GETTING THE SHOW ON THE ROAD
We go behind the scenes with the Sky F1 team in Monaco to see the hard work that goes into televising a GP weekend
At 14:59 on Saturday 24 May, on a downhill stretch of road that runs from Monaco’s Casino Square to the Mirabeau hairpin, Nico Rosberg appears to lose control of his Mercedes. A locked front-right, a quick catch-and-correct and Nico disappears up the escape road. Yellow flags emerge, Rosberg’s pole is secured and a bomb is lit under the 2014 F1 world championship. That means pure TV dynamite – nowhere more so than for the Sky F1 crew, broadcasting live here, as at every race, thus having to ‘call’ a breaking story as it develops before their eyes. Did Rosberg fumble? Was it a professional foul? Did
he reverse up the escape road? What do the rules say? Was Lewis’s pole run ruined? Is the championship blowing up…?
Questions, questions, questions, right here, right now, every one of them needing an answer, an opinion, to sate the desires of an informationhungry audience.
That means pressure for every member of the team involved in keeping the live broadcast on air. In the hottest of hot seats, unseen but calling all the shots, are producer Phil Marshall and executive producer Martin Turner (also head of the Sky F1 channel). They know a title-decisive event has happened and their response must be instantaneous. But speed is not the only requirement: their call on how to gauge and weight the unfolding drama will shape the comprehension of millions; indeed, the ‘Sky view’ (as with the ‘BBC view’ or the ‘RTL view’) will be regarded as denitive for a mass audience who consume F1 solely on TV. Better get it right.
In the commentary booth, David ‘Crofty’ Croft and Martin Brundle are describing events as they see them but, backstage, Marshall and Turner are ensuring that their on-air ‘talent’ are at least half a step ahead of the action.
“Okay Nat,” says Marshall over his headset and mike to reporter-presenter Natalie Pinkham, “you understand what happened there?” Phil is ensuring she knows to grill both Hamilton and Rosberg on what will doubtless be differing interpretations of the on-track sequence, when they’re released into the ‘pen’ post-session for comment to broadcast media.
Then Turner, to his in-paddock crew – presenter Simon Lazenby with experts Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill (known universally at Sky as ‘Champ’ although uniquely to Lazenby as ‘Space Badger’): “Nice and lively Johnny, nice and lively Damon. Push it, this is important.”
Anthony Davidson, meanwhile, operator of the ‘Skypad’ analysis tool, is urged: “Nice and punchy, Ant”. None of these commands are heard by the at-home audience, yet they’re vital to the tone, content and direction of what’s being aired. A nudge this way, a degree of emphasis there and a story is shaped to the judgement of the producerdirector team. So when Herbert sticks his neck out and offers his view that Rosberg may have ‘parked’ his Merc, deliberately, to frustrate Hamilton’s pole ambitions, he’s rewarded with: “Well done, Johnny, good aggro!” from Turner.
Then a further eet-foot command: “Go to a shot of Damon and Johnny discussing it with Bernie. It shows we’re in with the big lads.” Said shot is duly aired.
Not all the “big lads”, however, get their slice of prime time. While Niki Lauda, a triple world champion and non-executive director of Mercedes F1 is rapidly corralled by a ‘floor manager’ working the paddock to secure the next guest (then the next one, then the next…), the inclusion or otherwise of Flavio Briatore as an ‘expert’ voice, prompts considerable debate. When Turner learns that Flav is available for comment on the controversy-du-jour, his journalistic fancy is tickled, but alarm bells ring immediately. “Be very careful with your language, Simon,” he instructs Lazenby (who’s busy taking direction while also teeing up the next question in his frontal lobes, all the while radiating boy-next-door bonhomie from paddock to living rooms across the land – not easy). “I want to control Flavio, I don’t want to go anywhere we don’t want to go,” Turner stresses.
Marshall, keen to avoid any on-air calamity that a loose cannon such as Briatore might trigger, urges: “Let’s not do it with Flav,” before Turner’s final call: “No, we’ll just take a little bit.”
The off-screen frisson will never be apparent to a viewer, but managing the edgy balance between punchy, informed comment and litigious bluster is one of the keys to making a compelling show.
“The thing about live television is that you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” says Turner. “Then you are defined by how you tell the actual story. There’s so much competition now that people are more critical, more expert and used to excellence. So we’re really expected to deliver on every level. You’re expected to get everything right no matter how difficult it is. We want to make it entertaining and to give our unique spin on it. But we don’t want to get it wrong.”
The quality of information coming in to the broadcast gallery, be it pictures, sound, an interview or box-box-box- fresh intelligence from an on-the-ground correspondent such as pit sleuth Ted Kravitz, naturally dictates the quality of the output. But the sheer quantity of it is bewildering to the uninitiated and making sense of feeds from more than a dozen screens and multiple headset voices, then filtering it to produce coherent, seamless, engaging entertainment is clearly a task for the technically skilled and highly experienced.
For broadcasting F1 is not simply a question of regurgitating moving images from a host broadcaster, then gilding them with ear-candy from a crowd-pleasing commentator (though once upon a time this was the model, as those with memories of ’70s F1 telly will recall with a wan grimace). The vastly more sophisticated demands of the modern media consumer, particularly those with impassioned, expert knowledge about a sport they love, make broadcasting F1 a mighty challenge of resource, skill, knowledge and ambition.
