There was some alarming news for F1 fans yesterday. According to The Guardian, the BBC is considering ditching F1 coverage as a result of budget cuts.
I used to think the chances of the BBC dropping its F1 coverage at the end of the current contract were fairly high. For critics of the BBC, F1 is an easy target.
For one thing, the image of F1 as a glamorous, expensive sport for rich men doesn’t help. Nor, indeed, does the perception that it is environmentally unfriendly.
There is also a myth that Formula 1 can be adequately covered by commercial broadcasters. Anyone who actually tried to sit down and watch a race on ITV will know that this is simply not true. But the fact that it has only been back on the BBC for two years so far means that it is not seen as a BBC jewel.
But since it regained the rights in 2009, the BBC have done such an exemplary job of covering the sport that it has become a matter of even greater importance to many F1 fans. It’s not just about the lack of advert interruptions, which was a huge barrier to ITV gaining acceptance from fans. It is the sheer breadth and depth of the BBC’s coverage.
The quality of the programme itself is top-notch, despite apparently having a much lower budget than ITV. All practice sessions are broadcast on the red button or online. And post-race analysis often goes on for as long as the race itself. There is plenty of archive footage on offer too.
As a result, ratings for Formula 1 are generally much higher than they were by the time ITV was finished with it. A recent BBC Trust report revaled that Formula 1 coverage was exceeding all of its targets and enabled it to reach a young male audience that the BBC otherwise finds difficult to reach.
The other sporting event that was regarded as a ‘hit’ by all measures was Wimbledon. This is the other sport apparently being considered for the chop.
So are the BBC planning to do a 6 Music, and demonstrate that BBC coverage of these events needs to be saved as a result of strong viewer opinion? Or is F1 genuinely being lined up for the axe?
It’s pretty clear that the BBC’s F1 coverage has faced a budget cut for the year. The BBC took the odd decision of removing the well-respected commentator Jonathan Legard, and failing to properly replace him. Instead, the rest of the existing team has been reshuffled and each member of the on-screen team will be spread more thinly.
For instance, it is expected that Martin Brundle will continue to do his pre-race gridwalk, do a full race commentary, and participate in the post-race analysis. David Coulthard will continue in his punditry role both before and after the race, in addition to being the co-commentator during the race. This would normally amount to four or more hours of continuous live broadcasting (more if the race is delayed for some reason), without much in the way of a break.
As former grand prix drivers, there is no doubt that Martin Brundle and David Coulthard have stamina. But I think even the most seasoned broadcasting pros would find this sort of workload to be a tough act.
So why not bring someone new on board? Is it just a case of a salami slice budget cut, or is the BBC preparing to wind down its coverage of F1 altogether?