Olympic observations

Motor sport may be the main focus of this writer’s attention, but for two weeks every four years, an event comes around which dominates television viewing both here in the UK and abroad: the Olympic Games.

There are a few aspects that I wanted to touch on in this post which still has some relevance to motor sport and Formula 1.

Graphics simple, but effective
The Rio 2016 graphics set has not changed very much from those on display at both the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 games, meaning it has now been used for at least eight years. The 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin used a modified version of the previous graphics set. What is interesting to me is the difference between Formula 1’s graphics set and the Olympic set. I dare say that the Olympic graphics set is stuck in the mid-2000s, but it has not changed in recent years.

F1’s graphics display multiple pieces of information on-screen at the same time, whereas the Olympics goes for a ‘less is more’ approach. I guess it is also a sense of familiarity for the latter given that the Olympics is firmly aimed at bringing in a casual audience. Both serve different purposes and that should be recognised. It would be interesting though seeing Olympic graphics stuck over the top of a F1 race. I suspect fans would find them too intrusive.

One similarity between the F1 and Olympic Games is the slow-motion shots. The first week has seen a lot of superb slow-motion shots from Joe Clarke’s victory in the canoe slalom to the diving events, there have been a number of slow-motion shots which no doubt will be repeated in the closing video packages next weekend. We also saw the bike cam in the cycling team pursuit, although the quality of the camera was not great thanks to the amount of rattling.

Is 455 BBC staff ‘too many’?
Back in April, the BBC confirmed that they would be sending 455 staff to the Olympics in Rio. Some of those 455 are freelancers, whilst the amount BBC have sent to Rio pales in comparison to the over 2,000 strong personnel that NBC have sent to Rio. Despite this, the BBC’s coverage (and number of 455) has attracted criticism from the likes of the Daily Star, Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

The comments that I have seen are your usual “too many presenters” or why are there so many production staff. Neither of which fully take into account the scale of the event. BBC One has been live on air from 13:00 to 04:00 every day, around 15 hours. BBC Four has been on air for the same length. Combine that with the running of the Red Button channels. On top of that, there is both online and BBC Radio 5 Live to consider.

Firstly, regarding the on-air staff, including presenters. Presenters do not present on-air and go home. Presenters also research, rehearse, record. Research so that they know what they’re talking about, rehearse so that the end product is as slick as possible and then record any VT’s that need to be done. Now consider doing that over 15 consecutive days. You cannot have one presenter, you need multiple presenters to cover each event and/or channel.

The same applies for commentators. Two commentators per event, 15 to 20 events and the numbers quickly add up. The numbers and facts that commentators have recited, chances are that a researcher has done that for them or (more likely), they have prepared and watched back historical tapes of that event. To bring it back to Formula 1: take David Croft or Ben Edwards. Throughout the Winter they will no doubt have re-watched the 2015 season to ensure that they are ready and prepared for every race for the following season.

Aside from on-air, there are those people off-air that keep the show running: resource managers so that everyone knows what they are doing, camera operators, sound supervisors, production co-ordinators, VT editors, interpreters and a whole host of other people who play a small but significant part in the coverage (I’ve picked a few out here, there are hundreds more). Without the talented men and women behind the camera, the show does not go on. Just because we don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Without VT editors, you can’t tell a story to the wider audience. Without interpreters, you don’t know what the winning athlete from a foreign country has said. Of course, this is not just Olympics related: you need this in any form of sport, including motor sport. At the end of the day, if you want to expand your remit, you have to expand your resources. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the BBC’s coverage from Rio, and I don’t think I would want it any other way. The days of presenting from the ‘London studio’ have long passed.

Olympics reaps rewards of free-to-air coverage
The beauty of the Olympics is its accessibility on television. Live, wall-to-wall television coverage on BBC One and BBC Four means that the Olympics can reach the largest number of viewers possible. Saturday’s coverage peaked with 9.4 million viewers on television, with 17.2 million global browsers accessing the BBC Sport website. These are brilliant figures all around, and shows how events benefit from being on free-to-air television.

