Channel 4 unveiled its Formula 1 coverage team on Tuesday, promising a more "fun" experience for the fans. But what does that mean, and will it attract new audiences? Jonathan Noble investigates.
Channel 4 makes no bones of the fact that it wants to stamp its own personality on Formula 1 coverage this year.
And for a channel that knows a thing of two about going after mass market entertainment programmes – think Gogglebox, The Big Breakfast, the original Big Brother – its new F1 presenter Steve Jones confesses that bringing a bit more fun to F1 on television is essential.
"We're hoping to bring that Channel 4 presence to it, in the sense of making it just a little bit more fun where appropriate – and obviously it speaks volume of there being an entertainment presenter at the heart of it," beamed Jones at the official press launch in London on Tuesday.
"I can't stress – where it is appropriate – I am going to be banging out zingers left right and centre, but I just hope to get a bit more from the drivers.
"I don't say that in the sense that Jake [Humphrey] and Suzi [Perry] weren't fantastic in interviewing the drivers, but I will be doing it from an entertainment point of view. To make it cool.
"The BBC has done a fantastic job over the years. Sky has done a fantastic job, but I think C4 is a little bit cooler than those channels and hopefully we will show that on the screen."
The right balance of fun
For F1's more devoted fans, such talk of going the extra mile to deliver 'fun' and be more entertaining could set some alarm bells ringing about whether or not that means a move to more dumbed-down coverage.
After all, the BBC faced some criticism when it lost the technical expertise of Gary Anderson and moved away from more 'hardcore' features, while Sky has built up a cult following for its tech expert Ted Kravitz.
Yet broadcasters often have to face this fine balancing act of doing things differently to attract a new audience, while at the same time trying not to go so far that it alienates your loyal viewers.
Paddock interviewer Lee McKenzie, who will do a majority of races, said: "It is always going to be difficult. It doesn't matter if it is Sky or BBC: you do one fun feature and the purists get annoyed with you. But then you get technical on them and that's not really the sole audience on TV."
The right team
Just getting this far has been job enough for C4 though, because it has not had a long lead time to get its F1 house in order.
It was only just before Christmas that it was confirmed it had won the deal after the BBC cancelled its contract.
And it was just two months ago that production company Whisper Films – of which David Coulthard is a shareholder – was awarded the contract to put on the show.
After pulling across a core group of the highly-experienced BBC F1 production staff, Whisper/C4 has made sure to tap in to the wealth of knowledge that's already around: rather than think it knows best about how to do things.
Coulthard says: "If you see from the line-up it hasn't just happened by accident. Those guys have had the opportunity to be involved in other shows before and have chosen not to do it.
"They have chosen to be part of this line-up because they believe in the energy, they are passionate about F1. They want to be able to share their opinion their point of view, the good, the bad, the ugly of the sport."
It has also ensured in its mix are both fresh new faces to deliver a new approach: fresh opportunities (like an F1 special where Isle of Man TT biker Guy Martin races Coulthard in a Red Bull car) while retaining some key quality personnel from the BBC's era.
In particular, Coulthard raves about the fact that former BBC commentator Ben Edwards has been drafted in: someone who certainly delivers the knowledge and depth that devoted fans enjoy.
"Ben is a fantastic commentator," said Coulthard. "Before I was in F1, I listened to him on Eurosport as well as watching the BBC broadcast.
"He has such a knowledge, and his work ethic is incredible, the research he does. He is a quiet man, he doesn't go booming around the paddock, but he could do that role in the commentary box on his own."
In its bid for pundits, it has also got some high-quality individuals involved: including former world champion Alain Prost and grand prix winner Mark Webber, who will be both insightful and authoritative in front of the camera.
At the top of the show, Jones, who is most famous for his presenting roles with T4 and X Factor USA, has thrown himself in to his new role with aplomb.
Rather than simply keeping his fingers that he can muddle through with just charm, he has spent a painful few weeks on his sofa doing as much research as possible about the world of F1 before letting himself loose behind the microphone.
"I never watched F1 over the years thinking I would be fronting a show," he says. "I've pushed myself over the last couple of months to get as much information as possible.
"Even though I'm not an expert, DC is an expert, I will have to know a certain amount. And I am confident I am there now.
"I dream in F1. It has been so intense. I have watched every single race from last season back-to-back, doubling up on a few of them. It took me six weeks to watch every single race and every single qualifying just to immerse myself to the point where I felt confident enough to talk about it."
Mixing things up
C4's expansive crew – 12 presenters announced at the launch plus Alex Zanardi – prompted a few jokes on social media that it has more faces in front of camera than live races this year.
But the approach may be one that serves the programme well, for it will ensure there are fresh perspectives and the right type of analysis on call for the right moment. Karun Chandhok knows the paddock and pitlane well. Webber can talk about tense title battles; Eddie Jordan the driver market.
Coulthard for one believes that C4 will benefit from its decision to have a rolling panel of experts over the course of the season, rather than the same faces week in and week out.
"There was an element of when Eddie and I were there all the time, I knew his perspective on things," he explains.
"I didn't know what he was going to say, although he didn't know what he was going to say, but there is just a feeling that it will keep everyone fresher and that will help Steve be able to bounce off them.
"A large part of what Steve will be doing, rather than just the professional job of bringing us into the show, will be reacting to people. He doesn't know what Alain Prost is going to say; how he will react. That is what makes life entertaining.
"You don't go down to the pub with your buddies knowing the script of the conversation, because that would be boring. You react and you have great evenings as conversation just flows.
"Hopefully we will have a group of people who have a nice conversation and the people at home who are fans will feel part it."
With the core BBC production staff, quality presenters and a determination to make the most of it, C4 certainly appears to be taking the right approach to the job in hand.
But its success will depend on how many people it can get to tune in on race days.
When asked about audience expectations, Coulthard admitted it was a hard thing to predict.
"I don't know enough about the historical figures. I expect the BBC, because of its multi-platform video and all various opportunities they have to advertise what is coming up, they probably have had bigger audiences for certain types of shows.
"But F1 has a very strong following. Not everyone can afford a Sky subscription. That is the choice that people make.
"C4 won't cost anyone anything beyond their TV licence. It is free-to-air, there won't be any adverts during the GP which I know was an issue for hardcore fans during the ITV time, and that is a commitment C4 has made and will stick with.
"It cannot be very difficult to push 4 as opposed to 1. On most controllers, you just slide your finger down – so it is much more simple than typing in whatever the Sky channel has to be. So I have to believe that the fans of F1 will very easily find it."
Jones added: "We will strive for big audiences of course, but regardless of how big the audience is, the quality of the coverage won't fluctuate.
"Hopefully it will be big audience but if we don't get big audiences we will still work our balls off to make it as good as possible."
And that very much sums up C4's attitude right now. It's been a whirlwind few weeks pulling together a team and a plan to just get the F1 show on the road.
But in the middle of it all is a mix of expertise, fresh blood, knowledge and enthusiasm that should serve the spectrum of F1 fans well.
As the great Murray Walker, who will be doing special features, points out: there is a duty when you are the free-to-air broadcaster as you will have more eyes on you than anyone else.
"The great thing to me is that because of what C4 are doing, the general public can watch F1 for free, and the audience that C4 will get will be much bigger than any other channel can get…"
In that case, everyone is a winner.