Legard a-go-go?

A minor ‘in brief’ entry in the Daily Mail by columnist Charles Sale has stirred up a frenzy among motorsports fans about the future of Jonathan Legard as the BBC’s main Formula 1 television race commentator.

According to Sale, Legard has failed to gel with Martin Brundle since taking over the role from James Allen (who commentated for ITV) and while other members of the BBC F1 team continue to support Legard it’s suggested that former British Touring Car Championship privateer Charlie Cox (who lends his distinctive Aussie tones to the BBC’s MotoGP coverage) is being lined up as a replacement.

The Daily Mail piece has literally no more than that – no sources or actual evidence, so you’d be quite justified as dismissing it as a piece of malicious tittle-tattle with no substance. On the other hand, you could also argue “no smoke without fire” – and it does seem that a disturbing number of F1 fans commenting on the story on various F1 sites and on Twitter are vehemently hoping that the latter is the real situation in this case.

It’s a shame – Legard seems like a nice bloke, and his track record commentating on F1 for BBC Radio 5 Live for eight years is impressive. And he didn’t exactly have a tough act to follow, since James Allen was universally loathed by F1 fans for his dull outings behind the microphone for ITV. So why is the lead F1 commentary seat proving such a difficult position to fill properly?

On one level it’s a case of one man casting a very, very long shadow for all his potential successors: for many, there can be no one else for the job other than Murray Walker. Despite the fact that he’s 86 and retired from the position in 2001, many fans are clamouring for his return and still can’t imagine the sport without his unique, excitable vocal delivery. While many fans lambaste the slightest verbal gaffe from other practitioners, with Walker they would delight, celebrate and collect his “Murrayisms” of which there were many – every race.

Walker looked to be out of a job when the BBC – for whom Walker had worked all his media life – lost the F1 rights in 1996. But ITV were canny enough to know that F1 without Murray would always struggle for authenticity, and promptly lured him away and paired him with Martin Brundle, whose smart, precise, dry wit and deadpan delivery of factual corrections was the perfect foil for the massively overly excitable schoolboy enthusiasm of Murray Walker. The award-winning success of this combination was because of – and definitely not in spite of – this complete contrast in character.

Unfortunately ITV didn’t learn this lesson, and when Murray retired they chose the young, professional James Allen to fill the seat. The problem is that this left very little difference between Allen and Brundle, and moreover no one whose job it was just to get massively excited about the race – they were too busy delivering the facts. Allen developed a particularly lamentable habit of trudging through a summary of the race-so-far around three quarters of the way through the race, and I used to yell at the screen “Yes, I know all that, I was watching!” Harking back to the earlier stages of the race all but screamed at the viewer “yes, it’s all gone very boring, can’t think of anything else to say now” and it sucked the air out of every race broadcast. I’ll admit, I was happy to see Allen go. Delighted, even. And since then I’ve found his F1 blog, which is actually quite wonderful – well written, insightful, funny. All the things I’d wished he’d been on air. I’m quite a fan of James Allen now, but that doesn’t mean to say I’ve changed my mind about his commentating.

And unfortunately, the BBC have made the same mistake with Legard – nice person, very professional, knows what he’s doing. But paired with Brundle, his commentary once again threatens to suck the air out of any race. I once accidentally had a situation where the TV in one room was set to the BBC TV coverage of a Grand Prix, and the TV in another room had the commentary from BBC Radio 5 Live – I could hear both at once. The Legard version made the race sound as exciting as the AGM of particularly obscure actuaries, that nothing was happening and it wasn’t worth watching; the 5 Live commentary, on other hand, made it sound like this race was the most insanely exciting thing ever!!!!. Of course the truth lay somewhere in between – actually, more at the boring end if we’re honest – but by God, from that moment on I knew which commentary I wanted when committing 90 minutes of my life to a motor race.

The 5 Live commentary is by David “Crofty” Croft and Anthony “Ant” Davidson, and their chemistry and repartee is just brilliant. I watch the Friday practice sessions on the red button purely to be able to sit down and enjoy their banter rather than for watching the on-track action. Davidson only started in the role when he got eased out of his F1 seat and found himself with time to kill in the paddock, but he’s a natural. In fact 5 Live are rapidly finding themselves with an embarrassment of riches, since of late they’ve been joined by the similarly unseated Karun Chandhok from the Hispania racing team, and he’s a joy as well and has melded perfectly with the others. The major problem 5 Live have now is that the commentary boxes they work from are literally too small to hold everyone at once.

So if Legard is departing, surely the answer is obvious – bring in Crofty and Ant? Unfortunately there’s a problem there, and it’s Martin Brundle. He isn’t going anywhere, and nor would we want him to. So at best, they could decide to bring in David Croft – but that would mean breaking up that wonderful 5 Live team, and that would be a huge shame. (You wouldn’t bring in Anthony Davidson to work alongside Brundle, since the two offer the same “driver expert” colour contributions, albeit in their own individual styles, and neither are main race commentators. The same argument also applies to putting someone like Eddie Irvine or David Coulthard in the job.) And despite being a huge fan of Crofty, having said that the success of the job relies principally on the chemistry between the team I’m simply not sure that Croft/Brundle would be any more successful than Legard/Brundle, or anywhere near as good as Croft/Davidson.

Basically the BBC need a new Murray, and that’s probably why Charlie Cox’s name is in the frame – he’s highly distinctive, excitable, gaffe-prone: yes, all very Murray-esque. But he doesn’t have a Formula 1 background any more than he has a MotoGP background, and his contributions there are already being regarded unfavourably by motorcycling fans who find his lack of knowledge increasingly wearing – there were even rumours he was on his way out of the BBC himself. However many mistakes Murray may have made verbally in the heat of the moment, you never doubted for a second that he had the benefit of working from an immense knowledge of a wide range of motorsport.

So who are we left with? Actually there’s a station with a wide range of keen, excited and excitable commentators who would make excellent candidates – Eurosport, with the likes of Toby Moody covering MotoGP and Martin Haven covering a range of open wheel series. But my personal favourite is a commentator that I’ve really enjoyed listening to for years, ever since he was the mainstay of Eurosport‘s IndyCar coverage: Ben Edwards.

These days Edwards can he found doing the Sunday afternoon commentary on ITV’s coverage of the British Touring Car Championship, where he’s paired with former BTCC driver Tim Harvey. Edwards can be relied upon to go into orbit with his overly excitable commentary, with Harvey around to inject some normality into proceedings. It works a treat – just like the classic days with Murray and James Hunt, or Murray and Brundle.

I find it hard to understand why Edwards hasn’t been given the chance to front F1 properly before now (he was paired with John Watson on a short-lived, little-seen, single season ‘F1 Digital’ premium service on Sky in 2002.) If Legard really is about to depart, I hope someone has the sense to give Edwards a go: of all the commentators out there, this man is the one who best fits into that Murray-shaped hole at the centre of current F1 coverage.

[Thanks to moderateorgood for reminding me about that short-lived premium digital service from Uncle Bernie. I’d almost succeeded in purging that from my memory!]


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