F1 2017 struggles off the grid, but displays promise

Formula 1 returned to the television screens this past weekend with the Australian Grand Prix, as Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel claimed victory. In the UK, viewing figures continued to struggle off the back off last year, but there are some promising signs going forward.

To start the year, I want to remind readers that all viewing figures presented on the site are Live + VOSDAL (Video on Same Day as Live). As an example, if you recorded Channel 4’s highlights programme, and watched it before 02:00 the same day, you would be counted as a viewer in the Live + VOSDAL viewing figures (also known as ‘overnight viewing figures’).

The overnight viewing figures reported include advertisements. Secondly, the numbers include Channel 4’s +1 service. Over on Sky Sports F1, the reported number of this site is for their three-and-a-half-hour slot which covers Pit Lane Live and the Race itself, so for example from 12:00 to 15:30.

Race
Live coverage of the race, broadcast on Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports F1 from 05:00 to 08:30, averaged 395k (22.2%), an increase on last year’s audience of 360k (24.8%). The raw share is down slightly year-on-year, which is due to the clocks moving forward by one hour, meaning that the total available audience for breakfast programming was slightly higher. The race peaked with 636k (38.7%) at 06:35 as Sebastian Vettel claimed the lead, a nice increase of 14 percent on last year’s peak figure of 559k (37.4%).

In terms of the split, 315k watched on the dedicated F1 channel, with a further 80k watching on Sky Sports 1. Including VOSDAL, an audience of 552k (37.2%) were watching Sky’s coverage as the race started at 06:05. This grew consistently as the battle between Vettel’s Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes continued in the early stages, hitting the peak of 636k at 06:35. At this point, audiences dropped back down to 585k (35.7%), stabilising just under 600k before jumping back up to 622k (27.1%) as Vettel took the chequered flag. Bear in mind that, in this context, the drops and increases are likely to be viewers ‘fast playing’ through their recordings or vice versa.

Highlights of the race, broadcast on Channel 4 from 14:00 to 16:35, averaged 1.65m (20.6%), a drop of 22 percent on 2016’s average audience of 2.11m (19.0%). The total television audience yesterday whilst Formula 1 was on-air was significantly lower than twelve months ago: 8.0m vs 11.1m, contributing to the audience drop. Channel 4’s coverage peaked with 2.07m (26.0%) at 15:10, a drop of around 600k on last year’s peak audience of 2.67m (21.9%). Again, note the stark difference in share year-on-year. In comparison, the BBC’s highlights coverage in 2014 peaked with 3.15m (26.4%). Therefore, the raw shares for 2017 are not a problem, but the low audience is an issue.

The combined average audience of 2.04 million viewers is the lowest for Australia on record, and down 424k on last year’s audience of 2.47 million viewers. Compared with 2015, the combined audience has dropped 42 percent. The combined peak audience of 2.70 million viewers is down on 2016’s peak audience of 3.23 million viewers.

Qualifying
Live coverage of qualifying across Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports F1 from 05:00 to 07:40 averaged 254k (12.6%), a slight increase on last year’s audience of 235k (14.7%). The session itself peaked with 481k (14.6%) at 07:05 as Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position. Although the average audience increased year-on-year, Sky’s combined audience is down on the figures recorded for 2014 and 2015 by around 25 percent.

Channel 4’s highlights programme, which aired from 13:00 to 14:45 on Saturday afternoon, averaged 1.22m (18.2%). The number decreased in volume compared to 2016 (1.38m/15.4%), but increased in share thanks to the warmer weather. A peak audience of 1.69m (24.6%) were watching Channel 4’s coverage at 14:20, compared with 1.74m (17.9%) last year. Small drops all around for the broadcaster, but the numbers are healthy enough to not be concerning at this stage.

The combined audience of 1.48 million viewers is the lowest for the Australian Grand Prix qualifying session on record, however the combined peak audience held up with 2.17 million, above last year’s combined peak audience by just 9,000 viewers! The story here is that fewer people watched qualifying ‘live’ (for both broadcasters) compared to previous years, spinning through advert breaks and deflating the average audiences slightly as a result.

