THE NEW Formula One season gets underway this coming weekend and, as ever, fans of the most popular motorsport in the world have a lot to get their teeth into.
Bernie Ecclestone and his glamourous clan love a change or two, and the biggest change for British-based fans is one which brings about a dilemma of sorts – simply: BBC’s excellent coverage or Sky Sports’ new dedicated F1 channel?
All Sky Sports subscribers have unlimited and free access to the new channel – which will feature all 20 races live, plus every practice and qualifying session, alongside hours upon hours of features, interviews, race replays and more. Not to mention the ‘red button’ features, such as in-car cameras, multi-vision angles, driver-tracker and, yes, more.
The BBC has lost out massively. It will now only show 10 of the 20 races live, with extended highlights of the other 10. There is still the promise of advert-less pre-shows and races, but Sky has matched that promise for the races themselves.
ITV once had F1 live, but couldn’t resist the mega-bucks for advert breaks, during the races. Cue key moments missed in favour of the latest promotion of I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter or Saga Holidays. Casual viewers turned off, ratings dipped, and the Beeb jumped in to rescue coverage.
There’s no denying it has done a great job over the last few years. The pre-shows were packed with features, the races commentated on by knowledgable individuals, and a confident and strong presenter in Jake Humphrey, who brought a relatable wit and charm to a technology-laden petrol-fest.
But, in presenters and commentators, Sky has the upper edge again. Commentator and unashamedly pushy on the pit-lane interviewer Martin Brundle is on board, having defected from the BBC, alongside pit-lane in-race fact-gatherer Ted Kravitz.
Sky can see BBC’s often too dry David Coulthard, and raise silver-haired former world champion driver Damon Hill. Watching the preview show on Sky last weekend, it was refreshing to see John ‘Fenners’ Fendley involved, away from his usual stereotypical football host persona. And he’s from my home town of Scarborough, and he’s funny. Eddie Jordan is neither of those. And Fenners’ shirts are unlikely to cause static within an LCD screen.
If I needed any other reason to defect to Sky for my personal viewing, upon watching the season preview last week the presenters being, erm, presented included Georgie Thompson. Say no more.
The scheduling gives Sky an upper hand straight away. The first two races, albeit Australia and Malaysia in the early hours of GMT, are live on Sky.
Two races then, to convert all dedicated BBC viewers (with a dish) to switch allegiance. Given the viewing so far, and the reasons above, I think I have already made my choice. Georgie Thompson. Say no more.
But if blonde presenter totty isn’t enough for you, perhaps you want to know about the sport itself, the regulation changes and expectations for the season ahead.
We’ll get to the teams and drivers in a minute, but the one major change which has kept columnists and design engineers alike busy through the winter break is a feature of the aesthetics of the cars themselves.
Rules and regulations are rife in F1 and, as they are for the safety of the drivers, fans, teams and stewards, you can’t turn your nose up at them.
And the change I speak of involves the noses of the cars. An F1 car is a beautiful machine, both in design and engineering. This year though, most, but not all, look like a cartoon witch.
Due to unfathomable, but more than likely correct, reasons, the regulations called for a drop in the height of the noses this year in case of side-on crashes.
While most teams lowered the front end nose by seven-and-a-half centimetres, keeping a high chassis to please the aerodynamic designers, McLaren resisted this design and have instead dropped the full chassis, with a more sleek and smooth design. The most beautiful car on the grid, for sure, but will the speed match?
In 2008 and 2009 Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button brought the championship back to Britain, but for the past two years Sebastian Vettel has conquered all in the Red Bull speed-machine.
Along with the nose-jobs, other regulations brought in surrounding exhausts and blown diffusers (and far too complicated to explain here) are said to have brought the teams closer together to performance. Hopefully this will make for some exciting racing.
There are six world champions on the grid this season in the field of 22 drivers; Spaniard Fernando Alonso, the mercurial Michael Schumacher and the returning 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen joining the aforementioned champions of the previous four years.
There are rebranded teams, mainly expected to bring up the rear. Lotus is now Caterham and Virgin Racing is now Marussia. Renault, with Raikkonen, is now, strangely, Lotus. Many drivers have moved around, some have left, and new upstarts are looking to impress against more seasoned racers.
There’s the prospect of a new track – in Austin, Texas. It will be interesting to see how the American public take to F1 after a lukewarm response to previous incarnations stateside.
Competing against the utterly dull and brainless Nascar series is a factor, but chuck in some free beer and doughnuts and I’m sure the American public will take to it just as enthusiastically as they did to ‘soccer’.
If you haven’t guessed, I’m being sarcastic, and I’m not convinced F1 will work in the US – we’ll find out in November.
But I’m certainly looking forward to it. Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix begins at 6am on Saturday. My alarm is set. It’s just me, my Sky remote, my early morning bowl of cornflakes and Georgie Thompson.
Bring it on!