Would the Olympics do anywhere near as well hidden behind a pay-wall? I doubt it. The Sydney Morning Herald website has a fantastic read looking at the extremely restrictive Olympic rights that extend far beyond television into the sponsorship world. I do not want to regurgitate the article, as there are a lot of fascinating points that I could note.

The key bit comes from Simon Morris, who is Fairfax Media’s (SMH’s owner) national video news editor. He says that the article “is not a complaint. We sign up to these rules as a part of a contract that allows us to send journalists. We could decide not to not do that and just rely instead on our statutory fair dealing rights under the Copyright Act, but we believe we have the best sports writers in the country and not sending them in return for being able to run more video would be a poor deal for you, our audience.”

The Olympics is a juggernaut if you’re part of the event. If you are not part of the event, then you are a complete outsider for that short time frame every four years.

What went wrong with A1 Grand Prix?

Whilst the eyes of the motor sport world this past week have been marking twenty years since the tragic San Marino Grand Prix weekend in which Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed, today marks another anniversary in the motor sport calendar. Of course, in comparison to the above, this anniversary is a ‘dot’ in the grand scheme of things, however it is also worth covering in its own respect. Today marks five years since the A1 Grand Prix series ran its final hurdle. The date was Sunday 3rd May, as the 2008-09 season came to a conclusion with Adam Carroll winning both the sprint and feature races for Ireland.

But, where did it all go wrong for A1 Grand Prix? The series launched in late 2004 to much fanfare, billing itself as the ‘World Cup of Motor Sport’. Instead of it being team versus team, the series was distinctively country versus country. One car per country. Sky Sports’ were one of the major backers from a broadcasting perspective for the series, with an on-site studio for the very first race from Brands Hatch in September 2005. Georgie Thompson presented the show alongside Andy Priaulx. Ben Edwards and John Watson were in the commentary box for the World Feed with Lee McKenzie down in pit-lane. Great Britain’s hopes rested on Robbie Kerr, who was Team GB’s representative for the majority of A1 Grand Prix’s life span. Other familiar names to watch out for included Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg, Brazil’s Nelson Piquet Jnr and France’s Nicolas Lapierre. A1 Grand Prix had this likeability factor that no other motor sport series had at that time, a ‘feel good’ factor.

Sky had high hopes for the series, so much so that the first race displaced Sky’s Premier League coverage off Sky Sports 1, a rare occasion. The first weekend got off to a flying start for Sky, the race action was largely good, and viewing figures averaged a quarter of a million viewers across several hours encompassing ‘as live’ coverage of the sprint race and the feature race that followed live. In comparison, their Formula 1 programmes typically average around 700,000 viewers. Even though the numbers were much lower than their football ratings, for a channel with not much live motor sport, it was a great number to build up on.

The problem with any series held in the Winter is that it means that the majority of the races must take place over in Asia, with only the start and end of the year in Europe. As it turned out, the first season calendar was fairly well laid out. The first three races were in Europe, before heading out to Asia. The problem is though, that any series looking to build an audience is going to struggle to get any audience for races live at 06:00 in the morning in Europe (it probably didn’t help either that Sky stayed in London for these races instead of sending Thompson et al. to the races, this being the case until the very end). For A1 Grand Prix, there wasn’t much way around it, and to be honest, I didn’t mind at all. In my view, there was a gap in the market for a Winter motor sport series which A1 Grand Prix filled very well. That made it a ‘draw’ in my eyes, it gained extra exposure as a result of having races during Formula 1’s off season. Whether it capitalised on that though, is a separate point altogether. At the time, it felt like a great alternative to Formula 1 with its sprint and feature race format and four Qualifying segments.

