“You won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve got strong feelings about the BBC’S decision to abandon F1”
You might expect those feelings to be of rage or condemnation, but they’re not. The BBC didn’t opt out through lack of enthusiasm, but because they had to make savings as a result of government funding cuts. You and I may feel savings should have been made elsewhere, but, sadly, we’re not in charge. So my reaction is one of sadness and regret at the loss to F1 of a great organisation and the team they created.
Sadness and regret because the BBC are responsible for the historic establishment and growth of interest in F1 throughout the English- speaking world. When, in 1978, as a result of enthusiasm for F1 generated by James Hunt’s 1976 championship victory, they decided to cover all the races instead of just the occasional one, they did so with just half-hour highlights, but then steadily ramped up their involvement until they were garnering audiences of 5-6 million viewers in the UK, plus thousands more in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and everywhere else that English was spoken.
James Hunt left the cockpit to join me in the commentary box for 13 memorable years and while we didn’t always see eye to eye, the public liked the combination of my excitement and James’s authoritative and provocative observations. “The trouble with Jarier is that he’s a French wally – always has been and always will be.” How the viewers loved his outspokenness!
But nothing lasts for ever. The BBC were so successful that the better-funded ITV thought: “We’ll have a bit of that” and outbid the Beeb in 1996. “I didn’t make the change just because of the money” Bernie Ecclestone told me. “They’ll do it better.” And, from 1997, they did, building on the Beeb’s lower-budget programming, while production company North One did a great job with increased transmission time, better facilities, more people and innovative content.
While the BBC licked their wounds ITV reaped their reward, only to trip up over the same problem the BBC had faced in 1996: money. They needed more of it for football, so, in 2009, off they went and back came the BBC now with, seemingly, enough funds to do the job.
But, as I say, nothing lasts for ever. For years Sky TV had been lusting after F1, and in 2012 they struck a deal using the promise of a dedicated Formula 1 channel, great enthusiasm and seemingly bottomless pockets. The result was brilliant and the BBC was demoted to poor relation, in spite of which they continued, in my view, to do a great job. But now they’re out.
I had many wonderful years with the BBC; with ITV, too, plus contributions to Sky. Working with BBC and ITV heads of sport Jonathan Martin and Brian Barwick and other greats, such as Steve Rider, Jim Rosenthal, Neil Duncanson of North One, Sir Jackie Stewart, James Hunt, Jonathan Palmer, Graham Hill, Jody Scheckter, Alan Jones and the commentary box colleague with whom I was happiest of all: Martin Brundle.
Yet I owe what I’ve achieved to the BBC and mourn their departure. Still, it consoles me that, in addition to Sky TV’S superb coverage for those who can afford it, we’ll still have free-to-air coverage from Channel 4, and I hope that, in addition to David Coulthard, they’ll appoint others from the excellent former BBC team, too.”
So my deepest sympathy to the BBC, my best wishes to Sky and Channel 4, and to Bernie Ecclestone my thanks for letting us have a choice of riveting coverage of our great sport.