BBC F1 coverage: Television commentary


The BBC’s lead commentator Jonathan Legard has come in for a lot of stick on the internet. In my view, most of it is wholly unwarranted. Indeed, I am quite confused at the negative reaction he has been getting. I used to listen to him from time to time when he was on Radio 5 Live, and I was a fan of him then. In my view, it took years for the station’s Formula 1 coverage to recover from his departure. He has a good voice and is clearly passionate and highly knowledgable about F1. I like his tone and his sense of humour.

Most importantly of all for his job is that he almost never makes mistakes. The internet collapsed in a heap of laughter when he committed the heinous crime of mistaking a replay for live action during the Malaysian Grand Prix. Name me a commentator who has never done that? There was even a mitigating factor then, as FOM’s replay graphic was playing up during the race. Apart from that, I can’t think of any time when he has made a bad mistake, misidentified a driver (except for the odd mixed-up Red Bull for a Toro Rosso — we’ve all been there) or misread a situation. He has had a couple of bad race starts, but once the race settles in he is fine.

In contrast, Brundle has made a few errors this season, including a mega clanger when he spent half the race in Spain confusing the prime and option tyres, which actively ruined viewers’ understanding of the race. During qualifying at the British Grand Prix he spent an entire lap talking about Räikkönen even though we were watching Massa, a fact backed up by a FOM caption. He made a few mistakes during the German GP as well.

Some criticise Legard’s reliance on crutch phrases, which I would agree is one jarring thing about his commentary. But let us face it, at times Murray Walker may as well have had a drawstring coming out of his back, and everyone found that endearing. Why it should be different for Legard I don’t know.

It is true that the chemistry between him and Martin Brundle has not been very good, but that was inevitably going to take time to build up, no matter who Brundle was commentating with. Legard has a good conversational style which I like. It is a potentially great way to cover duller moments of the race without resorting to James Allen’s trick, "let’s listen to the engine [while I think of something to say]".

Unfortunately Brundle doesn’t seem to know how to deal with Legard’s conversational style. He seems not to know how to respond to Legard, often choosing not to respond at all.

A typical example of this happened during the German Grand Prix, when Brundle responded unneccessarily sarcastically towards Legard’s inquisitiveness over Brundle’s statement that it would be a shame to for refuelling to be banned. It was almost as though he felt threatened that his viewpoint was being questioned. Speaking personally, I disagree with Brundle’s point of view (strategy plays a role, but if you allow it to dominate is just replaces racing with mathematics), and the rude way he expressed it totally alienated me.

Sometimes listening to Brundle you think he deliberately sets out for a scrap. Maybe it is his way of spicing it up by playing devil’s advocate. But I get the feeling that being combative is the only way he knows how to operate. He did, after all, make his name by constantly correcting Murray Walker, and later James Allen. He never stops "correcting" people. You almost get the sense that, given the chance, he would "correct" Michael Schumacher on the subject of being a seven times World Champion.

It probably doesn’t help that he is now working with a commentator who doesn’t constantly need to be corrected, which means he now has to adapt his style to that of a colour commentator rather than encroaching on the main commentator’s role as he has always done before. This is new territory for Brundle, and I don’t think he is coping well.

Some people suggest that you could solve this problem by making Martin Brundle the main commentator. It might be worth experimenting with, but I can easily see Brundle’s ego soon dominating the entire show if he was to be given that role.

I have to admit that sometimes I wonder now if I would miss Martin Brundle. I spent most of last year listening to Radio 5 Live, sans-Brundle, and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the races. Given that he is almost certainly the most expensive person on BBC F1 team, I wonder if it is not time for him to be given another role, because for me he is probably the least value for money.

He does have a good turn of phrase, and is an engaging talker on F1, so I wouldn’t like to see him go for good. Perhaps he could be given a smaller role such as that of post-race analyst. The colour commentator role can go to someone with more recent experience of an F1 car such as Anthony Davidson, because Brundle increasingly seems at a loss to explain some of the technical elements of team radio conversations.

And can someone explain to me why Brundle hasn’t been taken aside and politely asked to pronounce Sebastian Vettel’s name correctly? He must be the only person in the world who appears to mistake this ace F1 driver for some kind of telecommunications company, or a brand of bottle watter. Vett-tel? It’s ‘fettle’. Really, really annoying.


