Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Sky Sports F1's end of term report - A review of the broadcaster's first season with Formula One

Published by Chris Ratcliff

We're now a year on from the launch of Sky Sports F1 HD and we can now look back at what their coverage has brought to the sport.

Mr C has given his view on life without a dish, so let me provide the other view. I will say now that I haven't watched every minute of coverage, and sometimes watched BBC coverage where needed, but I have seen Sky's effort grow and evolve through the year.

The shoulders of giants

Last year the BBC had a good multi-platform F1 service covering Radio 5live, Red Button coverage (where a practice session didn't clash with a music festival or some important event) and full coverage of all the races. The immediate change was that Sky cherry picked the best of the commentary team and presenters (except for Jake, hanging in with Auntie to lead the Olympics coverage) and supplemented them with some home grown talent.

Under sunny skies, Pinkham tackles di Resta
Under sunny skies, Pinkham tackles di RestaCredit: Sahara Force India Formula One Team

The start was rather shaky, with new presenters finding their F1 feet and some new innovations brought in from other Sky sporting coverage. The first surprise was the volume of coverage. Not the loudness, but rather ninety minutes pre-race, then up to two hours after the race. The joke following the first race was that the cameras will follow the presenters to the airport, and the broadcast might only end once they board the plane and they're forced to turn the cameras off.

One thing not in doubt was the quality of the picture. Sky has provided high quality streams with Dolby surround sound - so good that Sky users have been complaining about the recordings taking up more space than other programmes of the same length! - which has been a good match for the brilliant presenters and commentary team. They've also invested in some interesting technical gadgetry to help explain replays, virtual recreations of cars on track to assess driver vision, and even virtual cars that can be rotated and airflows applied to try and explain what a Coanda exhaust or double DRS is. It rather knocked Gary Anderson scribbling on a pad with a biro at the Mclaren launch into a cocked hat.

Space to grow

A benefit of a channel dedicated to F1 is that it allows time for other F1 and motorsport programming. One real treat has been the F1 Show. A weekly, hour long magazine show which, as well as covering on track action past and future, also features driver interviews, features at the F1 factories, non-F1 events such as the Goodwood Festival of speed and studio guests with different takes or angles on F1. There's also time for coverage of GP2/3 and the Porsche Supercup series if you need a little more motorsport.

One thing that is clear though is that Sky are very good at the gloss, the fancy graphics and whooshing noises. The BBC coverage seems done on a shoestring in comparison, but what Jake and co do in the build up to a race or qually session is just more creative. There's more interesting short films or features. Even the opening skits, like wing walking or going through the streets of India to a big Bollywood dance number just don't happen on Sky. It's lots of montages of historical footage instead. It just lacks character.

Speaking of which, a lot of the pre and post show coverage appears to be taken straight out of the Sky Sports big book of sports coverage. Take an anchor, doesn't matter who as they're generally interchangeable, and pair with ex-competitors of that sport. Typically this means Simon Lazenby is joined by any combination of Johnny Herbert, Alan McNish, Damon Hill and Martin Brundle and they spend a lot of time talking, and talking, and talking. As they have so much time to fill, there appears to be a lack of pre-recorded content (although what there is can be expected to be very good, such as Martin Brundle going through the start process in a Ferrari at Fiorano) to the point that if I'm watching a recorded race, I generally fast forward through a group of pundits just talking. If the new podium interviews have shown anything, it's that proper journalists and presenters can sometimes be a better bet than drivers for the sake of using drivers.

Finding their feet

Brundle's grid walks have kept up their quality, and he's gelled well with David Croft who can really commentate on action.

Those taken from the BBC though have really excelled. Brundle's grid walks have kept up their quality, and he's gelled well with David Croft who can really commentate on action. Ted Kravitz does well as a presenter of the F1 Show, but then easily slips into his pit reporter role, with his round up of each race a real gold mine of information! My hope for next year is that Anthony Davidson is allowed to grow his role a bit with a year of telly under his belt now, as he and McNish are probably the best people possible when it comes to really breaking down a replay and putting the viewer into the driver's seat.

Sky have pushed to grow their offering, as they will constantly remind you. Viewer selectable feeds on the red button, Sky Race Control which is their online hub for their coverage, and Sky Go. They will remind you of these too, during the build up, during the race commentary, during the post race analysis. Nothing clangs quite like "And don't forget, you can ride onboard with Hamilton as he chases down Vettel either through Sky Race Control, or on the red button here on Sky Sports F1 HD." My experiences with Sky Go - through both average and good home broadband connections - has been good with some delay but enough to comfortably watch any coverage on an iPad. I have, on occasion, had Sky Go running when I've had to dash to the kitchen when a pan needed stirring or when I've had to dash to the, errrr, throne….

After 20 races, what have we learned about Sky and their efforts in F1? Ultimately the racing will be the same on any channel globally that uses the FOM feed, but the value that Sky has put around it is good, if spread a little thinly for my taste. Having a channel that shows other high quality motorsport programming is very nice, and the additional programming that has been created, like the F1 Show, has been very good. I can't think of how I would really want the commentary or presenting team changing, although I would say Simon Lazenby is very good at what he does, but doesn't add much himself to the proceedings.

While I happily subscribe to Sky for the range of general programming, I think the decision of getting it just for F1 would depend on how much you absolutely must watch it. If F1 is something that happens for one hour on Saturday and two on Sunday then I can see a lot of people plumping for the BBC highlights. However, if you want the best possible way of watching it, all the practice sessions, the additional programming, the support races, and you feel like you're missing out when you can't join in with Internet chatter then Sky is the way forward. It's not revolutionary yet, but it keeps getting better.