The SkyPad, Martin Brundle interviews, and remote production: Inside Sky Sports’ award-winning F1 coverage

On the cusp of Sky Sports’ 13th season covering the sport, BlackBook Motorsport sits down with Billy McGinty, the pay-TV broadcaster’s director of Formula One, to find out more about the production of its coverage, how it integrates new broadcast innovations, and why storytelling is at the heart of its programming.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Formula One coverage in the UK?

Murray Walker’s unmistakable delivery on the microphone? The iconic bass riff from Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain? Or, perhaps, a legendary champion in the form of Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, or Alain Prost?

Of course, these memories all harken back to the BBC’s stint showing the series. The broadcaster held exclusive rights to Formula One for 22 years in two separate stints between 1978 and 2011. ITV had its own crack at the coverage between 1997 and 2008.

But Formula One in the UK is now intrinsically linked with one broadcaster. The upcoming 2024 season will be the 13th year in a row that Sky has held media rights to the series. Its latest contract, signed in September 2022, ensures the pay-TV broadcaster will remain the exclusive home of the championship in the UK and Ireland until 2029.

Since 2019, average viewership in the UK and Ireland has increased 60 per cent, while 1.7 million of a total 4.3 million new viewers are women. Much of this new generation of Formula One fans will have only known the series to be behind a paywall, but this does not mean that Sky is resting on its laurels.

“Every time we go on air as a production team, as programme makers, as experts in the field of Formula One, we embrace the fact that there is an audience out there that we need to look after,” Billy McGinty, director of Formula One at Sky Sports, tells BlackBook Motorsport.

“We need to make sure that, as a premium product, we are on it from practice one to Ted’s Notebook after the race.”

Staying one step ahead

At a time when Formula One is offering little on-track entertainment, with Max Verstappen and Red Bull cruising to the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in 2023, it is imperative for a broadcaster like Sky to ensure it is engaging viewers as much as possible.

For McGinty, the crown jewel of Sky’s coverage is the ‘SkyPad’, a screen that allows analysts to give viewers a detailed breakdown of on-track incidents. In between sessions, drivers can also be brought in to offer their own thoughts, adding valuable insight for the audience.

However, the SkyPad has been around since the network began covering Formula One. So how does the broadcaster avoid its coverage going stale?

“The key element for innovation is just keep pushing,” states McGinty. “The new ghost car [feature] had its first run out in Abu Dhabi [at the end of last season]. Behind the scenes, we’re talking to a lot of suppliers and technical people about how we can make that kind of stuff better and how we make it work.

“The challenge for me and my team is understanding our audience and, not just growing our audience, but broadening it. Our recent numbers show our new audience skews young and female. That will reflect how we cover F1.”

A key feature introduced this year was the ability for viewers to stream all 20 onboard cameras and team radios via Sky Glass and Sky’s interactive app, which is something audiences will no doubt have heard commentator David Croft mention throughout the season.

Bringing storytelling to the fore

McGinty explains that innovation “isn’t simply around technology”, but is also about “how you line up in terms of your on-screen theme”.

Take a typical Sunday, for example. A Grand Prix usually lasts around an hour and a half, which means the bulk of Sky’s broadcast needs to be original content produced by the network.

Interestingly, that 90 minutes of racing is the only part of the programme over which Sky has no control. Sky joins the world international feed five minutes before the formation lap, when the Formula One titles run.

“Obviously, we have our own commentary team around that – Martin Brundle, Karun Chandhok, Ted Kravitz, David Croft, Bernie Collins – they do the commentary, but the pictures are all provided by Formula One,” McGinty explains.

“We’re not allowed contractually to leave those pictures until the champagne is sprayed on the podium. We do have some leeway in practice sessions, where we can go picture-in-picture or splitscreen, but for the race and for qualifying, we must be on the world feed.”

Where Sky gets the most creative licence, then, is away from the live coverage. A large part of its coverage is the special features commissioned for each race weekend. The quality of this programming was recognised at the 2023 Broadcast Sport Awards, with the British Grand Prix winning sports production of the year.

“We had Richard Ashcroft opening the show, Brian Cox voicing a montage, a Brad Pitt interview with Martin Brundle, Ted Kravitz and George Russell flying typhoons around the English coast, Ashes cricket with Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris,” McGinty recalls.

“We have these high quality features alongside brilliant storytellers in our team, [the likes of] Ted Kravitz, an unbelievable pitlane reporter, Karun [Chandhok] or Anthony [Davidson] on the Sky Pad, Martin [Brundle], the modern day voice of Formula One, Crofty [David Croft], an exceptional commentator, and cracking interviews from Rachel [Brooks] and Natalie [Pinkham].”

Go deeper

The engine room

Enabling this seamless front-of-house operation is a substantial production team, which is something that likely goes unnoticed by those tuning in to a race weekend.

“The on-screen team is supported by three camera operators and three sound supervisors on-site,” McGinty notes. “The content production team has two assistant producers and the producer, who is essentially a talent wrangler/floor manager that speaks to all the teams [and secures interviews].

“We’re supported by a production manager on-site, who ensures the content team have all the facilities that they require, and the technical back end will be supported by 20 engineers and technicians. So, in total, off-screen will be about 45 people.”

He adds: “Back in 2017, we went remote, which means that the gallery is [at our headquarters in Isleworth]. The main producer of the show is back at Sky, with the director, the visual mixer – you’re probably looking at 20 people in the gallery as well.”

These extensive production capabilities are also supported by Sky’s broader investment in Formula One. The pay-TV network recently secured greater exclusivity in Germany and Italy until 2027, and collaboration with those teams in other markets ensures the viewing experience is sometimes shared by Sky viewers in different territories. Occasionally, fans in the UK and Ireland can even catch a member of the Sky Italia or Sky Deutschland teams conducting an interview.

Moving forward, this close collaboration will benefit the all-female F1 Academy series, which will receive a full season of live coverage on Sky Sports for the first time this year. Indeed, the 2023 season finale in Austin saw support from all Sky divisions.

Beyond its own channels, Sky also acts as the broadcaster for the English-speaking world. Its coverage is distributed to 80 countries, with ESPN and ABC in North America a particular coup for the broadcaster.

The immediate focus, though, is on Sky’s most challenging Formula One season yet, with a record-breaking 24 races set to take place this year.

“I think we’re in good shape for next year, definitely,” McGinty says.


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