  1. For me, Legard has improved race-by-race. In the early days, he tended to be a little too descriptive as if he was still commentating for radio.

    Your comments about Brundle are spot on. Perhaps it is because of the lack of chemistry Brundle has seemed a bit ‘off’ this year, but I can only compare that to the Murray Walker/Jonathan Palmer combination. When James Hunt died, he left a big void to fill, and I don’t think anyone was able to compliment Murray until Brundle came along.

    I’m not suggesting Murray/Hunt was a great partnership out of the box – I only heard Hunt’s later commentaries, but reading Murray’s biography, their chemistry took a while to develop.

    In the same manner, Murray left a huge hole as main commentator. As he became so synonymous with F1, his boots are impossible to fill. James Allen had a very tough job, and despite trying to carve out his own niche, he mistakenly tried to emulate Walker. This put a lot of people (myself included) off.

    I hope people do give Legard a bit more of a chance, he is a much better main commentator than Allen, however since getting Digital TV this year I’ve tended to listen to the 5live commentary, where I think David Croft is a great main commentator. Again, he has a good second in the form of Davidson who, like Brundle has a sly sense of humour and a very ‘listenable’ voice.

    Very good article as always, perhaps as a follow up you could look at the CBBC commentary team? 😉

  2. No no no… Legard’s performance is a franchise fit for any setting, an act he could take to any sport with zero modifcations. Why do we need this in Formula One? Why would a table tennis fan want to hear it, for that matter? Time and again, we hear JL rousing himself as if from a lazy afternoon nap, as if he’s remembered that he’s expected to bring some verbal industry to the proceedings… So we’ll hear three or four sentences describing what’s plainly happening on the screen. ‘A car goes through the corner, another crests the hill, and the next appears to be moving into the pit lane. Is he? Yes, he is.’ And at the end of each sentence, we’ll hear Brundle taking in air as if to make a salient point, but having to wait until Legard has turned back to his coffee cup.

    And you’re far too harsh on Brundle. In 2½ years of listening, a single bungle of tire densities doesn’t count for much. And I was entirely charmed by his comments about refueling— which weren’t sarcastic, but merely plain. That Legard might have conveyed sense of wounded feeling only describes his own disinterest in the sport, compared to someone who cares about it a great deal.

    Who would be better? Crofty is a Friday guy, and for that he’s worth plenty. I don’t care how much money these guys make, and it would be OK with me if he’s paid as well as Brundle. But on Sunday, I want a truly gifted guy in the booth, and I think you’ve lost sight of how good Brundle really is. Again, consider how hard it is for Coulthard, essentially still wearing Nomex, to make a point that the long-retired Brundle hasn’t made more clearly.

    Having watched a few 1980’s races lately, I suspect Walker is a figure of national affection. The coverage back then was a so loosely edited (twenty laps in the middle of Monaco vanishing, etc.) that perhaps viewers were going to be grateful for anything they could get.

    Props again to Bernie… He’s given us a great and mcuh improved television show.

  3. I was never a fan of James Allen’s spoken commentary (as opposed to his quite good blog), and I was pretty happy with Legard at the beginning of the year. As the season has gone on though, two things really bother me:

    * _that_ verbal crutch. I’m only talking about one: “Brawn from Red Bull from Brawn from…”, all the way down the order. It simply isn’t a useful construct for TV commentary–it doesn’t identify the driver or the absolute numeric place, takes too long to read off during volatile qualifying sessions, and most importantly–we can see the order on our TV screens! I don’t know if this is a habit left over from radio commentary or not, but I really wish the BBC would just tell him not to use it.

    * the insistence to always have someone talking. Not only does it make it seem like Martin doesn’t have anywhere to cut in, but it’s completely unnecessary. I assume broadcasters are taught to always have something to say, so as to fill the “dead air”. But this is Formula 1–“dead air” is the sound of 18,000 RPM engines that we’re all tuning in to hear! This is especially true during the too-rare extended onboard shots.

  4. I have to wholly disagree with doctorvee and side with Cridland on this one. I watch the races from Canada and we get the live feed with BBC’s coverage, but with no extras before or after the race, so I don’t know what Croft is like, but we’ve heard Davidson subbing in in previous years and I was impressed.

