BBC F1 coverage: Pre- and post-race

Earlier this year I wrote about the great job the BBC were doing covering Formula 1. It was the Corporation’s first time broadcasting Formula 1 since the sport left for ITV in 1997.

When ITV got the rights, it was widely accepted that they raised the bar of F1 coverage. The challenge for the BBC was to raise the bar further. And I think we can all agree that they haven’t disappointed. The team have had half a year to bed in, so it is a good opportunity to assess just how well the BBC is doing.

However, I have ended up gabbing on about it for far too long — so I have split it up into four articles, of which this is the first.

The pre-race build-up

The quality of the pre-race show was probably ITV’s greatest accomplishment. In this respect, the BBC had a lot to live up to. But unquestionably the BBC has succeeded in vastly improving the show.

On ITV, almost an hour’s worth of build-up felt too long, and frequently they reverted to a steady template of Lewisteria. Frankly, a lot of it was missable.

Now, the BBC has ensured that the build-up hour is almost as unmissable as the race itself. They do a great job of bringing the fans to the heart of the action. You can tell that a lot of effort is put into the features, although one problem is that "the formula" features have been repeated from time to time.

The biggest difference between ITV’s and the BBC’s pre-race show is that the BBC’s is clearly more dynamic. ITV just stood outside the McLaren garage and yapped on for an hour, only ever interviewing the usual suspects. The BBC will actively explore the pitlane, and they will interview a much wider variety of people than ITV ever did. I can think of interesting live chats with the likes of Adrian Newey, Stefano Domenicali, Pat Symonds — the sort of people who would seldom be seen on ITV. The fact that the BBC will regularly talk to people even more obscure than the likes of Pat Symonds says it all.

Perhaps my favourite moment was in the build-up to the qualifying session for the Turkish Grand Prix. They were interviewing Giancarlo Fisichella live, and absolutely ripped into him about his record at the race, complete with action replays of all his first-corner failures. It was a hugely entertaining piece of television that you would have never seen on ITV. It was a risk, but it paid off because luckily Fisi took it in good humour.

Post-race and analysis

Despite his role as talking head of choice on the news channels, Eddie Jordan did not seem very comfortable in front of the camera at the start of the season. He didn’t exactly come across as nervous, but he did seem uneasy and generally looked out of place.

The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that he is not particularly articulate. While he may sometimes have interesting points to make, he seems to start his sentences without having first thought about what his point is going to be. So he just meanders on and on going down several alleys until he stumbles upon a conclusion.

Ironically for someone who has such trouble reaching a conclusion, EJ is a total motormouth. The points he does make are often contradictory, and you get the sense that he says most of what he says just to make a big splash and get a reaction.

The good news is that this was almost certainly all the BBC wanted him for anyway. David Coulthard is a tad wooden, but his debates with EJ have already gone down in legend. Even though they supposedly have a lot of respect for each other, they are constantly tweaking each others’ tails. It might not always make for great analysis, but it does make for great entertaining television.

Now, halfway through the season, I think I would probably miss the EJ–DC partnership. The thing about the BBC’s coverage is that it immediately felt like a breath of fresh air compared to ITV’s stale coverage. It is not difficult to see that one of the biggest differences is in the post-race chats. Mark Blundell was as bland as they come, seldom had any interesting points to make, and perhaps worst of all he had no other pundit to bounce off. The BBC’s pundits completely reverse all of these bad points of ITV’s post-race segment.

Whether the second pundit needs to be someone quite as obnoxious and inarticulate — but entertaining — as Eddie Jordan is not clear. He was absent for the Chinese Grand Prix so instead we got Mike Gascoyne, who in my view was a revelation. He came across as surprisingly comfortable on camera, and I very much valued his contribution on technical matters, particularly his explanation of diffusers. Maybe he could be the BBC’s Steve Matchett — let’s hope so.

James Allen suggested on his blog recently that Gasscoyne is interested in pursuing media work if F1 work dries up for him. Even after just that one race as a pundit, I do hope he finds a role. A bit like Anthony Davidson, I would love to see him get a regular role on television if he is unable to participate in F1 itself.

As for the anchor, Jake Humphrey, what a guy. A lot of people questioned whether he would be up to the role, but I always found him very personable whenever I saw him on television before. What surprised me was just how comfortable he was at talking about F1 straight out of the box. Either he is a very passionate F1 fan like the rest of us, or he spent his winter doing serious amounts of research.

Jake Humphrey is a lot less stale than Steve Rider and Jim Rosenthal. Although (perhaps unusually) I quite liked both of ITV’s anchors, there is no question in my mind that Humphrey is even better. He asks all the right questions to the pundits, and his interviews with other F1 figures are equally good.

