has been for many year at co-commentating, so why not let him make the move to lead commentator?

    The problem with Legard for me, is, when he tries to sound excited, he starts getting tongue tied. A good commentator will make the race sound exciting, while still maintaining enough composure to relay the facts back to the audience fluently. So far this season Legard has failed to do this.

  15. My fear would be that if Brundle became “lead commentator”, he would dominate totally and would never allow the co-commentator to speak. He already butts in a lot and sometimes leaves the bounds of his role, and this side of him would go into complete overdrive were he to be officially the lead commentator.

  16. Possibly, but i think that is down to his passion and love for F1, and he does offer interesting instights.

    Maybe once Legard gets into the swing of things, he and Brundle can form a good pertnership, it will all come together. Hope so. 🙂

  17. Yes, I remain hopeful. People are talking about the lack of chemistry between them just now as though it’s the end of the world. It will undoubtedly develop as the season progresses, and there are already a few promising signs in this regard.

  18. Legard has a) a difficult job to do and b) two of the most complicated races in recent memory… It’ll take a moment or two to recover from that. But he’s getting there.

  19. I think Jonathan Legard has done a superb job considering he hadn’t commentated on a live race since 2004. That means he will only get even better, and the calls to replace him (with whom?) are premature.

  20. I can’t listen to the BBC commentary. Legard is appalling, the worst there has ever been and ruins it for me.