Things we want: BBC improvements to F1 Grand Prix

As many of you already know, in March 2008, ITV announced that it had lost the exclusive rights to be the broadcaster of live Formula 1 Grand Prix motor sport, here in the UK, which will instead move back to the BBC in 2009.

After more than 10 years absence, the sport which can least afford to suffer the interruption of advert breaks is returning to a channel it should never have left in the first place and leaving behind it the channel which gave us phone-in voter fraud and ‘I used to be a celebrity, get me back on television‘.

It’s not just the lack of commercial breaks which has F1 fans salivating at the prospect of watching Lewis Hamilton go for the world championship double in 2009 in uninterrupted glory on the BBC (assuming he gets his first title win this year). There’s a whole host of improvements the BBC could bring to the coverage of a sport which has been crying out for modernisation, ever since ITV first took hold of the reigns in 1997.

Martin Brundle first joined ITV to work with legendary commentator Murray Walker

Martin Brundle first joined ITV to work with legendary commentator Murray Walker

There’s no doubt that ITV did do some things right, in terms of the team on the ground who present the editorial which tops and tails the live qualifying on the Saturday and the live race on the Sunday. Martin Brundle, for example – once a top flight F1 racing driver with teams like Jordan and McLaren has carved out a fine career for himself the other side of the journalist’s microphone, receiving six Royal Television Society Awards for sports broadcasting and winning general agreement among fans that he does a much better job of covering the actual race than his co-commentator James Allen, who never exactly had a head start with the fans, taking on the unenviable job of replacing Murray ‘the voice of F1’ Walker.

So if you’re reading this, aunty Beeb, here’s a list of things I would personally like to see you do to improve the coverage of my sport in 2009 – which I think all F1 fans will agree are modest requests, considering the bias which is afforded to so many other less popularly followed sports on all of the main general entertainment channels in the UK, that still retain some sports rights Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV has yet to steal.

Free Practise, Qualifying and GP2

Lewis Hamilton was 2006 GP2 world champion, before moving to Formula 1

Lewis Hamilton was 2006 GP2 world champion, before moving to Formula 1

This, as they say in foot-balling parlance, is a ‘big ask’.

Interrupting precious air time which would ordinarily be filled with pleb-dazzle talent shows and make-over celebrity house decorating on ice ‘entertainment’, on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon, is all very well – but depriving the huddled masses of their prime-time Friday evening slush in order to show “loads of millionaires going round and round in circles” is another kind of heresy altogether.

ITV currently show snippets of the GP2 and other motor sport events which take place over the same Grand Prix weekend, sometimes up to two weeks after the event itself – and usually during the night in a badly advertised slot at irregular times.

With the advent of multi-channel television and the BBC’s stated aim to meet the challenge of providing a better service to the licence fee paying British public, the Thursday and Friday sessions seem like ideal candidates for red button live coverage, as well as an opportunity to show the talents of drivers and teams just outside of the big league in a main channel highlights package, alongside the coverage of the main F1 weekend.

More coverage, more information

An F1 engine idles at speeds which an average family saloon car\'s engine would over heat and disintegrate

An F1 engine idles at around 7000 RPM, which is the red line maximum at which an average family saloon car's engine would over heat and disintegrate

Anyone can don a pair of shorts and kick a lump of leather around a muddy field. Even my puny frame can swing a golf bat with some degree of accuracy in the general direction of a 200 yard pin. Snooker and darts are among the most commonly played sports in the world, yet all of the above receive three or four times as much coverage as all the motor sports combined. Touring car, GP2, super bikes, power boats, world rally – all require something special from the drivers and riders; an ability to stay cool and focused under the sorts of pressures which simply don’t exist in any other sport.

