Flashback: 1997 Spanish Grand Prix

2017 marks twenty years since ITV’s Formula 1 coverage first hit our television screens. Their inaugural season covering the sport was a roller-coaster ride, with the championship battle between Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher going down to the wire in Jerez.

Here, we turn our attention to the 1997 Spanish Grand Prix, which marked round six of the championship. Through the early fly-away races, the season had been a very competitive affair, dominated by the tyre war between Goodyear and Bridgestone. The previous round in Monaco saw Schumacher dominate in the pouring rain. Would Villeneuve be able to bounce back in Catalunya?

At this point in proceedings, ITV’s coverage was beginning to gel together into a cohesive unit. Here is how the team lined up for the weekend:

  • Date: Sunday 25th May 1997
  • Time: 12:35 to 15:10
  • Presenter: Jim Rosenthal
  • Reporter: Louise Goodman
  • Reporter: James Allen
  • Commentator: Murray Walker
  • Commentator: Martin Brundle
  • Analyst: Tony Jardine
  • Analyst: Simon Taylor

In the early years, ITV’s build-up for the European rounds would typically last around 25 minutes, expanding into the early 2000s to the typical one-hour length that we currently see for live free-to-air broadcasts.

Pre-Race
After an opening interlude from Jim Rosenthal highlighting Schumacher’s Monaco success, Jamiroquai plays in ITV’s F1 coverage. We are straight into a qualifying wrap up, with Louise Goodman providing voice over. It is a quick-fire round-up, no fancy graphics or music, just Goodman narrating with Walker providing the commentary over the key bits. The grid graphics (more fancy for 1997!) follow on.

1997 Spanish GP - ITV's grid graphics
ITV’s grid graphics for the 1997 Spanish Grand Prix.

Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve gives his post-qualifying opinion to James Allen, describing his last lap as “near perfection”. All the above occurring within the first five minutes, unsurprising when there is not much build-up time to play with for ITV.

The studio atmosphere between Rosenthal, Taylor and Jardine is good (there is enough time to mention Taylor’s seasickness from Monaco, for example!). ITV strike the right tone, with discussion varying from personality driven to one of a technical nature.

A feature of ITV’s coverage from day one was an on-board lap of the circuit, but in 1997 this took the form of a virtual tour. The channel used an early version of the F1 1997 PlayStation game for the virtual lap, with Martin Brundle narrating. There are no additional features during the build-up, with the remainder of time allotted to covering grid interviews and studio chat.

Allen and Goodman provided the grid interviews, interviewing Damon Hill, Eddie Irvine, David Coulthard and Jean Alesi. Studio chatter interspersed the interviews, but this did not work well, and you can quickly see why ITV introduced a grid walk later in the season. Whilst the studio segments are good, you do not get a sense of the atmosphere building, in the same way you do in later years with the grid walk format that Brundle made popular.

Nevertheless, the studio discussion does produce some excellent technical conversation tailored to the casual fan, with Taylor dissecting why Ferrari are struggling around the Barcelona circuit.

JR: Again, for those coming to grips with the world of Formula 1, why should the Ferrari win in Monaco, which I know was a very different sort of circuit, and you say now this place just doesn’t suit them at all, with all the testing, all the money, with all the things like that.

ST: The real problem here in Barcelona is long, fast corners. And if you have a car that understeers, that’s a car that wants to go straight on in a fast corner, then you won’t get a good time. That’s Ferrari’s problem, they can’t get the grip in the long, fast corners. They can get the grip in the tight turns of Monaco. Here, it is very abrasive, they’re worried about tyre wear particularly on the front left tyre. So, it’s not looking good for Ferrari, but you can never discount them.

We see the championship standings much closer to the race start than usual instead of at the start of the broadcast, in the context of Benetton’s disappointing year so far following Alesi’s grid interview.

Race
There is no batting around the bush about what to expect for the race, with Walker calling Villeneuve the “hot favourite” for the Grand Prix. The five minutes before the race are great from the local host director, as there is a take on Formula E’s segway with the camera man focusing on each car one by one, which is a nice touch. During the segway, Walker mentions the driver change at Sauber, Gianni Morbidelli replacing Nicola Larini.

In 1997, the Barcelona circuit was one of the newer races on the calendar, then in its seventh season nevertheless the crowd, whilst smaller than other races, is still a healthy number. Ralf Schumacher stalled his Jordan car at the first start, resulting in an aborted start. At this stage, Walker and Brundle have access to team radio information from the Jordan team, with material relayed back to the viewers. An abandoned start is a good thing for viewers at this stage, as it meant that ITV could take an advert break without ‘losing’ any laps, meaning that the first 19 laps were live and uninterrupted.

1997 Spanish GP - on-board Coulthard
On-board with David Coulthard’s McLaren as he hunts down the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher.

Whilst the pre-race angles on the grid were good, the first lap was a mess from the local director. Multiple camera operators were far too slow to respond to the cars, resulting in cameras that panned to action half way through the field instead of the action up front. We can just about pick out, as does Walker, the “meteoric” start from Schumacher’s Ferrari, although Walker does make it sound better than it was, which Brundle points out half way round lap two! (Stating he started 9th and not 7th). The replays do make up for the host directors’ inefficiencies, with a helicopter replay, and a replay showing on-board footage of Schumacher’s start, which is amazing to watch and decipher.

The early laps are close between the front-runners, the excitement in Walker’s voice is loud and clear, even if Brundle proclaims that Villeneuve will “run and hide”. The attention is on the battle between Schumacher and Coulthard, with a queue quickly developing. Walker covers the rest of the action as best as he can at that phase in the Grand Prix, but the director is right to focus on the growing train behind the leading Ferrari.

