ITV F1: goodbye or good riddance?

ITV will broadcast its final F1 race on Sunday.

It will be the 206th Grand Prix covered by the broadcaster. But because they interrupt races with adverts they have missed over 31 races? worth of live action from the races alone.

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?

Goodbye

An improvement

It?s easy to criticise ITV ?ǣ 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?? ?ǣ BBC?s much-loved F1 programme ?ǣ 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.

Martin Brundle

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.

Good riddance

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.

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 ?ǣ 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 ?ǣ 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 ?ǣ 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.

Commentary team

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 clich?? ??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 ?ǣ 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 ?ǣ 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 end

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

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93 comments on ITV F1: goodbye or good riddance?

  1. Its Hammer time said on 29th October 2008, 12:38

    I am probably on my own with this one. I find myself at work sometimes subconsciously humming the theme tune of the Sony High Def Adverts on F1 program advert breaks – does anyone know who sings it? I have always hated the presence of adverts, but for some reason I am fond of this tune !

  2. S Hughes said on 29th October 2008, 12:41

    ade, I would be quite happy with Dizzee Rascal doing the theme tune. Why should that be deemed bad? He is a great artist. Honestly some people are determined to be stuck in the middle ages and never want things to progress. I hope they don’t bring back The Chain, but I bet they will – giving in to mob mentality instead of thinking of something new and having integrity.

    Keith, I disagree. If you look at the ITV F1 forum, most if not all of the complaints about James Allen are that he is biased towards Lewis Hamilton (which he is totally not actually). I once phoned ITV to praise them for their brilliant coverage of the Monaco 2008 GP, and the woman I spoke to sounded relieved as she said they have so many complaints about bias towards Lewis Hamilton. That was from the horse’s mouth.

    I hope the last programme of the Brazilian GP is totally about Lewis though – hey they have nothing to lose. I always found it perplexing that no-one ever complains about the bias towards Henman and the English football team or the British Olympic team, but when it comes to Hamilton, there is an uproar if commentators seems to favour him and want him to win. I put it down to racism.

  3. S Hughes said on 29th October 2008, 12:43

    Keith, just look at the comments on here to see that most are complaining about Lewis-bias when it comes to James Allen.

    I too will miss Steve Rider’s wobbly mike hand.

    And I will miss the theme tune.

  4. yorricksfriend said on 29th October 2008, 12:49

    Here an Australia we get the feed from Britain on channel 10 which is a commercial channel so we won’t be getting ad free races anyway

  5. Adrian said on 29th October 2008, 12:55

    Does BBC offer sports on iPlayer after the event?

    I’m looking forward to no adverts during races.

    Honestly don’t care if there’s not much build up to the race as long as they show qualifying live (they should offer practise sessions on iplayer too IMHO) and have some coverage of technical aspects of the sport.

    I hope they get Brundle on board, can’t think of anyone else who’d do it justice (and please Beeb keep his grid-walks too!!) and DC ould be a welcome addition too. Ted Kravitz should keep his pit-lane reporter position too I think.

    The one thing I’m really hoping the BBC coverage brings is use of the Red Button or online to choose different camera angles etc, maybe the main camera feed with no commentary and purely team radio traffic, or the option to have the timing screen up at the same time etc. If it’s in HD then I’ll be at the in-laws for as many races as possible since they have HD and big-screen tv and I don’t!!

  6. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 29th October 2008, 12:56

    S Hughes – That may be the case now, but many people were complaining about Allen long before Hamilton arrived in F1.

  7. I’m not sure what I actually dislike about James Allen. He seems like a decent sort. I think it may be that he is the person chosen to do all the “if you have never ever seen an F1 race before” stuff which gets old really quick. He does say some daft things sometimes but it is a hard job.

    As far as the partisanship thing goes, I don’t mind that. Provided it is constructive. Tell us the technical aspects of why lewis is good, examine something, but a musical montage is never good and there have been too many.

    As for the adverts. I wonder if they have every sold anything? I switch chanels, gets drinks, check blogs, etc. I certainly don’t watch the adverts.

  8. Dougie said on 29th October 2008, 13:11

    @HammerTime – Def Leppard

    I have to agree mostly with SHughes, though I’ve found James Allen increasingly more irritating this year… and in some respects he has turned me off Hamilton (and before anyone starts, I think it is amazing what Lewis has brought to the sport and he will make a worthy champion)… Louise I will miss, particularly her chats with DC (maybe in that respect her retirement in line with his is not so bad). Adverts don’t bother me so much (though SanMarino’05 was a complete c_ck up!) as they offer time for nature breaks.

    In particular I’ll miss that lovely girl waving the chequered flag in the intro… but not the scary asian bloke!

  9. John Spencer said on 29th October 2008, 13:15

    Keith’s right about the Allen critics. They’ve always been there. And they have a point. My favourite Allenism is when he was talking about the importance of tactics in F1 and started off at a tangent from which he could never really recover – “F1 is like chess – a game. A game played by two people. In a garden.” I think Martin Brundle brought it to a halt by pointing out something that was actually happening on track.

