On with the show

The BBC returned to host coverage of Formula 1 in 2009 – to largely glowing reviews. Now it’s got to do it all over again, but this time the team knows how to deliver
By Rob Widdows

Bring back Murray Walker… Somebody please tell ITV not to put the adverts on during the exciting bits… Give Formula 1 back to the Beeb… And so it went on, while ITV did its best to make Grand Prix racing entertaining.

Then, it all came to pass. Bernie Ecclestone sold the rights to the BBC from under the nose of the commercial channel and, lo and behold, Murray was back, if only as a website pundit. Everyone is happy, then. Or are they?

When F1 racing came back to the BBC in 2009 there was much speculation as to how the corporation would treat this mysterious and complicated business. Judging by the ratings, which steadily increased throughout the season, the coverage has been a success. Of course, most enthusiasts enjoyed the absence of commercial breaks, but what else has changed after a decade on the ‘other’ channel?

As expected, the front line featured new faces. It’s rare for a broadcaster to take on the previous incumbent’s ‘talent’, although Martin Brundle survived, as did Ted Kravitz in the pitlane, who was joined by Lee McKenzie. But gone were Louise Goodman, Mark Blundell and race commentator James Allen, the latter – like most commentators – not being universally popular. But it’s a tough if not impossible job pleasing all the people all the time, as new recruit Jonathan Legard has discovered. He was Radio 5’s man at the races from 1997 to 2004, but since then he’d been its football correspondent, so there was homework to do before joining the pithy and punchy Brundle in Melbourne last March.

“It was edgy to begin with,” says Legard. “Those first three flyaway races were a madcap start, but by the end of the season I thought it was going pretty well. I’d been away [from F1] for four years and there was a lot to learn about the way TV works too, a very different discipline from radio. But I think Martin and I became more of a partnership and the whole broadcast began to flow more smoothly, knowledgeably and humorously.

“Working with Martin was very different from my time with Maurice Hamilton on the radio, simply because Martin, as a driver, has a completely different mindset – and insight – into what’s going on. He’s been there, so I’ve learnt a lot and the chemistry between us has taken time to gel. We both agree that it’s a work in progress. On the radio you talk all the time but on TV you need to do less talking, let the pictures do their job. Sometimes we need to hear the engines, watch the driver at work. Formula 1 is such an intense experience, utterly relentless, so competitive, and to begin with it’s a blur.”

The man who makes the big decisions is Mark Wilkin, editor of the F1 coverage, a task he describes as the best job in the world. He is responsible for satisfying both the knowledgeable enthusiast and the casual viewer. Not easy in any sport.

“This is one of the BBC’s permanent conundrums and we discuss it a lot,” he says. “Of course we don’t shy away from the complicated technical stuff – it’s our job to explain it in a way that is easily understandable – and we need to pay attention to the fact that even the die-hard fans may not watch every show. We need to be careful not to assume that because they are watching the race on a Sunday they’ve also seen the Saturday coverage. The best commentators will find a way of explaining it and making it accessible, while my job is to get the commentator to empower the audience by enabling them to understand what’s going on.”

Inevitably there have been comparisons between the way in which F1 was presented to us by ITV and the style in which the BBC has chosen to tackle the sport. Not everyone has been enamoured by the seemingly deliberate angst between the two resident experts, Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard, two former inhabitants of the paddock who could hardly be more different.

“I don’t think they will come to blows,” says Wilkin. “At least I certainly hope not. We like Eddie’s natural exuberance and his experience of running an F1 team is invaluable, as is David’s experience as a driver. They have very different areas of expertise. It’s important to have some disagreement between these two – if they always agreed with each other then it would hardly be the most engaging television, would it?”

The star of the show has been former children’s TV presenter Jake Humphrey, who came to F1 fresh from his critical acclaim at the 2008 Olympic Games and was a surprising choice for the top job of anchorman. His task is to keep all the balls in the air during four hours of live television. This is by no means as easy as he makes it look. The F1 paddock is a world of its own, a club that takes no prisoners, a village society where everyone knows what everyone else is doing. This world is ruled by Ecclestone, who was keen to welcome back the BBC. There were those who suggested that Humphrey would be eaten alive. On the contrary, he has by common consent come through unscathed. And this in a year when F1 surpassed its own ability to shoot itself in the foot with ‘lie-gate’, ‘crash-gate’, and the war between the FIA and FOTA.

“As a Norfolk boy I grew up with Senna and Mansell driving for Lotus, and those were heady days, so I’ve always had an interest in motor racing,” says Humphrey. “But if I was a massive racing fan and couldn’t present live TV shows then I wouldn’t have got very far. You can’t bluff your way in F1, you have to love it. And we’ve been lucky with the stories we had last year – except possibly with Bernie in Singapore, which was probably the worst moment for me. But he can be a tricky customer and I’ve got a million other things going on in my earpiece in a live interview. So perhaps it reminded people I’m only human. It’s been great working with Eddie and DC. I am the referee, I guess, but people aren’t used to the pundits disagreeing with each other. I enjoy standing back and letting them go toe to toe and then reining them in at the right moment.”

The BBC’s other strength has been digital. Its Formula 1 website offers a great deal of content, including interactive questions with Walker and Humphrey’s frank ‘behind the scenes’ blog, while the Red Button adds live extra data during races and a relaxed post-show interview with whomever Brundle or Jordan can collar. And Humphrey ‘tweets’ continually…

Looking ahead to the new season, what can we expect from the BBC? Long-time enthusiasts know there are gaps that need filling, nooks and crannies to be more closely investigated.

“I’d love to get Fernando Alonso on the show, break down the barriers, have a good, honest chat with him,” says Humphrey. “And of course we want Schumacher. But a lot of us were new to the game last year and there’s lots more to do. I do think people trust us now, they trust us not to do them over and to present their views or situations in a fair and honest way, which is why we get the co-operation we do in the paddock.”

A common criticism of F1 on television is that broadcasters are not given sufficient freedom, not enough access, and the show is too tightly controlled to make the most entertaining viewing. In America, for example, the teams and drivers are schooled in how to help the media, not how to avoid them. Wilkin feels that access has improved since economic pressures have made the teams more amenable to the marketing and PR advantages of TV coverage.

“It was the one area that concerned me the most,” he says, “but there’s been a change in attitudes and the teams have been helpful in responding to what we want. I was always very keen to bring the characters to the screen, the heroes and villains, and this we have achieved with co-operation from the teams. They now realise they have to maximise their exposure. And [Ecclestone’s company] Formula One Management has been helpful in many areas. That’s important, because if they like the coverage then they will be more likely to co-operate when we want access to a particular story. We have no commercial pressures – that’s in the BBC charter – and FOM understands that.”

Television lives or dies by its ratings. For most people, the only way to see a Grand Prix is to watch it on the box and a great many of us are doing just that. The BBC has had some luck, with Jenson Button winning the 2009 title and the return of Schumacher both guaranteed to raise the ratings. Armchair enthusiasts always think they could a better job, but try turning the volume down and presenting your own show. It’s not as easy as it appears. Of course it can never be as good as being there, but the BBC gets us as close as we are ever going to get without moving from our chairs. You can vote with the on/off switch.