We are 6 races in to the 2012 Formula 1 season, one that is promising to be one of the most talked about seasons of all time, with 6 different winners in the first 6 races for the only time in the sports history. Behind that however, there is a subplot that takes place for British TV viewers in 2012, BBC or Sky? Which to watch? The old guard in BBC, albeit with less live races, or the new kids on the block with Sky, and a team mostly grabbed from the Beeb? After these 1st 6 races, and the last two being live on both platforms, here is how I think they are starting to stack up.
Firstly, let’s start with Friday practice. Usually these are sessions where not much on track action takes place, especially in the morning session, but it gives the chance for the commentators and analysts to discuss all the latest news & preview the weekend ahead. Sky gives us a short build up into their practice coverage, and during the session the partnership of David Croft & Anthony Davidson in the commentary box & Ted Kravitz & Natalie Pinkham roaming the pitlane is all too familiar for the BBC viewers of the last couple of years with that team leading the BBC Radio 5 Live coverage. Also for Sky, Martin Brundle in pit lane is an added bonus, and having cameras in pit lane is also better for viewers when there is no action on track. Sky does use that time for adverts, but having their impressive Race Control feature at hand does allow viewers to bypass the adverts & switch to an alternate camera feed.
In contrast to the familiarity on Sky, BBC’s Radio 5 Live team has required a complete overhaul as all of its team jumped ship. FP1 takes place with the talented & (in my opinion the hugely underrated) Ben Edwards in the commentary box & accompanied by Jaime Alguersuari, this is a good blend of experienced commentator and analysis from a driver who has driven these generation of Formula 1 cars (I did hear in an interview on Peter Windsor’s excellent show The Flying Lap that John Watson was being considered for this role before it was given to Jaime Alguersuari). In pit lane, we have the experience of Gary Anderson bringing us up to date with all the technical updates, and joined by James Allen (who everyone may remember was ITV’s pit lane reporter before making the move upstairs to commentator when Murray Walker retired) & new to the F1 paddock, Jennie Gow. The BBC Radio 5 Live team has a lot of experience behind it and their knowledge shows through on their commentary. For FP2, Ben makes way for James Allen as lead commentary on 5 Live for the remainder of the weekend while Ben takes up BBC TV commentator duties.
With the BBC Free Practice coverage being shown on the red button, this does mean sticking to the FOM world feed with no alternatives as offered by Sky, but when there is a lack of on track action, this does allow the BBC 5 Live team to answer viewers/listeners questions, as they have done in the past & I for one am always quite active in sending them my tweets with questions (as many may have seen on my twitter feed or even heard on air over the course of the past few seasons). Compare this to Sky, who claim we can get involved via twitter to send in questions, they only seem to use the time to answer maybe 1 or 2 over the course of the 2 hours they are on air for Free Practice, and the tweets they do answer usually seem to be the basic questions, or reading out general comments. Many times via twitter I have sent in the same technical questions to BBC 5 Live and Sky to find that BBC 5 Live answer those questions, but Sky goes for a more simple question aimed at the casual viewer.
Moving on from Free Practice, Sky gives us the hour long F1 Show on Friday evenings. Not just limited to a race weekend, on non-race weekends this show gives us a roundup of the latest F1 news, interviews & features with drivers & analysis of the previous weeks racing. The F1 Show has been a good addition to the Sky F1 coverage, after the Spanish Grand Prix it was great to see they had Pastor Maldonado, the race winning driver live in the studio with them & in previous F1 Shows we have seen a live feature at the Marussia factory with Charles Pic. For an hour long show, which including adverts gets cut down to around the 45 minute mark, plus adding in the short clips that Sky use to lead into the adverts on F1 history, or stats, and doing the same when they come back from ad breaks, it does seem like the overall show is quite short & feels somewhat rushed in sections. For example, the aforementioned post Spanish Grand Prix show with Pastor Maldonado in the studio, he was joined by Derek Warwick & Karun Chandhok, both of which we barely heard from much during the hour.
