Listening to Formula 1 can be as exciting as watching it

Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the sound of Formula 1 cars this year. But you don’t need the wailing screech of a V8 engine to gain auditory pleasure from the sport.

On Sunday evening I was returning from a holiday. My girlfriend and I were zig-zagging our way across the UK from Wales via York to Edinburgh, and ultimately Dundee. A couple of closed junctions and a calamitous decision to follow the satnav’s instructions meant that our journey took somewhat longer than we had anticipated. This meant missing the grand prix.

We considered trying to avoid the race until we could get home to watch a recording. But in the end I decided that we should listen to the race on Radio 5 Live, and I could catch up with the highlights on TV later.

I have been a fan of 5 Live’s Formula 1 coverage for many years. But for obvious reasons, it is a service I tend to turn to only in ’emergency’ situations where I don’t have access to the TV pictures. For instance, I often switched on the radio during ITV’s commercial breaks. When Sky first gained the rights in 2012, I opted not to take up a subscription. That made 5 Live the only way to follow the action live for half of the races.

Others have turned to 5 Live over the years simply because they preferred it to the TV commentary. It has always been a strong product.

But the service faced a setback for 2012. Sky, having gained the rights to cover the sport for the first time, poached every single member of 5 Live’s on air team. Later, long time producer Jason Swales also departed.

Admirably, the quality of the coverage had largely been maintained. But it has suffered slightly from a lack of consistency. Lead commentary duties have been split between James Allen and Jonathan Legard, and now Jack Nicholls. From what I have heard of them, all three have done a fine job. But it does not offer the consistency that we are used to from the permanent BBC and Sky commentary teams.

But the real trouble came with the co-commentary. In 2012, those duties were given to Jaime Alguersuari. He had fresh F1 experience, but was ill-at-ease behind the microphone, and at times seemed to be at a complete loss for words, which is not great for a radio commentator. His answer to almost every question was “it’s difficult to say”, which isn’t the insight you want.

A number of others gradually took over. I remember Sam Bird doing a fine job. Towards the end of the season John Watson was excellent, as you would expect. Last year Gary Anderson took up the role. While no doubt he was good, he was also spread thinly between that and his role on BBC TV.

For the most part, these quibbles were minor. I listened to a few races live on 5 Live in 2012. I remember particularly enjoying James Allen’s commentary in Bahrain; and Jonathan Legard with Sam Bird in Japan, and John Watson in Abu Dhabi.

But there was always a niggle in the back of my mind that 5 Live’s coverage was a slight shadow of its former self. That was all dispelled this weekend.

The coverage began at 6pm, meaning a full hour of build up. The BBC’s TV coverage only began at 6.20pm.

Normally the TV coverage build up on both the BBC and Sky is quite dispensable, particularly when it is so lengthy. It is often stuffed full of fluffy information-free features and chest-beating displays from washed-up ex-drivers of 10 or 20 years ago playing with their touch screen toys, vying to convince us that they still have the knowledge of what it’s like to drive today’s F1 cars.

What I like about radio as a medium is that it can’t be about flashy gimmickry in this way. Radio is driven by pure information. 5 Live’s build up was a perfect reminder of this. Anchored by Jennie Gow, the hour of build up was incisive, insightful and energetic.

Access to the big names in the paddock appeared to be every bit as good as for TV, even if Jennie Gow got blanked by Nico Hülkenberg on the grid! There were lengthy interviews with Christian Horner and Toto Wolff.

Come race time itself, the commentary from James Allen and Allan McNish was excellent. They had a great rhythm, and appeared to have a good system that meant they avoided talking over each other, at least in the early stages of the race.

It should be noted that James Allen has improved considerably as a commentator from his ITV days. He did a great job of painting a picture for radio listeners, and his descriptions of the incidents were vivid.

James Allen has also always been excellent at reading the race from a strategy point of view. At times this dragged the ITV commentaries down, but in this instance I found it useful to understand why Daniel Ricciardo pitted early (a crucial decision, it turned out!), and how Force India were able to stay out for so long in their first stint.

As for Allan McNish, he is a clear and energetic talker who clearly relishes being a broadcaster. It is certainly a great contrast to the host of youngsters such as Jaime Alguersuari or whatever reserve driver was available. While they often appeared to be too shy to speak properly, Allan McNish has a clear idea of what he wants to say, and how to say it in a clear and accessible way.

Best of all, he was exceptionally strong at describing the technical aspects of the cars. McNish may not have much in the way of recent F1 experience, but in a way that is his — and 5 Live’s — secret weapon.

His vast experience in sportscars makes him intimately familiar with the hybrid technologies being used this year for the first time in F1. He understood and described perfectly the issues that faced the Mercedes drivers, and how it developed into a brake issue for Lewis Hamilton.

Overall, we were on the edge of our seats as we wound our way up the A702. You have to concentrate quite hard to follow a race on the radio, particularly when you don’t have any timing screens in front of you. But it removed none of the tension, and it was obvious that the race was developing into something special.

We were both itching to get in front of a TV screen, which we managed with 20 laps to go. We joined the excellent BBC TV commentary of Ben Edwards and David Coulthard, but we were also a little sad to leave behind James Allen, Allan McNish and Jennie Gow.

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4 responses to “Listening to Formula 1 can be as exciting as watching it”

  1. Didn’t realise Jack Nicholls did (at least some of) 5live’s F1 coverage; I only first heard of him the other week when I was looking for a photo for a blog I was researching and writing on ‘underdog F1 victories’. I stumbled across a blog from his Formula 2 commentary days!

    I listened to a couple of races on radio back in 2012 in my student room at the time (both the Spanish races coincidentally enough) and my problem was that we weren’t getting the gaps between the drivers. In the Barcelona race the victory battle was between Maldonado, Alonso and Raikkonen, yet it was only in the final stint that I’d realised how Raikkonen had dropped really far back (15-20secs) during the 2nd stint! Maybe you’re right that you need to listen carefully to not miss any key snippets of news. For the Valencia race I think I combined radio with live text and that seemed to work better. Still, looks like they’re building a good team there and that will bode well for 5live going forwards.

  2. […] have raved about BBC Radio 5 Live’s Formula 1 coverage before. The podcast from the same team is the best way to get the race reaction from the drivers […]

  3. I wonder why F1 won’t adopt the style used by NASCAR and INDYCAR for radio. There would probably be 7-8 commentators marked for the circuit and 2-3 pit reporters. The commentators rely solely on their eyes watching the entire action as they go station to station for coverage.

    Both US sanctioning bodies have effectively made it where radio is required before commentators do television. The station-to-station style has commentators call the action of a lap where one commentator passes the baton to the next section commentator in doing a lap. In fact, one business news analyst on US television said she prefers motorsport on radio instead of television for the quality of names such as Dave Moody, Mike Bagley, Jeff Streigle, Kurt Becker, Kyle Rickey, Dan Hubbard, Dillon Welch (NASCAR), or Jake Query, Nick Yeoman, and a slew of others on the INDYCAR side that do the relay style. The rawness of each commentator as they call the action with binoculars and a few sheets of paper comes complete with the ambient noise of the cars as they pass by each perch can be heard in the broadcast. Wonder how an MRN-style broadcast would work in F1.

  4. Bobby, thanks for your comment.

    I believe what you have described is how BBC radio used to cover motorsport several decades ago. I wonder when they made the transition to the now more familiar commentary over the world feed audio.

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