Analysis
One of the beautiful things about working with data is that there is never simply one answer to why a given data point shows X. The Australian Grand Prix viewing figures are a fantastic example of where the data on the surface looks extremely poor, but there are justifiable reasons to back up why the data shows what it does.

On track, both the live coverage on Sky and Channel 4’s highlights programme peaked when Sebastian Vettel took the lead. That should not be a surprise as the main action ‘ended’ at that point. Afterwards in both broadcasts, the audience dropped slightly. Certainly Vettel taking the lead at the stage that he did, combined with no supplementary battles to keep the viewer enticed, led to figures dropping away.

Off track, there were two main factors, both of which relate to Channel 4. The weather was warmer over the weekend. Warmer weather means that there are fewer people inside watching the television. By the time the evening came around, some viewers may have already found out the result via other means, and deleted the recording. Secondly, it was Mother’s Day in the UK, which again would have depleted viewing figures. Formula 1’s audience on Channel 4 was down 424k year-on-year, yet the total available audience for the slot was down 3.1 million year-on-year. Lack of football on Sky should have helped Channel 4, but the warm weather and Mother’s Day countered that effect.

I am not defending the figures by any stretch, but it is critical to place viewing figures into context. It is too early to say whether the drops seen in Melbourne are a sign of things to come, or a one-off occurrence to start the 2017 season.

The 2016 Australian Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.

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News round-up: Sky linked with MotoGP; F1 App updates for 2017

In the news round-up, more speculation on where MotoGP could be going next, whilst the official F1 app is given an early Spring clean ready for the 2017 season.

Sky set to take MotoGP off BT Sport?
A report from Bikesport News has linked Sky Sports with MotoGP’s UK rights, which BT Sport currently holds until the end of 2018. In response to their report, Sky’s Euan Fordyce said, “I’m afraid we don’t comment on rights we don’t currently have, so we are unable to help on this occasion.”

I do not know what prompted the report, however given the amount of money BT Sport have splashed out to retain the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, it is not surprising to see Bikesport News’ piece.

Their piece does corroborate with what was reported on this site last month. It looks like the relationship between BT and Dorna is not as rosy as it could be, but I do not want to emphasise that point simply because media outlets reported the same on the BT/UEFA front, and we know what happened there…

Sky Sports were previously involved in MotoGP in the early 1990s under its previous mantra, with Keith Huewen and Julian Ryder providing commentary. The rights soon moved over to British Eurosport as Sky focussed on the Superbike World Championship

As of writing, there is no official news about who will be broadcasting MotoGP highlights in the UK, but expect some news on that front imminently.

Superbike action resumes
The World Superbike Championship was the first major international series to get back underway at the end of February live on Eurosport, and with it, there was a personnel change. Gregory Haines, who was lead World Superbikes commentator for Dorna in 2016, has moved over to Eurosport, succeeding Jack Burnicle as their World Superbikes commentator.

In the overnight viewing figures, the first round of the season from Philip Island peaked with 55k (6.2%) at 04:30 on Sunday morning (including VOSDAL) as the second Superbikes race of the weekend concluded. As a comparison, last year’s MotoGP race from the same track on BT Sport 2 averaged 126k (10.7%), peaking with 176k according to numbers supplied by Overnights.tv.

Elsewhere in the superbike world, ITV have extended their contract to cover the British Superbike series in highlights form until the end of the 2020 season.

F1 App updates for 2017
The official Formula 1 app has received an update ready for the 2017 season. Aside from an update to the user interface, there is no major change for readers. There was some confusion around whether the content will be different depending on location, however this site can confirm that users will receive the same content regardless of location.

On a related note, I mentioned last October that users in the Netherlands were testing a new version of an app featuring in-car footage during live sessions. This site understands that live in-car footage is still on the cards to feature, but at what stage during the season is unclear due to hurdles that need to be cleared. The delivery method also needs to be agreed with each broadcaster.