High-pressure live editing is just a part of it. Take, for example, the logistics of broadcasting from a grand prix. It requires 55 or so staff, which is fewer than in Sky’s first F1 year, 2012, when lack of experience necessitated more hands on deck. In the TV compound (to which F1 Racing, as print media, were granted rare exclusive access) several Portakabins are devoted to Sky’s kit, in addition to their own bespoke hardware pods, containing essentials such as a multi-terabyte harddrive image archive, mixing desks and banks of extremely high-tech broadcasting electronics. F1R, present with notebook, pen and a single photographer, Andrew Ferraro, feels somewhat enfeebled in the face of this media arsenal.]
Then there’s the ever-challenging ‘access’, question, common to all media covering this most titillating and coveted sport. Consistent with its ambition to out-broadcast other broadcasters, Sky F1 has this weekend wangled a €200m superyacht, Nirvana, as the location for Friday night’s The F1 Show. A swankier Monaco location is not to be found (one B C Ecclestone is a below-decks guest, F1 Racing learns), but getting on board has not been the work of a moment. An initial approach to Sky was made from the broker currently charged with selling this lavish slice of marine architecture, via F1’s rights holders, CVC, then through the offices of Formula One Management, before landing in Martin Turner’s in-tray. And then began the fun of working out how to get crews and
camera on deck, at the right time, on the right frequencies (all of Sky’s live comms are done on radio frequency, in order to minimise cable clutter) and – please God – in the sunshine. If all has worked well (as it did), the viewer gets to enjoy as pure a piece of Monaco-myth-making as has ever been broadcast. Never let it be said, however, that this is the low-rent approach.
And lest it be forgotten, this pocket extravaganza is only one segment of an entire weekend’s programming, given Sky’s commitment to airing an F1 channel, as opposed to simply broadcasting race and qualifying packages, within a schedule already packed with other commitments. That equates to 14 hours of programming every grand prix weekend, a workload, says Phil Marshall, that requires a spilt in production duties between himself and fellow producer Billy McGinty. “It’s so intensive,” says Marshall, red-eyed and visibly drained after the acute demands of an exceptionally dramatic Monaco qualifying session, “that we have to alternate. So on any given weekend one of us will do the qualifying show and one of us will do the race. But a session like that is why you do the job. Everybody can really get their teeth into it.”
All of this, however, would cease to matter if the main event – the race coverage – were not up to snuff. For Sky Sport’s wider reputation as a sports broadcaster has been founded on the quality of its live coverage, indeed its subscription-based business model is predicated upon making a programme good enough to pay for. It’s quite a buzz, then, to sit and watch Crofty and Brundle at work for two hours as they ‘call’ the Monaco grand prix from grid walk to flag fall, and marvel at how they make a prospect terrifying to many look so straightforward.
There’s little room to spare in the close confines of the commentary booth, perched on a metal sub-structure that affords a commanding view of the entire pit area as well as of the track from the exit of Piscine to La Rascasse. We’re close enough to the action to smell burnt engine oil when Jean-Eric Vergne’s Renault gives out on lap 52. And near enough to the elements for Crofty to pop his head outside, mid-race, for a real-time rain-check when the humid atmosphere threatens a cloudburst.
Crofty ’n’ Brundle’s vision is enhanced by a setup of eight screens, delivering information from the main TV feed to a multi-shot in-car view, with live timing, via several other sources such as a rolling ‘killer stats’ feed. This info-battery, in combination with the silent ‘third brain’ of respected F1 journalist Mark Hughes, who passes Brundle cryptic, but informative Post-It notes throughout the commentary, is enough to ensure that the days of amusing blunders and wellintentioned misidentification are long gone.
Nonetheless, in a sport as complicated as F1, it’s impossible to know everything on the spot. And during the race, the question of whether or not Jules Bianchi will pit to serve a five-second penalty, or have them added to his total race time, proves moot. Comfortingly, in an ever-more digitised age, Brundle delves into his briefcase to consult a paper copy of the F1 sporting regulations. [For the record, Bianchi’s penalty was added to his total race time.]
“I’m in a comfortable position now, as cocommentator,” says Brundle, “and I have a passion for what I do. When I started, in ’97, I was very frustrated as I still wanted to be driving. But I began to realise that it had worked out quite nicely for me. My F1 race career appears to have been a fact-finding mission for my new career, and I still drive F1 cars often enough to know what’s going on out there.”
The paying public, we learn, expects no less and Turner names the British F1-viewing audience as the most demanding. “They want us to be accurate; they want to have their cake and eat it in terms of a balance between ‘soft’ features and hard information. Then they’re conservative, while expecting to be entertained. It’s simple,” he concludes, “but not easy: they expect perfection!”
Respected commentator and former racer Martin Brundle on one of his famed grid walks, encountering Bernie Ecclestone and Sir Patrick Stewart along the way: “My F1 race career appears to have been a fact-finding mission for my new career”
The Sky F1 team take over the €200million superyacht Nirvana, moored in the Monaco harbour, for The F1 Show on the Friday night of the GP weekend. The effortless delivery belies the hours spent behind the scenes on logistics and setup