It is a tyre dependent formula, which explains and justifies ITV’s pre-race stance to explain this element adequately to viewers. The local Formula One Management director uses helicopter shots to show the growing gap between Villeneuve and Schumacher. Coulthard finally makes the move before his first of three stops. ITV use James Allen during the pit stop sequence, pointing out a near collision between Schumacher and Benetton’s Gerhard Berger in the pit lane.

Damon Hill is in fifth position! Damon Hill in the Arrows Yamaha is higher than he has ever been this season, a terrific performance, whatever reason. Some of it of course will be due to the fact that people have been in for tyres and he hasn’t. Villeneuve leads, Alesi is in second position… and Hill stops! Ohh… as I say it. That is six races and six failures for Damon Hill. And even his patience and tolerance must be severely tested. – Murray Walker with the commentators’ curse

Villeneuve’s performance with one less stop is dominant. On return from the first break Rosenthal hands us over to Simon Taylor who covers Alesi’s first stop ‘as live’ (which occurred during the commercial break), before handing back to Walker, a neat move as he moved in front of Ferrari’s Schumacher. Through the first pit stop sequence and Villeneuve’s different strategy, Coulthard has closed in on Villeneuve with the gap down to three seconds, whilst Panis on the Bridgestone tyres in third before pitting.

Our TV director missed Alesi and Schumacher passing Hakkinen, instead cutting to Frentzen pitting despite the German driver being out of contention at this phase in the race. Walker and Brundle continue to bring into play the tyre situation, noting that blistering is a factor and that the Goodyear tyres are “too soft” for this race track. There is limited coverage of runners below sixth place, beyond the pit stop sequences, just one of ways that the feed became diluted in the late 1990s compared to the F1 Digital+ service that was starting across Europe. However, the gaps throughout the field are marginal meaning we see the likes of Johnny Herbert’s Sauber running in 4th place briefly, Walker describing it as an “interesting and exciting race.”

A lot of pit stop strategies have gone completely out of the window this afternoon. And as we look out of our commentary box window itself, there seem to be as many cars coming down the pit lane as down the pit straight! – ITV co-commentator Martin Brundle

The tyre war theme continues into the second half of the Grand Prix as Panis on Bridgestone tyres overtakes Coulthard’s McLaren on Goodyear tyres for third position (a beautiful helicopter shot at this moment showing Panis move ahead), Panis then comfortably pulling away from the McLaren! Clearly a Prost car overtaking a McLaren was previously unheard of, but made possible because of the 1997 formula, Walker notes that all the races so far in 1997 have been tyre dominated. Brundle seems in almost shock regurgitating to viewers that Coulthard may end up on a “four stop strategy” as ITV head to a further break. The differing strategies raises the prospect of Panis winning the race thanks to his lightning pace.

1997 Spanish GP - best vs last lap
A graphic I like in the tyre dominated formula: ‘Best Lap vs Last Lap’ time comparison helps show if a drivers’ tyres have hit the cliff.

Once the leading runners pit, the order is Villeneuve, Panis, Alesi and Schumacher. ITV take their last break with 12 laps to go, and on their return the battle for first is a battle for second between Panis, Alesi and Schumacher, thanks to backmarkers failing to move over, with Alesi gesticulating repeatedly to the marshals. Panis does close in on Villeneuve again near to the end, but Brundle clearly annoyed in commentary at how long it took Panis to clear the traffic, leaving Villeneuve to win the Grand Prix.

Like at the start, the host director struggles at the end as Villeneuve tours back to the pit lane, missing Johnny Herbert overtaking Coulthard’s McLaren on the last lap. Brundle brutal in his assessment that the local director has missed “just about everything else” this weekend.

Post-Race
ITV stick with the podium without going to an advert break. The process from parc ferme to the podium itself appears to be a lot quicker than it is now. Following the Canadian and British national anthems, it is time for the obligatory champagne! An all French-speaking podium, which might be a rare occasion.

1997 Spanish GP - ITV studio
ITV’s pundits dissect the race.

We see the classifications rundown again, as Walker outlines the key achievements including a 1-3 for Renault and a strong performance for Prost. Walker also compliments Goodyear’s 350th win against the onslaught of Bridgestone (who were successful in CART), saying “heaven knows where Grand Prix racing would be if it wasn’t for Goodyear.” This is to a degree to fill time before the press conference, ITV airing it live instead of switching back to the studio for initial post-race analysis.

At the start of the analysis, Rosenthal made it clear that the three post-race interviews would be with Patrick Head, Johnny Herbert, and Michael Schumacher. The three main subjects as a result are Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s poor performance (which the consensus is that it was not his fault, but instead a result of poor set-up) and Schumacher’s brilliant start which Jardine analyses.

The last interview with a happy Herbert, describing how his tyres got better with each set, which led into a studio discussion about the scrap involving Schumacher and Coulthard during the first phase of the Grand Prix. There is not much else covered, aside from the promos for other events, all that is left is for Rosenthal to publicise the Canadian Grand Prix and to wrap up proceedings in Spain.

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3 thoughts on “Flashback: 1997 Spanish Grand Prix

  1. I think a great and interesting one to do would be the 2002 USA grand prix… F1 digital plus provided the world feed for ITV if I remember rightly also a British grand prix from the BBC era and one from the early ITV era would be good to compare differences (if any)
    Plus something from 2003 just to see how local TV directors reacted to having the shackles of virtually no on board cameras removed after the collapse of F1 digital plus.
    Oh and i know the BBC covered European races live in the early 1990s I know they covered the 1991 Spanish grand prix live for instance that would be interesting as well.. See how far back in the archive you can go 🙂

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