Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock or have never heard of MotoGP, then you’ll probably know that BT Sport now has exclusive rights to show MotoGP in the UK for the next five years.
It’s fair to say that when the BT Sport team announced their line-up of presenters, including Neil Hodgson, Craig Doyle, Iwan Thomas, Mel Sykes, MCN's Matthew Birt, Gavin Emmett, Julian Ryder and Keith Heuwen, they came in for a lot of flack on social media.
But it was the announcement of Mel Sykes that was the most controversial and who was criticised most for her lack of bike knowledge. It’s something the experienced presenter is well aware of. But the former model, who’s worked in television for the last 16-years, is ready for the challenge.
The production team will of course be at every race, with Sykes leading the show either from BT Sport’s multi-million pound studio in London. But Sykes is keen to point out that she will also be hosting from the show from six races this year, including the first round at Qatar, Catalunya, Germany, Holland, Silverstone and Valencia.
Sykes said: “I’m in love with the job, I love the sport, it’s exciting, and it’s fascinating. I was immediately addicted to it. I’m going to do my job and I’m going to glue it together and I’m going to present it, and by osmosis over the season I’m going to learn it.
You can tell that she is well up for the challenge. In the flesh she's keen, personable and incredibly striking. Something that won’t have escaped the eye of the mostly male MotoGP audience. But more than that, Sykes is keen that she does a great job for the sport.
She added: “You have to be there, you have to read about it, you have to learn it. I have a passion for it and that is going to grow. I have all these guys who know all the ins and outs of it (pointing to Neil Hodgson and James Toseland - ed), and I’m there to drive it and present it. I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t want to be, I think it’s the sexiest sport, it’s fantastic, it’s exciting, and I got hooked very quickly.”
Former double World Superbike World Champion, and ex MotoGP competitor, James Toseland will be joining former WSB Champ Neil Hodgson as a reporter at the tracks. Toseland is quick to point out that Mel Sykes is a great signing and surrounded by a world of experts to fill in the gaps.
He said: ”There’s been a lot of talk about Mel, and why it’s her, and I know she’s here next to us, but she’s Melanie Sykes for god’s sake! To get a presenter on that level, okay she doesn’t know much about bikes, but we’ve got a presenter on that level that hopefully might start asking the questions that everyone wants answering.
He added: “ It’s about getting bike racing to the mainstream, I’ve heard some criticisms of keeping it (bike racing) to bike racing fans. We need to make that work but we also need to get it to a wider audience. At the end of the day, you can’t question the coverage and the line-up BT Sport has.”
It’s clear that Mel Sykes and Toseland have already built up a great relationship and she’s very excited about getting to grips with the finest two wheel motorsport on earth.
Sykes said: “James (Toseland) and I have had a couple of dinners already. I’ve watched it, read about it. The thing is, it’s bloody fascinating, it’s amazing. I’m asking James and the guys a ton of things all the time. I do want to know. I need to know and that’s why I’m asking all the time.
Neil Duncanson, the CEO of North One Television, the production team behind every race, is well aware of the challenge the BT Sport team have ahead.
His firm have already taken on plenty of big motorsport gigs including running the World Rally Championship, and creating the amazing Isle of Man TT coverage. The BT Sport output will include in the region of six hours of live coverage of three classes each day, on Saturday and Sunday.
Duncanson said: “If there were three words that sum up what we’re trying to do it would be scale, access and insight. That means getting to the characters, and not even just the riders, that means all the characters in the paddock. Insight means we’ll be able to go into some detail on a big scale. The amount of airtime we have and the ability we have on this table means we will be able to answer all the questions people want answering.”
Duncanson is keen to point out that the access the team have will be unprecedented. He said: “Everyone in the paddock has been brilliant, it’s obviously important for Dorna that this works and they’ve been very helpful. The team have been terrific, the riders have been terrific. They’ve all bought into the idea that BT Sport are going to do something special with the coverage and they’re all helping. It’s a big year for MotoGP and all the riders understand that."
Getting hardcore fans to interact with a show that was previously hosted on other channel is a task that BT Sport has faced before, for example when it took over the Rugby coverage which the broadcaster reputedly paid a reputed £152 million for.
Craig Doyle presents the Rugby Premiership coverage for BT Sport and will also present the new MotoGP Tonight show on Tuesday nights at 8pm.
He already has motorcycle credentials having presented the award-winning Isle of Man TT coverage for ITV.
He said: “I’ll use the Rugby analogy with this because I think they are two absolutely brilliant sports and in a similar vein. To be honest I don’t think the sports have been treated with the respect they deserve over the years in a broadcasting sense, and with Rugby, the coverage was split previously over three channels. “
He added: “Although everyone was trying their best, it needed a single home, and once we did that, within two months the audiences for Rugby within the UK went up 74%. And in terms of getting players and stuff on board in the first month we started sticking cameras in odd places and the insight we were giving was amazing. Next thing we’re getting told we can put dressing room cameras in, you can have a ref cam on, and the next thing is we’re doing interviews with players during the game as they come off they’re chatting to us.”
