GP fever seizes the Sky pundits

23rd April

Another week, another meeting and all the usual topics of conversation are back – the weather, the track, the so-called “great atmosphere”, the “exciting” meeting in prospect that “both teams want to win” and the recent topical favourite, the so-called iniquity of the 2007 changes to the tactical replacement rule – for the clash of Poole and Coventry. All extensively leavened throughout with excitable chatter about the first round of the Grand Prix series as though run-of-the-mill encounters here between Scott Nicholls, Chris Harris, Bjarne Pedersen or Jason Crump would have even some vague relevance to this eleven round series. Jonathan is absolutely sure that “there’s going to be a great atmosphere tonight”, partly because of the party spirit encouraged by free entry for people “dressed as pirates” and the apparent significance/magnitude of the fixture.

Having already trotted out some scripted phrases – at the start of the show Jonathan christened Wimborne Road, probably a surprise to every other club in the speedway world, “the home of the people’s motor sport” – he then mistook Jason Crump for Cinzano (“hard man to beat anytime, anywhere”). Even relentless optimists who frequently give voice to comments that the pictures shown obviously contradict, find it hard to talk up or even expect much success from Chris Harris’s campaign in the 2007 GP series. Kelvin tells us, “he really is an exciting rider with lots of potential – I’m keeping my fingers crossed” whereas Nigel Pearson is much more honest in his assessment, “I feel personally it may be a season too early”. With both British riders only in the championship by dint of favouritism rather than actual qualification, neither mention that this selection probably has more to do with notionally maintaining viewer interest – something that’s definitely essential to satisfy the advertisers who’ll display their often obscure wares in the commercial breaks so lucratively sold by BSI.

Jonathan believes he knows why Coventry have enjoyed success so far this season (“the key is keeping the same team”) but worries about the weather (“it was misty and damp earlier”). A shot of the pits shows Troy Batchelor calmly putting on his gloves or, as Jonathan sees it, “he looks a little nervous there”. Down on the track, the perspicacious Chris Louis – definitely one of the best commentators and infinitely preferable to Sam ‘I can read their every thought or pretend I do and make them up’ Ermolenko – informs us “we’re getting a few drops of rain”. The news on the track surface is that it’s “a little bit greasy coming into the corners” and Chris expects it to be difficult to ride until the eighth or ninth heat, though it’s “gonna favour some of the brave guys who like getting out to the fence”. Kelvin didn’t ride for many years not to be able to spot a few things himself, “I noticed that they’d put fresh shale on the surface and ripped the outside”.

A delight of any meeting that features Jason Crump is his rather literal and acerbic response to the banal questions that frequently get thrown his way in interviews. In the pits, Sarra Elgan reveals the ongoing anxiety of the Sky Sports management that so-called dull televised fixtures will drive away viewers, when she notes rhetorically (in lieu of a specific question), “potentially it could be the closest meeting on Sky Sports this season”. Jason replies in a tone that fails to convince, “hopefully it’s a nice close meeting”. That’s what we need in televised speedway, the return of “nice”. If interviews were mental gymnastics then, as ever, Jonathan is happy to bang on to Scottie with irrelevant and tendentious questions about the Grand Prix. This is the interviewing equivalent of remaining in the metaphorical changing room or perhaps only trying a forward roll and Scott is having none of it, “tonight we’re here to represent our clubs and Saturday is a different matter”.

Interview over Jonathan gets all snitty at this rebuttal of his interpretation, “keeping his cards close to his chest – it’s a warm up, no matter what way he wants to see it!” Kelvin changes the subject since he’s decided to bring his years of experience to bear to study the form. Though he thinks it’s “gonna be close” he nonetheless still confidently tips Coventry to win. Jonathan admires his opinion, “I like it when a pundit sticks his neck out”. In the commentary booth, Nigel sets the scene and gives his wish for the evening all at the same time, “we’ve got two evenly matched sides and possibly we might see a last heat decider tonight Chris?”

