Channel 4’s Formula 1 coverage gets off to a bright start

Earlier this year, I attended Channel 4’s pre-season media morning, where their team for the 2016 Formula One season was announced. There were promising sound bites on the day, but how much of it has come to reality? And is this the “dream team” that Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt suggested it would be?

On-air team, led by Jones, excels
The biggest question mark heading into the season was Steve Jones, who is Channel 4’s new Formula 1 presenter. An unknown in presenting live sport prior to this year, Jones has grown in stature race-by-race. I’m enjoying his presenting style, with the energy and warmth that comes with it.

It is clear that Jones is not attempting to be like Suzi Perry or Jake Humphrey before him. Jones is being himself. As a viewer, I appreciate that, it comes across as natural which helps the broadcast immensely. Half way through the season, Jones gets a thumbs up from me. If you’re not keen on Jones, the good news is that David Coulthard leads some of the discussion segments, meaning that there is no dominant figure leading the agenda.

The decision by Whisper Films to have “rotating pundits” is paying off thus far. Mark Webber, Alain Prost, Susie Wolff and Eddie Jordan have been used sporadically throughout Channel 4’s live races meaning that opinions are not repeated by the same faces, nor is the team bloated on-screen. Channel 4 struck gold in Spain, as Prost give his opinion on the Mercedes collision between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg whilst reminiscing about his own experiences with McLaren.

The chemistry is clear to see: Coulthard and Webber work extremely well together as do Wolff and Jordan when paired together on-screen. A natural team results in a successful team. We should applaud Whisper Films for putting together the team that they have, others before them have either tried and failed, or chose not to bother approaching the likes of Prost, Webber and Karun Chandhok.

Channel 4’s line-up contains a former World Champion (Prost), a former team boss (Jordan), two former Red Bull drivers, one of which challenged for the title (Webber and Coulthard) amongst others. It is the perfect recipe, bringing together a diverse group of people from a variety of backgrounds within motor sport.

The missing link before the start of 2016 was the role of “technical expert”, which disappointed readers including myself. Chandhok was hired to take up the role of pit lane reporter alongside Lee McKenzie. Nevertheless, Chandhok’s wealth of knowledge both past and present, amongst his paddock connections means that we are not missing as much information as I anticipated we would. Chandhok is a fantastic asset for Channel 4, and I’m glad that he is on board for their coverage. With McKenzie away for Wimbledon and the Olympics, it has been good to hear Holly Samos again, Samos used to be a member of BBC’s radio team until her departure at the end of 2010.

Overall, I do think Channel 4’s team is stronger than Sky Sports. Yes, Sky have the likes of Anthony Davidson, Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz, but I feel that Channel 4 have given a wider range of opinions so far instead of the same two or three voices.

Reinventing the wheel
Sometimes, the little tweaks beyond the naked eye go a long way. Whilst Channel 4 have not ripped apart the BBC’s previous format, they have made some subtle, positive changes to their coverage.

Graphically, Channel 4’s output is top-notch. Modern, forward thinking is the term that I would use. Their Formula 1 branding, which was designed by Mammoth Graphics, feel like something I expect to see in 2016 as opposed to a relic from the past. If you compare the typical constructor and grid graphics of years gone by with Channel 4’s current graphics set, you will notice a stark difference: Channel 4’s graphics feel ‘simplistic’, yet attention to detail has been paid.

Added to this is the integration of social media in the graphics. As I mentioned in my review of their Australian Grand Prix coverage back in March, I love the fact that #C4F1 is integrated in the graphics package alongside relevant tweets, Instagram posts or Facebook statuses. The package has clearly been designed with social media elements in mind (hence ‘forward thinking’). In my opinion, the social media layer does not detract from the programme, but instead adds an additional level that previously was not there.

One introduction in Channel 4’s British Grand Prix coverage was the return of the three-person commentary team. Led as usual Ben Edwards, in the box alongside him was both Coulthard and Webber. This is not new: ITV briefly had a three-person commentary team in 2005 with Jenson Button in the box when Honda were banned, whilst the BBC have had three-person teams in both the mid-1990s and as recently as this season on BBC Radio 5 Live.

