GET­TING THE SHOW ON THE ROAD

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS -

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 deni­tive 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

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