The 2014 BBC F1 commentators talk to Badger. After all, it’s what they do best…
Formula 1 commentator ranks pretty highly in the desirable jobs stakes. The perks include travelling the world, talking about grand prix racing for a living, and generally immersing yourself in the greatest sporting circus on earth. The downsides… we’ll have to get back to you on that one.
But as with any prized profession it’s a tough gig to land, with perhaps only a dozen English-language F1 commentators in work at the moment. It’s also an extremely challenging job. Seriously, try turning the sound down during the next grand prix and talking over it concisely but passionately for just a few minutes; it’s not long before you’ve run out of things to say or embarked on a meandering tangent, never to return.
Fortunately, the BBC have a pair of old hands manning both TV and radio duties for their F1 output this year, while a new voice will also make his bow for the corporation. A commentary veteran of more than two decades, Ben Edwards enters his third season as BBC F1’s lead commentator, though his experience of live grand prix work stretches back to the early nineties. James Allen can also claim more than 20 years’ experience talking about Formula 1, from a decade as a pit reporter to a seven-year spell as lead commentator on ITV’s coverage. Since 2012 he’s been BBC Radio 5 Live’s voice of F1, a role he describes as “part-time commentator, part-time continuity guy” – and a challenge he’s relishing. Meanwhile Jack Nicholls completes an incredible six-year journey from commentating on sim racing to F1 duties, filling in for James at four races this season. Given the breadth of their experience in the dark art of commentary, they were the perfect trio to sit down with and get an insight into perhaps the most talked-about job in F1 media.
Edwards began his career at grassroots level, working on the public address system at Brands Hatch. However his focus at the time was not on a life behind the mic: “I started commentating when I was still racing at national level in the UK,” he explains. “As a young driver I was trying to raise money, and I felt it important to show that I could stand up in front of people and talk about the sport; I hoped it would give me an extra string to my bow. So I started doing a little bit of commentary alongside my racing.”
“The main commentator at the time was a chap called Brian Jones,” he continues. “He was the one who really encouraged me. And through doing that I began meeting people who worked in TV and gradually some doors started to open.”
Growing up among a racing family, Allen first became interested in sports broadcasting as a child, with legendary boxing commentator Henry Carpenter the first to grab his attention.
“I grew up with the big Muhammad Ali fights and, watching those, I wanted to be the guy who communicated the excitement of the sporting occasion to a big audience,” he says. “I was only 12, maybe younger, when I realised that’s what I wanted to do, that I wanted to be in the moment.
“I started in Formula 1 with Brabham 25 years ago,” Allen continues. “I was also freelancing on cable channels, doing Le Mans, Formula 3 and lots of different stuff, making mistakes without too many people watching.” Allen then began working for US broadcaster ESPN, which helped him on to British screens.
“I was with ESPN when the BBC lost the F1 contract to ITV [for 1997], and I was part of the original bid for the production company that won the contract. And obviously I took over from Murray in 2001 having deputised for him a couple of times when he was injured in 2000.
Nicholls beginnings in commentary were very different: “I started off in sim racing,” he says with only a hint of embarrassment. “I’d been competing myself – with the nerdy wheel and pedals and the rest of it – and when they began doing live broadcasts online I started commentating on those.
“The great thing about sim racing was that you could do loads and loads of practice on live events. It gave you an audience and a feeling that you could commentate on cars going around a track. It’s still very different doing stuff in real life, but sim racing gives you that fundamental base. You’re not watching the lights go out and thinking, ‘this is the first time I’ve ever commentated on a race!’ You’re thinking, ‘I’m doing a race; it’s different but it’s not too dissimilar.’
From his online beginnings, Nicholls also moved into PA work at circuits, and TV. “Then Jonathan Palmer got to hear of me and asked me to do the live Formula 2 coverage, which was huge. I can’t thank him enough, because I was only 20 and he was giving me the chance to do live TV.”
Motorsport commentary requires particularly intense preparation. With so much happening at such speed mistakes are easy, while the audience is passionate and highly-knowledgeable about their sport – meaning they don’t suffer fools gladly. So how do the pros ensure they’re ready for anything?
“It’s an ongoing thing,” says Edwards. “There are statisticians who provide facts and figures, so I’ll be given those and go through them to create my owns notes. After a grand prix, I spend a bit of time updating everything: the results, the news and other stories that have happened. Then I begin looking ahead to the next grand prix, updating last year’s stuff and looking back at the race’s history. I enjoy it, but I wouldn’t call myself an anorak. I’ve got friends who remember details far better than I do; I find that I don’t have that kind of intense, long-distance memory for facts and figures in F1.”
Edwards compares the process with everyone’s least favourite educational experience: “It’s a bit like sitting an exam,” he laughs. “You need to load up going in, but once it’s done a lot of the information leaves your head, particularly if you’re moving on to another exam, which is effectively what I’m doing! So some of it will stick because it’s relevant to the next race, but all the Australian Grand Prix stuff, I can download that from my head and move on.”
Describing himself as “incredibly self-critical”, Allen listens to past commentaries to improve his future work: “I used to watch races back and I now listen to the radio broadcasts, too. Not all of them, but from time to time, particularly if something big has happened; you listen back to see how you dealt with it at the time.
