Reaction to Paul di Resta’s Sky F1 exit a reminder of F1’s territorial fanbase

Sam Cooper
Paul Di Resta, Jenson Button and Simon Lazenby appearing for Sky. Sochi, September 2019.

Paul Di Resta, Jenson Button and Simon Lazenby appearing for Sky. Sochi, September 2019.

This week, I was the first to break the news that Paul di Resta would no longer be part of Sky Sports F1’s broadcast team for the 2023 season, joining former colleague Johnny Herbert out the door after a six-year association with the British broadcaster.

The reaction to the tweet, which has over two million views and rising, was that of outright joy with gifs of Kylian Mbappe knee-sliding across the pitch to Friends’ Chandler Bing dancing filling my mentions. The consensus, save from a small minority, being happy to see the 36-year-old Scotsman off of their screens.

But on the face of it and without the context of F1 behind it, it seems rather odd to celebrate a stranger’s exit. Di Resta was not a dictator who had just been overthrown or an army general committing genocide or a Prime Minister breaking his own laws, so why then was the news met with such passionate emotion?

Di Resta was far from perfect as a pundit, with a perceived bias towards Red Bull being the most commonly cited issue, but some might argue the Scot was by no means the worst to have appeared with a red and blue microphone in 2022.

Perhaps, then, there is always a desire for change and the reaction to the Scot’s departure was symbolic of the times we live in. The Drive To Survive-fuelled rivalries has contributed to a shifting of the F1’s fandoms’ collective psyche, away from the supportive and more towards the territorial.

Every year, thousands of new eyes are focusing on Formula 1 and each will have been funnelled in through a different source and all the subconscious bias that brings.

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In 2023, it is rare to see a debate, particularly online, where the two commentators take an entirely neutral view towards an issue. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen fans wage war against each other daily, with any mention of either on social media enough to have the other party baying for blood, while there are plenty of other battles dominating the Formula 1 fandom.

So when a commentator or pundit puts their head above the parapet, it is little wonder the bullets come flying.

Sky Sports F1, in its role as provider of the international feed, plays a unique character for there are few other sports who can claim to have one team behind 90% of the broadcasting output. When fans tune into races, it is David ‘Crofty’ Croft whose voice they hear. Phrases such as “two secs, Ted” have become part of the Formula 1 lexicon so when a pundit comes on board for Sky, they automatically become a point of focus for the community.

Being a Formula 1 pundit can be a thankless task. In a media landscape that demands hot takes more than ever, playing it safe is no longer a viable option if you have ambitions of being in the commentary booth the following race, especially if you are not an already established name. But it is a fine line to walk for if you go too far the other way, the territorial fanbase of F1 will say you are biased in favour of Red Bull/Mercedes/Ferrari/insert your favourite team here.

But the comments calling for others to pack their possessions into a small cardboard box as they leave the Sky offices for the final time suggest Di Resta was not solely the problem, Martin Brundle seemingly being the only name not on someone’s hit list.

Sky have not said if Di Resta’s deal was not renewed, as appears to be the case with Herbert or whether the Scot decided, given his racing commitments in 2023, he did not have time for a regular Sky stint and the broadcaster most likely never will.

But what seems even more likely is we have hit a point of no return, for it is hard to see a way Formula 1 fandom shifts back to what it once was – back to a time when it was a niche sport and any coverage was good coverage.

The sport is too big for that now, with any moment analysed a thousand times and every detail meticulously picked apart online, including the words coming out of a pundit’s mouth.