Moving on to the main part of the coverage, Qualifying and the Race itself; BBC have kept its team of Jake Humphrey, Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard, and something the BBC coverage does well is the way the three of them work together (although it appears to be a love hate with some of the fans, mainly due to Eddie Jordan) especially as they have entered the 4th year of their partnership. BBC fills their pre-show coverage with a lot of clever, fun intros & interesting features with drivers. For example, during the Monaco Grand Prix coverage, getting Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to try their hand at TV production, showing a more human side to these drivers, it is also worth noting that the BBC won a Royal Television Society award for their 2011 Monaco GP opening sequence.
In contrast to Sky’s pre show coverage, I have found this quite stale, and somewhat boring. All the focus is totally on analysis and interviews with drivers or team principals. Whereas BBC give us some fun features (as well as the serious interviews), Sky spend more of their time showing us in depth slow motion analysis on their SkyPad. There is not much difference between the two however, but it seems the BBC has some more entertainment to its coverage in general. Sky’s recent addition of Johnny Herbert has been welcomed, and he does bring some much needed humour to the Sky team, but it is worth pointing out that as BBC’s team is now in its 4th year, Simon Lazenby is still finding his feet, and Formula 1 is quite a unique sport to cover, so as the season goes on, I am sure Sky will find ways of improving their coverage.
One concern many had about Sky at first was adverts, no adverts during the race itself means adverts during their pre and post show coverage. They have taken fans views on board after the first few races of the season and we get an uninterrupted hour of build up to the race, as with the F1 Show, either side of these adverts is taken up by the short videos of stats, photos, or clips from past races. Returning from the last advert before the race is due to start, we get shown a Hilton Honors race guide video talked through by Lewis Hamilton, which I personally don’t like, because it seems irrelevant being shown this towards the end of pre-race build up and it is a video sequence made for sponsors, which again is quite basic in nature, but as this is British TV others may enjoy as it features Lewis Hamilton.
Moving on to the on track action itself, Sky has teamed up David Croft with Martin Brundle, a commentary team that I had been hoping for at BBC last year, finally they are paired up in the box this season. David Croft is an excellent commentator and Martin Brundle is back to his more familiar role to provide analysis of the on track action. BBC have kept David Coulthard in the box, and he is joined by Ben Edwards, who I as I stated early I believe to be very underrated, having listened to his commentary on Eurosports Champ Car coverage and more recently ITV4’s BTCC coverage. Listening to Ben’s excitable commentary is almost like listening to a fan calling the action as they see it, which is something I have always enjoyed in sports commentary & why I enjoyed growing up listening to Murray Walker shouting through the TV during races.
An aside to that, as a follower of MotoGP, that is also why I enjoy listening to Toby Moody & Julian Ryder on Eurosport as it is just like listening to a couple of fans being sat in the room and reacting the same way as I do on my sofa to any of the on track action.
At the end of the day, there is nothing to really choose between the two commentary teams, so it comes down to personal preference. On top of the FOM feed, both offer a host of interactive features. Sky leads the way with this, providing a mixed on-board feed, choices of 3 other on-board cameras, the driver tracker, timing screens, a four way split screen incorporating the main feed, timing screen, on-board mix & the new for 2012 pit-lane feed. This pit-lane feed consists of audio only of team radio & a camera view just showing the pit lane, with a smaller picture within that displaying the main FOM feed (during the Malaysian Grand Prix rain delay, this was fascinating to listen to as drivers and engineers discussed the race & the rain delay).
BBC’s interactive options are not as comprehensive as Sky, only 1 on-board feed available, along with the driver tracker and pit lane feed, but do have the option to switch to Radio 5 Live commentary with James Allen & Jaime Alguersuari. Both BBC and Sky allow viewing of these various feeds on their respective websites too, Sky also have taken another step over BBC with their Sky Sports app on iPad, allowing the choice of these various feeds to be viewed on the tablet live, as well as highlights of the coverage so far.
BBC changed the game in the last couple of years with the F1 Forum. Finally the viewers were taken right into the post race celebrations with the teams and drivers, and notable highlights of moments from F1 Forums was again Monaco 2011 on the Red Bull ‘floaterhome’ as Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard were thrown into the pool during Sebastian Vettel’s celebrations (this year it was the turn of Martin Brundle for Sky during his interview with Mark Webber).