“I’m very much about the narrative,” he continues. “People like stories. For me, a race has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s an obvious thing to say, but not everybody does it like that. There are several different races going on within a grand prix, so I’ve always done it that way. And sometimes if I feel like the flow isn’t right or I didn’t quite get the balance then I might listen back to something.”
Having spent almost a decade commentating for television Allen is now working on radio, a task he admits he’s found more difficult: “The attraction was that in 20-plus years of broadcasting I’d never done any radio, so it was a new medium that I wanted to master. And it’s been completely reinvigorated by the internet, so that was exciting.
“In terms of the actual technicalities of commentating without pictures, you need to say more, because if you don’t there is no content, whereas if you don’t say anything for half a minute on TV there’s still something that people can follow. On the radio you have to do more than just commentate on the race. The narrative has to be one that can stand being punctuated by interruptions from football matches, news updates and all other sorts of things. So the biggest difference is that for TV you’re just focussed on the race, whereas now I am part-time commentator, part-time continuity guy, and getting into and out of other things is really difficult. You can have a nice flow going and then you’ve got to go away for a minute to get an update on two or three football games, and you struggle to keep the flow of what you’re saying.”
Returning to preparation, Nicholls still uses a technique he picked up working on Formula 2: “I’d sit down at a corner with the entry list and as each car came past I’d yell their name out. Car recognition is one of the most important things, because you have to instantly know who each driver is, so I still do that for everything. You can’t be caught saying: ‘Oh, not sure which Force India that is…’ Telling the difference instantly between two cars is tough, but eventually it becomes so subconscious.”
Nicholls has been on a steep learning curve since shifting his skills from the computer screen to a TV booth, and as a young commentator he has had to grab every opportunity that’s come his way in recent years. That has meant taking work that doesn’t necessarily chime with his racing expertise, and required more intense preparation than usual.
I worked on London 2012 and recently in Sochi for OBS, the world feed broadcaster. In those situations you have to do your research, but London wasn’t too bad because it was team ball sports – I did hockey, handball, basketball, volleyball and a bit of water polo. Whereas Sochi, all of a sudden I was doing ski aerials and it’s just a whole other thing! I really had to do my research. Preparation is everything with whatever you do. The idea of, ‘Oh, I’ll just blag it’ isn’t good enough. It can work – there are times where you’re thrown stuff at the last minute. Like water polo in London, it was literally: ‘Can you do water polo in an hour,’ and you have to do the best you can. But if you’re given any time for prep you have to do it.”
Edwards has similar stories from his early days: “When I was at Eurosport there were a couple of occasions where I ended up commentating on some strange things. I did ice skating once – and I didn’t have a clue about triple axles! How did I get through that? With a bit of help and a lot of research. Working somewhere like Eurosport was brilliant because it threw you into situations. The only reason I had to do this was because the regular commentator hadn’t been able to get there. It was one of those programmes you do from the studio, so I didn’t have to go to the skating rink. It was a good experience, but motorsport is my thing.
When it comes to naming fellow commentators he respects, Edwards picks another former Eurosport employee now plying his trade at the BBC: “Matt Chilton, who does the skiing, is very, very good. We heard him a lot in the Winter Olympics recently. And also Ian Robertson, who does the rugby for radio, is excellent.
And what is it that sets them apart?
“For me it’s passion with clarity,” Edwards explains. “It’s that intrinsic knowledge of what they’re looking at and being able to convey that to the audience without patronising them, so that I can almost connect with the skill and excitement of what’s happening, even though I’m not a skier or a rugby player.
Nicholls also picks a radio commentator: “Simon Brotherton is phenomenal. It’s his tone, his delivery and his adaptability from TV to radio. He can be doing the indoor cycling at London 2012, or Wigan against West Ham on Match of the Day on the telly, and either way it’s phenomenal.
“There are no wasted words,” Nicholls continues. “Every phrase is sculpted and he knows what he’s going to say. It never feels like he’s on autopilot.”
The trio’s professional radio man picks out three of the acknowledged commentary greats: “The number one for me is Bill McLaren (rugby); he was the best commentator in anything,” says Allen. “Not only was he technically very sound and knowledgeable, and never boring, but he had a fantastic vocabulary and he humanised the sport like nobody else.
“Murray did a similar sort of thing. I know Murray really well and he was very good to me; he encouraged me and of course he’s the benchmark in our sport. But Bill McLaren had an extra drama in what he brought and a humour that was fantastic. So him, Murray and Harry Carpenter.”
In the age of 2,000 TV channels it is near impossible for a commentator to become as linked with their sport as Murray and his contemporaries did, but the BBC team are nevertheless striving to carve out their own place in broadcast history. Inevitably they will not always be universally appreciated, with personal preference and the occasional bout of mob mentality leading to criticism – not least in the Twittersphere.
But you don’t need to spend long discussing commentary with any of them to realise that they are fully committed to, and genuinely passionate about, their work. A huge amount of preparation, long hours and self-analysis goes into what they do, and they are pushing to be the best in their profession. Filling Murray’s shoes is a thankless and perhaps impossible task, but the BBC microphone is in good hands with these three in the booth.