Every time we F1 fans find ourselves having “that conversation” with someone who remains unconvinced about watching motor sport on TV, after explaining the facts known all too well by those of us who already “get it”; that Grand Prix drivers are among the fittest athletes in the world; that they experience the same G-Forces as RAF fighter pilots and for the first few 200 MPH corners of an F1 race they have absolutely no way of stopping, until the carbon composite materials used in the brakes get up to temperature, we almost always get the same reaction of surprise, immediately followed by the received bar-room opinion of F1, that it was better back when the cars were faster and with less driver assistance.

Jenson Button regularly competes in the triathlon

Jenson Button regularly competes in the triathlon

This misunderstanding of the rule changes introduced steadily over the last few seasons, which have made the cars themselves as closely matched as they have been in many years, and that this has placed even more emphasis on driver effort, increasing the occurrences of tight overtaking manoeuvres and less races won in the pits; this failure of the general public to understand how exciting a spectator sport like F1 can be, in my opinion, is largely down to ITV’s poor off-season coverage and general lack of apparent interest in covering motor sport in general.

If the BBC want to change this, I think a popular addition to the mid-week prime time programming of a channel like BBC Two, for example, would be ‘Top Gear: F1’. Not necessarily presented by Clarkson, May and Hammond, but nevertheless a studio audience, magazine style program with less formal driver interviews, inside technical information on the race teams and in-depth editorial on the pure 21st century engineering science which keeps the cars on the road and the drivers inside them divided between pole position and last place by hundredths of a second.

Interactive, HD and more in-car camera shots

More of a technical challenge this one, although nothing which hasn’t been done before. A couple of seasons ago Sky secured the digital satellite rights to show F1. It died on it’s proverbial arse, because in true Murdoch style, Sky wanted too much money in subscription fees and a season later the channel was dropped through lack of interest.

LOL!  You said \'helmet\'

LOL! You said 'helmet'

The one thing Sky F1 did have in its favour, however, was the ability through red button services to enable the viewer to switch between different camera angles; or to simply watch the whole race in-car, from the mounted camera just above the driver’s helmet.

Having a TV tuner for my iMac means that I am able to have the race on the same screen as the internet and so view the live official track times from the FIA as well as other telemetry, which all adds to the feeling of “being there”. Providing these services over the air would be a great feature of the red button service.

We also have to hope that, unlike ITV who only recently began broadcasting the races in widescreen, that the BBC will from the start offer a stream alongside the regular broadcast in High Definition. I’m sure there are some very good technical reasons why there won’t be as many interactive red button services for the HD option, but the chances of seeing crystal clear video is a very attractive alternative to ITV’s existing feed, which is often too blocky and riddled with MPEG artefacts to see anything worth seeing, least of all read the all important sponsorship signs at the side of the road, as they whoosh past with as much detail and realism as an early 1990’s banner GIF.

Four words: Bring back ‘The Chain’

Nothing says F1 like the original theme music used by the BBC the first time they had the rights to show the sport on TV, taken from ‘The Chain’, by Fleetwood Mac.

Nigel Mansell, former British world champion, said that he used to listen to that music as loud as he could, while driving along in his car, dreaming of the day he would get a chance to race in an actual F1 car.

ITV currently use a nondescript corporate jangle, with lyrics by committee chanting “lift me up, lift me up, I’m a banana” and cliché engine revving noises – all of which simply reminds you that it’s that time of the week, once again, when your favourite sport is about to be spunked onto the screen by semi literate morons like Mark Blundell interspursed with intrusive ad breaks for products you don’t want to buy which are already plastered all over the screen in every shot from every angle and on the side of every car, uniform and shiny driver’s helmet.

The riff that oozes the composed controlled power of a Grand Prix racing car, is was and always will be the music of F1.

Sign the petition to use Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ as the BBC theme tune for F1 Grand Prix in 2009.

