Top Gear's Hamster set to front F1 as BBC pays £200m to screen coverage


Last updated at 09:39 21 March 2008

Top Gear favourite Richard Hammond is in pole position to become the face of Formula One for the BBC.

It comes after the corporation paid around £200million for the rights to screen motor racing - £50million more than ITV paid for its current deal - despite having no rival bidders.

Hammond, known as The Hamster, is said to be favourite as insiders believe he has a special affinity with drivers after surviving a high-speed crash in 2006.

Coverage will take on the style of Top Gear, with co-presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May also involved.

Dominic Coles, BBC Director of Sport Rights, said: "When Lewis Hamilton did a test lap on Top Gear it got more viewers than the Brazilian Grand Prix.

"Bernie [Ecclestone] was very impressed with the Top Gear proposition and there will be cross-fertilisation between the show and the races."

Yesterday the corporation revealed it had won back the sport after a gap of 12 years, announcing a five-year deal starting next year.

But bosses came under fire for lavishing cash on inflated sports rights when there was not even a competitive bidding process.

F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone is said to have gone directly to the BBC about a deal and was offered an increase on ITV's current agreement. Insiders say ITV's current agreement was valued at about £150million over its five-year period.

All the other major sports broadcasters in the UK say they were not approached and there was no bidding process.

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Pole position: Richard Hammond could front BBC's F1 coverage

Politicians attacked the BBC's decision to spend millions on Formula One, amid claims that the sport should be on commercial television.

Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay claimed licence fee money should be directed at "real, competitive sports" rather than the "wealthy industry" of F1.

He also criticised the "supine approach" which saw BBC's news outlets unquestioningly trumpeting the deal across its networks yesterday.

Mr MacKinlay, speaking in the Commons, said: "This morning in bulletin after bulletin on the BBC, they went on about Formula One being won by the BBC.

"The question they didn't ask or probe management on was how much the licence payer is going to have to pay for something that could and should be provided on commercial television - and the licence money be directed towards promoting real, competitive sports rather than the wealthy industry of Formula One."

He demanded: "Isn't it time BBC news editors were brought to book? They should be probing BBC management rather than crawling to it."

Commons Leader Harriet Harman promised to raise MP MacKinlay's concerns with Culture Secretary Andy Burnham.

In a separate move, the liberal think-tank Progressive Vision submitted a Freedom of Information request demanding the BBC makes public the costs of the rights.

The deal came about after ITV pulled out of its contract with F1 early to use its cash to pay for football's Champions League.

Last night it won the first pick of Wednesday night games to add to its new FA Cup and England home internationals portfolio.

The BBC's new agreement runs from 2009 to 2013 inclusive, replacing ITV's existing deal, which was due to run until 2010.

It is claimed the BBC was drawn to the rights because F1 is now a "hot property" after the meteoric rise of British driver Lewis Hamilton.

An ITV insider close to the sport said: "This is about a 30 per cent increase in what ITV is paying. I can't tell you why the BBC is paying this much for it. I don't know how Bernie Ecclestone pulled it off, but this is a significant increase for it."

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Big draw: Lewis Hamilton celebrates victory in the Australian Grand Prix

Yesterday the BBC claimed that it believed it was not paying a sum that much different from ITV's current deal.

A senior sports insider at the corporation claimed that any increase was because the BBC had bought a much broader rights package.

As well as taking the television rights, it also has rights covering radio, mobile phone, broadband Internet, video-on-demand and iPlayer. The BBC claims that, apart from the broadcast rights, ITV has only limited online activities around the sport.

An insider on ITV's F1 programme said they were "in shock" over the broadcaster's decision to pull out early.

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The BBC's director of sports rights, Dominic Coles, said: "The biggest motorsporting event in the world is returning home after 12 years. We were delighted when Bernie Ecclestone approached us about its return.

"F1 is a crown jewel of sports broadcasting, so to bring the rights back to their traditional home from 2009 is tremendously exciting."

An ITV spokesman said: "This was a straightforward commercial decision for ITV and we're pleased in that Formula 1 will continue to broadcast free-to-air."

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