    Legard is a motormouth who can’t see a gap to allow for Brundle to contribute. Conversational? Give me a break. I think it shows Brundle’s professionalism in his patience and lack of tension in the booth. If I were talked over and interrupted as often as he is, I would be walking out the door until I was assured that I could do my job as signed up for in my contract.

    I don’t need to be told what I can clearly see on the screen, I want to hear the guesses, speculations and assumptions based on things the experts may know that I don’t.

    Murray Walker was a special case, and James Allen could never fill those shoes, but I think he did a far better job than is given credit for. I find JL to be annoying to the point of distraction. If I have to hear “Brawn from Brawn, Red Bull from Red Bull” one more time I think I’ll hop on a flight to Blighty and tear him “Limb from Limb.”

  5. For some reason, I’ve found Legard’s style grated on me more as time rolled on. Until the European season started, I thought he was going to be fine (and even the one doubt I had, that he seemed to be a bit more pro-Buemi than was warranted, resolved itself when the rookie proved better than Bourdais). Yet now I’m finding him repetitive and his tone difficult to listen to.

    It’s true that the Brundle/Legard thing hasn’t gelled, but maybe that’s a matter of time. I have a horrible feeling my assessment of Legard might not improve though 🙁

  6. @Cridland

    Yes, perhaps Walker is a figure of affection, and fans in the 80’s had to make do with whatever they could get. However, Murray was always amusing to listen to, and his ‘Murrayisms’ were perhaps more entertaining because he was so enthusiastic when he got things wrong.

    Maybe It’s the professional ‘HD’ polish that sport is given these days (not just F1) that makes some of the modern commentators appear soulless.

    On a side note, I expect Webber to be snapped up by the UK broadcaster (whoever that may be) when he retires.

  7. haha, you talk about how Legard aint that bad etc, then suddenly reveals you listen to Radio5Live instead!

    The most annoying thing with Legard is that he simple speaks what he sees, which the viewers also see… like the clock ticking down in a qualifying session.

  8. I like Brundle `He says what He likes, and likes what He says`, Legard is just to, whats the word..nice, I think Ali nailed it, grating with a hint of trying to keep everyone happy. In the words of Alexi Sayle, Nice, Nice, Biscuits are Nice.

  9. Thanks for the comments everyone. As expected, all of the common complaints about Jonathan Legard have been unleashed here, so I will interrupt this series of posts about the BBC’s coverage, and will shortly publish an article about Murray Walker commentating on one of the greatest pieces of racing there has ever been. Hopefully that will outline why I stand where I stand on Jonathan Legard’s performance.

    As for points that I won’t mention in that article, I will deal with them here.

    Cridland, the problem with Brundle is not that he made “only” one mistake (and it was a total howler that totally ruined the race coverage more than anything I have seen for years as far as I’m concerned), but that he is making them with increasing regularity. As I said, he made several during the German GP, but because he says everything with such a self-assured tone, no-one seems to spot them. For instance, there was one stage when he said, “the Brawns are definitely in positions [Y and Z]” when they were obviously in positions X and Y, and moreover a FOM graphic was telling us that Brundle was wrong too, not that Brundle thought to read it!

    I don’t see how you can describe Legard as someone with a “disinterest” in the sport. His deep knowledge and love of F1 are clear to see. Meanwhile, Brundle advocated the position that shuns racing in favour of mathematics, and overtaking in favour of the endless pursuit of clear air. Doesn’t sound like someone who loves racing to me.

    Arnet, funnily enough it is Legard’s job to describe the action as it unfolds. Brundle’s job is to analyse it after it happened. It is not his fault that this is the first time he actually does have to do the job as signed up for in his contract, now that he is working alongside someone who is perfectly capable of describing the action as it unfolds.

    I think that is the real problem with Brundle just now. Both commentators he has worked with before were putting in sub-standard performances. By 1997 Murray Walker was well on the wane, and was basically stringing his mishaps together (that first video may be of interest to those who thought Legard committed a heinous crime while watching a realtime replay in Malaysia).

    As for James Allen, just look at this. As the main commentator, it is Allen’s job to describe the action as it is happening. Yet what does he come out with? “Ooh. Waheheheyyy!” It was left to Brundle to do it, and in fairness he does a very good job. But now that he is working with a proper commentator, he is struggling to fill his proper role.

