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Remember when: Channel Nine's F1 coverage

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Roar Guru
12th March, 2019
4

With people tending to live in the past a lot, what better way to fill up some more internet than with a new series of remembering things from back in the day.

Our first instalment on the eve of the Australian Grand Prix is about when Channel Nine Used to do cover Formula One.

We all do a lot of looking back in this website, and most is certainly with the viewpoint that the past was always better. This is evidence and a warning to ourselves that the past is not always best, though it can still be good.

It might be hard to believe for those born in the new millennium that serial sport broadcasting disappointment Channel Nine used to be Australia’s Formula One broadcaster.

Yes, the same channel that ruined cricket for the last decade before being unceremoniously dumped – with wishes for the same thing to happen for their rugby league coverage – used to be the home of Formula One in Australia.

Channel Nine sports broadcasting has copped some flak in recent times, and rightly so, but this look back at the F1 broadcasts of Channel Nine won’t be such a nitpicking moan as much as a thankful reminiscence for what we have now as the new F1 season approaches.

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With F1 winter testing been and gone, it was slightly disappointing that Fox Sports in Australia didn’t take any of Sky Sports UK’s feed for the all-important first testing session of the year. But that also reminded us to not be too greedy.

For back in the days before the internet was standard issue in houses and palms everywhere, the first glimpse of F1 cars one would get was potentially a little snippet in the newspaper in the week leading up to the first race, which back in the day wasn’t in Australia.

With Brazil regularly kicking off the season and therefore Channel Nine’s coverage, very early mornings were the way we started the season. Then, thankfully, Melbourne came along.

But then that race was all you got – well, aside from a little banter between Darrell Eastlake and Alan Jones, that is. Darrell Eastlake actually did a superb and more subtle job than one would expect from the great man. Perhaps it was the combination of late and early timeslots, but his work on the Channel Nine covering Formula One was great.

Alan Jones was good too, albeit in a slightly snivelling way. Like James Hunt, he appeared not to like a few drivers, which made for some entertainingly sharp commentary. Although, as good as the story about a trumpet player blowing Happy Birthday To You instead of the national anthem when he unexpectedly won his first race was, less was more.

It was low-key and didn’t need to be much more.

But information was scarce in those pre-internet boom days. There wasn’t even a glimpse of the track until they picked up the BBC vision, which was usually a few minutes before the start, leaving viewers in suspense over the track conditions.

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As for the grid, well, that had plenty of sizzle, as the pre-internet boom days meant you relied on regular media to report on the Saturday time trials.

There certainly wasn’t qualifying coverage to be enthralled by – that was a good few decades away for Australia.

The first you found out about the full grid was when Channel Nine flashed it up on the TV screen five minutes before the first race. If you were lucky, you may have got a taste throughout the day on the radio or TV – but only if an Australian had done well.

The race coverage itself was quite good for commercial TV. The important thing was to leave the main parts to the real professionals. If you have someone like the greatest ever sports commentator in Murray Walker, you don’t need much else.

Of course there were ad breaks, but invariably that quick look at whether you were keeping up with a Commodore, learning that you couldn’t buy better than Mrs McGregor margarine or finding out the correct way to make porridge by a Scottish child led to something happening on the track. Murphy’s Law of live sport broadcasting.

The ad breaks usually led out with the distinctive trumpet tone of the Wide World of Sports logo, which back then didn’t provide the same instant dread that it would a few decades of cricket and rugby league viewing later.

Every now and again the F1 broadcast would be shifted to make way for a bigger Channel Nine sporting event like Wimbledon. Sometimes the broadcasts were a little delayed to fit around the latest blockbuster movie back when they were the big Sunday night thing on Australian TV instead of the LCD dross that now dominates screens. But it didn’t really matter, and you didn’t know better.

Their wall-to-wall broadcast of the Australian Grand Prix was excellent too, the best example being the very wet 1989 Australian Grand Prix when Barry Sheene got the interviews that mattered at the right time and the great Sir Jackie Stewart gave first-class analysis and insight.

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What Channel Nine did at the end of the coverage was some really good montages, mostly set to the right amount and type of music. One featuring Led Zeppelin’s Ramble On still sticks in the mind.

Looking back on it, despite not having any of the trimmings of modern F1 viewing, it was a really good effort from a broadcaster which has since done an average job in most aspects.

Channel Ten eventually took over the coverage and took it to the next level. Greg Rust was an admirable equivalent of big Darrell, and the other experts were passable if not a little dull. They introduced qualifying coverage and full live broadcasting for every race, and they did a great job. Although they still hold some rights, the Fox Sports option is way too good to say no to for an F1 nerd.

Fox Sports have spoiled F1 fans in Australia with the ability to waste a Friday evening watching at least one of the two 90-minute practice sessions. And then there’s the 90-minute lead-in to the race and hours of analysis afterwards – a far cry from the limited offering previously.

But it wasn’t all bad – in fact if you take in what limitations they had, the Channel Nine F1 broadcast was quite good.

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It certainly helps that for us it stirs up some great childhood memories of being awake at a ridiculous time for a child under ten; great F1-related chats with the old man, usually discussing just how great Alain Prost was and Nigel Mansell’s latest exploits; and admiration of the superb work on the pause button of the remote of the VCR – the one which still had the cord attached to the VCR, so you needed to sit within five metres of the set to use it.

While in comparison to today it didn’t offer a great deal, for once Channel Nine did the Australian F1 broadcast well – something they could possibly revisit if they ever wanted to work out why very few like their sporting coverage.

For now a little opportunity to reflect on a simpler time.