ITV F1 – twenty years on
ITV’s F1 coverage launched twenty years ago this week, with the 1997 Australian Grand Prix. As readers may have noticed, there has been a running theme so far throughout the year so far looking at various aspects of ITV’s coverage, including flashback pieces looking at past races (thanks to all who said that they would like to see these continue).

There is a lot of reading over here for those of you that fancy a trip down memory lane and want to relieve some more ITV F1 goodness.

Formula E jumps to second highest number ever

The power of being live on free-to-air television in primetime showed yesterday, as Formula E recorded its highest number in the UK since the 2015 London ePrix, overnight viewing figures show.

Race
Live coverage of the Buenos Aires ePrix, which aired on Channel 5 from 18:30 to 20:15, averaged 426k (2.2%). This is one of Formula E’s highest ever numbers, only behind the second race of the 2015 London ePrix weekend, which averaged 700k (6.8%) on ITV. Yesterday’s number was higher than the 2016 season finale in London. That race averaged 411k (3.8%), albeit in a longer slot on ITV. Last year’s Buenos Aires ePrix on ITV4 averaged 132k (0.6%), peaking with 248k (1.2%).

Yesterday’s ePrix, won by Sebastien Buemi, hit a 5-minute peak of 604k (3.2%) at 19:05, the series’ second highest peak number ever, again behind London 2015 (1.18 million) and ahead of London 2016 (600,000). What might take the edge off yesterday’s numbers is that not all the viewers stuck with the race action, with audiences stabilising around 500,000 viewers.

The average audience was in-line with Channel 5’s slot average for 16 to 54 year olds, but significantly down on Channel 5’s usual audience in that slot amongst the older 55+ age group. The FA Cup game between Wolves and Chelsea on BT Sport 2 from 17:00 to 20:00 averaged 652k (4.0%), higher than Formula E’s free-to-air audience.

Qualifying and Analysis
Live coverage of qualifying on Spike from 14:45 to 16:20 averaged 60k (0.7%), peaking with 91k (1.0%) at 16:05.

There are certainly positives to take away from Formula E’s figures yesterday, the demographic breakdown being one of them. Recording an audience, which tripled last years’ number on ITV4, justifies Formula E’s decision to agree a deal with Channel 5. The main negative is that the audience share (2.2%) is low for a free-to-air broadcast on Channel 5, and lower than both the programme before it, and the programme after it.

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Formula 1’s UK viewing figures drop significantly year-on-year

The move of Formula 1 from the BBC to Channel 4, along with a familiar story at the front of the field, resulted in viewing figures dropping significantly between 2015 and 2016, overnight numbers show.

> Channel 4’s audience down 1.25 million compared with BBC’s coverage
> Sky increases year-on-year
> Combined audience likely lowest since 2006

The viewing figures in this article are overnight average audiences supplied by Overnights.tv for Channel 4’s and Sky Sports’ broadcasts, including Sky Sports 1, 2 and Mix where applicable. Sky’s numbers are for their three and a half hour broadcast covering ‘Pit Lane Live’ and the race itself from 12:00 to 15:30, or applicable.

Overnight viewing figures, otherwise known as Live + VOSDAL (Viewing On Same Day As Live) include anyone who watched the programming before 02:00 the next morning. For example, if you recorded the live race broadcast, but watched it at 18:00 on Sunday evening, you would be counted in the overnight viewing figures.

This article excludes on demand methods of viewing, such as All 4 and Sky Go. However, on demand viewing is expected to be down by some margin year on year, as a result of Formula 1’s move to Channel 4, and therefore away from BBC iPlayer.

Channel 4’s overnight viewing figures
In 2016, Channel 4 aired ten races live, with the other eleven covered in highlights form. Their race day programming across 2016 averaged 1.96 million viewers. Their live races averaged 2.18 million viewers, with their highlight shows averaging 1.76 million viewers. Clearly it can be argued that the highlights programming in unfavourable time slots have dragged Channel 4’s average audiences down.

