Jonathan Legard’s performance in perspective

As I expected, my previous post has generated a bit of controversy in the comments. So I have decided to break from the series of posts looking at the BBC’s F1 coverage this season, and the final part will be published tomorrow.

Instead, I am going to do something which will hopefully outline why I think Jonathan Legard is doing a good job as commentator. This is actually something I originally posted on the Digital Spy F1 coverage discussion thread, which is worth keeping an eye on if you have an interest in the way Formula 1 is broadcast.

I think just now is an apt moment to bring up something interesting that I noticed while watching a video of a classic F1 moment. In fact, it’s widely regarded as one of the most exciting pieces of racing of all time — Gilles Villeneuve vs Renè Arnoux at Dijon in 1979. In the commentary box is Murray Walker. But just as an experiment, imagine it’s Jonathan Legard.

I’ve transcribed some interesting bits (actually the majority of the commentary).

0:18 Renault LEADS Ferrari LEADS Renault – Lap 75.
0:55 It’s lap 75. Into the Parabolique. [Long silence.] Down to the double-left at la Bretelle. Villeneuve. Arnoux. Ferrari. Renault. [Long silence.] Round to la Combe.
1:20 …From la Combe, DOWN to the Courbe de Pouas.
1:36 Arnoux pops out and has a look. Arnoux has another look. And Villeneuve locks up his tyres. [“Say what you see”, anyone?]
1:48 Into the left hander and right hander at Sabeliers. Down to la Bretelle again. Down hill. Very fast. Lap 76. 83 lap race.
2:07 Who is going to be second? There’s Villeneuve. Parabolique. Behind him… Arnoux. Renault first, Renault third, Ferrari second.
2:20 …as they go round… Bretelle. Up to la Combe. Lap 76.
2:35 [after a long silence] Keeping [?] round the Courbe de Pouas then they burst up over the crest.
2:45 It’s Villeneuve. This is the start of lap 77. And Villeneuve locks up the tyres again. And the order is Jabouille – Renault. And then Villeneuve in second place. Behind him is Arnoux in third position. Alan Jones in the Saudia Williams fourth. Jean-Pierre Jarier in the Candy Tyrrell is fifth. And Clay Regazzoni in the second of the two Saudia Williams is in sixth position.
3:28 Villeneuve second. Arnoux third. And they’re on their way.
3:34 Only three full laps at the end of this one.
3:44 [After a very long silence] Fourth gear. Up into fifth when they go over the crest of the hill.
3:55 …as they come down to the right-hander at Villeroy.
4:10 …as they go into the right-hander and the left at Sabeliers.
4:38 On lap 78. Round Bretelle.
5:07 Now we’re into the start of the 79th lap and last lap but one with Renè Arnoux second…
5:20 … on the last lap but one.
5:25 DOWN to la Bretelle.
5:52 This is the 79th lap in this 80 lap historic Grand Prix.
6:30 They bang wheels. He’s off. He’s off. And he’s back again. Renè Arnoux of the circuit and then back again.
6:40 Villeneuve goes over the corrugations.
6:46 As they go up to Parabolique in the 80th and last lap. [I haven’t included them all, but he mentions that it’s the last lap at least five times during the lap.]
6:56 To la Bretelle. 80th. 80th lap in this 80 lap race.
7:09 On the la Combe / Courbe de Pouas section.
7:25 Into the Courbe de Pouas they come [long after they’ve exited it].

For this great piece of racing, it’s not the greatest piece of commentary. It is not as though there isn’t enough on-track action for him to be talking about and reflecting on. And I was struck by just how many of the traits Legard is so heavily criticised for Walker exhibits in this clip.

He constantly refers to what lap it is. He can’t help but remind us over and over what positions the drivers are in, including at one point a full classification of the top six. And it feels as though half the time he is just saying what corner they’re going through, complete with “down the hills” and “up the hills”. Then there are the “say what you see” moments.