Things don’t start auspiciously in the first heat which Jason wins easily with the rest of the field strung out behind like a line of washing. Sarra tells him afterwards, “Jason, the tracks looking patchy”. Jase parries with adroit literalism, “it is very patchy – good way to describe it!” For his troubles, Martin Smolinski is interviewed by Jonathan ‘Forrest’ Green (“he’s a laid back fella”) and Kelvin ‘Chancy’ Tatum immediately after he wins the second heat and notes, in excellent English that is a tribute to the German education system, “the track is quite rough today”. Not that this is exactly a surprise since “we had a track walk” before he stresses, “we’re not coming here for losing”. During the race as the riders slithered hither and thither, Chris Louis rightly noted, “I don’t think he’ll be the only one to be caught out by the track conditions”. Back in the Sky booth with the two computers with the Sky Sports logo ostentatiously stuck on them, Kelvin carries on this theme and expects things to eventually settle down “I think it’ll take half a dozen races or so”. Jonathan presses him for some further technical insight and is instantly rewarded with some wonderfully opaque pundit speak, “not to get into too much detail – you need the bike to be quite calm – drop a tooth or two and keep the bike calm”. It’s a reply that mixes simplicity and Klingon, while he conjures up visions of highly excitable speedway bikes with the ferocity of vicious animals. In the manner of patient with their doctor asking ‘is this normal?’ Jonathan shoots back with, “will it improve tho?” only to learn “it will [grasshopper]”.

Not that the third bend is proving easy for the riders to negotiate according to Chris Louis, “it’s that hard wet surface on the inside line”. After he’s effortlessly conjured another phrase from commentator’s almanac (“this meeting is already like a see-saw”), Nigel believes, “the riders are desperate for conditions to calm down” and Chris confirms the evidence of our own eyes, “the riders are still struggling with the track”. Nigel then switches to analyse the mind games played at speedway meetings, this time between Chris Harris and Jason Crump “who will gain the psychological advantage this time?” He starts to interpret everything he sees through this conversation trope, “by the start line – perhaps making a psychological point to the referee”. Though Crump team rides Batchelor home there is an ever-present danger according to Chris Louis, “Jason knows Chris Harris will keep it going for four laps”. Like one London bus follows another (”just as I’m saying team riding is a forgotten art of speedway”) – the next race features more team riding from Risager and Schlein, who, if Nigel’s surmise is to be believed, tries to exert Derren Brown-like mind control by “looking over his shoulder to stop Boycie”. Kelvin is delighted, “you never know what’s going to happen” and Jonathan echoes his ecstasy as though struggling to read a poorly written script, “no you don’t – that’s speedway!”

The next race features a shocking decision by referee Mick Bates who decides on a rerun with ‘all four back’ when patently, to any blind man on a galloping horse, Batchelor should have been excluded. Instead the truculent ref claims, “he didn’t have enough room on the outside”. Mick is nothing if not stubborn about his “decision” and refuses to indulge in such fripperies as consulting the available technology, “I don’t need to look at a replay, I’ve made my decision”. A noticeably vexed Coventry co-team manager Peter Oakes doesn’t appreciate this judgement or the manner of its arrival but cannily chooses his words carefully on live television, “I find it astonishing when the referee has the advantage of a replay that he won’t even use it!” Who can say what impact the correct decision here would have had on the dynamics and overall score of the meeting?

Bjarne wins a race and is assailed with a trillion irrelevant GP questions that he answers diffidently. Jonathan leads with the insightful, “what about the GP’s – are you looking forward to them?” and, not to be outdone as an investigative ‘pundit’ on a three year contract, Kelvin asks, “only beaten once here this season – you must be happy going into the GP’s?” With the answers remaining as unilluminating as the questions, Jonathan dismisses the man Nigel christened “the main Dane” with, “we’ll let you go Bjarne and get the dust off”. The inequality in the scoreline provides the excuse for Jonathan to outline his (tunnel) vision for the sport. Consequently, without invitation – and like popcorn in a warm pan we can’t stop him from giving form to these ‘thoughts’ – he continues his far from subtle campaign to try alter the tactical ride regulations to better suit the financial need of his employers (i.e. to satisfy advertisers by retaining the audience to the bitter end of every fixture). “It’s not very good for the sport or the fans – we used to have close meetings, but now we’re not having them!” Aah diddums. It’s the reaction of a spoilt child fed on sugar, never mind that it flies in the face of history and ignores that the governing body of the sport is supposed to look after the interests of all speedway teams in the Elite, Premier and Conference leagues and is supposed to remain scrupulously independent of Sky Sports.