    Pat, you are absolutely right. There is only one person who would do a better job in the commentary box, and that is Ben Edwards. Unfortunately, he apparently has little interest in the role, so it falls to the second best who is Legard. I can’t find it in me to complain about having the second best person when you could probably name four or five people better than James Allen (among them Legard, Croft and Brundle, though the latter filled that role on a de facto basis as I have already mentioned).

    W, I’m not sure what you are on about. I said that I listened to Radio 5 Live… LAST YEAR, before Legard was commentating! In fact, this year is probably the first time in years I haven’t regularly listened to Radio 5 Live. With ITV it was necessary to find out what was going on when they interrupted the race with adverts (when a man named Jonathan Legard did a fantastic job of keeping me posted), and then was required to avoid the cringe-inducing James Allen. Now that the BBC have put a proper commentator on the television, I don’t need to resort to radio commentary any more.

  10. Wow, I disagree with almost everything in this article. I was expecting to read an objective critique on Legard to persuade me to give him another chance as I do not rate him at all. But instead rather we get a Brundle bashing which ironically goes to show the lengths one must go too to defend Legard. What a shame.

    Martin Brundle is an ex-driver, who is still competative, and has the experience and nouse to know what’s going on in and out of the cockpit. What does Legard have, zip!

    Which ties in with why I’m always amazed with how us armchair critics seem to think we know best, when we should heed our own bleating on about how frustrating it is that the FIA does not have ex-drivers who know what’s going on to make racing decisions (although I seem to think this has been recently addressed to some degree), that won’t destroy the race by making quite so many stupid decisions. In other words its all very well to have a lay opinion but perhaps people who have been in and done the job, may just know a little more than us as they are likely more aware of the subtleties and nuances and technologies and developments etc that most of us will likely never probably really understand or fully appreciate.

    I think Legard should be immediately replaced by Anthony Davidson and or David Croft….

  11. Chaz, thanks for your comment.

    I’m not sure what you mean about “just a Brundle bashing”. My series of posts seeks to appraise every aspect of the BBC’s coverage, and I think in this article I have looked at the performances of Legard and Brundle in a fair manner. I said plenty of positive stuff about Legard which I notice no-one has contested; instead everyone has brought out all of the “grievances” which are fashionable to express. I am definitely disappointed in Brundle this season, and I feel myself increasingly exasperated by the increasing frequency of his mistakes and his arrogant tone.

    You are right, Brundle is an ex-driver. But he is a driver who never won a race, and when I think about it that way it always amuses me how he makes himself out to be a great expert. He is much more of an expert than I could ever be, but you wonder exactly what it is he has in terms of expertise of today’s cars that he has over David Coulthard (a recently retired 13 times GP winner) or Anthony Davidson (a great communicator with experience of F1 cars that are not a decade and a half old).

    My point when I critique Brundle is that he cannot seem to cut it as a colour commentator, which is what he is supposed to be. You may say that I am getting above myself when I criticise Brundle for not knowing enough. But increasingly, he is at a complete loss to explain what the conversations on team radio are about. Or you can always rely on him to confuse options with primes. But at least he says everything with such confidence that no-one questions it. Good for him. I would just rather see him as an analyst rather than a colour commentator, and bring in someone who actually knows what today’s F1 cars are like.

    You say Legard has “zip”, but what does Croft have? What did Murray Walker have? That is a straw man. The play-by-play commentator is not supposed to know the technical details, he just needs to be a good communicator. Knowing the details is the colour commentator’s job, but I just say it would help if the colour commentator was someone who raced in F1 some time more recently than when Jaime Alguersuari was in nappies.

  12. Hunt was a great foil to Walker and he had been retired for some years. Granted, he was a (lucky) world Champion, but from what I recall, his contributions were more on the humorous and biting side, rather than the technical.

    That is one of Brundle’s strong points. You may criticize him for not having won any races, but he one of those drivers who seems to have had his share of bad luck. He did race for McLaren, remember, but it wasn’t exactly their finest year. Still, you can’t discount his 9 podiums and 98 points are nothing to sneeze at. He has also had the opportunity to test modern F1 cars, so he knows of which he spaeaks.