    My second favourite Allenism is when he tried to say that someone was driving gingerly, but started the sentence in such a way that he had to use an adjective rather than an adverb. “That was a very, uh, ginger lap.” he muttered, realised it didn’t sound right and tried again, only to repeat himself. Again, Martin Brundle rescued him.

    But the Hamilton bias is explained by viewing figures. They went up last year, and it wasn’t just Allen who talked more about Hamilton than other drivers. There was a letter in F1 Racing magazine last year complaining about all the covers featuring Hamilton, to which the editor replied that the reason was economic – the magazine sold more copies with Lewis on the front than any other driver.

  10. Mystic Pizza said on 29th October 2008, 13:16

    I agree that in the beginning of ITV coverage, F1 managed a mini-renaissance. The magazine format of the show highlighted the BBC’s lack of enthusiam for the sport by showing as little as they possibly could in a slot on Sunday Grandstand. For quite a while, I did not even mind the adverts too much. Except for some of the cited incidents that were missed, the inclusion of adverts on rather predictable races did not change my enjoyment. As time has marched on, I feel things have deteriorated. How come 45 minutes of football can be watched without an advertisement break but F1 is forced to have one every ten minutes or so? Contraversely I will also add that prior to the appearence of a certain Lewis Hamilton, the programming remained fairly objective. Now, if Lewis hasn’t finished in the top three, ITV believes that no-one is interested in what they have to say and will cut away from the official drivers press conference for an interview with him. I’m sorry but that never used to happen to any of the previous or current British drivers. It’s not as if Coulthard or Button get asked about their races in preference to the drivers press conference so why do they think they can do this with Lewis? I like Lewis as a racer and I’m glad he does well and I’m a patriot but thoroughly resent the blatent bias that has crept in.

    I hope the BBC will retain the good aspects ITV coverage has introduced and fingers crossed, Martin Brundle despite the FIA allegedly attempting to stop this. The lack of adverts will now be seen as a big plus. I also hope that James Allen will be lost in the transfer. I don’t have anything personal against either him or his knowledge or passion for the sport but this doesn’t not sit well in a presenting or commentary capacity. Perhaps he should stick to writing good books whereby he has an opportunity to think before he speaks instead of the verbal diarrhea we’ve had to contend with as audiences of F1.

  11. but when it comes to Hamilton, there is an uproar if commentators seems to favour him and want him to win. I put it down to racism

    S Hughes – racism? please. I’m a huge Hamilton fan but sometimes I almost find myself wanting him not to win if it will shut up the biased morons at ITV. I want fair, balanced coverage. It is nothing to do with race whatsoever.

  12. S Hughes said on 29th October 2008, 13:41

    Okay Keith, I didn’t know that. I was just going by the complaints over the last 2 years.

  13. Pointer said on 29th October 2008, 13:49

    The Chain, The Chain, The Chain. If they don’t bring that back, I’ll cry. Still brings a shiver to my spine when I hear it to this day. Oh… and no adverts will be a bonus too.

    I don’t know if it’s even possible with FOM, but could the BBC offer a ‘red button’ service whereby you could pick your own cameras, e.g. follow your favourite driver for a few laps? Also, switching from TV commentary to 5 Live has saved my sanity on many occasion whilst watching the football.

  14. ajokay said on 29th October 2008, 13:51

    I was indifferent to Allen when he first took over from the Fiery-Trowsered Walker, but those first few years when Ferrari were dominating, his blind enthuiasm and excitement for one car winning everything, during a time when a lot of us lot were just getting terribly bored with it, really irked me. I’m a proud owner of a ‘Stop the Cock’ t-shirt.

    I really hope the BBC take Brundle, I’m sure they will, and probably already have, I doubt the FIA’s moanings will have ‘owt to do with it in the end.

    I have to agree though, the BBC’s coverage was not really top notch in ’96, and felt that ITV’s first year really showed what could be done with F1 broadcasting. Apart from the adverts of course, but then, none of us will miss those. neither will I miss the sponsor’s adverts before and after the title sequences going into and out of the ad breaks… this year with Sony’s chopped-in-half Mustang, Honda’s lawnmower racing a couple of years back… and those awful clucking chickens, they were the worst.

    Bring it on BBC… and bring The Chain with you, or else!

  15. Two Jags said on 29th October 2008, 13:53

    I too feel that there’s not much wrong with James Allen’s writing. My main gripe about his commentary is the fact that he often doesn’t ‘commentate’. I’m shouting at the TV as one car dives inside the other & all we get from JA is ‘and there’s Webber putting a move on Trulli’ spoken with about as much excitement as if he was buying socks at M&S. I mean, the Test Match Special commentators do a better job of raising my pulse & they’re commentating on cricket – on the radio…

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