Hammond, the Top Gear presenter who survived a high-speed crash, is in pole position to become the face of Formula One after the BBC reclaimed the sport in a £200 million deal.
In a surprise move, ITV dumped Formula One after 12 years, claiming that it was not commercially viable despite the emergence of Lewis Hamilton as a British contender for the world championship.
The BBC plans a “brighter, bolder, faster” presentation, screening races live via broadband and mobile phones as well as conventional television.
The football deal means Gary Line-ker and Alan Hansen, the BBC’s top pundits, have little top-flight action to justify their £2 million three-year contracts. The BBC has also lost the FA Cup and live England matches.
ITV is believed to have offered Adrian Chiles, the popular presenter of the BBC The One Show, a £750,000-a-year position as the “face of football”, with the Champions League as a lure. There will be plenty for Lineker and Hansen to do, the BBC insisted. The BBC will screen live games from the Championship next year, offering fixtures such as Scunthorpe United versus Colchester.
The Top Gear team, however, will be let loose in the Monte Carlo pit lane and Formula One’s other glamorous locations in an attempt to extend the audience beyond “petrolheads”.
Murray Walker, the veteran commentator and never one for understatement, said he was “absolutely flabbergasted” at the sport’s return to the BBC. However, MPs questioned the corporation’s decision to spend £200 million on an event already shown on terrestrial television.
ITV activated a break clause in its contract with the motor sport’s governing body, Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Administration.
Races, which take place off-peak on Sundays and sometimes in the early hours, attract a relatively small audience compared with the six million who watch a midweek Champions League football match.
The BBC was offering a “fresh face” and a commitment to exploit Formula One fully across radio, television and digital media during the five-year deal, Mr Ecclestone said.
Coverage will be influenced by the success of the Jeremy Clarkson-fronted Top Gear when the five-year deal begins next year. 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 was very impressed with the Top Gear proposition and there will be cross-fertilisation between the show and the races.”
Clarkson and James May, Hammond’s co-conspirators, will also join in the grand prix fun but insiders believe “The Hamster” has a special affinity with drivers after his crash.
Web message boards yesterday urged the BBC to revive The Chain, the Fleetwood Mac theme which accompanied race coverage.
Walker said: “I was lying in bed listening to the News
this morning and I almost fell out of bed when I heard it. It’s an amazing development because I think ITV did and do a superb job.”
Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour MP, said Formula One should be shown on commercial television and the licence fee directed towards “real, competitive” sport.
The BBC promised that money would not be diverted from coverage of grassroots sports.