Lengthy ad breaks on German channel test your patience
I almost missed last week's European Grand Prix. It would have been the first one I'd failed to see since the British Grand Prix in July 2003. Mind you I had a good excuse then, the birth of my first daughter (there was a TV in our room showing the race, but with guests and a 16-hour-old baby I thought it slightly bad manners to watch).
I had a pretty good reason for the close shave this time around. I'm currently staying in Dubai and the flat we've just arrived at has no TV or internet. Come race time I made my excuses, fled the family and decided to find somewhere that might be showing it. I struck lucky at a nearby hotel, although by the time I had found the bar I had missed the first 20 laps.
They say if you want to know what is actually happening in a grand prix, you should stay at home and watch TV. Being at the track is great for atmosphere, but being stuck at one corner, you never quite know what's going on elsewhere. Of course, I'm rather biased, having presented Star Sport's F1 coverage for several years.
I had the easy job mind you, sitting in the studio, keeping the show going. The people you've got to admire are the commentators. Now I commentate for part of my living, but I cover the easy sports like soccer and rugby. Trying to keep tabs on a Formula One race is in a different league. As the British commentator Murray Walker said in his autobiography, with soccer there are only ever going to be 22 players on one pitch and just one ball. With F1 there are 20-plus cars over several kilometres of track, with teammates driving identical cars.
I was lucky enough to work at with two of the best commentators in the business, Steve Slater and Chris Goodwin. Steve, a real motorsport enthusiast, gets so excited that he often stands up and waves his arms around like a windmill. Chris is his counterbalance, a racing driver who is as cool as a cucumber and often provides his expert analysis while lounging with his feet on the table.
It is hellishly expensive all this coverage, mind you. How do you think Bernie Ecclestone became so rich? Just to have the rights to show the race will drain your bank account of millions of dollars. To be actually trackside will cost even more, so around the world coverage varies greatly. In Britain for example, viewers watch the presenter welcoming viewers live from the paddock. They get the thoughts of the drivers on the grid moments before the race thanks to a roving reporter. Still, advertisers pay top dollar for the well-off viewer the sport attracts, so everyone is happy.
Back at my Dubai hotel, what was actually showing was RTL, a German channel. This understandably, but rather unfortunately for me, came with German commentators. Curiously enough this didn't detract greatly from my enjoyment and understanding. The language my have been different, but the grammar of commentary was the same. Voices rose in excitement and the exclamations were perfectly understandable.
One thing I wasn't used to was the parochial nature of the coverage. I guess it's only to be expected with a grand prix in Germany on a German station, but there was unrestrained Schumacher mania. Not only Michael, but also brother Ralf and compatriots Nick Heidfeld and Nico Rosberg were also shown endlessly.
But the biggest hurdle to watching the race was the length of the ad breaks. Everyone moans about the action being interrupted, but the bills have to be paid and in commercial television it's a fact of life. I remember my producer at Star Sports getting a headache trying to work out when to go for a break and not miss some action. I can't say I envied his responsibility. Truth is, it's all a bit of a lottery.
But I was astonished by how long our German friends were happy to be away from the action - almost five minutes at a time. If a week is a long time in politics, five minutes is an age in a race. Many of the ads were promoting the World Cup in Germany this summer. Let's hope they actually get to see some goals in among the selling.