But for Formula 1 television coverage in the UK, it is a different step. Again ‘hearing different voices’ is good. Hearing Webber in the commentary box was great as he was able to give his first hand opinion on events having raced some of the drivers that were racing on track. In my opinion, it gives Channel 4 a further advantage over Sky Sports F1. The commentary line-up of Edwards and Coulthard was already good, but Webber raises the bar further. I am hopeful we see this set-up again in the latter half of 2016, three-person commentary teams do work if each person is given adequate input.

Whisper Films have excelled in the editing department with some fantastic VTs, notably Murray Walker’s interviews with Jenson Button and Freddie Hunt so far this season. This should not be a surprise considering most of the Whisper team used to work on BBC’s Formula 1 programme, but nevertheless it is good to see that the quality of the VT editing and shooting has remained high.

Room for improvement in some areas
As always with both Channel 4 and Sky, there is some room for improvement, in both cases only some of these are within the production teams control. The main improvement for me is on the cross-promotion front. Besides a pre-season programme special with Guy Martin, the cross-promotion has been lacklustre. There has been a Sunday Brunch special, but aside from that there has not been crossover with Channel 4’s biggest brands such as Gogglebox or Come Dine with Me.

The Sunday Brunch special was not promoted until the last-minute, and I feel it was a lost opportunity not broadcasting the magazine show live from Silverstone. I suspect the lack of crossover is simply down to the filming schedule: it should be remembered that Channel 4’s team was put together incredibly quickly just six to eight weeks before the 2016 season began, meaning there was little time to organise and produce cross over specials. I think these will probably come for 2017 if there is appetite for it.

Channel 4's British Grand Prix team in the paddock: Steve Jones, Susie Wolff, Eddie Jordan, Mark Webber and David Coulthard (L to R).
Channel 4’s British Grand Prix team in the paddock: Steve Jones, Susie Wolff, Eddie Jordan, Mark Webber and David Coulthard (L to R).

Out of the personnel announced before the start of 2016, three faces have yet to appear during Channel 4’s main coverage: Nicolas Hamilton, Bruno Senna and Alessandro Zanardi. I imagine Hamilton and Zanardi will appear in Paralympics related features in September, I would be surprised if either are on-screen after that. As for Senna, I thought we would have seen him on-screen now, so his absence is surprising. No on-air references have been made to Senna appearing, my gut instinct is that we will see him in Mexico given that Mexico takes place two weeks before the Brazilian Grand Prix.

As Channel 4’s live programming has developed it has become clear, unintentionally or not, that their Saturday build-up shows are geared towards the dedicated viewer whereas the Sunday show is geared towards hooking more casual viewers up. This was evident in their British Grand Prix build-up where a significant portion of Sunday’s pre show centred around Lewis Hamilton. It did feel slightly overload towards him, as what could have been one interview segment was split into several segments interspersed through the build-up. As a one-off, this was okay but just something to note going forward. There have been a few celebrity segments, but these have been used to lead into a commercial break as opposed to a central feature.

The commercial television aspect of Channel 4 meant that their post-race coverage has suffered. But, if you look back over time, both BBC and Sky struggled at first to perfect their post-race element so this is something Channel 4 will only improve on in the live programming as time progresses. The lack of an extended post-race programme in the shape of a forum style show is disappointing, but I don’t feel like it is being missed, either. The social media boom may mean that fans use Facebook and Twitter more for post-race analysis as opposed to sticking around for the television post show. Viewing figures would probably not justify staying live on Channel 4 until 16:00 or 16:15 regularly. I think Channel 4 should do what the BBC did in their early post-2012 days and upload a 20 to 30-minute online forum / wrap up show online, similar to NBC’s Paddock Pass show.

Elsewhere, All 4 is a gripe where slow uploads are concerned after each race but I appreciate that this is something that is out of the control of the F1 production team. Overall, Channel 4 gets a deserved thumbs up. In my opinion, their coverage has been better than what I expected. Their strong start makes it all the more disappointing that, as it stands, we will only have Channel 4’s live coverage for the next two and a half seasons.

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15 thoughts on “Channel 4’s Formula 1 coverage gets off to a bright start

  1. I would only watch C4’s coverage if there was no alternative. I took an instant dislike to Steve Jones when he was brought in as a replacement to host Guy Martin’s Wall Of Death. Jones is like Marmite, and I hate Marmite.
    I’m not keen on EJ, but I don’t see the value in Susie Wolff, you would be hard pushed to say she was even average as a DTM driver.

    The rest of C4’s line up is good, Ben Edwards wouldn’t be my first choice but he’s not bad.