Sky dedicates a lot of time to their post race analysis, again utilising the SkyPad to analysis the start or any incidents that took place during the race and Anthony Davidson has a good eye to spot the finer detail during this analysis. As always, Martin Brundle’s excellent analysis shines through, as well as Ted Kravitz roaming the pit lane to keep us updated with moments that may have been missed during the race or pit stops.
I do still think the BBC edges the post race, mainly all down to Eddie Jordan, love him or hate him, he is usually able to get himself any interview he sets his mind to, and that means we usually hear from people that were not expecting to be on TV. Sky still feels quite regimented, I don’t believe I have seen any of the Sky team grab a passing driver or team principal for an impromptu interview because it seems to me that they have a post race schedule to get through and try to stick to it. As with the pre-race build up, BBC also has some humour thrown in to their F1 Forum (for example, David & Jake wheeling Eddie on a tyre trolley in the Barcelona paddock).
BBC’s Forum coverage also includes better fan interaction with the team trying to get through tweets and emails from viewers wherever possible, whereas this is really an area Sky needs to improve on (and I hope whoever controls the @SkySportsF1 twitter feed is taking this on board).
With Sky Sports having its own F1 channel, there seems so much scope for archive footage to be shown, but this channel is mostly filled with dead airtime during the week. With 60+ years of Formula 1, and seemingly a lot of that footage available to Sky, most of the day is filled with a rolling advert for the channel, and the evenings programming are highlights or re-runs of the previous week’s races (however this does include GP2 and GP3 as well as F1). Occasionally there are season highlights shown in parts, and the F1 Legends series of interviews (which I have yet to watch therefore unable to comment). The season highlights are of only the past few years, and in the build up of the Monaco Grand Prix, we were treated to the past 5 years of Monaco races in full. Sky needs to show more of these, with so many iconic races, seasons, drivers and teams to focus on; it would be a good way to show some of the younger fans the races that made the likes of Jim Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart & Ayrton Senna icons and legends of the sport.
We are only 3 months into Sky’s Formula 1 foray, as a start it has gone well, with many good aspects to their coverage (for example the interactive options during all sessions), but BBC have set the bar very high in the past couple of years, so it will take time for Sky to reach those heights. I currently see Sky aimed at more of a casual viewer, but with the resources at their disposal and all the hours they have yet to fill on Sky Sports F1, they have a solid base to push F1 coverage to a new level.
For example, Sky showed clips during its race shows earlier in the season of Martin Brundle’s recent visit to Ferrari, and in between shows over a race weekend they fill time by showing these clips. I would think it would have been better to turn these features into an hour long show where Martin Brundle would have the time to really go into detail about Ferrari.
It is unfortunate that for half of the season fans without Sky are left with BBC highlights. Having seen the highlights coverage on offer, the BBC have done a good job in providing comprehensive enough highlights, which must be difficult with the races that have taken place in 2012. Obviously this does not come close to watching a race live, and with the internet & rolling news coverage, it does make it hard to avoid the result of a race before being able to watch a highlights show.
I still think BBC (just) lead the way over Sky with their live coverage, although I do feel it is only a matter of time until Sky makes a leap and improves on the standard set out by BBC. I hope when that day comes, it will not mean the end of Formula 1 on BBC, and it would be nice to see how the two would stack up with all races also being live on BBC.
The important thing is that fans have a choice, yes there is additional cost involved with Sky, and there are only a few areas where I would say with confidence that their coverage is better, but as I say, it is still early days for Sky Sports F1, so there is plenty of room for improvement.
Two final points about each platform, firstly I enjoy Gary Anderson’s contribution to the BBC coverage. His analysis of the Mugello test during the Spanish Grand Prix Qualifying show was quite insightful, and he brings a good technical understanding to viewers, it is quite surprising that he currently does not find himself in a technical role with any of the teams on the grid.
Finally, as much as I like Alistair Griffin’s ‘Just Drive’ (as first heard on the 2010 end of season montage on BBC) I don’t think it works as a title sequence for Sky, going up against Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ is a lot to live up to however.
Both BBC and Sky have their positives and negatives but Formula 1 coverage has never been so comprehensive in the UK… so which side are you on?