When the new Grand Prix season kicks off at Albert Park in Melbourne, nothing will have changed. In one sense.
Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and co will all be on the grid – as will the fearless Martin Brundle, still striding across the track before the lights turn green, taking his microphone (and his life) in his hands.
But one thing will be crucially different. The BBC won’t be there.
Or, at least, the Beeb won’t be there live. For the first time ever, motor racing fans will need to sign up for pay TV if they want to see every Grand Prix race as it happens.
Last year, Formula One’s governing body signed a deal worth millions of pounds that runs to 2018 and means Sky will broadcast every Grand Prix live, as well as every qualifying and practice session, on its new channel, Sky Sports F1.
The BBC will show ten races live. The rest can be seen in an “extended highlights” show a few hours after the chequered flag has been waved.
This isn’t the first time the BBC has lost Formula One – ITV held the rights from 1997 to 2008 – but it is the first time that fans wanting to watch every race will have to pay for the privilege.
And just as ITV poached the peerless Murray Walker for its F1 coverage, Sky too has gone shopping for the BBC’s stars – Brundle, Ted Kravitz, David Croft, Anthony Davidson – to commentate and analyse. Sky has also signed up former F1 world champion Damon Hill as an analyst for ten GPs.
Most important, they have vowed not to repeat ITV’s biggest mistake: their whizz-bang coverage won’t be interrupted by adverts. So what will it cost you? As you can’t buy the new channel on its own, the most basic package including F1 (but no other sports channels) will cost you £30.25 per month; Virgin subscribers will pay at least £35.50.
Why has the BBC backed out of covering every race live? The answer is money. As a result of the licence fee settlement agreed with the Government in 2010, the BBC is looking to save £700 million every year by the end of 2016/17.
It decided that it simply couldn’t afford the F1 deal it had signed up to – and approached Sky to see if they were interested in a partnership. Forty-eight hours later, the answer came back: yes please.
No one will put a figure on what the BBC or Sky is paying, but BBC director general Mark Thompson said recently that the new deal “will save the BBC well over £150 million” over the next seven years.
To put that into context, £150m is £30m more than it costs to run Radio 4 for a whole year.
So was the BBC right to save its cash? Even Murray Walker is torn. What was his reaction when he heard? “Extreme dismay,” he says.
“Of course, as a petrolhead, I would rather the BBC had saved money from other things. But those other things have presumably got equally fanatical followers, and the BBC had to make a difficult decision.”
Walker believes “the BBC’s is the best coverage in the world” and fears the audience for F1 will slump on pay TV.
“Sky will do a good job, and have got excellent people, and money coming out of their hair-roots,” he says. “But it irritates me that we’ve now got to make a choice. The BBC made the wrong decision, from my point of view.”