David Coulthard is bullish about Channel 4’s prospects when it takes over Formula 1 coverage from the BBC this season. He has to be — he turned down one of the biggest jobs in TV to do it.
“It was a possibility, yes,” he says when asked if Chris Evans offered him a spot in his revamped Top Gear. “But the time commitment for Formula One wouldn’t work with Top Gear. I’m a fan of the show in its previous format. I’m sure the new format will be different yet entertaining. But Formula One is my natural environment.”
Even if Coulthard won’t be joining his BBC F1 sparring partner Eddie Jordan on the new Top Gear, Channel 4 has clearly taken a leaf out of the show’s book when it comes to building a team. Top Gear now has seven presenters, certainly a sizeable squad. But Channel 4 will feature 12 presenters and experts in its F1 coverage, from Welsh presenter Steve Jones, in his very first live-sport role, through to the grandfather of motorsport on TV, Murray Walker.
“Murray’s not going to be travelling to lots of Grands Prix, because he is a ‘more mature’ member of our line-up,” Coulthard says delicately. “But he brings a unique perspective on the world championship that is Formula One. He was there for the very first one! He’s got one of the most recognisable broadcasting voices and it hasn’t weakened at all.”
Switching channels is nothing new for Walker either, having once jumped ship when ITV broadcast F1 in the 90s. At least this time he won’t have to deal with ad breaks, after Channel 4 pledged not to interrupt the race.
“The important thing is the British public are still going to be able to watch Formula One on television, free of charge, without commercials,” says Walker. “I remember the frustration at ITV when something exciting was happening and you were told you had to cut to a commercial.
“Once, at the German Grand Prix, Mika Hakkinen was leading when the two-minute break occurred. The next lap, he blew up in front of the Mercedes-Benz grandstand and his place was taken by Coulthard. Then he blew up. So when viewers left us, Hakkinen was winning, Coulthard was second and and Jacques Villaneuve was leading, with no explanation.”
One of the canniest signings for Channel 4 could be its expert Nicolas Hamilton, the brother of reigning world champion Lewis. Nic Hamilton has a form of cerebral palsy and is the first driver with a disability to race in the British Touring Car Championship.
“We know Nic,” says Coulthard, whose TV company will produce Channel 4’s F1 coverage. “We know his hopes and desires. We also know, of course, that he’s got an amazing insight into one of the most successful drivers of our time.”
Then there’s Steve Jones, the former presenter of T4 and X Factor USA, who will anchor the coverage. Coulthard has had experience of helping a novice; Jake Humphrey had never covered F1 before fronting the BBC’s coverage in 2009
“I love the BBC, I’ve done a lot of work with them,” says Jones, “but they can be quite earnest. They’re great at delivering the information, but I think we’re going to deliver it with a bit more panache.”
If Channel 4’s coverage is to be a success, then the “DC” and Jones duo needs to be firing on all cylinders.
“I’m very lucky,” Coulthard says. “The underlying draw is that I’m a fan of Formula One. I see the excitement in it. I get excited just staring at a car, I marvel at the engineering brains that have decided it should look that way.
“To put a live show on the air takes a big team. I like bringing people together. That’s what I did at the end of my Formula One career, and that’s what I’m doing now.”
Channel 4’s F1 coverage begins with Australian Grand Prix qualifying highlights this Saturday 19 March at 12.30pm. Race highlights air Sunday 20 March at 1.30pm.