It has to be said that there were a few amateurish moments on display during its tenure, most notably the debacle that was the 180 degree turn in China during the 2006-07 season that many cars struggled to navigate. Sadly this video fails to make it onto its YouTube channel, however, the fact that one exists shows how it was above the kerb where social media activity is concerned. Deep in the depths of Twitter is ‘A1GP Insider‘, an official A1 Grand Prix account who joined in March 2009. If you were in control of that very short lived account, please, do come forward! Whilst we can laugh about the struggles in China, the scheduling issues that plagued the series were not a laughing matter and were tipped over the edge significantly in their final season. Within about a period of a year or two, A1 Grand Prix had turned from a good series starting to make an impression, to a farce.

Their issues, however, ran deeper. It is perhaps no coincidence that their final season was also their first in a new deal with Ferrari, which should have lasted from the 2008-09 season to the 2013-14 season. A ten race calendar turned into a seven race calendar. I won’t claim to have inside knowledge, but clearly the change of car and the Ferrari deal was negotiated badly and effectively killed the series. Whilst A1 Grand Prix should have been heading to Surfers’ Paradise in October 2009, their cars were still stuck in London. It seems clear to me that A1 Grand Prix jumped the gun with its Ferrari deal, especially during the worldwide recession, the series should have waited until they were more financially stable before agreeing to these deals. I do miss A1 Grand Prix. Yes, we can remember the stupid moments, but also, the country versus country formula provided some extremely good racing, the Durban street track a notable favourite.

The next Winter series set to take the limelight is Formula E. Most of their timeslots are friendly to a European audience, but is unusually on a Saturday, so it’ll be interesting to see how that fares. As for A1 Grand Prix, would I like to see it back in some form? I’d love to see it back. One day.

A day at Silverstone

So, yesterday was interesting! Fantastic, brilliant, a downright scary drive home, and many other emotions can be pitched in to yesterday’s day. But what a great day it was, and one that I won’t forget for a while. So, what happened? Firstly, a little revelation. Before yesterday, I had, despite being a fan of motor sport for 15 years, never been to a motor race. Considering I run a motor sport related blog, that might come across as surprising! The reasoning behind that is because no one I’m related to is really a motor sport ‘nut’ like myself, and I’d never really found the opportunity to ask any friends (partially because I’d have no clue as to whether they’d be interested – there are a few motor sport nuts, but I’d never pluck up the courage to ask, or vice versa – anyway).

I was planning another usual weekend, watch the F1 and stay in, no doubt following the football in the afternoon. That changed on Saturday when a friend asked if I wanted to go along with him to Silverstone the next day for round one of the FIA World Endurance Championship. Hell yes! A no brainer for me, and clearly for the 43,000 others that went to Silverstone too on Sunday. At £40.00 a ticket, I work that out at about £1.7 million worth of ticket sales that Silverstone made for race day. You can’t complain about the ticket price: six and a half hours of racing, paddock access, a pit lane walk, free roaming around the track, what more could you want? The only thing that saddens me is that Silverstone can have the F1 race day prices in excess of £100, yet sell over 100,000 tickets. But we should take the 43,000 figure as a positive, and hopefully that goes up in years’ to come, it deserves to.

The closest I had come to watching a motor race before yesterday would be an F1 test session, on a cold murky day in February 2001. Memories include standing on the outside of Luffield watching the Arrows and Jordan testing. But apart from that, nothing else. After successfully navigating the M45 and M1 for the first time ever (I passed my test four months ago), we arrived just before the start of the FIA Formula 3 European Championship race, won by Antonio Fuoco. We seated ourselves in the main straight grandstand, moving ourselves around the circuit as the day went on. The gap between that race and the start of the 6 Hours of Silverstone went surprisingly quick. We headed over to the pit lane (which, it is worth noting, the Silverstone Wing looks amazing in person), and took a stroll down it, swerving in and out of people. It was fairly packed! Back in paddock we caught a glimpse of Karun Chandhok, although admittedly jealously levels went up a few notches when a few other people we were with informed us that they had seen Mark Webber, Allan McNish and Anthony Davidson! Yeah, slightly jealous…

A shot of the Toyota motor home in the Silverstone paddock - Round 1 of the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship.
A shot of the Toyota motor home in the Silverstone paddock – Round 1 of the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship.