  2. Great summary and I agree with much of what you say including the outrageous removal of live F1 on free-to-air TV very soon. F1 teams, sponsors and fans should not allow this…Beanie needs to think again.

  3. One area of off-screen disappointment has been CH4’s digital offering.

    If they are supposed to be tapping into a younger audience, I can’t see how a twitter stream of ‘on this day in 1997’ type content is going to help. The official.F1 account does enough of that to last a lifetime.

  4. I adore Channel 4’s coverage so much. It’s, in my opinion, the best Formula 1 coverage we have ever had. Sky is so much poorer.
    When the C4 contract was announced, i was so happy, I had seen your report on C4 trying to get f1 back in 2012, and it looked stunning, and its really disappointing that the BBC/Sky deal happened.
    When the team were announced, I was skeptical about Jones presenting, but i was very happy with everyone else.My anticipation for C4F1 was building, and I couldn’t wait to see what they did.
    Overall, so far they have been supreme, i loved the Murray meets Jenson thing and the fact that they had a full 1/2 hour version on the internet.
    The team have won me over though, they work so well together, and it brings the best of the serious side, the humourous side together and it is pure brilliance. Jones won me over during the BritishGP weekend. Everyone on the team just gels so well, its like theyve known each other for years and they all live together in a big house. Whereas on Sky I can’t stand Simon. Nor Johnny, I’ve gone off Crofty massively since his 5Live days, and i’m starting to see (unfortunately) a little bias in Ted, which is disappointing, cos he is the only reason i ever watch Sky. tbh, i’d rather watch NBC than Sky.
    All of this makes me really angry at Sky for gaing all rights to F1 as of 2019. tbh, just for C4 to retain the rights. I wouldnt mind them making a dedicated F1 channel to replace one of the channel just for a race weekend, even if there is a small fee (like £2/3 a race weekend). Just to ensure that F1 stays on FTA somehow.

  5. I still think the BBC should be investigated for their dodgy BBC / Sky F1 deal from 2012, considering Ch4 AND ITV were willing to pay the same money! I also think having the decision to air F1 exclusively on Sky from 2019 needs to be overturned.

  6. I had always thought that the 100 year agreement included a clause that F1 would be available on FTA. This is surely a case for the competition commission to investigate.

  7. Not a fan of Steve Jones in the slightest,I have no idea who he is and what his background is but he’s way to cocky and Susie Wolf just tends to send me to sleep.As a result I tend to record the show then fast forward to the race which is a shame as I’ve been watching F1 since the late seventies.

  8. I still hate Steve Jones and Eddie Jordan. Most of the members bring great insight and having Murray around is FAN…Tastic!
    I think the quality of the highlights broadcast needs improving, too much chit-chat, not enough racing, a 90 minute slot with 4 ad-breaks would be preferred, e.g. Monaco. Show lengths need extending to around 2hr 15mins, to effectively match the BBC’s broadcasts.
    Like the Social Media aspect, but as a viewer from the start, I think it is unnecessary.
    Hate the Sky deal, but it won’t be overturned – new management is needed. I remember when certain races had a 5/10min report on ITV World of Sport, a week after. The Internet has changes the way people watch sport because results are found everywhere, in my ealier days, I could avoid the news and watch the race highlights at midnight on the BBC.
    In 2024, when new management will be involved, they need to reintroduced the Concorde Agreement and provide cheap free-to-air coverage of F1 and give the BBC the first choice on broadcasting the sport at a price suitable for them.

  9. Seen a bit of the channel 4 stuff… The lowest point for me was prost talking about the Mercedes incident in Spain… He took too long …. It was done over the restart so while that was happening prost was still talking about an incident that had happened.. They had ages to do that.. They chose the wrong moment… Coulthard in Baku disappointed with the lack of safety cars was just horrible to listen to… And some of the presenting is clearly aimed at 6 year olds but that aside… Fair enough I guess 😉

  10. So far Channel 4’s coverage of F1 has been what you expect given how late they got the rights and that they hired most of the old BBC production team.

    The decision to have a revolving line-up was a good decision and it has worked out, in the future I think they should expand on this by trying to get other F1 personalities to be part of the team for just one weekend.

    As for the on screen team, the main people they got from the BBC of Coulthard, Edwards and McKenzie are doing just as good a job as ever.

