Badger’s square-eyed TV critic drags himself away from Porsche Supercup replays to take a look at Sky’s F1 Legends series. All views are his, unless they sound clever in which case they are the editor’s.
Two men are sat high atop the hills of Monte Carlo. It is a postcard scene from the Principality: Ferraris weave between the boutiques below while yachts roll gently in a shimmering Mediterranean. The atmosphere between the men seems relaxed; presently, one of them speaks.
“It’s not good to get your skull smashed in,” he says in a flat Finnish accent.
What channel are we watching?
It sounds like the stuff of strange dreams, but in fact this is two-time World Champion Mika Hakkinen recounting his accident at the 1995 Australian Grand Prix to Steve Rider on Sky’s F1 Legends series. With the real thing on its summer break, the show has become essential viewing for Formula 1 fans missing the sport (at least if they can’t drum up the enthusiasm for other series, but don’t worry, we won’t judge).
F1 Legends is one of the best things about Sky Sports F1. It gives some value to the channel’s exorbitant subscription fee beyond a few hours of grand prix racing every other Sunday afternoon. Endless repeats of the Porsche Supercup race from Circuit de Catalunya don’t have the same appeal.
But it is not simply the fact that it fills a void. F1 Legends is actually very good in its own right. Take a glance at the names they’ve sat down with – Prost, Williams, Fitipaldi, Stewart, Mansell – nothing but F1 royalty. Perhaps calling Eddie Irvine a legend is a bit much, however…
Of course, simply having the names is not enough. What really brings the show together is its presenter, Steve Rider. He possesses enthusiasm and gravitas; he is like a lax science teacher who drifts away from lesson plans to tell you about the time he sneaked into a Led Zepplin gig. Rider has a long-standing association with motorsport and clearly knows his stuff, which makes his interviews feel very natural. Contrast this with Simon Lazenby on the F1 broadcast, who sometimes appears like a kids TV presenter thrown into the midst of a U.N peacekeeping mission.
This really pays off when Rider is talking with big hitters from F1’s past. Highly intelligent men like Sir Frank Williams, Patrick Head, and Jo Ramirez all seem comfortable in his presence. Williams in particular appears unusually relaxed with Rider, as if he’s chatting with an old mate. This is partly because he has known Rider – or at least noticed him hanging about – for the better part of three decades.
And with several having retired – some just from F1, but many from competitive racing altogether – they are open, honest interviewees. They are no longer afraid of treading on toes or upsetting sponsors. They talk about the girls, the drinking, the realities of a very different age in Formula 1. Even their memories of the sport’s darker days, when death was all too common on the grand prix circuit, feel frank and compelling. But not in a morbid way: hearing Williams remember Piers Courage, or Stewart talking about Francois Cevert, is genuinely moving.
The show also benefits from a fantastic array of vintage footage with commentary from Murray Walker and, if you’re lucky, James Hunt. Hunt has now been gone for more than 20 years, meaning there is a whole generation of F1 fans who have no memory of his time alongside Murray in the commentary box. There is a wonderful moment in the Ayrton Senna episode, after the Brazilian has rammed Alain Prost off the circuit at Suzuka in 1990 and sealed the title. Hunt dispenses with all hyperbole, calmly concluding: “That is a very sad way for this year’s World Championship to finish.” A commentator staying quite so cool now is unimaginable. If this year’s world title was decided by Rosberg putting Hamilton in a wall, David Croft might burst a blood vessel; Hunt just sat back and said what he saw.
In the end, it can leave you feeling a little nostalgic for a simpler Formula 1. Perhaps it’s just a case of rose-tinted specs, but the sport’s past has a less polished feel about it, an aura of danger, oil-splattered rags, and the roar of V10s. It feels like motorsport; in a sense, modern day Formula 1 does not.
What will the stars of today talk about in 20 years time? Adjusting engine map settings, engaging DRS, driving to a fuel target? Of course it will be great to welcome F1 back this weekend in Belgium. But when you take time to look at the sport’s past, you begin to wonder what it is doing to its future.