Channel 4 will become the new terrestrial home of Formula 1 after agreeing a shock deal to take over the rights from the BBC.
ITV had been in pole position to take over the sport after the BBC announced last week that it was surrendering its grand prix contract, which expires in 2018, as the corporation seeks to make £35m cuts to its sports budget.
But Channel 4 stepped in and agreed a deal with Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s chief executive, to add the sport to a portfolio which includes the Rio Paralympic Games, the Grand National, Royal Ascot and the Derby.
Channel 4 will broadcast 10 live Formula 1 races, including practice and qualifying sessions, from 2016 to 2018. It will also broadcast comprehensive highlights of all 21 Grands Prix and qualifying sessions, including those shown live by Sky Sports.
The live coverage and highlights will be broadcast free-to-air and in high definition. Channel 4 promised that no advertising breaks will be taken through the duration of the live races. Covering the grand prix circuit cost the BBC around £20m a year. The BBC screened 10 live races during Lewis Hamilton's World Championship-winning season this year - his victory at the Canadian Grand Prix in June attracted 5.6m viewers.
Ecclestone said: “I am sorry that the BBC could not comply with their contract but I am happy that we now have a broadcaster that can broadcast Formula 1 events without commercial intervals during the race.
“I am confident that Channel 4 will achieve not only how the BBC carried out the broadcast in the past but also with a new approach as the World and Formula 1 have moved on.”
David Abraham, Channel 4 Chief Executive said: “Formula One is one of the world’s biggest sporting events with huge appeal to British audiences. I’m delighted to have agreed this exciting new partnership with Bernie Ecclestone to keep the sport on free-to-air television.”
Jay Hunt, Channel 4 Chief Creative Officer said: “Channel 4 and Formula One are the perfect partnership. We've the same appetite for innovation and we'll be demonstrating that to fans by becoming the first free-to-air commercial broadcaster to show the races ad free.”
Details of the 2016 races, including a new commentary team, will be agreed early next year. Channel 4 said the deal “strengthens the Channel 4 schedule and will not affect the level of spend on peak time, UK-originated content.” Channel 4 is facing the threat of privatisation and its expenditure on Formula 1 will be scrutinised within the Treasury.
Channel 4 said it had a track record for innovative coverage of major sporting events, which most recently includes its BAFTA-winning coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games and RTS-award-winning coverage of horse racing.
The BBC has already handed over rights to golf and darts tournaments and lost exclusive terrestrial rights to future Olympics as it seeks to make the cuts required by the £750m imposition of licence fee costs for the over-75s.
Barbara Slater, the BBC's director of sport, said: "The current financial position of the BBC means some tough and unwanted choices have to be made. A significant chunk of BBC Sport's savings target will be delivered through the immediate termination of our TV rights agreement for Formula 1.
“Any decision to have to stop broadcasting a particular sport or sporting event is hugely disappointing and taken reluctantly. There are no easy solutions; all of the options available would be unpopular with audiences.”
BBC Radio 5 live has extended its commentary rights for F1 until the 2021 season. BBC Sport regained F1 rights from ITV in 2009 but had been sharing the broadcast rights with Sky Sports since the 2012 season.
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