    I am reluctant to judge Brundle’s performance this year on it’s own. I think he is strong as a team player and was a great balance to Walker and Allen, I just think he hasn’t and won’t fit well with Legard. I really would rather be hearing a lot more of MB and a lot less of JL, but that seems to be a bit of an impossible dream, as JL barely even stops for a breath.

    Sometimes a team has a clear number one driver and the number two is there to help with the car, bank points and just get the job done. Brundle is the number one driver on this team, and we need Ron Dennis to come along and put Legard in his place.

  13. Not sure how the main commentator being the “number two” would work. For me, the problem is the precise opposite to how you describe it. Brundle acts like the number one when it’s his job to be the number two.

    In fairness, he had to be the number one a lot of the time when Murray Walker or James Allen weren’t up to it. Now that there is number one capable of doing the job, Brundle seems uncomfortable in the number two role.

  14. Ummm, maybe that’s because Brundle has been at it longer, is better at it and has more to contribute. How does that make him number two? I’m having a hard time following your logic. Brundle is the man. Legard is the new boy.

  15. Arnet, Brundle and Legard do different jobs.

    Legard is the play-by-play or “main” commentator. He is the person who we hear at the start of the broadcast; he talks through the start; he talks through the finish.

    Brundle is the “colour” commentator. He is supposed to add value to what the main commentator says by analysing situations and explaining technical details.

    Legard is no “new boy”. He has been a journalist for much longer than Brundle has. He covered Formula 1 for Radio 5 Live for several years, and also wrote about the sport in the press. It is only television he is new at, but those skills will build over time because he has those journalistic foundations, and loads of experience in broadcasting on the radio.

  16. I clearly have a different take based on my viewing experience. I have had no opportunity to have been exposed to Legard’s-ahem-style, so that’s why it’s so jarring. He definitely has a voice for radio and in my opinion should have stuck with it.

    As a fan, I don’t really know anyone’s job description. As far as I’m concerned, when Walker retired, Brundle took over as the senior broadcaster and I still view him that way. Legard sounds to my not at all inexperienced ear like he’s at the horse races. It’s a long race, not a sprint, and I’m not listening on the radio. It plainly doesn’t work for me.

  17. Ive read your comments on Legard and co, but i would be more interested to hear your analysis on the reaction to Legard so far than your personal views and would be of greater value to readers i would guess.

    Otherwise, good blog and thanks for bringing us a focused article on the coverage.

  18. Thanks for the comment Dans.

    I think my analysis on the reaction to Legard is kind of implicit in what I have written about Legard’s commentary myself. For what it’s worth I think a lot of people just don’t like him because they weren’t familiar with him at first, and since then it has become a fashionable bandwagon. But there are no right or wrong answers, and no commentator will please everyone. At the end of the day, which commentator you prefer is a personal choice and so if people don’t like him, so be it.

    I do note that the reaction in general seems to be more divided than the reaction towards James Allen, which was universally negative. Legard meanwhile is attracting a lot of negative comments, but when you delve into it he has quite a few supporters, including me. Some of the reaction is rather too vitriolic in my view. Some people are forgetting that he is a human with a wife and kids. But it was the same with James Allen.

  19. I agree that its personal choice and you cant please everyone but beyond that i do think its important to address whats important for F1 on the BBC and what will attract new and younger viewers.

    Currently i would guess its a 65/35 split with disapproval getting the nod and maybe more importantly those that disprove are of a younger demographic which i think is going to harm the BBC in the long run.

  20. Gianni, thanks for the comment.

    Dans, interesting thoughts. I do think a lot of the criticism of Legard is based not on his ability, but rather that he is perceived as either too old or too posh. Quite how this sits with the fact Murray Walker and James Hunt was about as old and posh a pairing as you could come up with I’m not sure. Maybe people became used to the more downmarket ITV approach.

    I definitely agree that a lot of young people seem to prefer Crofty.

  21. doctorvee, i dont think the Legard vs Crofty vs Edwards is the issue.

    Possibly the problem is that they represent an older generation which younger audiences cant relate to, they will need someone new and fresh to appeal to new audience, like Will Buxton for example.

    Murry and Hunt was an age ago and times have changed.

  22. The BBC already cater for younger audiences with the CBBC commentary. Meanwhile, I am happy to have the best commentators, whether they are perceived as “fresh” or not.