6 comments on “Things we want: BBC improvements to F1 Grand Prix

  1. Lovely stuff. I am not sure the BBC can do anything with regards to HD as that’s up to whoever is providing the pictures (which I think are done by Bernies company). We can all campaign for HD, but F1 only moved to Widescreen a couple of seasons ago so it looks like they’re (F1) 8 years behind the rest. Perhaps going from SD to HD isn’t as bigger deal as going from 4:3 to widescreen. F1 in HD would be very very cool. I am getting excited just thinking about how awesome the super-slo-mo shots would be!
    I’m guessing the ‘red button’ will carry qualifying and probably the practices. I am not so sure about your wish for better coverage though. I cannot see there being much more than 30 minutes before the race, and more likely to be 15. That is just the nature of the beeb. I don’t watch MotoGP much but i’ve often heard people say Eurosport’s coverage is better than the BBC’s. That is rather worrying as BBC’s F1 coverage will probably be identical to MotoGP but with Lewis Hamilton Mania thrown in.

    Here’s hoping they do a better job of F1 than they used to do (and currently do of football, which is atrocious and designed by stupid people for stupid people).

  2. Big nods on all those points in agreement Wonderfulroland (if that’s your REAL name!?)

    As I understand it, outside broadcast facilities for all FIA approved meets are already co-ordinated by BBC Worldwide, which is the profit making commercial arm of the publicly funded BBC, and sold to third party broadcasters like ITV, RTL and MotorsTV – which is as far as I know the exclusive broadcaster of LIVE F1 in North America and Canada. If one of Mr. Ecclestone’s companies has started doing it since I last checked I wouldn’t be surprised, but the point is that it’s unlikely (in fact almost inconceivable) that the equipment isn’t already capturing in HD and then simply being scaled down for the SD (narrowband) satellite up-link.

    Hence, if there is interest from the people who watch F1 and the people who put their company names on the billboards, drivers helmets (ooh err) and so on, then broadcasting the whole shebang in HD should be a straightforward (if not a lot more expensive) matter of splitting one raw track-side HD output off to an HD broadcast stream and one to a downscaling SD stream once the signal reaches broadcasting house.

    This means it’s all about bandwidth (isn’t everything these days?). Simply put, if we fans shout about wanting it enough, they’ll find a way to pay for it. So speak up! I have and so have many others on forums like the ITV F1 site (which is basically useless because it’s monitored by the cock police) and the far more useful and in-depth DigtialSpy.co.uk site.

    Welcome to my weird little blog, by the way!

  3. A little more research suggests that most of the races are already recorded in HD (Including the British GP this year, but that was only shown in Vue Cinemas in HD) but not broadcast in it – yet.
    The bottom post on this thread seems to know his stuff and repeats what has kind have been said on earlier posts

    With F1 going to the BBC and them having a HD channel on Sky (cable and freesat i guess?) Maybe they’ll be pushing for HD. There is obviously a market for it since most International Sports events are now broadcast in HD. F1 should really be a leader, not a follower.

    Feel free to check out my blog too :)

  4. I believe that the rights to show F1 in HD do exist and they are all owned by Japan. I vaguely remember a couple of years ago, that Sky wanted to buy the rights to show the Grand Prix in HD but that they were massively outbid by a Japanese company. I could be wrong and I’m certainly out of date. :)

    I agree with just about everyone’s comments and would only like to add that it’s almost as though Jim’s wishlist came true! The BBC’s coverage of Formula 1 is a wonderful improvement on the shambles that ITV made of it. And now we even get Inside F1 on Fridays and Sundays!

    As I just got back from Silverstone a few hours ago, I’m now off to bed.

  5. Kennie. As I understand it FOMTV do not currently have HD equipment available at every venue, so the decision was made to only make the standard definition stream available so that only there wouldn’t be a discrepancy. Fingers crossed 2010 will be all HD.

    I agree about the vast improvements brought to coverage already by the BBC. The main presentation team is better than ever and Jake Humphreys in particular is very impressive. Let’s just hope that if there is a break-away series the BBC also secure the rights to that as well as the FIA / Ecclestone championship.

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