Of course, there are a lot of things in Murray Walker’s defence. Most notably, unlike today’s commentators, Walker is completely on his own. There is no co-commentator to ever save him when he’s lost for words, or to give him a chance to gather his thoughts. There is of course no pit lane reporter feeding him more information. And – this is a guess – but I would assume there was no Mark Hughes-type figure in the commentary box either. The TV pictures aren’t great either. I would guess also that he is doing it from a studio in London?

This was also – correct me if I’m wrong – only the second season where the BBC were covering every grand prix. On the other hand, Murray Walker had been commentating on motor racing for decades, though not with the same sort of intensity that any of today’s big-name commentators would.

I don’t know this, but is it possible that Walker did a lot of radio commentary, hence the “say what you see” moments?

My point is that I think a lot of the criticisms that have been levelled at Legard are very harsh indeed. When you watch a video of Murray Walker in the 1970s, many of the same traits are there. I know Murray isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he became a massively well-loved household name and is one of the most famous sports commentators in the world. But he wasn’t born a great. It took him time to develop his technique and become the commentator from, say, the late 80s or early 90s that most people remember.

So I say people should perhaps lay off Legard a little. If Murray Walker can bang on about “down the hill” and “round the corner” during a hugely exciting piece of racing, I think we can forgive Legard for a “down the hill” or two during boring moments.


  1. Most attachment to Walker as a commentator is emotional and nostalgic. You won’t find that sort of loyalty outside of the UK. I grew up watching from Canada, and always thought of him as a bit of a joke, and old leftover from the past, but he was a staple, something familiar about F1.

    Now that he’s gone, there is no reason why we shouldn’t hold our current broadcasters to a higher standard. Just because Murray Walker was a talker doesn’t mean Legard should get away with it. I really don’t need to be spoken to like I’m blind, and while I agree that Brundle’s response in regards to refueling was a tad rude (Yes, Martin, there are people who disagree with you) I think it was a bit of creep in of his attitude of having to broadcast with someone who seems to know less than the average fan.

  2. I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard a few names bandied about, but like I said, I only get the race feed, so I have never heard Croft and Edwards. I thought Davidson did a hell of a job when he subbed in the day Button won his first race.

    So my answer has to be, I don’t know who to suggest, other than a few ex-drivers. I think Wurz would be very intelligent and funny. I appreciate the experience that Brundle has brought to the mic over the years, and like I said, I think he does a fine job, but he was able to do his job better while partnered with Allen. It was the Brits that had a real hate-on for him for some reason. I really didn’t mind him and think he now has one of the best blogs out there.

  3. Murray Walker injected excitement and was pretty good at reading a race.

    James Allen was very good at reading a race – what I disliked (strongly) was his style of delivery. Also, perhaps unfairly, I always associate him with tedious partisanship, but maybe I should blame ITV for that.

    I don’t know how he feels about not being in the commentary box any more but I think his present journalism does better justice to his analytical eye.

    Jonathan Legard really doesn’t read the race at all. That doesn’t bother me but I wonder if casual fans need the sport making that bit more accessible. He doesn’t say anything that I consider a ‘turn off’ though. I think the worst criticism you can level at him is that he comes across a bit dull. On the whole I consider him an improvement though.

    But as you said before, the chemistry with Brundle just isn’t there, and occasionally it’s jarring (that thing about refuelling at Germany – ouch!)

    And I think it’s always worth saying, this is a job that’s much, much harder than it looks.

  4. It’s worth saying that James Allen improved a great deal in his later years. I almost forgot what it was to dislike in him, but when I watch some old clips my jaw drops at his commentary style in his first few years.

    Take, for instance, his coverage of the final laps and stoppage of the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix is a disaster zone. Fernando Alonso had had a really nasty shunt, but James Allen didn’t see it — he was too busy banging on about the rules surrounding red flags to notice. Typical Allen in a lot of ways — interested in regulations, strategy, fuel loads, white stripes, almost anything except what’s happening on the racetrack. Then when he saw the replay he came over all “Oooh, that was a nasty one, ooooh,” and adopting a smarmy fake solemn tone.

    And that’s without mentioning the one or two clangers that come before the Alonso crash.

