As documented elsewhere on this very website, I refuse to enter into an annual contract with the multi-channel monolith that is Sky TV in order to watch Formula 1 this year. I have my reasons – morally and financially – but, it seems there is less incentive to do so now anyway, as it looks like the BBC will still continue to offer a first-class service that manages to do a grand prix justice, even in highlights form.
Of course, the pleasure in any sport is being able to watch it live and seeing the action develop. Watching a highlights package hours after the results have been announced will never be the same, unless you somehow manage to avoid any major spoilers, which is near enough impossible these days.
Knowing that temptation would have gotten the better of me before footage from Down Under appeared on my television screen, my plan of attack for the Australian Grand Prix was to listen to the action first on BBC Radio 5 Live before filling in the blanks with the highlights show in the afternoon.
With 5 Live taking the biggest hit from defections – having lost David Croft and Anthony Davidson to Sky – the station has recruited James Allen, ITV’s former lead commentator, to call the races alongside 21-year-old Jaime Alguersuari, who was unceremoniously dropped by Toro Rosso last year, as summariser.
I will be the first to admit that I was one of the first to wave goodbye to Allen when it became apparent that his services would no longer be required when the BBC clinched the broadcasting rights back in 2008. And while he may still divide opinion, there’s no getting away from the fact he is much better suited to radio than television.
Allen’s style of commentary has always been one that is littered with adjectives, which were largely unnecessary when it came to the visual medium of television. On radio, however, it works a treat and his ability to describe the sessions visually helps convey what is happening out on track.
What is also apparent is that he has toned down his ‘trousers on fire’ enthusiasm that once made many a toe curl. His now less excitable approach to commentating compliments Alguersuari’s softly-spoken nature and, together with Jennie Gow in the pitlane, they prove to be entertaining and informative.
Rather unexpectedly, however, is that I found listening to the radio coverage made me want to watch the afternoon’s highlights all the more – to complete the picture, if you will pardon the pun.
On the whole the extended highlights format seemed to work surprisingly well and, while it may not be as comprehensive as Sky’s effort, it would have impressed even the hardiest of sceptics out there – including myself.
Okay, so qualifying felt a little bit disjointed, but I put that down to time suddenly vanishing from the onscreen clock following the removal of some of the lulls in the first two sessions. If my stopwatch was correct, then the 1.60m who tuned in – down 360k on last year’s figures – saw 45 minutes of qualifying action, which doesn’t seem so bad.
I had my stopwatch out once again for Sunday’s race highlights and that clocked in at just less than 75 minutes, which, if my maths isn’t too shabby, means that BBC viewers – all 3.2m of them, up 1m on last year’s live coverage – were shown 80% of what was a 94 minute race.
And credit where credit is due, the editing suite did an excellent job because not once did it feel as though anything vital had been left on the cutting room floor. The only notable omission was with the removal of the safety car laps, which can only be classed as a good thing.
Otherwise, the story of the grand prix was told, and rather brilliantly too by Ben Edwards who has stepped into Martin Brundle’s shoes as lead commentator this year. His appointment is long overdue in my book and, while less chummy with David Coulthard than his predecessor, the two make for a great combination in the commentary booth.
“I’m more play-by-play,” Edwards recently told Autosport magazine. “I’m certainly not comparing myself to Murray [Walker], but I’ll call the action and DC will bring the explanation – [that’s] perhaps a little more clear-cut than the Brundle/Coulthard show, which was more a discussion.”
Also new to the team this year is former Jordan, Stewart and Jaguar technical guru Gary Anderson, who has replaced Ted Kravitz in the analysis department.
With years of experience under his belt, Anderson clearly knows his racing onions and it makes a refreshing change to be able to listen to someone who doesn’t make wild guesses or spews out technical jargon in the hope it might be right. If anything, he was perhaps underutilised during the Australian Grand Prix, and I would like to see more input from him in the future.
With the retention of Jake Humphrey, Eddie Jordan, Coulthard and Lee McKenzie, the BBC still offers the insight, charm, inside knowledge and the sense of fun it always has done, albeit for a lesser duration of time when it comes to the non-live events.
Bottom line? It’s not the end of the world if you are unwilling to pay for the privilege of having a satellite dish tacked onto the side of your home. Resist Sky’s seduction and save your money, because the early signs are that the Beeb will still be able to deliver the first-class information that they always have done – on the radio and on TV.
And, if they don’t blow their broadcasting rivals out of the water when it comes to the weekends when they go head-to-head with their live coverage, then I will eat all 984 words contained within this piece.