Quality Control: Which F1 Screen Team Will Prove the Victor This Season?

Formula One has had several television homes during its broadcast history. In recent memory it was a move from ITV back to the BBC in 2009, where it lived happily for two years – until the FIA dropped a Sky-HD-shaped bombshell. Sky now have the rights to broadcast every race of the season, while those who don’t have the funds to upgrade to its dedicated F1 channel will see 12 races in full on the BBC, plus highlights of the rest – and it will stay that way until 2018.

There was outrage from fans, of course – Formula One has always been free to view, and the takeover was announced just as the furore over the hacking scandal (and Sky owner Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers) was reaching its zenith. Not only were people protesting the move – there was a genuine sense of losing quality coverage. Formula One on the BBC, apart from the obvious upside of being commercial-free, is colourful, creative, in-depth, and obviously overseen by a talented and dedicated team – a team so good that they won a BAFTA in April 2011. In November of the same year, only seven months later, the FIA announced the new split deal between the BBC and Sky.

With the BBC being officially recognised for the quality of their coverage, it’s doubtful that the FIA’s motivations for splitting the broadcast rights were based on a need to improve. As the most expensive sport in the world, it would have been Sky’s chequebook that was tempting to the FIA, rather than their track record for sports coverage. It’s not a track record to be sneered at, but the BBC remains the only broadcaster to win a BAFTA for Formula One.

>So, in the battle between quality and quantity (Sky have launched an entire channel dedicated to Formula One), who will emerge victorious at this weekend’s start to the season, the Australian Grand Prix?

The first and most obvious changes have been the respective line-ups. Martin Brundle, lead commentator and senior member of first the ITV and then BBC teams, was poached by Sky, as well as the entirety of the Radio 5 Live team, with David Croft and Antony Davidson coming in to commentary. Ted Kravtiz has also moved to Sky from the BBC, reporting from the pit lane and co-presenting new magazine show The F1 Show with Georgie Thompson. Natalie Pinkham is also in the pit lane, and Sky veteran Simon Lazenby is hosting the Grand Prix weekend. Sky have also snagged veteran presenter Steve Rider to interview past F1 legends, and Damon Hill is the big name providing expert analysis.

Over at the BBC, Jake Humphrey remains lead anchor, with David Coulthard moving up to replace Martin Brundle. He’s working alongside new team member Ben Edwards in the commentary, with Eddie Jordan back to provide more trackside analysis and colourful clothing. Gary Anderson, former technical director at Jordan, Stewart, and Jaguar, has joined as resident techie buff and Lee McKenzie moves up to pit lane reporter, taking over from Ted Kravitz. It’s the BBC’s new 5 Live team that holds the most excitement - James Allen, a former commentator for ITV, is in charge, but former driver Jaime Alguersuari is the most exciting new recruit. Let go by the Torro Rosso team, 21-year-old Alguersuari has joined the BBC to keep himself close to Formula One. He’s certainly the only broadcaster whose contract means he can jump back into an F1 car at a moment’s notice.

Now, with the first qualifying session of the season out of the way, viewers can finally compare the two. The dedicated Formula One channel Sky Sports F1 had coverage of all three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, with live and exclusive coverage of the Qualifying session itself from 5am, then repeats at 8am, 12.30pm, and 8pm. The F1 Show led the way on Saturday morning, switching to Martin Brundle and the rest of the commentary team for Qualifying. It was a full-on Sky Sports experience, the usual house style, complete with an interactive choice of screens so as not to miss a thing. More comprehensive technical discussion of the cars, a feature on a smaller team – Sky are aiming for interesting, in-depth coverage, and with a dedicated channel they have the space and airtime to do it.

The BBC won’t have full live coverage of a race until the Chinese Grand Prix on the 14th April. What they had for Australian Qualifying was little over an hour, in which they would have to pack in highlights plus the presenting, features and analysis that won them their BAFTA. Despite the time constraints, it was like nothing had changed. Starting with a Bob Dylan inspired song and VT to sum up the previous season, they went straight into track-side discussion between Jake Humphrey and DC, before an interview feature with Jensen Button saw him beating Jake at pool. The pace of qualifying itself was full on and fully fleshed out, with driver interviews afterwards directed towards the BBC’s cameras. It was the Sky microphone edging in from the side.

But perhaps the BBC’s biggest triumph was presenting a highlights package that didn’t feel anything like highlights. The shortened show retained all the elements the BBC are known for – including the rapport between the drivers and the presenting team. A VT near the beginning of the show had drivers holding up the sign 2012 champion? and the interview with Jenson Button was a mixture of entertaining and informative, continuing a friendship between broadcaster and drivers that hasn’t really been seen before. In constrast, there was something stilted about Sky’s interaction with drivers, a slight unease. Teething problems, perhaps, as the new kid in town – but the BBC’s ability to get the best from the drivers – the people who, in the end, make us care about this sport – will always triumph over technical discussions and fact files on Australia.

It remains to be seen how the BBC will fare with highlights of the actual race – but with the quality of their output outstripping the quantity over on Sky, they don’t have to worry just yet.