    I believe that was around 20 races into his career as ITV’s main TV commentator. So I take it as a good sign that we have never seen any of this sort of nonsense from Legard even just a few races into his TV commentary career. If Legard improves half as much as Allen did, he will be great.

    Like I say, in fairness James Allen improved a lot in his later years. And Keith, you are absolutely right about his ability to read the race, which is why I recommended in one of my recent posts that the BBC look into seeing if James Allen would come on board to take a role analysing strategy because it is clearly a weak point of Legard’s and the BBC’s coverage as a whole.

    Incidentally, it was also one of the reasons why I didn’t like James Allen as a main commentator — because he was such a good pitlane reporter.

    The chemistry with Brundle was never going to be there from the get-go, especially as he seems to be a generally prickly character. But it will develop over time, and they have improved leaps and bounds from the first jittery broadcast from qualifying in Australia.

  5. > I was struck by just how many of
    > the traits Legard is so heavily
    > criticised for Walker exhibits
    > in this clip.

    Apples to oranges?

    Well, first of all, some context from a comment in the earlier thread.

    > Most attachment to Walker as a
    > commentator is emotional and
    > nostalgic. You won’t find that
    > sort of loyalty outside of the
    > UK.

    Speaking from California, I can attest to this. He’s your guy. We just a had a famous and equally ancient TV news ‘presenter’ die here in the States. Far too many of the rote, fawning obituaries failed to acknowledge that he thrived in a cruelly slender and unresponsive marketplace… And didn’t always perform nobly. But if people want to say he was a golden guy, who should argue? My fight isn’t with Murray Walker compared to anybody…. it’s with the 1970’s. I fear your argument defeats itself: Legard ably performs to a long-surpassed standard.

    Watching that clip, it’s notable how shabby the video was. Each camera had different color calibration, and there weren’t all that many angles. To a certain extent this is a problem with Le Mans even today: The track’s so long that they’ll leave a single camera to cover a long straight or corner. Of course, onboard cameras have done wonderful things for the coverage of the sport… But as has been acknowledged on many of the blogs, Bernie has invested a lot of money in tech and talent on the TV side. I don’t think of them as race cars, they’re just really, really good camera mounts.

    I’ve been watching a lot of races from earlier decades lately, and have been reminded of the days when the announcer would say “Donahue slammed into Andretti in turn 3, and there was a fire but it’s out now, and it was quite a crash!” And that would be all, because they didn’t have a camera on it or weren’t recording the fractional view that they did collect by happenstance.

    In times like those, a radio-style commentary is more appropriate. In the earlier days of sports television the video was so poor that you couldn’t make sense of it anyway. Maybe you needed to be told that it was Villenueve and not Scheckter in that Ferrari, because you couldn’t see it with your own eyes.

    Now you can. And even since those (to my mind) recent days, another generation of viewers has grown up with jump-cut sensibilities… They can track electric narratives that would have befuddled their grandfathers.

    > I think we can forgive Legard
    > for a “down the hill” or two
    > during boring moments.

    But… He’s not supposed to be bored along with us, he’s supposed to make it interesting! (Even announcing that “The action is presently mundane” would be an insight: Allen said something like that at the end of Valencia, and it was nice to have one’s perceptions validated.) And to be clear about this, shouting doesn’t help. Legard does it as if it were a contractual obligation with the BBC: ‘The announcer shall raise his voice upon occasion, conveying a sense of stimulation to the oblivious viewer‘. I’m terribly annoyed when he just barks the name JENson BUTton or MMMMASSssa and then lets it hang for five seconds, as if he’d improved my experience of the race. I just don’t know what you mean when you speak of his “tone and humour”. He’s a wit?

    We gotta disagree about Brundle, too… We’re not likely to get another commentator that good. Maybe better racers don’t bother to pay attention to what regular people ask them about racing cars, as Brundle apparently has. If he bothers people by disagreeing with them, as you’ve suggested, it’s probably because he’s right.

    Doctorvee, you’re a fun guy to disagree with! I love this blog.

    (Things could be worse. Crofty had Morris Hamilton in the booth for Practice One this morning. My least favorite team is Morris Hamilton and anybody! And it isn’t just age: Ian Phillips is a delight to listen to, especially with a younger partner.)

