Monday, October 11, 2010

Radio on the Television

The quality of television coverage of Formula 1 in Britain took a quantum leap when the BBC took over the reins from ITV at the beginning of 2009. The end of mid-race ad-breaks has been a relief. I've never forgotten ITV's decision to cut to commercials in the dying laps of the San Marino Grand Prix in 2005 while Alonso and Schumacher were fighting for all their worth for victory and am glad I no longer need to keep a radio by the telly while watching the race.

More than that, though, the BBC have really taken advantage of digital-age technologies in a way that ITV never did. We've been treated to the option of watching the whole race from a succession of in-car cameras, a choice of commentary teams - if you're not keen on Legard and Brundle, there's Croft and Davidson, though sadly, not yet the possibility of listening to Brundle and Croft - and their latest innovation (a website only feature, I think, though I don't own a television and watch everything on IPlayer, so I don't know), the real time 'car tracker' enabling you to see where everyone is on the circuit at any given point in time. OK, they've not got everything right - I could happily live without the forced banter between Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard - but on the whole I've been very impressed by the job they've done. And Lee McKenzie's much easier on the eye than Jim Rosenthal.

I was initially rather sceptical of the merit of another innovation the BBC have brought to race weekend coverage - the webcasting of free practice sessions. Now, I don't know what kind of an audience these shows get - until last weekend, even I hadn't bothered tuning in and I probably sit close to the sad obsessive fan end of the spectrum than most, but it did strike me as something which, to use the marketers' lingo, would have a 'niche audience'. After all, it's not as if drivers are competing for anything during free practice. It really is just 'watching cars go round in circles', which even I can't summon up much enthusiasm for.

Actually, though, the format worked quite well. And mainly because what is happening on track is only a minor part of the show. It is essentially an hour and a half long radio discussion programme on the subject of F1,with some passing comment on who appears to be going quickly, all in the knowledge that Friday practice times never mean very much anyway. And all with moving pictures thrown in (though it's also broadcast on 5live radio, where it probably doesn't lose much).

And so Maurice Hamilton treated us to his reminiscences about the infamous 1990 championship decider which was settled at the first corner when Senna torpedoed Prost's Ferrari (a move which his countryman Felipe Massa appeared to try to re-enact at the beginning of this year's race). This was interspersed with discussion of Red Bull's front wing - the five different versions they trialled on Webber's car during the race last year and Christian Horner's growing frustration with those accusing his team of cheating, and questions from viewers about how Spoon corner got its name. Answer: It looks like a spoon. Which prompted one of the commentary team to suggest that the series of bends leading up the hill should really be called the 'knuckledusters'. Either is preferable to 'turn 14'.

Karun Chandhok, who is often part of the commentary team since being dropped from HRT, texted in to complain about how early he had to get up to watch free practice and Maurice Hamilton shared his memories of Peter Warr, who had died during the week. The former Lotus team manager had actually won the first Japanese Grand Prix - a sportscar race in 1962 - driving a Lotus sportscar but it was the famous shot of him celebrating his young charge Ayrton Senna's first GP win in torrential rain at Portugal in 1985 that stuck in Hamilton's mind.

The more relaxed format of free practice also gives the crew a chance to speak to people behind the scenes, and so we were treated to a reasonably long interview with Virgin's John Booth on both their experience of the 2010 season and their hopes for next year and Lotus' Mike Gascoygne also dropped by for a chat.

Truth be told, I don't have the time to listen to this regularly - even I can't spare four hours every second weekend to listen to Crofty and Davidson shooting the breeze while drivers make system checks, get a feel for the relative merits of prime and option tyres and all the rest. And in all honesty, both Joe Saward's Sidepodcast-hosted An Aside With Joe and the excellent Motorsport Monthly Podcast are more interesting to listen to. But I'll probably tune in to get an early glimpse of what the new Korean GP track is like, providing that race actually happens.

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