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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Formula One’s TV coverage drawing on increasing appetite for showbiz side of sport

The era of the sporting fly-on-the-wall has given fans some enjoyable peeks behind the curtain; few have done it better than Formula 1: Drive to Survive. The Netflix series has revealed the character of the drivers, these strange and singular young men, in moments that have been more or less unguarded – or as unfiltered as you could reasonably expect given the brands and the sums of money involved, perhaps. Not everyone, alas, is as guileless as the fine people on Sunderland ‘Til I Die. The relationships and rivalries of the F1 drivers and teams as detailed in the documentary series have fleshed out and given meaning to a sport which, at its worst, can be mechanistic, a procession. That is not the case at the moment.

Sky Sports, whose coverage of the sport gives fans not just the races but hours, indeed days, of build-up, seems this season to have leaned in more to the human drama. With the caveat that this has been a properly exciting season for a change, so it may just be organically more interesting and tense to televise, the coverage has skillfully built up the conflict between Toto Wolff and Christian Horner, between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.

The first question I heard Simon Lazenby put to Jenson Button and Martin Brundle on Saturday’s qualification preamble was: “Who is handling the pressure better?”, a reality TV angle that speaks to an increasing appetite for the showbiz side of sport. Perhaps opening F1 up more with the Drive To Survive project has allowed the human stories to come out more. The Wolff v Horner stuff is reaching Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger levels of ongoing needle, all enjoyable for the fan, and manna from heaven for the coverage.

In Button, Sky have a likeable pundit who is at his best when talking about the technicalities and practicalities of driving the car and what is going through the mind of the men in the hot seat. He was excellent at analysing the Verstappen flag situation, giving the ex-pro’s take on trying to get away with what you can get away with.

Given that the Sky coverage these days has scene-setting on Thursday, coverage of practice on Friday, qualification on Saturday, and then the preamble, race and aftermath on Sunday, your committed fan is getting practically half a week’s telly for their money. Sky’s coverage this weekend had pretty much all the angles covered, whether your taste runs to Damon Hill doing a joint interview with Carlos Sainz Jnr and Lando Norris over a round of golf, or Lewis Hamilton addressing the world’s media about Qatar and LGBTQ issues.

It was a pretty good Sunday for sportswashing petrostates on Sky, with Manchester City playing Everton on the other side just as the grand prix started. David Beckham was in full effect at the F1 in Qatar, wandering around pleasantly on the grid and generally ambassadoring the living heck out of it all. Also on the grid was Mutaz Essa Barshim, the Qatari high jumper who was involved in one of the strangest sports moments of the year when he and Italian Gianmarco Tamberi agreed to share the gold medal at the Olympics. It feels unlikely that Horner and Wolff would follow that lead given the chance.

The grid coverage before the start does remain one of the best bits of sports TV around, with the access that the broadcasters get, and the sense that the viewer is right in amongst it. There are always loads of little details and moments: on Sunday, for instance, Pierre Gasly doing his warm-ups with an assistant dropping a tennis ball out of each hand for the driver to catch, presumably to get his reactions going.

With two more races to come in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, Sky is billing this phase of the F1 season as the Desert Trilogy. The spectacle, the roar of the engines, what a thrilling distraction. Don’t look around too closely, look instead at nice Mr Beckham and the cars.

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