The season highlight for Channel 4 was live coverage of the Mexican Grand Prix which averaged 2.89m (12.6%) from 18:00 to 21:00 in October, with the low light an audience of just 841k for the US Grand Prix highlights programme a week before. Disappointingly for the channel, audiences failed to grow in the latter half of 2016. Considering the context of the championship, the Malaysian Grand Prix underperformed as did the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

“Our first year covering Formula 1 has been as exciting as the championship itself and the millions who have tuned in week in week out reflect that. It’s been gripping from start to finish and we can’t wait for the 2017 season to get under way.” – Stephen Lyle, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Sport and Formula 1

Last year, the BBC’s coverage averaged 3.11 million viewers, meaning that Channel 4’s 2016 audience was down 36.8 percent. The drop is sharper than expected. Scheduling of the American fly away races did not help. There is a lot to be said for Channel 4’s promotion, or lack of, as the season progressed.

Across different demographics, the larger drops have been across the older audience, but nevertheless viewing has dropped across all demographics (although the 16-34 drop is smaller). It should be noted though that Channel 4’s Formula 1 programming thrashed slot averages across the year, and does show what Formula 1 can bring to a terrestrial television channel.

Channel 4’s programming recorded an average race day peak audience of 2.75 million viewers. Three races stood head and shoulders above the rest: Britain (3.89 million), Mexico (3.93 million) and Abu Dhabi (3.85 million). I think there will be disappointment that Channel 4’s Formula 1 programming did not break the 4 million peak barrier once. Nor did any other races get anywhere close to the peak figures mentioned above, the fourth highest peak was Bahrain (3.24 million).

Sky’s overnight viewing figures
Live coverage of the 21 races on Sky Sports in 2016 have averaged 669k from 12:00 to 15:30 or equivalent, up 4.9 percent on 2015. In a year of tough competition battling against the Olympics, Euro 2016 and the longest ever season, that is an impressive figure, showing tough resilience against the competition. Oddly, Sky’s coverage does rate better in the even-numbered years which is an interesting stat.

Since 2012, Sky’s coverage has averaged 709k, 640k, 790k, 638k and now 669k. So it has flip-flopped up and down. That’s probably not a good thing as there is no real trend other than stagnation. Sky has found their audience and simply halted there without being able to reach out further. Bear in mind too that 2016’s audience includes the various simulcasts on Sky Sports 1, 2 and Mix, whereas these simulcasts were not happening in 2012.

The highlight of Sky’s Formula 1 coverage in 2016 was a peak audience of 1.75 million viewers for the extended Brazilian Grand Prix, the second highest peak for a Formula 1 race on Sky only behind the 2014 United States Grand Prix. Strong numbers in the second half of 2016 helped Sky overcome its deficit that it faced year-on-year at the midway stage of the season where it looked like Sky was heading for a record low.

Overall, eight races increased their viewing figures for Sky year-on-year, whilst the remaining eleven races dropped (the other two were not on the calendar last year). You might be wondering how this results in an overall increase, but the title battle going down to the wire was significant for Sky: both Brazil and Abu Dhabi’s numbers doubled year-on-year which is very rare and shows how much broadcasters suffered when the championship race finishes early.

In my opinion, Sky’s figures are not good enough. If Sky are failing to increase their viewing figures now, will they be able to do so come 2019? Before we know it, 2019 will be here and Sky don’t look to be in a position where they can reach out to a breed of Formula 1 fans. That’s not good for the success of Formula 1 in this country.

Overall audiences
During 2016, a combined average audience of 2.63 million viewers watched Formula 1’s 21 races across Channel 4 and Sky Sports, a drop of 29.7 percent on 2015’s average audience of 3.74 million viewers across the BBC and Sky. By the overnight audience metric, it is the lowest audience for a Formula 1 season since records began in 2006. However, once consolidated audiences are calculated, it is likely that 2016 will jump above 2006. Nevertheless, viewing figures are down on last season. This was to be expected. No one knew by how much, though. The size of the drop might surprise some.

