I’m not a great sports fan. I enjoy the Olympics, tennis and darts when they happen to be on the telly, but I’ve never suffered the agonies and ecstasies of loyally supporting a particular team or following a specific sport. That is until I discovered Formula One. I’m not sure what it was about Formula One that drew me in a few years ago. It could have been the drama of Brawn’s return from the ashes after they won the constructor and driver’s championships months after losing their funding and being on the brink of leaving the sport altogether. The pairing of Jensen Button and Rubens Barrichello as Brawn’s drivers certainly helped – two of the nicest guys in the paddock, and British and Brazilian respectively, just perfect for a British-Brazilian new to Formula One and looking for a team to support! But more than this, it was to do with the way the BBC covered the sport.
My memories of Formula One from idle childhood Sunday afternoons in front of the telly with my Dad are of hours and hours of repetitive footage as cars raced around the same bit of track over and over again. And, for sure, today this remains a central aspect of the experience of watching the television coverage of Formula One. Indeed, one of my key complaints about the last two amazing seasons are that since the races became so strewn with incidents and overtaking my ability to get any knitting done while watching a Grand Prix has plummeted! Yet what I love about watching the Grand Prix today is not just the racing, not just the overtaking and the behind-the-scenes gossip in the paddock, the predictions and surprising outcomes, but also the wonderful packages of content that the BBC puts together to convey the drama, excitement and pure beauty of the sport.
Indeed, following Formula One involves quite a considerable investment of time in front of the television. Race weekends can be made up of at least five hours of viewing, with qualifying being covered on Saturdays and the race itself on Sundays. Indeed, for avid fans there is the opportunity to watch the practice sessions on Thursdays and Fridays in the lead up to each race. Since 2012 the live coverage of races has been split between the BBC and Sky following a licence fee settlement that reduced the BBC budget and saw the corporation attempt to limit its spend on certain premium sports. On those days when the BBC doesn’t cover the race it offers an extended highlights package later in the day for both qualifying and the race itself. As a household without Sky, this has reduced my access to Formula One and I hope that it doesn’t signal the removal of Formula One from the BBC when the deal is up for renewal in 2018, particularly because I enjoy the way in which the BBC covers the sport. Much of the strength of this coverage is to do with the quality of the editing, the access to Formula One personnel, from drivers to team principals, and the presenting (although I still miss Martin Brundle (who went to Sky in 2012) and am yet to be convinced about new presenter Suzi Perry (more on her later) who doesn’t seem quite at ease with co-presenter David Coulthard).
But in this blog I want to talk about a particular aspect of the BBC’s Formula One coverage, and that is the highly edited sequences that top and tail the BBC’s coverage of Formula One. There are the sequences that begin each broadcast for every race in any given season and which lead into the opening titles. In addition, there are similar highly edited sequences that introduce each race, often focused upon the last race at that track or the state of the competition at that moment in the season. Finally, there are sequences that end each broadcast, focused on the highlights of the race and edited to a usually well-known and ironically selected piece of music. In this blog I want to focus primarily on the openers that begin each race in any given season. My interest in these sequences stems in part from my ongoing work on the interstitials and short-forms that surround broadcast content. But it also stems from my genuine enjoyment of these moments in the broadcast coverage. I’m struck by this because these sequences are in no way integral to the broadcasting of the actual races to the viewer at home. Yet, they play a significant role in the pleasure that I derive from the BBC’s coverage of Formula One. They make the experience of Formula One so much more than just following cars travelling around a race track. They set an interpretive framework around what is to follow, they function as powerful emotive signifiers of the coverage (given that they are shown at the start of each race over an entire season), and they are often highly crafted and, I would argue, aesthetically beautiful.
These opening sequences are often technically impressive, having been meticulously crafted out of years of footage with an attention to detail that rewards the multiple re-watching that is essential for footage that will begin every broadcast often twice a month for nine months. These openers often focus on capturing the history, excitement and magic of the sport. The 2009 intro offers a poetic account of the ‘scream of science’ that epitomises the BBC’s Formula One coverage. The voice-over recounts the science behind the racing, a world of ‘pneumatic valve springs, of mean affective pressure, 300 break horse power per litre of displacement, a quest for the perfect 4/V8 naturally aspirated reciprocating engine’. That it makes little sense to me doesn’t matter. In fact it helps to create an aura of magic, the sense of technology at the edges of its capabilities, a message that is then transferred to the drivers, ‘the masters of speed’ whose physical attributes are recounted with the same poetic intensity as the technology behind the cars they race, as cool grey graphics take you first inside a car and then inside the human body, likening the carbon and alloy technology to the flesh and blood that controls it. The sequence is beautifully edited and impeccably crafted. It conveys the technological and physiological skill behind the sport of Formula One. But for me, I love its cool stylish intensity and the way it conveys the magic of a sport where no matter how much testing takes place in wind tunnels and simulators, no-one can predict what will happen once the cars get out on track.
This year’s introduction focuses more on the history of Formula One, honing in on the fans’ love of the drama that takes place on and off the track. The sequence intercuts archive footage of some of the most iconic drivers from across the long history of Formula One, allowing us to imagine Ayrton Senna racing alongside Lewis Hamilton, and appealing to nostalgia for seasons and drivers past. As the starting flag falls, the film intercuts some of the most dramatic moments from Formula One’s history, as cars fly into the air, burst into flames, or spin uncontrollably off the track. At these moments we are taken right inside the action as digitally reconstructed sequences provide us with perspectives not found in the archive footage. Once again the magic of technology is alluded to, but here it is the technology of digital media, rather than racing cars. There’s less emphasis on science and more on drama. Here Formula One is about the drama of race incidents, but also the drama of the personalities involved – the racing drivers whose judgements and personalities on and off the track make for so much of the fun of following the sport. Indeed, while the 2009 sequence ends with a generic driver racing through a computer generated simulation of some of the season’s most memorable tracks, the 2013 opening ends with a pan across the faces of the iconic drivers of the sport, past and present.