Another win for Jason means another interview with Jonathan Gump who sympathises about what he imagines must be the “agonising” wait for the GP to start. “Well, I guess” says Jason easily puncturing the manufactured mood of breathless anticipation, so it’s left for Kelvin to step up and save his colleague’s embarrassment with his technical ‘I used to be a rider card’ type stunning-observation-cum-question, “I would think the bike set up is quite crucial”. “Yeh, and the weather” deadpans Jason. Sat at home we quickly gather that the speedway city of romance that is Lonigo will probably have temperatures around the 30 degree centigrade mark. Sensibly Jason decides to avoid too many further banal questions by shrewdly holding forth, “my most important thing is behind my ears!” As the asinine question count has dropped, Jonathan just can’t help himself, “who are you thinking of as your biggest threat?” It’s the kind of negative thinking champions always despise, so it’s no surprise the Aussie speedway superstar snaps back rather aggressively, “I’m thinking of everybody – who in that series isn’t capable of beating me?”

Back upstairs in the commentary booth, Nigel reassures us about an anxiety that I didn’t know we had, “Swist has got fast bikes, don’t worry about that”. Luckily there’s a modicum on track drama needing rhetorical escalation, “how did they avoid each other then? That was a miracle! How they avoided each other I will never know!” Coverage is further enlivened by a dispute between Rory Schlein and the start marshal that has potential to entertain us although since we can’t hear a word. It’s a bit like watching an episode of Vision On! without the sign language. The invariably acute Chris Louis highlights the lack of thrills during another easy win for Bjarne Pedersen but cleverly makes it sound like a virtue, “he was so far ahead he probably wasn’t sure which line to ride”. Nigel reassures us beforehand about heat 13, “its Crump against Scott Nicholls, that’s always worth watching believe me” and afterwards feels vindicated enough but, ever the diplomat, still has to couch his words carefully in case we start making invidious comparisons between ‘exciting’ and ‘boring’ races, “it was one of the best heats – [and] heat 11 without a doubt – there’s been quite a few this evening”.

The always easily marvelled Jonathan remains enraptured with the discovery that riders can actually steer their bikes to avoid crashes. “How do you avoid him?” he asks Kelvin querulously who temporarily tires of these piffling questions himself, “well, just skill, to be perfectly honest”. Kelvin then invokes one of the fundamental tenets of all good drama and lottery winners, “Swist was in the right place at the right time”. Bored but sensing a need to impress the programme editor and subtly influence the decision makers of the sport, Nigel decides to contribute to the tactical ride debate, “under 2007 regulations – that option isn’t open to them, so they have to go with traditional arrangements”. This is a pointless but self-interested debate about a rule that doesn’t any longer apply – like discussing the comparative benefits of penalty shootouts or replays in football. Interestingly Nigel chooses not to mention or debate the widely held view that whoever finishes first in the Elite League should be crowned champions (the traditional method until Sky coverage started) without the need for play-offs as this doesn’t suit the commercial imperatives of the broadcaster and so remains a topic that is self-censored from discussion on air.

The arrival of Darren Anderton at Wimborne Road is deemed excitingly newsworthy enough for the camera to linger on him and, in sharp contrast to usual, Jonathan suddenly sounds effortlessly authoritative and almost funny when he makes his clichéd ‘sick note’ jokes. It’s amazing the difference actually having some knowledge about what you’re speaking about can have. Nigel rather misleadingly claims Poole co-promoter Matt Ford “has affinity with Bournemouth Football Club” but coyly insists he “loves his sport” instead of revealing that he’s actually a Director of the club!

Before the meeting closes we learn tonight’s contest has been “great for the fans watching in their lounges” and that Peter Oakes never really anticipated a Coventry victory, “Poole and Swindon – these aren’t the places you go to win the league – that’s elsewhere – it’s a place where the home side lose the league”. The ineluctable logic of this home superiority argument is, despite protestations to the contrary by the Sky pundits, we should arguably not bother to watch meetings televised from these locations in future (April 30th/June 11th are the next two to avoid) as they are likely to be boringly predictable home wins (particularly with only one tactical ride allowed ☺).

Near to the end of the show, Kelvin closes with “I do believe Pedersen and Crump are spurring each other on” rather than attempt to revisit his confident prediction of a Coventry victory.

23rd April Poole v Coventry (ELA) 52-40

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