  6. Whoops, forgot the thesis with all that: As the years have passed and the technology has improved and changed, so too has the announcing. We can’t go back, no more than you can run Stewart’s Tyrell in Hungary tomorrow.

    (PS- Listening carefully to Practice 1, Morris Hamilton wasn’t that bad so long as Crofty was there to keep things moving.)

  7. Thanks for your comments Cridland, and sorry it’s taken me so long to respond — I had another busy weekend. I’m glad you find it fun to debate. Life would be too boring if we all agreed all the time. 😀

    Having said that, I agree with you on the 1970s coverage, which is why I put some caveats in my article. Although you are correct that some coverage is still shabby from time to time. You say Le Mans is like that. Monaco is also like that. It is the only F1 race not covered by FOM, and TMC have one camera that is positioned to cover the whole section of track from the exit of the tunnel to Anthony Noghès corner!

    But I wonder who would actually be capable of commentating to such a high standard as you seem to seek. I have already noted that Murray Walker probably wouldn’t have managed, while James Allen was universally vilified. Meanwhile, David Croft is well-loved as a radio commentator, but came in for a lot of stick when he moved to TV to cover GP2 last year. You note also that Maurice Hamilton is not a great lead commentator, and that is true. He replaced Jonathan Legard as Radio 5 Live’s commentator in 2004, and the quality took a nosedive. Hamilton is great as an analyst, but couldn’t cut it as a lead commentator, which is presumably why David Croft was brought in.

    So I fear that what you are asking is not possible. Commentators are only human, after all. For my money, Jonathan Legard is the second best person you could ask for, and I can’t find it in myself to moan about the second best man in the world doing the job.

    As for the old “making a boring race sound interesting” argument, I simply do not like that. I don’t want my intelligence insulted. If a race is boring, it is boring. A sports commentator cannot fabricate stuff. For me, Legard gets the tone of voice just right most times. For instance, I loved the way he described Mark Webber’s dodgy pitlane release, and the shot of Fernando Alonso’s tyre bouncing around.

  8. Well, listening through your ears this weekend, Legard didn’t sound as bad. (He wasn’t as unlistenable… He was actually not too horrendous…)

    (Sorry. You got that, right? Sorry.)

    James Allen’s excellence as a blogger makes me miss him as announcer, thought I’d have been complainging as loudly about him last year, too.

    I really, really like listening to Crofty during practice… Because he seems to be having a good time!

  9. you gotta be kidding me. comparing two different era’s in television commentary and claming the current is great because it was abit worse many years ago?

    tv graphics have improved lots since then, we can now see what lap we’re on, and the leaderboard scrolls along, so no need to be reminded of things that havent changed, but instead we want to know about things that do change.

    we also dont need to play a guessing game. “will he make it?… no he wont”

    we also dont need his random rememberances of races earlier in the year… “remember turkey? where… blah blah blah”

    it’s really strange bbc paired a radio commentator with a great analyst like brundle. brundle dont get much time to analyze or say anything anymore, with the radio commentator chattering on like we’re all blind and can’t see shit.

  10. If people can’t talk about things that happened in earlier races, what exactly can they say? As noted earlier (maybe one of the earlier threads), one of my favorite pairings is the practice team of Crofty and Ian Phillips. Both extremely cheerful, and Ian has a wonderful way of making the olden days seem interesting without sounding like an old coot: He knows that the sport’s in better shape nowadays.

  11. So your saying Legard sounds like a commentator from 30 years ago….?

    Not a ringing endorsement is it.

  12. Dans, my point was that people are asking Legard to reach a standard that has never been met by anyone, not by Murray Walker, and certainly not by James Allen.

    I have to say that Will Buxton is certainly among the more left-field suggestions for the job, and I’ve only ever heard you suggest him. I don’t believe I have had the pleasure of hearing him commentate before, so he could be the best thing since sliced bread. But given that his full time commentary experience appears to consist of a handful of GP2 races — albeit on the World Feed no less — I would say that he could perhaps do with a bit more time to cut his teeth before being thrown in at the deep end.

