When you think of Formula One, you think of drivers, cars, tracks, and excitement. A lot of people don’t think about how it has aired on television over the years. This part of F1 History is often ignored, but not by Grid Talk! Join us today as we give a brief history of the changing nature of Formula One on Television.
When the Formula One World Championship first started in 1950 (with Grand Prix Motor racing first coming about in 1894), coverage was patchy on television. That stands to reason, with only 350,000 households having a Television set. The first race shown on British television was the 1953 British Grand Prix, aired live on BBC Television. Not that it had anywhere else to air on, there only was one channel. For the first 30 years or so, the races were not actually aired in full, as they are today. The best you could hope for were highlights on either the BBC or ITV from 1955. And that’s if they bothered to air highlights at all.
From 1979 to 1996, the BBC held the rights to broadcast races on television. With commentary from the legendary Murray Walker, and James Hunt, coverage of Formula One began to increase. However, it still wasn’t until the early 1990s that you would see full race coverage live on the BBC. Broadcasting from their London studios, and hosted by Steve Ryder, with commentary from Walker, Hunt, and then Jonathan Palmer, after Hunt’s death. And if you want to watch qualifying, then forget it. For that privilege, you had to invest in the then-new technology of Satellite television and watch it on Eurosport. Eurosport aired both qualifying and races over the weekend, though with satellite being an expensive luxury in the late ’80s and early ’90s, one can imagine that viewing figures were low.
In 1997, however, F1 coverage changed hands. ITV Sport spent £60 million over 4 years for the contract. They would host F1 coverage until the end of the 2008 season. Murray Walker moved over and was joined by Martin Brundle in commentary, with Jim Rosenthal at the helm, with Tony Jardine and Simon Taylor as pundits. That £60 million investment saw a moving studio, which went with the team in every race, and the introduction of Martin Brundle’s grid walk, which started at the British Grand Prix in 1997. That makes up for the imposition of advertising, and these adverts would play during the race.
Over 11 years, people came and went, with Murray retiring in 2001, James Allen replacing him. The introduction of Ted Kravtiz, reporting from the pitlane, and Steve Ryder, who replaced Rosenthal in 2005, as the presenter.
Come 2009, and the BBC took over presenting duties for Formula One. This time, with Jake Humphrey as a head presenter, Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard as pundits. Ted Kravitz and Martin Brundle came over from ITV, with the addition of Lee McKenzie as Co-Pitlane reporter and Jonathan Legard on commentary. In 2011, David Coulthard would join Brundle in the commentary.
And then it all changed again. In the midst of cost-saving measures, the BBC gave up full coverage, passing the baton to Sky Sports. The BBC would still broadcast some races live, with highlights of certain races filling out their coverage. Sky Sports, however, changed things yet again. Formula One was given its own Sky Sports channel, launching in March of 2012. With a whole TV channel, we now have more faces than ever: David Croft, Simon Lazenby, Rachel Brookes, and many others. Sky Sports also brought in much more in punditry: Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, Paul Di Resta, and Damon Hill. As of 2021, Sky Sports holds exclusive rights to every race, bar the British Grand Prix. Highlights and select races are now being broadcast on Channel 4, which obtained the rights from the BBC in 2015.
So, that brings us up to now. Broadcasting has changed a lot since 1950, alongside Formula One. In the last 70+ years, the medium of Television has mutated and evolved from what was once a box in the corner of the room to a flatscreen computer, connected to the internet, broadcasting at a level of detail that makes it so you can see the beads of sweat on Lewis Hamilton’s forehead. Technology will continue to change. Will Virtual Reality make it so we can sit in the car with the driver? Will we be able to select different camera angles to live on TV via our remote control? Time will tell, but we all know that Formula One will endure.
Also, bring back The Chain. That’s the only thing missing from Sky Sports F1 right now.