Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix will be the final F1 broadcast by ITV.
Since taking over from the BBC as the UK’s F1 broadcaster at the 1997 Australian Grand Prix, ITV will bow out having covered 206 grands prix. But because they interrupt races with adverts they have missed over 31 races’ worth of live action on average.
Adverts are just one reason why the channel has attracted so much comment and criticism from fans in its 12 years as British F1 broadcaster. Will it be goodbye or good riddance when the transmission ends?
It’s easy to criticise ITV – because it’s easy to forget how limited the coverage of F1 on the BBC often was before it lost the contract at the end of 1996. It was only late in the life of ‘Grand Prix’ – BBC’s much-loved F1 programme – that live qualifying coverage was featured.
Nor did the BBC ever solve to problem of how to replace James Hunt. Hunt was the perfect foil to Murray Walker in the commentary box, but successor Jonathan Palmer was less successful.
When ITV took up the F1 rights in 1997 it solved the problem straight away, by pairing Walker with Martin Brundle. In many ways the boundless enthusiasm of Walker and the experience and wry humour of Brundle was superior to the old Walker-Hunt pairing.
ITV’s F1 coverage began brightly. It helped that 1997 was an exciting season with one of the most heart-stopping championship finales ever seen. But with established F1 pundits like Simon Taylor and Tony Jardine, I found a lot to like in ITV’s approach.
Brundle has gone from strength to strength. In 2005 he faced down Bernie Eccletone on the grid at Indianapolis about the chaos unfolding around them. In 2006 he pursued Max Mosley in the same fashion at Monza over Fernando Alonso’s ludicrous penalty.
That the FIA are now apparently leaning on the BBC not to hire him next year because they are intimidated by his criticism is a testament to the quality of job Brundle has done. The BBC must bring him on board for 2009.
Over time I found myself increasingly frustrated with the changes to ITV’s coverage. But the worst problem with it was there from the start: the adverts.
I know F1 fans outside Britain who’ve always had to put up with adverts during F1 races will find me complaining about ITV’s a bit petty – but I make no apology for it. Especially today, when digital television and the internet means they could easily offer an advert-free service for a subscription fee – something other racing series have been doing for years.
Nor did ITV ever bother trying to use picture-in-picture to show the race alongside adverts, which is common practice in other countries.
The arrival of adverts meant we all had to get used to missing some of the most exciting moments of the past decade-and-a-bit.
Damon Hill’s shock pass on Michael Schumacher at the Hungaroring in 1997? ITV missed it. The puncture that ended Schumacher’s title hopes at Suzuka in 1998? ITV missed it. The gearbox glitch that ruined Lewis Hamilton’s title bid at Interlagos last year? ITV missed it.
This is just a handful of examples. One of the most infamous occurred in 2005 – not long after I began this site. ITV made such a botch of the San Marino Grand Prix coverage the tense final laps as Fernando Alonso battled to keep Schumacher at bay were largely missed.
Based on 2007 figures*, ITV have missed so much live action during live Grands Prix it amounts to over 31 races worth of footage.
And for several years live qualifying sessions at certain rounds was missed entirely as ITV chose to show other programmes.
Having solved the ‘how to replace James Hunt’ problem, ITV didn’t do as good a job with the ‘how to replace Murray Walker’ problem.
Admittedly it was always going to be fiendishly tough to replace someone like Murray, to whom the cliche ‘national institution’ is often applied with good reason.
Writing on Grandprix.com earlier this week Mike Doodson said:
Although a couple of venomous websites have long had it in for James Allen as ITV’s lead race commentator, I find him both knowledgeable and authoritative. Yes, his forced cheeriness can be irritating at times, but he almost always susses out race strategies correctly and makes far fewer mistakes than Murray Walker used to do.
I don’t agree that it’s just ‘a couple of venomous websites’ (Sniff Petrol?) that don’t like James Allen. If there’s one thing I’ve done a lot of, it’s talk to other British F1 fans. And the near universal verdict on Allen is not a positive one.
It’s a shame because Allen is clearly as passionate about F1 as you or I. I like his writing (read his last book on Michael Schumacher), I thought he suited his earlier role of pit lane reporter very well, he’s joined us in the world of F1 blogging, and he’s not as partisan as you might think – in a recent column on ITV-F1 he re-affirmed his belief that Alonso is the best driver in F1 today. But I just don’t like his commentary style.
Allen also gets it in the neck for ITV’s partisanship but I think this is an editorial policy they are expected to adhere to. I thought the BBC trod the line between balanced reportage and national sympathy very well – I don’t think ITV is aware such a line exists. My assumption is, from day one, they’ve tried to drive up viewing figures for advertising purposes by over-selling the British angle.
Somewhere along the line Jardine, Taylor and the purpose-built studio disappeared. Now we have Steve Rider and Mark Blundell struggling to make themselves heard. This at least was an improvement over the dark days of Beverley Turner interviewing a celebrity hairdresser on how he prepares his Sunday roast. I’m not making this up.
An episode last year highlighted the sorry state of ITV’s F1 coverage – and the lack of comprehension in traditional media about the contempt most fans hold it in. After a frantic Canadian Grand Prix which saw Robert Kubica suffer a huge crash and Lewis Hamilton score his first win, ITV rushed through the post-event coverage so they could hurry on to other programming. After masses of criticism from fans ITV published a pitiful attempt at an apology.
Despite the hammering they took from the public, ITV were inexplicably handed a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award – and quietly took the apology down for their website.
*2007 average race length was 1hr 34min, and ITV showed 4hr 6min of adverts in total. Projecting those averages across its 206 races gives a total of 49 hrs, 40 minutes. See here for more: How much F1 did ITV miss showing adverts in 2007?
The weighting of this article will give you a clear impression that I’m more in the ‘good riddance’ camp than ‘goodbye’. But I think we should remember ITV have brought some improvements to F1 coverage. Broadcasting the Friday practice sessions online this year was a big step forward.
ITV has at least done enough with their coverage that it won’t just be enough for the BBC to take over next year with ad-free coverage and expect that alone to be welcomed as an improvement. British fans will expect online coverage, HD footage, and most importantly, Martin Brundle.
What’s your verdict on ITV’s 12 years as Britain’s F1 broadcaster? Are you a reader from abroad who has to put up with worse?
More on BBC’s F1 coverage in 2009