Jack Pitt-Brooke: Old, familiar hands on the wheel keep Sky from veering off the road
Australian Grand Prix, Sky Sports F1
Monday 19 March 2012
On the first days of a new year for Formula One fans, Sky Sports balanced novelty with familiarity. If it felt like the first day at a new school, at least the favourite old teachers had moved too.
Sky have clearly learnt from the great sporting transition of recent years: Channel 4's taking of home Test cricket in 1999. Their trick was to guarantee the viewers' assurance and comfort by bringing in the great Richie Benaud, thereby freeing themselves to introduce all the modern gizmos on top. After all, there can be no accusations of sacrilege with Benaud in the room.
So it is with Sky Sports F1 HD. Yes, there were graphics and SkyPads and montages and all the rest, but it was crucially secured by the voices we know so well. Martin Brundle was the competent host, front-man and co-commentator, while David Croft, familiar from 5 Live's Formula One, transferred well to television. Damon Hill, probably the most popular British driver of his generation, brought his smooth silver charm and champion's insight to the pre-race analysis.
Those hoping for Brundle's trademark approach would have been pleased. We were treated, before the race began on Sunday morning, to his famous pit-walk, which brings the viewer better pre-event access than they ever get from football or cricket.
Of course, Formula One being Formula One, part of it was spent in the reflected sheen of semi-celebrity. Leo Sayer and Lenny Kravitz were both briefly indulged, as if those up at 6am on a Sunday to watch still needed the extra validation that only the formerly famous can bring.
But this was still Sky Sports and its imprint was still recognisable. No sporting occasion can be properly launched without an overreaching introductory montage, and so it was with Saturday morning's qualification programme.
We were told, to the music from Heat, that Melbourne is "no ordinary city", but rather one that "runs, chases, scraps and fights, not as some kind of part-time hobby, but as a way of life".
Heat, of course, was itself a perfect choice. For its driving, its duelling, its tension, its well-lit cityscapes, it echoes much of what is best about Formula One. And the whole Sky Sports coverage felt like it was directed by Michael Mann: sleek, precise, futuristic, and with a good balance of narrative and style.
There were other innovations, too: the predictably smart graphics, the not obviously necessary SkyPad, manned "upstairs" by Georgie Thompson and Anthony Davidson, and of course the HD and Dolby 5.1 improvements.
But Sky would not be Sky if they did not oversell it. "Today our view is uncompromised as we shine a light on the shadows," the montage intoned before the pre-race build-up early on Sunday. "The past will come alive, the present more vital. The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
Well, maybe so. But old voices proved a good place to start.
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