  13. > people are asking Legard
    > to reach a standard that
    > has never been met by anyone

    We ask only that he not offend and not distract!

  14. >Will Buxton

    Hes the editor of GPWeek, well educated, in his 30’s, good sense of humour, stylish, good looking and has an endearing voice with good flow.

    Its not certain hes the man for the job but i hope hes at least on BBC’s radar for the future.

  15. He sounds like a good candidate Dans. I’m aware of his work as a journalist, but not so much as a commentator. If he’s doing a good job on GP2, maybe he could get involved with the F1 coverage soon if someone in the current BBC commentary teams moves on in the future.

  16. Hi there doctorvee,

    Thanks for writing these articles. Fascinating read.

    The problem I think Legard suffers from is that his voice is naturally monotone. He has to shout to inject enthusiasm, otherwise it sounds as though he couldn’t care less.
    I quite like him. Compared with Allen, he is in a far higher league in my opinion. I just feel sorry for the man. He’s only just started and he gets Allen-esque criticism.

    I’m starting to dislike Brundle. Everytime Jonathan asks him a question, he gives a sniffy reply. I bet Jonathan thinks “why do I bother?!”

    Some people think he doesn’t know anything about F1, but he commentated on it for seven years before this year!

    Arguments about commentators are interesting, but it’s all opinion. No one is right or wrong. I like Legard, but some don’t. I detested James Allen, but he had his few fans.

    Who would I have in the commentary box? Legard yes, Brundle…I don’t know. I always liked John Watson on Eurosport and on F1 Digital+.

    Anyway, great article. Thanks very much.

  17. Thanks for the comment Gianni.

    Interesting view about the monotonic nature of Jonathan Legard’s voice. Personally I like his voice, although I understand why some people think he lacks excitement. Unfortunately, everyone remembers Murray Walker who was a true one-off, and whose voice has become synonymous with motorsport. Not many people liked James Allen’s voice either.

  18. Doesn’t the fact that debates rage on whether Legard is any good or not (and most people seem to be in the no camp) a demonstration that he isn’t up to the job?

    Brundle is universally praised, as are Ben Edwards and Charlie Cox. And a few people think David Croft does well too.

    So surely it shouldn’t be beyond the BBC to put someone in there that the vast majority of people like?

    You’re entitled to your opinion in support of Legard, but he ain’t popular.

  19. Thanks for the comment Hippopotamus.

    I don’t know what universe Charlie Cox is universally popular in. I personally like him, but criticism of him is widespread from what I have seen. I have even heard stories of people choosing to watch Eurosport’s delayed MotoGP coverage just to avoid him and Steve Parrish!

    Ben Edwards is universally praised and I agree that he is the one candidate who would be better than Jonathan Legard. However, he is apparently not interested in the F1 job (it is thought that the BBC did offer him the job).

    Brundle is not as good as he used to be, while there are allegedly reasons why David Croft isn’t considered to partner with Brundle. Croft also got a lot of criticism for his GP2 commentaries.

  20. Legard is not doing that bad a job in all honesty.

    Yes I find his over-ebulant delivery rather irritating in much the same way as James Allen’s was, but you DO need a professional commentator alongside a ex-professional driver combo I believe. Thus the successful combo of Murray and Hunt or Ben Edwards and John Watson. Brundle does need a ‘layman’ to offer up his experience to.

    So a Brundle/Watson option just wouldn’t cut the mustard. They would be too contrite and opinionated to work together.

    Brundle/Edwards is a nice option, but Legard is not doing such a bad job, given that not all the F1 viewers are going to be dyed in the wool hardcore F1 fans.

  21. Unfortunately for you Gianni, The public have taken to Martin Brundle as he is knowledgeable through first hand experience, and for his ironic, sometimes ascerbic wit. Legard seems to me to be a direct descendant of the likes of Raymond Baxter, and is, to my mind, unsuited. Given that Brundle is virtually bombproof, I`d expect Legard to be replaced, probably by Charlie Cox, although I`d have no problem with James Allen.