Doyle thinks that MotoGP will take on a similar journey. He said: “This stuff has just developed and we’ve found in Rugby Tonight, which is what we’re trying to do with MotoGP. We’ll have a guest on, say Dylan Hartley from the Saints, and now we go on air and a player called Tom Woods from The Saints is sending in tweets and taking the piss. They’re now sending in film from the dressing rooms after the Calcutta Cup games. As soon as the MotoGP boys see the output and the experience we have in this team they will come to us, I’m sure of that, it will take a little bit of time, but they will come.”
Along with maximum coverage of all classes, viewers will also be able to download an app which will allow them to see MotoGP from seven different cameras, plus the race feed going out on TV.
It’s the vision of BT Sport’s head of Digital, Mark Coyle, who believes that viewers can sit on their sofa’s watching the main feed, then click around with the app.
He said: “For the first time during qualifying and races, we will be offering the proper mixed channel coverage that we already have, plus you will have the ability to choose from seven different camera angles. One will be the helicopter view, plus four on-board cameras, live timing and live tracking.”
BT Sport will be free to watch and the app free to download if you have BT Broadband at home.
Another controversial presenter among race fans is former 400 metre Olympic and Commonwealth athlete, Iwan Thomas. He’s a mad keen bike fan and obviously well-up for covering the sport, which he describes as his dream job. He’ll be sat in the studio with Craig Doyle on the Tuesday night show.
Thomas said: “I’ve been into bikes for 25 years, I’ve been riding bikes and have been involved with BT Sport since I retired as an athlete, I really love riding bikes and got asked to be involved in what is my dream job to be honest with you.”
He owns a customised Warrs Harley and has previously owned Ducati’s.
He said: “I’m a big petrol head and very passionate about it. And hopefully our show will be looking back at the action from the weekend, have a light-hearted theme about it, with plenty of studio participation with the audience. I like interacting a lot with people anyway and I feel like I’m like a lot of the average bikers out there, fourty years-old or whatever, got a big bike, think I can ride, but obviously I can’t like those boys (points to Cal Crutchlow and Bradley Smith - ed), but you know hopefully, that’s a lot of the kind of audience we’re going to appeal to.”
Another major signing for the hardcore fans is experience commentator Julian Ryder. He will sit alongside Keith Heuwen in the commentary booth. There’s sure to be fireworks, and anyone who remembers their partnership during the Foggy years of World Superbike coverage on Sky will know how insightful and how entertaining they can be.
Ryder said: “ It will be different because Keith has been presenting for ten years and I’ve been doing Grand Prix. I’m thoroughly looking forward to it because the old Essex git (Heuwen) is always great to have around. He likes an argument. He hates me because I’m a journalist and a northerner, I hate him because he’s a retired motorcycle racer. But listening to Keith talk, like if you watch the old tapes back of him talking about Assen, he’s saying ‘it’s over the camber, up on the fat part of the tyre and watching the revs go up’. I’m listening and thinking if you’re the fan watching this at home, then that’s perfection. This is what you want to hear.”
With an obvious steer towards the British MotoGP riders, BT Sport has signed MotoGP stars Scott Redding, Cal Crutchlow and Bradley Smith to be ambassadors for the show.
Crutchlow reckons it’s going to be even better than BBC’s coverage. He said: “From a point of view of a motorcycle racer we want people in the UK to watch motorbikes, to be interested in motorbike racing and to know what we know, and be involved in our sport. We want to put it across as best as possible. From my point of view, apart from doing stuff for Ducati my other main thing will be doing stuff for BT Sport, because I want people to know what we feel, our emotions, and about the sport."
Crutchlow also thinks that not only is the BT Sport deal good for the star MotoGP riders, it’s also good for younger riders and sponsors.
He said: “Ten years ago when I was coming through we never had anything like this. For the Moto2 and Moto3 guys it’s really, really good. Especially for the Brit guys, of course the focus is going to be on the Brit riders. For me and Bradley it will be great to do the MotoGP stuff, for the Tuesday night show we can be flying in to the Tuesday night show, and so can the Moto2 and Moto3 guys. It’s a great thing for our sport. To be able to say you’re going to have five, five and a half hours of sport every day is massive.”
Crutchlow added: "A cheesy interview is not what I do, so now we’re able to put our personalities across a lot more. If we’re happy, or pissed off you’ll be able to put that across as well. We’ll be able to show that a lot more. I’m not saying they'll be in your face but they’ll be around a lot more riders at the right time, rather than a Wednesday when it’s a set up interview. There’s a lot more stuff they will be able to do and with that Tuesday night show away from the circuit. They’ll be able to give people much more insight of what it’s like to be a motorcycle racer. You don’t just show up and go right, I need to make a Ducati motorcycle go as fast as possible, because it’s not like that. Being a motorcycle racer now is about a lot more about being away from the sport as well as being in the sport.”
As well as the race coverage, BT Sport is also planning to show three documentaries before the race season starts, with one about Marquez, one starring Lorenzo and one looking back at the wild-riding Casey Stoner.
With other plans in the pipeline including a film focussing on the British riders, showing classic 500GP clips from the eighties and early nineties, plus a film called Mike The Bike showing in March, bike race fans have never before had as many bike options on tele, or on their tablets.
Of course, there’s still plenty of flack kicking around forums and social media, but for now, hold your judgement and wait to get involved with what BT Sport promise will take MotoGP to the next level. From all at Bike Social, we wish them the best of luck.