BBC Shifts Into Gear for Formula 1

By Kevin Hilton

The 2009 Formula 1 season gets under way in Australia this weekend and, for the first time in 12 years, will be broadcast by the BBC. The British public broadcaster is making the most of available technology now that it has the premier motor-racing event back, with live standard-definition coverage of the championship races and qualifying sessions on BBC One, plus additional features through the digital interactive Red Button, mobile-TV feeds, and streaming video on the revamped BBC F1 Website.

This will be the first time there has been near-broadcast-quality online live coverage of F1, using the BBC’s iPlayer, which can also be used to download and view each race after the first broadcast. The Website, which has been re-launched this month, will also feature after-race video highlights, a leader board, text commentary, blogs, and a review by former commentator Murray Walker, who, for many British fans of Grand Prix, is still the voice of televised motor sport.

Both the online and Red Button coverage offer a choice of streams for the main race, including commentary from either network TV or Radio Five Live and a split screen featuring the primary video feed, in-car shots, the leader board, and rolling highlights. The interactive-TV coverage will also have live footage of all on-track action, including the practice and qualifying rounds as well as the Grand Prix itself.

BBC Mobile is providing up-to-the-minute news, results, and standings, plus live text coverage of every race for all mobile-phone networks, which, with the exception of O2, will also be offering streamed video highlights.

Host feeds of the races are organised through the broadcast arm of Formula 1 Administration, an organisation that is almost obsessively protective of the details of its TV technology. Facilities for BBC Sport’s presentation of the races are being provided by SIS LIVE. Many members of SIS LIVE’s team worked on both the BBC coverage until 1996 and that of production company North One Television, which was broadcast by ITV until last year.

SIS LIVE has signed a new deal with BBC Sport to supply editing equipment, RF cameras, production offices at the track, satellite links, and technical crew for the coverage on all platforms. This will be in different forms, depending on the location of a race. In Europe, SIS LIVE will send out a production-editing OB truck, a dual-antenna uplink, and a custom-built mobile-production office. All other rounds will be produced using flyaway packages.

The UK has witnessed a huge surge in interest in F1 since home-grown driver Lewis Hamilton won the World Championship last year, during only his second season in the sport. The BBC is hoping this will translate into big viewing figures for its coverage.

Says SIS LIVE Managing Director David Meynell, “This is an important and prestigious contract for us. We are delighted to have the opportunity to support F1 on the BBC again after having successfully worked with North One Television and ITV over the last 13 years. Our complete package means that we will take care of all the technical planning, logistics, and engineering for the coverage, enabling BBC Sport to focus on its production.”

With controversy surrounding new scoring rules and disputed technology on the cars, this year’s F1 season will not be short of attention.