Most races were down around 35 percent, but there were some exceptions. The five best races year-on-year were Mexico (up 32%), Abu Dhabi (up 16%), Belgium (down 11%), Austria (down 19%) and Japan (down 26%). By the peak metric, the five best races year-on-year were Mexico (up 36%), Abu Dhabi (up 35%), Belgium (down 5%), Austria (down 12%) and Britain (down 15%). Mexico was up considerably as it was shown live on free-to-air television, whilst Abu Dhabi was the championship decider, and arguably should have been a lot higher than the peak audience of 4.99 million viewers that it recorded.

As referenced above, the peak audiences for three races were considerably higher than the rest, which I don’t think is a good thing. It suggests that the audience is being ‘trained’ to pick and choose what races they want to watch instead of tuning in to watch the complete season. One reason: 21 races is too much and the casual fan simply cannot commit to watching all 21 races.

Why did the British Grand Prix peak with 4.99 million viewers but the Hungarian race two weeks later peak with 4.16 million viewers? Historically, Hungary has been a few hundred thousand behind Silverstone when looking at the peak viewing audiences, not nearly a million viewers behind. It is questions like this that Channel 4 should be asking to try to work out where best to advertise Formula 1. Channel 4’s bill boards and cross channel advertising disappeared after a few races. Next season, these need to continue or be more spread out across the whole season.

Austria, Britain and Belgium did not disgrace themselves year-on-year which gave hope that audiences would hold up in the second half of the season. What followed was a spectacular drop, where audiences dropped five times in a row from 2.60 million in Belgium to 1.83 million in USA. At the same time, Nico Rosberg’s stranglehold on the championship took shape, recording four out of six wins in this period. Arguably, Rosberg stopped the momentum (from a UK ratings perspective) that had built up before the Summer break and the viewing figures support this theory.

On demand viewing likely to be down and final thoughts
The switch from the BBC to Channel 4 has meant that Formula 1 content is no longer available on BBC iPlayer. Figures from BARB for the week ending 27th November show that BBC iPlayer had nearly seven times more live streaming requests that All 4, and five times more on-demand requests. This will have impacted Formula 1’s on demand reach year-on-year, and probably resulted in a downturn year-on-year. The likes of Sky Go and Now TV will have trended upwards I imagine, but are both unlikely to negate the loss of BBC iPlayer. As of writing, there is no word on how BBC’s radio coverage performed compared with 2015, but I will update this site if figures are revealed.

As I’ve always said, any drop is disappointing. But to expect Channel 4’s figures to match the BBC’s from the outset was plain unrealistic. A drop of 36 percent was higher than I anticipated across the year, but not an immediate shock when the first few races started to come in. Some of that might be down to Channel 4, some of that down to the quality of the racing and the championship fight. Announcing that live Formula 1 was leaving free-to-air television from 2019 onwards after Channel 4’s very first race might have done more harm than good for the sport this season.

The aim for 2017 has to be to hold onto the existing audience, and build on it for the next generation. Whether that is easier said than done depends on how the 2017 season unfolds. Funnily enough, the person who was partly responsible for the audience decline throughout the year has now retired. If that results in a new championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and another contender, audiences could increase. The problem in 2016 was that Rosberg did not have a large UK fan base. He wasn’t Sebastian Vettel, who increased audience figures back in 2011. There is a lot of work to do to hook viewers onto Formula 1 in 2017, and the direction Mercedes go with their second driver could dictate the direction viewing figures head…

Sky and the BBC declined to comment.

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After Rosberg’s exit, what happens next?

In my Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ratings report, I said that the UK viewing public did not find the duel between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in 2016 as exciting as their first battle in 2014. This comes from purely anecdotal observations, the impression that I got was that the Hamilton and Rosberg rivalry did not excite or bring in new fans to the sport. This, alongside general apathy in recent years thanks to rule tinkering for example, has resulted in declining interest.

