In any sport, there are certain elements that must be perfect to ensure its success. In motorsport, these key elements include, among others, the drivers, cars, teams, equipment, crowed, medical staff; in short, all the elements that make motorsport 10 000 times better than watching grown men run after a ball.
However, one element that all sport types must have is the presence of someone to speak on behalf of the viewer, i.e. the most important element in sport: the commentator(s).
Sadly, it would seem that in recent years, the term commentator has become less of a crucial element, as the standards have begun to slip. In order to be good, a commentator needs to be knowledgeable, exciting to listen to, passionate about what they are doing and surprise the audience with topical trivia that they may never have heard of.
On a personal note, to be a motorsport commentator has been a dream of mine since I was five-years old and one of the things that really sparked my interest in cars. Now, 15 years on and after watching many types of motorsport genres and listening to many voices, whether professional commentators or just voice-over artists, only a handful can be singled out as fantastic.
At the top of this list, we find a man who needs no introduction, because he is simply Murray Walker. He has become an icon to all and for good reason; whether it was Formula 1 or the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), there was never a dull moment when Murray was around, you could be guaranteed pure excitement and knowledge beyond anything else. Such has been his drawing power that at the recent British GP, he was invited to be a guest commentator during the third practice session. Within a few seconds, around five-million people were listening to him on live Internet streaming. If there ever was a template for being a good commentator, Murray Walker would be a prime example. Of course, there would be some people who would disagree – saying that Murray spoke so much that he would forget about or trip over his co-commentators like his former BTCC partner Charlie Cox (who is also very good) and of course Martin Brundle.
Now, Brundle has become the voice of Formula 1 and when it comes to expressing his views on something, he doesn’t hold back – even if it means taking on former FIA boss Max Mosley. Being an ex-F1 driver, of course, and knowing the all of the subtle nuances of the business, it was just a matter time before Brundle would take Murray’s place as lead commentator. And without doubt the transition from Murray to Martin has been both quick and very successful.
If there was ever an award to the most surprising or even rising voice in the commentary world, it would go to another Brit, David Addison. His name might sound strange but those who have watched the Le Mans 24 hours on SuperSport would have had some exposure to him and his partner Christopher Tate. Although there is nothing remotely bad to say about Tate, Addison’s role as “second-in-command” is doing him little justice as he has such a good commentary voice. His style of commentary is excellent, his knowledge impeccable, plus he is also very entertaining. Apart from Le Mans, South Africans have had some exposure to Addison as he once voiced the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) shown on SuperSport some time ago. Currently, he is commentator in Europe for the Formula Palmer Audi series as well as the international broadcaster for the Australian V8 Supercars. Certainly more exposure in South Africa would make him a household name. It would also be fair to put him on the same level as Martin Brundle and Murray Walker.
The World Rally Championship is one of the most exciting genres of motorsport currently out there, and thus the broadcaster North One Sport needed a good commentator. So, in 2004 the broadcaster chose Paul King to replace the equally good Chris James. King certainly knows what he is talking about and even though the WRC is shown in pre-recorded form in South Africa, King’s enthusiastic delivery makes it feel as though you’re watching it live. He certainly can commentate and does it well.
Unfortunately, just like those Aussie rugby referees, there are also some commentators that lack some sparkle but are not totally unbearable. The two men in question are Ben Edwards and Martin Haven. South Africans will know Edwards as the voice of the now-defunct A1 GP series on which he commentated with ex-F1 driver and former BTCC commentator John Watson. Currently, Edwards provides the voice for the BTCC alongside 1992 champion Tim Harvey.
Martin Haven also received some exposure in South Africa as commentator of the World Touring Car Championship, which is sadly no longer being broadcast here. Apart from the WTCC, Haven also provided his voice for the BTCC and currently for the FIA GT Championship and the Le Mans 24 hours for his current employer Eurosport.
Other commentators that South Africans may have heard of, or had exposure to, include Dorsey Schroeder, Brian Till, Calvin Fish and Leigh Diffey (Rolex Grand Am series on ESPN) and Neil Crompton, Matthew White, Mark Larkham and Mark Skaife form the Australian V8 Supercars.
Sadly, there are also some commentators that have been criticized in the past for their tone and style. This would include ex-F1 commentator James Allen, MotorsTV and Eurosport’s Mark Cole and Andrew Marroitt. Allen was probably the biggest letdown as he was supposed to replace Murray Walker as lead commentator, but he never ever lived up to the hype. Then after the US GP fiasco 5FM’s Sasha Martinengo called his commentary pathetic. In fact Allen should have carried on as pit lane reporter.
When it comes to really bad commentary, the prize goes to Mark Cole, who on many occasions would give the wrong details regarding dates (he once said that Keke Rosberg was F1 champ in 1983 when it was 1982. He continues to stand by this), pronounce names wrong and generally pause for way too long. The latter also extends to Andrew Marriott (but in his case, he would interrupt himself before going “aahhmmm… aaahmmm…” and then changing the subject completely.
As for South African commentators, there have been two good ones; most obviously Roger McCleary, who has largely left the national scene, and Hendrik Verwoerd who now mostly does the voiceover for the national rally championship.
The biggest surprise, however, remains SuperSport presenter Arnold Geerdts who has made a great transition into motorsport commentary. He once voiced our Touring Car series but now commentates on the national Off Road series along with Laurette Morgan, who herself was a presenter on the Sunday motoring magazine show Drivetime during the 90’s on SABC 3 with Alan Johnson.
Be it via a voiceover artist or fully fledged commentator, motorsport coverage has been covered by all; from truly staggering to very bad. Yet motorsport commentary is the only true type of broadcast that could be classified as exciting, and even desirable.