But these sequences don’t just celebrate the drivers, or highlight the magic and excitement of Formula One racing. They also self-reflexively draw attention to the footage itself. After all, for its fans Formula One is largely a televised sport. The prohibitive costs of travelling to all of the 20 or so countries around the globe at which races take place every year make the media coverage an essential component of the experience of following Formula One. These opening sequences frequently draw attention to Formula One as, fundamentally, a mediated sport. In the 2009 opener, the slow motion shots that convey the sophistication of the engineering and the skill of the drivers are equally suggestive of the ability of television itself to capture race cars at speeds of over 200 miles an hour. Meanwhile, the 2013 opener alludes to the sophistication of modern filming techniques as computer generated images compensate for the shots that are ‘missing’ from the archive footage.
This self-reflexivity extends to the ways in which these openers situate the BBC’s coverage as central to the experience of Formula One. The 2011 season opener once again draws on the history of the sport with archive images of early races and key drivers intercut with archive commentary from the BBC’s most famous Formula One commentator, Murray Walker. As a voice over recounts what makes the iconic moments in Formula One history, the presence of Walker’s voice positions the BBC’s coverage at the heart of this history. This message is then reiterated as the sequence goes on to recap the drama of the 2010 season, cutting together moments from key races with images specific to the BBC’s coverage. The frequent cutting throughout the sequence to a film projector reasserts the message that Formula One is fundamentally constructed on camera. Yet, over and above this, Formula One is here positioned as a uniquely BBC event with the sequence beginning by depicting the opening of large metal doors adorned with the BBC logo, metaphorically positioning the footage itself (and the history contained therein) as stemming from within the BBC itself.
As the allusions to Murray Walker suggest, the mediated experience of Formula One extends beyond the strength of the camerawork and editing to the quality of the commentators and presenters and the ability of the production to gain access to the key players in each of the teams at the right moments. Races often begin with stunts that play upon the personalities of the presenters, perhaps most memorably when Jake Humphreys, Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard flew into the 2012 British Grand Prix at Silverstone strapped to the wings of three biplanes to the accompaniment of Ride of the Valkyries.
It is unsurprising then, that the BBC should begin their 2013 coverage of the first race in Australia with a tongue-in-cheek introduction to their new female presenter, Suzi Perry. The sequence begins with typically moody saturated shots of winding roads and rugged rocks, reminiscent of the cool and steely palette of the 2009 opening. We then follow a mysterious motorcyclist as they drive across the dramatic Australian countryside before entering the pit lane for the opening Australian Grand Prix. Here slow motion shots of the driver’s lithe figure in full leathers as well-known drivers and pit crew (all men) turn to stare, indicate to us both that this is a woman and that her presence is an unusual feature in a typically male-dominated sport. This knowing reference to the oft-commentated upon sexism of Formula One is reinforced as David Coulthard (the BBC’s remaining core presenter) looks on impatiently as Perry slowly removes her racing helmet and shakes out her long dark hair. The sequence also alludes to Perry’s ten-year history presenting MotoGP and World Superbikes. As with much of Top Gear (which I’ve written about elsewhere) the footage functions at multiple levels. It makes Suzi Perry a safe female figure within the macho environment of Formula One as she is presented as both an object of male desire and a masculinised woman capable of ‘playing with the boys’. Yet it does so with enough ironic and knowing humour to draw attention to the sexism of Formula One and the positive presence of a female presenter. Over and above this, it is typical of the gentle humour that cuts across much of the BBC’s coverage of Formula One which, despite the tendency towards pomposity in some of the season openers, is typically characterised by a lightness of touch.
The BBC can only be applauded for giving the presenting role for Formula One to a woman, making one third of the corporation’s presenting team now female (the team is now made up for David Coulthard, Suzi Perry, Eddie Jordan (on programmes where the BBC has the full broadcast), Ben Edwards, Tom Clarkson and Lee McKenzie). If only the FIA wouldfollow suit at get rid of the scantily dressed women holding placards as the cars line up on the grid and lining the route to the podium where the trophies are presented. And if only if the teams could be encouraged to employ more female engineers and drivers. I can only hope that the presence of a female anchor like Suzi Perry, along with high-profile women in the sport, such as Monisha Kaltenborn, team principal for Sauber and the first female team principal in Formula One, and Claire Williams, who has just been appointed deputy team principal for her father’s team Williams, can gradually lead to more gender equality in what is, unfortunately, a male-dominated sport.
But to return to the edited packages that do so much to shape my enjoyment for Formula One… I can’t say how typical the BBC’s coverage of Formula One is of its approach to covering sports, other than that similar opening and recap sequences make up some of my most fond memories of watching Wimbledon while growing up (my favourite of which was a highlights package edited to Bucks Fizz’s ‘Making Your Mind Up’). Neither can I say whether this is a specific feature of BBC sports coverage or common to sports coverage more generally, not being a subscriber to Sky’s sports channels or a follower of other sports on television. But for me, these sequences contribute immeasurably to the pleasures of watching and following Formula One. While they are not core to capturing and conveying the sport itself, I would argue that they form a fundamental part of the art of sport on television.
Catherine Johnson is a lecturer in the Department of Culture, Film, and Media at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of Branding Television and Telefantasy and co-editor of Transnational Television History and ITV Cultures. Her current research examines the broader creative industry sector that produces promotional material for the screen industries.