After weeks of rumours, it was today announced that the BBC will be exiting its F1 contract three years early. The move is a blow to fans of the sport, who have benefited from a golden era of coverage.
When ITV held the rights from 1997 onwards, it felt like we would never again benefit from advert-free F1 coverage. It is true that ITV raised the bar for F1 coverage when it first took over from the BBC. But the presence of adverts, often at crucial moments of a race, forever tarred it.
Latterly, the ITV package became formulaic. Worst of all, it became unbearably biased towards Lewis Hamilton. When ITV relinquished the rights to the BBC at the end of 2008, it came as a great relief.
In 2009, the BBC provided a level of coverage never seen before, and arguably never since. The sheer volume of F1 content that was made available free-to-air was unprecedented. Practice sessions, multiple feeds, extensive use of archive materials – these were all firsts brought to us as soon as the BBC got the rights.
BBC’s F1 coverage had unbeaten breadth
Where the BBC’s coverage has always truly excelled is in its breadth of coverage. The personnel have changed slightly over the years, but the BBC have always struck a perfect balance that Sky don’t even seem to attempt to achieve.
The obligatory ex-drivers have always been present – most notably David Coulthard. But crucially – and this is what made the BBC different even to Sky, right to the end – they sought expertise in other areas too. So for a period, they had Gary Anderson to provide a technical perspective.
Meanwhile, Eddie Jordan provided his expertise in the business and political sides of the sport. Eddie Jordan has his detractors, and his presentational style was eccentric to say the least. But no-one can deny that he has the inside line on many matters, and gave the BBC some massive scoops.
Over on Sky, they have ex-drivers and ex-drivers, with the odd ex-driver thrown in for good measure. It doesn’t matter if they can present on TV. No concerns if they have all the charisma of a used paper bag. Even a firm grasp of the English language is of secondary concern. If you are an ex-driver, you are in the Sky F1 presentation team. If you’re not a celebrity, they’re not interested.
No technical experts. No business experts. No-one with the inside line of the politics of the sport. Just loads and loads of middling ex-drivers adding not very much to the mix.
Sky’s less than premium product
This year I decided to stop paying for Sky’s F1 coverage. That was partly because Formula 1 has become a bit rubbish in general. But also because I was getting the firm impression that I should have been getting more for all that extra money I was spending.
Sky have it in the bag in terms of the numbers. A dedicated channel. All the races live. Hours upon hours of bespoke programming. It should be an F1 fan’s dream.
The problem is that watching the Sky Sports F1 channel often feels like entering an alien world. Much of their coverage feels like it is specifically aimed at school children. And the Hamilton mania has made ITV look positively restrained.
Worse still, the heavy emphasis on blokey banter is cringeworthy in the extreme. If you tuned in by accident you might wonder if you were watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a middle aged man’s terrible stag do — one that will probably involve a Status Quo concert later on.
Technical analysis? There is some, if you hunt it down. It goes without saying that Ted Kravitz is brilliant, although sometimes his Notebooks descend far too easily into self-parody. It would benefit from having a stronger focus and ending the contrived spontaneity.
However, you are more likely to have to endure some mind-numbing feature of drivers playing with giant Jenga blocks. Or yet another ego piece of a 1990s driver wandering around Silverstone in a classic and/or modern F1 car, struggling to find new things to say about the experience of travelling at 150mph.
BBC was my home of Formula 1
As the excitement of F1 has been dialled down in this era of DRS, Pirelli tyres and generally diluted racing, I found myself making do with BBC highlights more and more often. Towards the end of this year I actually found myself being more likely to make other plans if it was a Sky race.
There were some bumps along the way. But the BBC’s coverage was a world class product for most of its stint.
Their commentators, Ben Edwards and David Coulthard, undoubtedly make the best modern-day commentary team. By the end, at least for the past year or so, you could rely on Suzi Perry and Lee McKenzie to ask good questions. It goes without saying that before her, Jake Humphrey was truly brilliant. And of course Eddie Jordan could provide spiky opinions and incisive analysis, making a legendary double act with David Coulthard.
The overall style was more welcoming, and frankly a great deal more watchable than Sky’s supposedly premium product.
That the BBC had to relinquish their rights was a sad inevitability as their balls get squeezed ever tighter by the Conservative government. It is a great shame that it’s ended.
Love this gang … pic.twitter.com/51QW0l4LJ3
— Suzi Perry (@suziperry) December 21, 2015
As part of the new deal, the BBC has agreed to extend its radio coverage until 2021. This was previously the case, when BBC Radio 5 Live broadcast races while ITV had the TV rights. It’s great news. But in this era of budget cuts it will be interesting to see how the 5 Live team copes without the added support of their BBC TV colleagues, who had been increasingly involved in the 5 Live output in recent years.
What to expect from Channel 4
(Although in the back of my mind I had a feeling Channel 4 would be in with a shout.)
Remember last time BBC scaled back their coverage Channel 4 were interested? Wonder if that's still the case.
— Duncan Stephen (@vee8) December 17, 2015
Most notably, Channel 4 has promised that it will not show adverts during the race. This is an incredible commitment from a commercial broadcaster given that races can often last up to two hours in prime slots. This already puts it over and above anything ITV could imagine achieving.
It is pointless to speculate as to what Channel 4’s coverage will involve. However, we can say that they will almost certainly do things differently.
The channel has a remit to do things differently, and has a history of innovative sports coverage. In the 1980s it turned NFL and Italian football into cult hits. In the 1990s it breathed new life into the coverage of test cricket. Its recent coverage of the Paralympic Games was widely hailed.
There have been some low points too, including their disastrous coverage of the International Athletics Championships in 2011.
That same year, the last time the BBC scaled back its F1 coverage, Channel 4 bid for the rights. The bid document promised a great deal including “more archive programmes than any previous broadcaster”, “more prime-time exposure… no red button hideaways” and “a greater range of original programmes from documentary to entertainment”.
Who knows what they have planned now that they actually have the rights. But F1 is a massive sport for Channel 4, and it seems as though they will make a massive deal about it.
I’m looking forward to it.