Channel 4’s F1 Chain gang left in a bind by Melbourne qualifying mess


It was a head-scratcher, that’s for sure. “We’re still learning, along with you at home,” said Ben Edwards, as Channel 4’s commentary team were forced to make their F1 debut with one of those confusing hours of action that only the byzantine world of motorsport can cook up. David Coulthard, attempting to elucidate one of the finer points of the new qualifying system, turned to Edwards and suggested: “We should explain the offside rule after this.”

As a combination of tyre issues, driving order and countdown clocks served up what everyone later agreed was an unholy mess, the pair were left with nothing to commentate on in the supposedly climactic final four minutes. Karun Chandhok had to report from the pit lane on Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen getting out of their cars and high-fiving their engineers, .

This was awkward. C4 had teased us hard with thrills. Remember that Bond‑a-like trailer where Jenson Button parachuted his race car out of the back of an RAF plane? F1 looks a good fit for the channel, a high-speed, futuristic sport nestling neatly into the schedule alongside Marvel’s Agents of Shield and Heston’s Dinner in Space. Their big opening sequence had signalled their intent to combine glamour with a tongue-in-cheek charm, Mark Webber piloting Steve Jones through Melbourne skies to the backdrop of You Only Live Twice. “It is the dawn of a new era for F1,” announced Jones, promising “speed, power, glamour – and the gratuitous use of helicopters”.

The former X-Factor presenter is the man who has attracted most scrutiny since the announcement of C4’s lineup, mostly from fans nervous that C4F1 will be more T4F1. But apart from the odd eggy moment – crowbarring in a joke about “Dirty Haryanto”, for instance – there was enough to leave you wanting more. Personally I can’t wait to find what exactly he’s holding behind his back when he talks to camera and whether my suspicion that he’s being styled by the England cricketer Jimmy Anderson is correct.

C4 has built an impressive lineup around Jones, one that boasts rather more glamour than their rivals at Sky. (How can you argue with “Prost and Senna” on a press release, even if one of them’s Bruno?) We haven’t yet seen the money shot – a 92-year-old Murray Walker back at the mic – but Webber was in his Aussie element, referring to “qualys” and calling everyone mate, and Lee McKenzie asked Fernando Alonso some searching questions. The sound of her voice in the pit lane is enough to soothe the most anxious of petrolheads. When the cameras returned to Coulthard, whose production company is running the C4 show, he provided instant expert analysis of Alonso’s heavy sigh, and gushed about the “exclusive”.

Coulthard had been keen not to prejudge the changes to qualifying and Edwards’s comment when the track ominously quietened down – “it does seem a shame” – was rather understated. Perhaps neither were in the mood to kick off their tenure with the kind of furious criticism that was soon howling around Twitter.

Sky, on the other hand, had made some bold predictions of the trouble the new rules would cause. Johnny Herbert had warned of track congestion, and Damon Hill, who is looking more and more like a supply teacher at Hogwarts, proved his growing magical powers when he prophesied accurately that “we could end up in Q3 with the quickest cars sitting in the garage”.

Should we be mourning the BBC’s coverage? C4 don’t want us to. They’ve kept The Chain as their theme tune and even gave a meta-nod to it, getting Daniel Ricciardo to attempt his own version of the bass line (he got the first note right). Let’s face it, when it comes to F1, it’s all about the montages – slow-mo shots of men wearing expensive aviators and walking around to a soundtrack of Foo Fighters. And C4 did those very well indeed.