A recent blog post of his highlighted just how difficult his job is when he posted a video of a post-race show including his talkback. Of course, it was the same on ITV. But the BBC’s programme is noticeably more complex than ITV’s, so I would assume that Humphrey’s job is more stressful than that of the ITV anchors. Plus, Humphrey’s job isn’t over when the BBC One programme finishes…

2 comments

  1. Excellent analysis, excellent…. Because I agree with every word!

    Your ambivalence about EJ is spot on. We don’t always have love these guys, because it’s just a TV show… And it’s kind of neat –when they toss to the paddock crew during qauli or after the flag– to know that at least we’re about to see some very sober and kind of weird personalities in collision. Because I didn’t pay attention during Jordan’s racing years, all his stories are new… But on the other hand, we get no sense of how this guy was actually able to run a team in F1 for so long. And sometimes his scattered interpersonal skills squander opportunities, as during his interview with Bernie a few weeks ago. We wanted someone to nail the little sonofab*tch… Instead, we got the runaway sentences you describe, and no hammering questions. These men are olden-time business partners, after all.

    It seemed certain I’d miss Steve Rider… You can call him “stale” and maybe even old, but with some gray hair of my own, it was pleasant to have an emotionally-removed, only-professionally-interested grownup welcoming us at the foyer so proficiently, before being lead to the game room. I expected to hate Humphrey for being younger, taller, and skinnier than me. But there’ve been no missteps (except for almost getting clipped in the pits by that Toyota!). He’s warm and sensible with interviews, but never cloying or pals-y. He hit the circuit in sixth gear, and it’s impressive. (USA visitors are unable to listen to the “earpiece” recording on the website… If someone wants to email it to cridcomment@gmail, I’ll be deeply grateful!)

    My favorite Coulthard moment so far was in the intro to Monoco quali, when he took Humphrey around his hometown circuit at dawn in his Mercedes — as the theme to You Only Live Twice was heard behind them. (Don’t ridicule me for enjoying a cliché! That’s what television is for, and that tune perfectly describes what my boyhood imagined a day in Monte Carlo to be like.) The gentle, unforced humor of the piece reminded me of Stirling Moss’ brutal criticism of the McQueen “LeMans” film, of how it failed to convey what these guys are like: “Racing drivers are a special lot: Passion and fun.” That short, throwaway piece of TV made Coulthard seem like a great guy to meet for coffee before watching a race.

    The Beeb’s efforts to bring Coulthard’s voice in for occasional insights during the progress of the race (in America we call this commentary “color”) are sincerely appreciated; It’s good that they’re not being precious about assigned roles. But I was amused during Nurgburgring, when Coulthard bluntly acknowledged that by the time he’d formed a response to something, Brundle had already analyzed it backwards and forwards.

    These two are also business partners, and I (baselessly) suspect Brundle has asked the producers to try this out. Nothing for anyone to be ashamed of! DC is indisputably the better driver of the two… But Brundle is head and shoulders above any other commentary in racing, and perhaps in television. He knows exactly what we want from him. He doesn’t make sex jokes, he makes no allusions to taking his wife over to the Schuey place for holiday dinners, and he doesn’t bother to polish any skills too far removed from the sporting love of his youth… As evidenced by ITV’s Japan 2008 coverage, when Brundle’s full hosting, in Rider’s absence, was often shamelessly awkward. He’s not a tuxedos-&-hairspray kinda guy.

    The week spot is Legard. Aside from saying everything at least twice (“He’s driving very fast! He’s really going! He’s on the move!”), his exaggerated excitement seems silly, especially when you know that Brundle’s sitting just inches away, presumably smirking as he listens to the hyperbole. Legard spits out the name JEN-son BUT-ton as if his tongue had detected an insect on a forkful of salad… But this machismo is completely unnecessary. It’s Formula One! We tuned in for it! We’re *already* excited.

    In this third year of watching, I’ve really come to appreciate Kravitz, too. I hope he continues to blog as well. (And I miss Louise.) James Allen often seemed kind of clumsy, but Legard makes me miss him… And Allen’s blog is absolutely first-rate.

    Some guys like cars. I like cars: I own one! But I think those things we see buzzing around the track aren’t really sports cars: They’d be no fun to own, because it takes ten people to turn the ignition. Those are television cameras, or quadrapods for cameras, and they shoot some of the most exciting moments in the history of kinetic energy. With the exception of a seat at Eau Rouge or Casino Square, I’d rather watch F1 on television than attend a race in person. The excellence in the BBC’s wrappings of FOM coverage means a lot to me.

  2. The BBC coverage with no breaks is great, but to have a live feed from the event and then show pre-recorded stuff is just crazy, why not show a live grid feed alongside the novice Blah Blah Blah feed with all the bells and whistles.