Sky Sports F1 – the verdict

Last year I made do without Sky’s Formula 1 coverage. But this year I decided to treat myself and shell out.

I had seen some bits and pieces of Sky’s coverage from last year, but nothing like enough to form a solid opinion of my own. From what I could gather from others, it was a pretty solid product. But it was said to be a bit flat in its post-race analysis, and not the obvious cut above the free-to-air BBC product.

So my decision to subscribe to Sky was based solely on the fact that it is the only way to watch 10 of the 19 Formula 1 races, as well as all of the GP2 and GP3 races, live. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by anything else.

The first thing to point out is the giddy novelty of having a channel dedicated to Formula 1. If there is nothing else on, I automatically switch to it to see what’s there.

You would go mad if you sat down to watch it most nights. It is, of course, mainly repeats. Even first time round, some of the content is only marginally interesting. Timelapses of F1 cars being built would be more suitable as screensavers than 30 minute TV progammes.

But I have enjoyed watching some of the classic F1 races broadcast in full. This feature will only improve when we get to the European races that have some real history behind them, rather than the likes of China and Bahrain.

Come the race weekends, I have been impressed with just how slick their output is. Simon Lazenby is not as likeable as Jake Humphrey (or, indeed, Suzi Perry), but he does share the former BBC anchor’s unflappable manner. Pundits Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill may lack the colour of the BBC’s Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard, but their comments are coherent and their sentences are structured.

Given the tendency of Sky Sports to use former sports stars as pundits rather heavily, I wonder if Sky have a particularly good training course designed to turn former sports persons into broadcasting pros. As good as the BBC pundits’ insight is, they still don’t seem fully comfortable in front of the camera in their fifth year as broadcasters. Not so with Herbert and Hill, who both look confident and comfortable after their first year.

But where Sky’s coverage really excels is in the Skypad analysis. Sometimes the Skypad is misused as a gimmick. But in the post-race analysis, in the hands of the ever-insightful Anthony Davidson, it adds a surprising amount of value.

But Sky’s punditry could benefit from the input of a non-driver. Anthony Davidson is sharp and incisive, and Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill are adequate enough. However, all three of the pundits are ex-drivers. Herbert’s and Hill’s careers even took place in the same era, so they can’t even offer the benefit of a unique perspective in that sense.

Sky ought to consider having someone with a different background to stand alongside one ex driver. The BBC have former team owner Eddie Jordan, and technical director Gary Anderson. ITV had journalists Tony Jardine and Simon Taylor. This offered the viewer much wider picture, rather than just a driver’s perspective of events.

When the BBC regained the rights in 2009, it was the post-race coverage that really propelled it so far ahead of what ITV had been offering. Sky have not offered a similar jump in quality, which is disappointing given the cost of the subscription. But as with the BBC, it is in the post-race coverage where Sky are nudging ahead.

Race commentary is one area where Sky are not nudging ahead at the moment. That’s not to say that the Sky partnership of David Croft and Martin Brundle is bad by any means. In fact, the Croft–Brundle partnership works better than any other TV commentary lineup since the days of Murray Walker. But in comparison with the BBC’s commentary, it feels a bit flatter, and contains the odd clanger. Plus, it is littered with tedious promotions of “Sky Race Control”, “stunning HD”, “incredible 5.1 audio”…

Ted Kravitz continues to do a good enough job. His Notebook feature is one of Sky’s strongest assets. It has been interesting to see how the Notebook feature has evolved over time. Back in the ITV days, it existed as a website article (and was just about the only thing worth reading on the ITV F1 website). The BBC’s decision to re-imagine it as an online video was a masterstroke.

Sky have gone a step further and put it on the TV immediately after the race. But the turnaround is clearly very tight, and the Notebook now lacks the well-formed unique insights that the written articles for ITV did have. Now the Notebook seems to be mostly Ted Kravitz poking his nose into crates of equipment, like a tramp looking for scraps of food in a bin. Sky should consider making the Notebook a pre-recorded standalone programme again before it descends into self-parody.

All-in-all, I have been more impressed with the Sky coverage than I was expecting to be. I am not convinced that they offer enough over and above what the BBC did to truly justify shelling out for the subscription. But that is the world we are now living in. For as long as it remains the only way to watch the entire F1 season live, I can live with a slightly lighter wallet too.


With apologies to the Digital Spy forum.

8 comments

  1. F1 construction timelapse screensavers sound like a great idea. Though I can see why it doesn’t work as a 30-minute show if no other content is proferred.

    Hill did a whole year of commentary at the ill-fated F1 Digital+ in 2002, which is very relevent prior experience possible for the position he now holds. I think it’s Herbert’s first time as a pundit (which suggests Sky has a good training scheme for its pundits), though he was one of Jordan/Midland’s PR crew for 18 months, which might have helped.

  2. Great article as always Duncan.

    It’s probably a good thing you didn’t see sky last year, Damon Hill was dull as dishwater, and had an awkward tendency to thrust his crotch towards the camera. This year he’s a lot more relaxed though. Sky tweaked the punditry a bit last year, it wasn’t until about half way through they got Herbert on regularly and his affable manner lifted the coverage.

    Like you say, it’s nice to have a channel you can flick to at any time for some F1, but they really need to make more of the “Legends” series. I don’t know how many more times I can watch the Mika Hakkinen interview!

    I agree that they do need a non-driver. They did have Georgie Thompson in the layman/journalist role on the skypad, but she was never particularly insightful and seemed to be there as “eye candy”.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    It does seem as though Sky have had a thought over the winter and made a few small tweaks that have made all the difference. I heard some grumbles about flat punditry and Georgie Thompson not being particularly useful. Good for them for sorting out the issues.

  4. Apologies for the late response to this article, and if you didn’t get the HD pack then apologies for wasting your time with this comment. But I’m interested – is the HD quality really _that_ better than the BBC’s? I have seen a lot of complaints about the BBC having a softer picture that I doubt.

  5. Philip,

    Thanks for the comment. To be honest, I don’t really notice the difference between the picture quality of Sky and the BBC. I have seen some side-by-side comparisons online that make it clear that Sky’s picture is slightly higher quality, but I have never noticed it when sitting watching it in my living room. Some people are probably more sensitive to it though.

  6. Yes, as far as I can tell really the only difference will be the addition of a Sky Sports logo in the corner. Thanks for the response!

  7. Great blog Duncan. In mu opinion Ted Kravitz should be the anchor, Lazenby can do the Notebook and look through the F1 bins and crates. Martin Brundle needs to stop advertising watches for Richard Mille that cost in excess of £40,000 per watch!!! Bring back Anthony Davidson who of late has gone missing from our screens, Herbert has a constant smirk on his face and seems to wind up Brundle but they are thankfully separated by Damon Hill and his gangly gait. They need to make more use of Natalie Pinkham as a co-anchor not just pitlane reporter, WE DO NEED eye candy. Give Brundle a longer grid walk and FOM need to clear up the hoardes of nobodies and B-list celebs on the grid to allow TV more access/vision.
    F1 cars could do with front driver cam so we can see the driver and maybe side cameras for playback. For every city/location F1 visits Sky should do a city guide/travel guide feature for viewers and a guide to seeing an F1 race for those of us who haven’t. Sky need to commission a two-seater F1 car like the BBC did and get Brundle, Hill, Davidson or Herbert to pilot it around tracks with a “screaming” Lazenby, Kravitz, Pinkham or Thomspon in the front commentating. A feature called Bernie’s half hour would be great where Ecclestone himself can discuss F1 business and race results. Now that would be worth the Sky subscription.

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