We positioned ourselves in the Becketts complex for the start of the main showpiece race, which was great for many different reasons, notably the fact that we could see the majority of the circuit: Copse through to Stowe almost, and the new first section. We stayed there for the first hour and beyond, as the heavens opened it made for interesting reading as the Toyota and Audi’s duelled it out, along with a minor annoyance. The tarmac run off areas. As the drizzle began, many drivers’ took the liberty of going straight on at the second part of Becketts, without an attempt of turning in. Just a minor bugbear worth mentioning.

Being a ‘newbie’ in going to races, the main point of interest to me was the sound. From the grandstand, most of the cars, from LMP1 down to the GTE-A class sounded fairly similar, however the difference was clear from track side between Becketts and Copse. I’d been reliably informed to keep an eye sound of the Audi’s. Boy was it different! Distinct, and stood out a mile when down at track side. Each lap, as one by one the cars went by, the Audi was noticeable. I liked it, personally. Overall, in the ‘how loud is loud’ argument, the sound yesterday was very, very loud! As this was my first motor race, there was no comparison for me, but in any case, it definitely felt loud.

Schumacher and Hill colliding, and many more moments have taken place over the years here, no longer in use and untouched.
Schumacher and Hill colliding, and many more moments have taken place over the years here, no longer in use and untouched.

After lunch, we moved round to Luffield. One of the brilliant things about yesterday was being able to position myself wherever I wanted, which, as it is a motor race, I wanted to experience. I don’t want to go to a motor race and sit in one position, I want to go and experience it from many different angles, different corners. I think it also makes you appreciate more the amount of effort that goes into preparing race weekends up and down the country, week in and week out, that makes race day what it is. It was the little things like that which made the day for me, being able to stand at Luffield, stand at Copse, both in the wet and dry, the same corners that I have seen legends race through year in, year out on TV. That’s what I found great. Then, we came across Bridge. A piece of history, but no longer in use, which saddened me. I’m surprised it hasn’t been utilised in some way, at least yesterday, the grass in that section looked long and untouched in quite a while.

The day ended back on the start finish straight as the 6 Hours of Silverstone prematurely came to an end. It was the right decision to call off the race. To be honest, the Safety Car decision confused me, however the weather in the twenty minutes following rapidly got worse. I’ve criticised some decisions concerning red flags in the past, however, actually having an attended a motor race as a fan now, I understand definitely the decisions from a ‘fan in attendance’ perspective. Getting out of Silverstone was a nightmare, but beyond their control. Had the weather been nice, no doubt some would have stayed for the podium presentation, thus, a more controlled traffic flow. Had the race continued until 18:00, the journey home would have been even more worse yesterday. I avoided the M1 as I was worried about the spray at 70mph, but the A5 was just as bad: multiple rivers, and many, many scary moments! In any case, a Toyota 1-2 and Porsche in third meant that we went home happy.

But, what a day. What an experience. From start to finish, it was full of great memories and moments that will last a while! I think it is fair to say it had everything a fan could wish for with great racing, great access and even typical British weather so that fans can experience the cars in all weather! If you’re ever asked to make a decision in the future: watch F1 on TV, or watch racing in the flesh at your local circuit. Choose the latter. It’s a decision you won’t regret.

A look behind the scenes at FOTA: Part 2

Last week, I had the chance to talk to the former secretary general of the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA), Oliver Weingarten. In part one, Weingarten spoke about a series of subjects, including how he felt the FOTA fan forums went and whether Formula One Management (FOM) is behind the times where new technology is concerned.

In the second and final part, I quizzed Weingarten about the current state of Formula 1, and also about whether Formula 1 moving to pay television is really the right thing for the sport. Part 1 can be found here.

The F1 Broadcasting Blog: Formula 1 is all about politics. Do you think some teams wanted FOTA to fail without thinking about the greater good?