    As for Jones, before this year I had only known him from when he presented T4 and generally I didn’t like most of the T4 presenters so I didn’t have high hopes for him presenting the F1 coverage. Sadly so far he has met my expectations, his style of presenting is just not to my taste.

    One thing Jones did which was annoying which sticks in my mind was when he referred to each of the other on screen team as F1 legends when he introduced them, when the only one of them that qualifies for that title is Prost.

    Webber is a definite plus for the team, I wasn’t that sure when he was announced after the few times he was a guest pundit on BBC but he has been great so far especially when teamed up with Coulthard.

    I believe Chandhok had done some media work before this year but I had no idea what he was like, with Channel 4 I think he has done a good job in the pit lane reporter role.

    I was getting tired of Jordan back in the BBC days so I was glad when I thought he wasn’t going to be part of the line-up, my opinion hasn’t really changed but the fact he hasn’t been used that much has made it better.

    I agree with a previous comment in that I don’t see the value in Wolff, I don’t think she’s bad but I wouldn’t miss her if she was dropped.

    Prost has been okay when he appeared, but to me it seemed more like when they interview an ex-driver who happens to be at the Grand Prix rather than that he was part of the team though.

    Overall given the rights package Channel 4 have and the fact they have to show adverts it is probably as good as it could be and there are no major complaints.

    However the one thing that does annoy me is the mixing of a music video with the race highlights over the end credits. I know it isn’t a big deal but I used stay watching right until the very end of the credits but now with the way Channel 4 do it I tend to turn over as soon as the closing credits and music video start.

  11. Personally I was always a huge fan of the BBC, but I was also interested to see how a channel like 4 would change it up. Interestingly, they’ve done a few things very well. Yes the graphics look nice, and it all feels slightly more up to date than the BBC, but the BBC stuff only gets a refresh once in a blue moon (see all their other sports coverage.) But graphics aside, to be honest it’s all about the content.

    In my view the critical thing I’m looking for in C4 is a channel who could continue showing highlights in 2019 when the contract for live races goes exclusively to Sky.

    On C4 itself: First up, Steve Jones has been superb. He’s swatted and nailed the enthusiastic bystander role. His delivery is impassioned, and he would probably excite me as a younger viewer which is exactly what the C4 coverage should do. The new viewer generally cares less about the finite details of F1 tech, and more about a general overview. For this, Jones is perfect. Getting Webber involved more often is a masterstroke. With Suzi Wolff, it’s about time more female voices were heard on the front of the camera (not just dangling a mic in front of a bloke running for a pre race slash.) Although she’s new to presenting, she’s doing well. The pre-race pieces have been superb and come with great variety. DC is superb as always alongside Ben on comms, and Karun Chandhok is also made a brilliant niche out of bitesized, quick fire strategy comment.

    As I said, I think there is work going on behind the scenes to precede the inevitable split of the audience in 2019. I foresee an arrangement where the season is broadcast as highlights on terrestrial TV and then live on Sky.

    This is important because it will split the audience out. In the same way that the nation has come to love Match of the Day, perhaps F1 on C4 will become the place for the new, and slightly more casual F1 viewer. If that transpires, C4 have made an exceptional case for them doing a snappy, edgy introduction that could lead a casual fan to becoming a petrol head.

  12. Agree totally with your last sentence. I think Channel4 were totally prepared, and expecting, to extend the 3-year contract, and that the 2019 announcement (made only after their first broadcast and before their first live race) was a shock to them (as well as us). I just hope C4 don’t reduce their commitment until 2018, knowing that they wont have the opportunity to broadcast live from 2019.

    This does not good on the BBC at all. They were all over the fact that the BBC/Sky deal in 2012 still allowed BBC TV coverage of all races but at a reduced cost, despite C4 putting in a strong bid for the coverage for 2012. Now, only 4 years later, they have NO TV coverage, and essentially forced C4 to accept an almost half hearted attempt at coverage because the BBC pulled out so late last year and C4 were forced to accept the half live/half highlights section of the BBC/Sky deal. Where has this left them – as mentioned above, no live coverage for C4 from 2019, C4 appeared not even to be given an option for live coverage, even though it’s obvious it something they are clearly interested in.

    This is a shame as I feel C4 coverage is the better (not perfect) than Sky and BBC have even done for reasons mentioned in the post, which would only get better if they were ever given the opportunity to broadcast all races live.

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