- Author James Roberts
- Published July 2, 2014
How F1 on TV has changed: 50 years of Silverstone
If you can’t make it to this weekend’s British Grand Prix, then you may will be considering the alternative: watching the race at home on your state-of-the-art, Smart HD TV. We guarantee there’s nothing you’ll miss in one of the UK’s biggest sporting events of the year.
That’s because broadcasting of this weekend’s race (the 50th to be held at Silverstone), has come on along way since the former RAF airfield circuit first hosted the British GP back in 1948…
Murray – mint
This event has always been synonymous with a broadcasting legend, as in 1949 a young, enthusiastic commentator was making his big break talking about the sport. At 25, Murray Walker was handed a microphone and told to sit in a small box atop a ladder at the end of the back straight. All he could do was talk about what he saw in front of him for a radio audience. Suddenly the pressure of live broadcasting and the potential horrors of such a thrilling, dangerous sport were immediately obvious to the inexperienced Walker.
Racer John Bolster lost control of his ERA and came barrel-rolling along the straight towards Murray at 150mph. In an instant he thought that because Bolster was wearing a red tartan shirt (no helmet, no seatbelts in those days) that he had been “cut to ribbons”. Fearing the worst, in a understated manner he just simply shouted: “Bolster’s gone off!”
The audition worked a treat. Thankfully, John Bolster was perfectly OK but Murray was able to convey the excitement of the sport in a simple, accurate – and loud – manner. In the decades to follow, Formula 1 fans would grow to love his trousers-on-fire delivery.
Battle of the airwaves
Television transmissions of the sport were still in their infancy in the 1960s and 1970s with limited coverage restricted to the glamorous events, such as the British, Italian and Monaco races.
When James Hunt won the Formula 1 world title in 1976 interest in Formula 1 grew and two years later the BBC decided they were going to cover every race either live or as highlights.
After Hunt retired he joined Murray Walker in the commentary box and despite a frisson between the pair initially, they became firm friends and entertained audiences with their opposing styles. Murray considered James a posh-talking ‘Hooray Henry’ who knew nothing about broadcasting. Likewise James thought Murray was nothing more than an over-enthusiastic loud-mouthed anorak. As they shared a microphone, they physically fought for control of the airwaves on more than one occasion.
For the long haul events a lack of budget dictated they remained in London, talking over the pictures fed back to BBC Television Centre. Murray would cleverly disguise that they weren’t at the GP with lines such as: “I can’t quite see the pitlane entrance from where I’m standing!” some 2,000 miles away… During one South African GP, Hunt started ranting about Apartheid when he was given a stern message from his producer to start talking about the race, for James to add: “Well thank goodness we’re not there, anyway!”
When the pair were at European races, facilities to broadcast were basic. At Monaco one year, James and Murray sat in two folding park chairs, just behind the Armco barrier with cars blasting past at 170mph. There was a solitary television monitor and a piece of canvas over their heads if it rained. James commentated with a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of wine in the other and his leg – in plaster – in Murray’s lap. You could understand why poor Murray was prone to the odd gaff with so many distractions. Although he wouldn’t personally wouldn’t describe them as mistakes, rather “prophecies that immediately turned out to be untrue”.
Who could forget these classics: “The leading car is unique, apart from the one behind it, which is identical.” Or… “Do my eyes deceive me or is Senna’s car sounding a bit rough?” and… “There’s nothing wrong with the car, except for the fact it’s on fire.”
Fast forward to the present and the combination of a retired Formula 1 driver alongside a colour commentator in the box continues, with former F1 winner David Coulthard joining Ben Edwards on the BBC and Martin Brundle standing alongside David Croft over at Sky Sports F1.
Their expertise is augmented with pundits including world champion Damon Hill and other former racers who with the help of touch-screen technology take insight and analysis to new levels.
For the Formula 1 fan watching at home, the level of coverage now available, either through the BBC’s free-to-air transmissions or the dedicated Sky Sports F1 channel is immense.
We’ve never had it so good
In high definition and Dolby surround 5.1 audio, both channels take the ‘world feed’ supplied by Formula 1’s TV operation. Through integrated Smart TVs you can now access even more digital output. Red button interactive options allow you to view additional pitlane channels with extensive radio/pit radio transmissions or alternative on-board camera views. And if you miss any of the action there is iPlayer to replay any of the three practice sessions or live coverage of qualifying and the race.
On Sky Sports F1 HD there is also coverage of the support races, the press conferences, the drivers’ parade and access deep into the heart of the F1 paddock. In total Sky will broadcast over 20 hours of live television from Silverstone this weekend. They take nearly 60 people to every race (that includes a separate team for Sky Sports News) and have their own TV gallery base in Silverstone’s TV compound.
They ship eight containers weighing 19,000kg of freight to every grand prix, including HD cameras, hard drives, TV screens, mixing desks and high-tech broadcasting electronics including 45km of glass fibre cabling. They even trialled the first ever 3D broadcasting of pre-season F1 testing last year.
Sky have a companion tablet app offering more on-board channels and a GPS driver tracker too. And there’s also the official F1 app offering sector times of every driver on each lap down to a thousandth of a second, plus weather and tyre data.
With all of this information available to the viewer at home and the commentators in the box, the basics in broadcasting live motor racing still apply, after all these years. If the leader crashes on the opening lap, it will be safe to keep it simple and consider what Murray Walker would shout: “Hamilton’s gone off!”
James Roberts is associate editor of F1 Racing magazine
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