Getting the Breaks

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The French GP was about getting the breaks, be they of the lucky or commercial variety, as Mark Skewis explains

Had the French Grand Prix been televised by ITV, as will be the case next year, it would have been tempting to have made the tea during the race and sat down to watch the adverts!

It was not a classic race by any stretch of the imagination.

But it/s likely to prove a significant one, for Damon Hill’s sixth win from nine GPs firmly quashed Michael Schumacher’s hopes of a French Renaissance for his championship bid. In Spite of capturing pole position, the German remained pessimistic about his chances of winning the race. But even he expected to get as far as the grid a feat which proved beyond him when his engine blew on the parade lap.

The disaster led to a shrug of resignation from the driver, and an offer of resignation from the team principal, who admitted, “This had been the blackest weekend of my motorsport career.” The offer was not accepted by Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo.

Todt’s position may not be that secure, but most of the top placings at Magny-Cours were arguably even before the race got underway. Jacques Villeneuve’s heavy crash in qualifying ensured that although he hoisted his Williams to second place, he started too far down the grid (sixth) to ever look like reining in the sister Williams. By contrast, Gerhard Berger was close enough to challenge team-mate Jean Alesi for the final spot on the podium, but the speculation surrounding his continued tenure of a seat at Benetton persuaded him that risking both cars ending in the gravel might not be the most diplomatic option on offer.

Mika Hakkinen had, for a long time, looked capable of splitting the Benettons, but once his McLaren had lost first and second gears he concentrated instead on just making the flag. With Magny-Cours signalling the onset of the Silly Season, there was far more action off the circuit than there was on it. In the wake of Renault’s decision to turn its back on Formula One, Frank Williams found himself linked with every engine in the sport, and quite a few that aren’t. Meanwhile Andrew Chowns, the man who has without doubt staged the most sensational transfer coup of the season even Ferrari didn’t have to fork out £70 million walked the paddock in near anonymity. He is the Controller of ITV’s Legal and Business Affairs.

The driving force behind ITV’s capture of the deal to televise F1 in Britain, he admits his own experience of the sport has hitherto been confined to watching it on the box. “I wouldn’t say I was a mad fan,” he confesses. “In fact, I don’t think you could be a fan to do my job because you would end up paying far too much for anything you wanted to buy! You have to have a certain amount of detachment in order to do it. I do like sport – my favourite is rugby – but having said that, once you’ve done the deal and it is out of the way, you also have to get interested in it.”

The deal came out of the blue so much so that not even the BBC knew until it was announced but what prompted Chowns to swoop?

“It was something with a negative side and a positive side,” he says. “The negative side was that Formula One was doing so well on the BBC2, and hurting us. The other side of the coin was that if it is doing us damage on BBC2, if we had it we could really do some damage.”

With the F1 deal safely in its pocket, ITV is now considering how to cover it. There is, opines Chowns, plenty of scope for improvement: “We think that there’s a lot more that can be done. I get the feeling that the BBC do the race, and a highlights show which is basically a repeat but there’s not really that much more in terms of feature material, not much projection of the leading drivers as stars, or conveying the sheer excitement of it.

‘LWT did a show not so long ago called ‘The Best of Enemies’, just before Nigel Benn fought Chris Eubank. It was a head-to-head, fairly lighthearted, asking them questions about their rivalry. I’m not saying that is what we’d do with F1, but we’d like to do more than watch the cars going round a track and then pack up and go home. I don’t know whether it’s a lack of ambition on the BBC’s part, or just difficult to do. We’ll find out, I guess!”

“In defence of the BBC, I would say that it genuinely was their intention to do a hell of a lot more this year,” points out Murray Walker, for many people the voice of F1. “There was going to be a magazine programme, the qualifying has been covered every race, and that hadn’t been done before, in addition to live coverage of all the races. And had the BBC not had this hammer blow of losing a competition they didn’t even know existed, I’m confident they would have been doing a lot more.

“I equally have little doubt that Independent will make a jolly good fist of it. They spent a gigantic amount of money on getting the series. Having made that sort of investment, they have to exploit it by doing a good job. I would hope that Grand Prix coverage will be even better next season than it has been in the past.”

But will Murray be involved? “I have made no secret of my ambition to carry on,” he laughs. “I think ITV will take one of two approaches: they will either go for fresh faces, and shake up things, or they will try to keep continuity. I hope it’s the latter after all, there will inevitably be a backlash when viewers find themselves faced with adverts in a Grand Prix for the first time, and ITV might need all the friends it can get…”

Chowns was genuinely shocked by the outpouring of affection for Murray when the ITV deal was made public. “I was amazed,” he admits with a smile of incredulity. “It wasn’t about Formula One or ITV, it was all about Murray. He seems to represent motor racing in a way that is probably currently matched only by Peter O’Sullivan in horse racing.”

He is bracing himself for the outrage at the intrusion of commercial breaks, but is adamant that there is no alternative. “Some people will be upset about it, there’s no point in pretending otherwise,” he accepts. “But they will very quickly get used to it, and we will do our best to make sure that it is not intrusive. We are a commercial station. We don’t charge a licence fee. I think if people want it for free, commercial breaks are a small price to pay.”

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