Steady as she goes, Sky Sports F1’s 2016 season reviewed

Each year when I write the season reviews for the BBC, Sky and Channel 4, I try to find something new to say. Some new insight or opinion about what new areas the broadcasters have tackled, or not as the case may be. The on-screen product should always evolve year-on-year with little tweaks here and there. But, this season it is tricky to say too much about Sky Sports F1 that hasn’t already been said.

Anyone who has read this blog will be able to accurately predict without reading further that I’m going to mention the lack of material outside of race weekends and that the team, led by Martin Brundle and Anthony Davidson, needs a shake-up. It is the same story as we head towards 2017. It is surprising that Sky did not try new things, especially against new opposition in the form of Channel 4. Nevertheless, there were some changes compared to 2015 which is worth digesting.

Closer collaboration with Formula One Management
On the backdrop of a new deal with Formula 1’s media group to cover Formula 1 up to and including 2024, it was clear in 2016 that the working relationship between Sky and Formula One Management (FOM) was closer than before, the partnership spanning all of Sky’s broadcasting arms.

The main change in this area focussed on new virtual graphics that were provided by FOM for the Sky Pad, which were featured twice during the 2016 season. The graphics helped demonstrate the different braking points between Fernando Alonso and Esteban Gutierrez prior to their horror smash at the Australian Grand Prix. FOM also provided special graphics for the incident between Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel at the Mexican Grand Prix. I hope we see more of these graphics going forward as they help put into perspective how much of a difference even ten meters can make in some cases.

There has also been greater access to Bernie Ecclestone this year, unintentionally or not. The aura around him in recent years has reduced compared to the mid-2000s, and the aura was reduced further with what Martin Brundle described as one of the best features in his twenty years of making Formula 1 television. Brundle went to Ecclestone’s pad prior to the Brazilian Grand Prix for an excellent extended interview which aired standalone on the channel prior to the Christmas period.

Whilst closer collaboration is good, Sky have been unable to unlock FOM’s rich video vault which continues to limit the content that they can produce outside of race weekends. FOM are doing work themselves in this space, but it would make sense for Sky to assist where possible to bring new content to their audience. Tales from the Vault promised ‘unseen’ footage but failed to deliver, and other shows on the channel have regurgitated footage that has already been seen. Let’s have new angles and insight of past incidents. The footage does exist, it simply has not been exploited to a wide audience yet.

Stable team for Sky’s fifth season
Sky’s on-air team has barely changed since the channel launched in 2012. The only notable changes have been the departure of Georgie Thompson prior to the 2013 season and Paul di Resta becoming a regular fixture since he lost his Formula 1 drive. Apart from that, the team has been static. I find that disappointing considering Channel 4 grabbed the likes of Karun Chandhok and Mark Webber, suggesting Sky never went for either guy or both of them rejected Sky. The rhetoric “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” only works for so many years before a shake-up is needed.

Simon Lazenby has presented every race since 2012. At this stage, Lazenby is more Jim Rosenthal than Jake Humphrey in appearance, a good presenter. Lazenby comes across as presenting Formula 1 because “that’s his job” rather than someone who enjoys the intrinsic nature of the sport, whereas Humphrey and now Steve Jones clearly enjoy the paddock atmosphere. That’s how it comes across on-screen to the viewer watching the programme, in my opinion.

On the punditry side, as I’ve said before, Anthony Davidson and Martin Brundle are the highlights, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the line-up. Brundle is still one of the best analysts in the business, and Sky would be much weaker without him as we saw in the Canadian and Baku rounds in June. di Resta was an okay replacement as co-commentator alongside David Croft, but di Resta is not someone I see permanently in that role.

Ted Kravitz’s Notebook was its usual good self during 2016, although I didn’t watch every edition this season purely because of timing: with 21 races, it meant that not everything was consumed every weekend. I generally enjoyed Kravitz’s contributions, but would like to see Mark Priestley continue to be used more into 2017.

Priestley presented the weekly F1 Report and did appear during Sky’s main programming in the latter part of the season. I’d like to see him and Kravitz work on technical features together during 2017 detailing the various car changes. One of Sky’s highlights of 2016 was a fantastic piece between Priestley and Alex Zanardi, detailing Zanardi as he turned 50 years old. I would encourage readers to go out their way to watch the piece if you haven’t done so yet.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the direction given for the pen interviews this season. At multiple junctions, this season, it felt like Sky were trying to bait either Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton into giving a provocative response to questions for headlines. This line of journalism rarely works and will only lead to the interviewee clamouring up. If anything, the neutral approach should be taken so that more detail can be deciphered from the driver. It’s easy to blame the interviewer (Rachel Brookes) but actually the directive would have come from an editorial level at Sky.

Supplementary programming makes brief off-season return
In a season where Sky produced no new episodes of F1 Legends or Tales from the Vault, I was not expecting much new content to appear during the post-season period. Nevertheless, a few extended cuts did appear featuring Brundle’s interview with Bernie Ecclestone and an amalgamation of the various James Hunt pieces that have aired this season. A Journalist’s Special, combined with a quickly turned around special to mark Nico Rosberg’s retirement meant that Sky Sports F1 has looked busier than usual since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

What is unclear is whether Sky plan to continue in the same vein for 2017. 2016 saw The F1 Show cut down to just 30 minutes for each race weekend, with the F1 Report moving to a weekly format. Personally, I think the F1 channel has been worse off a result this season. The F1 Report was good, but the calibre of guests was not enough for me to tune in on a weekly basis. The moment viewers are trained to miss an episode, and you have potentially lost them forever.

Cost-cutting meant less documentaries throughout the season. There was so much scope for a 1996 retrospective strand considering three people in their team were involved in that season, and one of them was world champion! A few features did air during Sky’s race day coverage, but no stand-alone programming which was a huge disappointment. The features that did air could have been expanded upon. An inherent problem Sky have (and it continued in 2016) was that features were being hyped up far too much and failed to deliver. In some instances, there was more hype than the length of the feature itself which is ridiculous when you think about it.

Overall, 2016 has been a good year for Sky. Steady, stable and solid are all words that I would describe Sky’s coverage in 2016. Do they plan to change things for 2017? I can’t see it happening. Do things need to change? I don’t think they will see any real gain in change for the sake of change. In my opinion, Sky need to find ways to make their coverage fresh and cutting edge. After all, Sky are the ones that will be broadcasting every race exclusively live from 2019 onwards. The ‘fresh and cutting edge’ broadcaster are not words that I associate with Sky in 2016, but instead with the opposition, something that needs to change as we head towards 2019.

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