Sky will have gizmos galore and make stars of the pit crews, but the Beeb will be their usual excellent selves in 2012
• Your must-have guide to the F1 season – out on Monday
Formula One, surely the most intensely competitive of all sports because of the heavily funded arms race that propels it, will not just be about the battle between Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes this year.
It also sees Sky squaring up against the BBC as F1 gets more TV coverage than ever before. There were two functions this week which told you something about the resources of the respective broadcasters.
There was coffee and cakes at the Beeb’s HQ in Portland Place and, in a swish West End restaurant, lobster cocktail and fillet of beef washed down by Chablis and Rioja, courtesy of Sky Sports.
Many race fans, brought up on free-to-air coverage, were upset when the satellite broadcaster bought the rights to show all 20 races live in 2012. But there will be all sorts of toys to blow the minds of the anoraks.
“We think the interactive service will reinvent interactive television,” says Martin Turner, the very enthusiastic executive producer of Sky Sports F1. Viewers with Sky race control will be able to choose between as many as nine simultaneous content streams, including a live pit channel.
We will see the cars explained using 3D graphics to pull out wings and exhaust systems in a virtual car feature and cameras will go behind the scenes to make stars of the pit crews. Mercedes get the full treatment when Sky Sports F1 HD channel launches tomorrow at 8pm.
But the more traditional BBC, which will cover 10 races live, including such key events as Silverstone, Monaco, Spa and Brazil, with highlights packages for the other races, can be relied upon to be as excellent as ever.
The team is still led by the impressively versatile Jake Humphrey while Ben Edwards has been brought in as lead commentator, replacing Martin Brundle, who has skipped to Sky.
No other sport is as fortunate as this. Formula One has been brilliantly served by the TV studios – coverage on ITV, too, was impressive, though the ads did have a nasty habit of butting in at crucial moments.
If you have Sky, and you want to get in the mood for the new season, you must also watch Senna on Friday on Sky Premiere (10pm). And if you’ve already seen it watch it again.
Asif Kapadia’s Bafta winner didn’t even get a nomination for an Oscar (which shows how seriously they take Formula One in the US) but it’s an utterly absorbing portrait of the three-times world champion, who must be one of the two or three greatest drivers of them all, perhaps the greatest.
It’s a memorable documentary, charting the the controversial and deeply spiritual driver’s many clashes with Alain Prost.
If I could make a Formula One film I would go back even further and tell the story of Achille Varzi, the remarkable Italian driver of the 1930s, who was the great Tazio Nuvolari’s fiercest foe.
His story – which I read in Nigel Roebuck’s 1986 classic Grand Prix Greats – is astonishingly cinematic. And just as Senna admired Fangio, Fangio’s hero was Varzi. “Varzi was, to me, a god,” said Fangio. “He spoke with great simplicity and gave me precious advice. He is probably the driver I have most admired in my life, a man who cared only for his art.”
There is a lovely story about the 1930 Mille Miglia, the old endurance road race. Varzi and Nuvolari had challenged each other and said that whoever won this race would be recognised as the better driver.
In the closing stages no other car was within half an hour of these two. Then Varzi saw the lights of Vuvolari’s car in his mirrors. When the lights disappeared, Varzi thought he had his man beaten, but Nuvolari had merely doused them and been following Varzi through the mountains before passing him.
The handsome and notorious womaniser Varzi had an affair with Ilse, the beautiful wife of a rival driver, which ruined him. Ilse introduced him to morphine and he became addicted and lost all his great skills. He disappeared before being traced to a villa near Rome existing on a diet of cigarettes, champagne and coffee. He was only 32 but looked old and destroyed.
Then, when racing resumed again after the war, he returned, mysteriously, from nowhere, cured from his illness and as brilliant as ever, dominating with Alfa Romeo until, in 1948, he was thrown from his car and, wearing just his usual linen helmet, was killed immediately.
The story’s got everything, sex, drugs, betrayal, danger and death – all at high speed. Even Sky Sports can’t make today’s drivers look that interesting.