Oliver Weingarten: There were factions in the sport that wanted [us] to fail, and there were those who perceived it [FOTA] no longer had relevance. However the majority of teams were in favour of FOTA, and recognised the benefits of having an organisation which could conduct matters on their collective behalf, and also provide an infrastructure where they could coalesce as and when needed, and also have the ability to respond in a swift manner with a unified voice. The fact is that FOTA conducted matters also on behalf of teams that were not members of FOTA, such as testing agreements [with circuit owners], and negotiations with Pirelli, whilst most generally wanted to be involved in fan forums. Daniel Ricciardo of Toro Rosso [in 2013] was the star of the UK fans’ forum!

F1B: We’re seeing more often than not motor sport going down the pay TV route, of course the BBC and Sky deal from a few years ago and more recently, MotoGP to BT Sport. Whilst I know that you’re not part of the two wheeled paddock, do you think eventually we will see Formula 1 in the UK and the other territories go pay TV only? Do the teams feel that pay TV is the way forward in order for the sport to flourish? [note: I asked OW this question before it was announced that MotoGP was going to have a highlights show on ITV4]

OW: In my opinion, and those of the teams when I was at FOTA, the belief may not have matched the market reality. Free to air has its inherent benefits, in respect of generally obtaining more eyeballs and exposure for sponsors, but there has to be a recognition that the trend for sports rights over the years has seen a migration to pay TV. Public service broadcasters have seen severe budget controls imposed which has impacted on their ability in markets to obtain sports rights.

F1B: …even with the BBC budget cuts though, for example, that doesn’t mean we should completely forget the free to air viewer. I’d argue that a bit of both [free to air and pay TV] may be the best solution.

OW: A mix of free to air and pay TV can work well. In the UK, arguably more people watched the [2013] Malaysian Grand Prix via a mix of Sky Sports F1’s excellent live coverage and thereafter BBC highlights, as opposed to if it had just been on the BBC in the early hours of the morning. The competition amongst broadcasters has also improved the offering for consumers. Accordingly I believe sponsorship deals are not conducted anymore in F1 just on the basis of the amount of exposure on free to air. Sponsors are becoming a lot more sophisticated and understanding of the business model.

F1B: Lastly, do you have any regrets from the past few years, and what do you think Formula 1 has learnt about itself as a result of FOTA, if anything?

OW: My biggest regret is not achieving what I was hired to achieve, or at least provide assistance to achieve. The landscape changed dramatically within two months of my employment commencing. Teams had resigned, were arguing over cost control, the Geneva office was being closed down, and most significantly teams struck individual deals with the Commercial Rights Holder (CRH), meaning that the idea of collectively bargaining to achieve a better commercial position, was made redundant. The perception of FOTA became negative, and whilst there were a lot of positives, these were never championed loudly, and sometimes not even publicly. A lot of ideas I had from my previous role, were therefore never utilised. The teams recognise that whilst there is so much competitiveness and self-interest across the paddock, it makes it difficult for FOTA to operate on contentious issues, particularly when the structure of the CRH is as it currently is.

A look behind the scenes at FOTA: Part 1

One of the biggest Formula 1 stories to occur over the Winter break was the disbanding of the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA). The association aimed to “promote the development of Formula 1 and enhance its worldwide image and reputation” whilst also promoting a united front towards the FIA when debating future rules, sporting and technical regulations.

Sadly though, after nearly six years, self interest soon got in the way of the greater good, and on February 28th, FOTA announced its intention to officially disband. So what good, if anything, came out of FOTA? I caught up with Oliver Weingarten, who was the secretary general of the Formula One Teams’ Association, and is currently in the process of trying to dissolve FOTA. Weingarten previously worked for the Premier League, where he was General Counsel responsible for commercial and IP issues for 7 years. Over two parts, Weingarten talked to me about social media, the controversial double points plan and whether FOTA did really make any change for the better, amongst other subjects currently surrounding the world of Formula 1.

I began by asking Oliver about the FOTA fans’ forums and his opinion on how they went.

The F1 Broadcasting Blog: One of the success stories of FOTA were the fan forums that were held periodically. How easy were these to set up, and also did any broadcasters ever show an interest to televise these forums?

