4:30am on a Sunday morning is not an alarm call you ever really look forward to unless you are heading away on holiday. But for a British fan of Formula 1 in mid-March it can only mean that the Australian Grand Prix is due to start. The early start is for the purist of F1 fans... and that pure fan has been tested ever since 29 July 2011 when the BBC and Sky announced a joint deal to show F1 from 2012 onwards in a shared deal.
The facts speak for themselves. It is staggering that F1 has only just come available on Sky. F1 is the most watched sporting event after The World Cup and the Olympics. I was disgusted when it was announced, but what right does F1 have to be on free-to-air? The exclusive licence for F1 is expensive - the BBC had to cut costs, but the British audience are royally spoilt for F1 coverage - and now we have alternative ways of watching it. Pay for everything, or don't, and get something. Same for football, tennis, golf, boxing... why should F1 be different?
So... what do you get for the privilege of at least £30.50 each month disappearing from your bank account?
A dedicated channel.
Yeah... that is quite tempting. No other outright sport has that. But the BBC has the best presentation line-up - Sky need to start from scratch?
Well, no. The core of the award winning BBC team have been poached: Martin Brundle, David Croft, Natalie Pinkham, Anthony Davidson and Ted Kravitz (not related to Lenny). Add in the instantly likable Simon Lazenby (Sky Sports Rugby), Sky Sports News' favourite Georgie Thompson and my personal childhood hero, Damon Hill. Brundle and Croft make for a perfect duo in the commentary box - Murray Walker-esque passion from Croft and the analytical skills of Brundle.
So the scene is set... but what is it actually like?
What is immediately telling, is a big nod is needed in the direction of the BBC. The format in the presentation is near on identical to what Jake, EJ and DC have done for the previous three seasons - Simon Lazenby even has the iPad in hand. They are in the paddock, pit lane, motorhomes. The build-up has the same 'feature articles' and Brundle's gridwalk; and the post-race activities are just as lively getting to the passion and stories of the race. Even the analytical aspect is there - instead of Brundle in a truck next to a large TV, you have Ant Davidson and Georgie Thompson in a plush studio with a touchscreen device to appease the most tech savvy of viewers. Do I miss Jake, EJ and DC? Yes. But it's only been one race and none of the Sky team wear crazy shirts. Yet.
So nothing new?
Actually, there is lots: Sky have focused on their online supplements - driver tracking, timing screens, multiple onboard camera views, pit lane camera, and highlights feeds. These are available via their website, the red button or on an iPad. They are great additions to have, but if the race is good, you are only really interested in the main feed. However...the timing screens - the same official timings that the teams see, were 45 seconds behind the live action, so just made them redundant. Sky do have something to improve upon!
In terms of the actual qualifying and race package it is a safe start for Sky, but I wasn't blown away - it is everything the BBC team have done and proved that it works. It does. I'm looking forward to seeing GP2 and GP3 as part of the coverage over the course of the year and seeing Sky get into their stride. It will be interesting to compare this weekend's coverage to the last race in November. But it is everything else that goes with it - all sessions live in HD, documentaries, archive races, new content, news updates and a dedicated separate programme for each Grand Prix. It is an exciting package and that is what raises Sky to a new level in F1 coverage.
The ultimate test will be the Chinese Grand Prix in April - it will be live on Sky and BBC simultaneously. Which will win? I'm as interested to find out as the rest.Suggest a correction