Oliver Weingarten: If I am honest, these were very stressful generally to organise. From finding a date that suited the teams, to ensuring there was the right mix of team personnel and ex-F1 personalities, to finding the correct venue, advertising and managing the registration process, seeking funding, and liaising with broadcasters, procuring branding for the forum, organising AV (audio/video) companies were all very time consuming.

F1B: Sounds like that you were very glad then when the day itself came around!

OW: To be fair, on the day, I was always concerned namely in respect of two issues. Will the teams turn up? How many fans will attend? I was always relieved when they concluded, and the feedback from teams and fans alike was generally very positive, which provided a genuine sense of satisfaction and achievement. My aim was to bring the fans closer to the sport, therefore [that was] the reason for introducing live streaming, and the Twitter interactivity, where on numerous occasions, we had #FOTAFORUM trending worldwide on Twitter, and fans watching on-demand after the Forum.

F1B: It’s funny you mention Twitter, because from an outsiders point of view, it feels like Formula 1 is behind the bend with new technology. The move to high definition was several years later than other sports including the Premier League, whilst Formula One Management (FOM) are still in 2014 running an automated Twitter feed. Do you think some within the paddock are ‘old school’ and don’t appreciate the value of social media?

OW: I can see why that might be the view, but [I] actually believe that F1 has tried to keep up and satisfy the broadcasters’ demands, and you only need to look at Sky’s output to see this. The second screen has become a phenomenon, and the use of virtual advertising is at the heart of technological developments to enhance revenue via tailored territorial advertising. I do not disagree that FOM should be more embracing towards social and digital media, and inevitably this will have to evolve, but concentration on the live output is the core principle that is enshrined, and anything else has to complement that and ensure the broadcasters and consumers receive the requisite offering.

F1B: Whilst on the subject of social media, I want to ask about double points. Over the past few months we have seen the backlash concerning double points, however it feels that fans view points are being ignored. If anything the loss of FOTA has meant that one of the last bridges between the paddock and fans has disappeared.

OW: During my tenure, when there were issues affecting all teams, we would generally try and discuss them in a cordial manner ahead of the respective meetings. Sometimes there was an agreed position, and often there was not. Unfortunately double points was presented by the Commercial Rights Holder (CRH) initially to the Strategy Group and thereafter to the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC). The reasoning was presented to the teams and they had their own reasoning for voting in favour. This was not an issue we discussed at FOTA level, given the status of FOTA at that point in time, when most discussions were focused on the requirement (or otherwise) to retain an association. Time will tell if the reasoning to introduce double points is strong enough to outweigh the fans’ voice, which as you point out, was a severe rebuke for the Teams. There was a plan for a series of fan “surveys” to be conducted globally online in 2014 under the auspices of FOTA, and this is certainly one issue which could have been addressed.

F1B: If we may just for a second go back to the new technologies point above, video sharing websites such as YouTube have been around for a decade. MotoGP has a YouTube channel, the IndyCar Series has a YouTube, yet Formula 1 doesn’t.

OW: Why don’t they have a YouTube channel? I know from my Premier League days that they wanted to prevent their content being uploaded and this was to protect the value of the broadcasters’ rights. There is an argument that there should be more tailored content available, whether that is on FOM’s website or YouTube. You have to also remember how the broadcasting deals are structured.

Interestingly, since I chatted with Weingarten, there have been a few interesting developments concerning FOM. The premium version of the official F1 Timing App includes exclusive team radio and English commentary. Furthermore ‘Formula One Digital Media Limited‘ was registered as a new company at Companies House on February 27th, whilst a video explaining the rule changes and giving a season preview was uploaded to the official Formula 1 website on March 10th, with archive footage included. Are FOM finally beginning to realise that the digital future is here, and now? I hope so.

In part two, myself and Weingarten continue chatting about Formula 1, as our focus switches towards the current television broadcasting model and whether FOTA was doomed to fail from the get go.