I noted how Formula 1 needed someone new and different to challenge the authority in 2017. Just five days after Abu Dhabi, the bombshell was confirmed: the reigning champion Nico Rosberg would be retiring from Formula 1 with immediate effect. Immediately, 2017 just became much more interesting. Potentially. Liberty Media and Bernie Ecclestone will be keeping a close eye on what happens next, and perhaps even trying to influence who joins Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes.

I rarely venture into speculation within the drivers’ market, but the potential impact on viewing figures both here in the UK and overseas will be significant depending on what direction Mercedes heads into. I’m going to assume that the pecking order will remain roughly the same with the Silver Arrows in front, however the rule changes could lead to a shake-up. Here, we examine the possibilities and which combination will serve up the most enticing season:

Scenario 1 – Sebastian Vettel partners Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes
Despite Sebastian Vettel’s dominance at the head of Formula 1 between 2010 and 2013, viewing figures held up remarkably well in the UK. 2010 and 2011 saw the highest Formula 1 ratings in the UK for a generation, although it is unknown whether that was down to him or instead due to the other stories of that time. His controversial win in the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix peaked with six million viewers, whilst two years later his surprise win against Hamilton peaked with a similar audience.

You cannot outright claim that X or Y driver ‘draws’ more viewers without sufficient evidence, as there are a wide variety of factors involved: time of day, weather, other sporting events and so on, but races where Vettel is leading tend to draw a larger audience than where he is struggling. Vettel’s dominance was done in such a way that it became appealing to audiences watching: the style in which he was able to throw his car into places others were unwilling to tread. A Vettel and Hamilton partnership would help viewing figures in both Germany and the UK. It would also remove Vettel from Ferrari, where he has been the underdog against Mercedes in recent times.

This scenario is unlikely (Vettel himself denied it shortly after this piece was written), but if you wanted two champions in one team, Vettel has to be at the top of Mercedes’ Christmas list. I think a Vettel move would also create another battle for the Ferrari number one seat, which could result in a further domino effect.

Scenario 2 – Mercedes swoop for one Red Bull driver, Kvyat takes the spare Bull seat
The idea of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at this stage of Verstappen’s career is a mouth-watering prospect, but one that the British driver would probably veto. A reverse of 2007 is not a situation Hamilton would want to be in. From the casual punter perspective, interest would surge in the Netherlands as a result of this move. Verstappen would find himself in potentially a title-winning position in only his third season. However, interest is likely to increase anyway if Verstappen continues to improve.

You could have a blockbuster 2017 with Verstappen and Hamilton at Mercedes, but would the two drivers coexist? And if so, for how long? I couldn’t see this partnership lasting beyond a season. If Hamilton walked, would he walk from Formula 1 as a whole? For Formula 1, this scenario is far more dangerous than the others mentioned. If Verstappen joined Mercedes, it could trigger a series of moves over the next season or two assuming Hamilton did not want to work with Verstappen.

Interest would increase, but with more volatility the bubble could burst far, far quicker if this avenue was explored. I wouldn’t like to predict this one…

Scenario 3 – Fernando Alonso partners Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, Button comes out of retirement
A rekindling of their 2007 rivalry, and more in line with the first scenario. Alonso in the Mercedes would help reignite interest in Formula 1 in Spain, which has dwindled slightly since his title-winning years in 2005 and 2006. Now that Alonso is in the latter stages of his career, this opportunity could be his last chance of winning a championship. You would imagine that the respect between Alonso and Hamilton is greater now than what it was back in 2007.

If McLaren let Alonso go, in theory it could lead to the return of Jenson Button to partner Stoffel Vandoorne. Abu Dhabi did have some kind of ‘finality’ to it though and I don’t see Button wanting to return to McLaren if a vacancy did appear. An alternative would be for Button to jump to Mercedes for a final swan song whilst they prepare the man mentioned below…

Scenario 4 – Pascal Wehrlein partners Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes
This is a difficult situation. As a fan, I want to see new talent up at the sharp end in Formula 1. But, I fear that another season of Mercedes domination would result in a Hamilton walkover in this scenario. Yes, Wehrlein is ready for Formula 1, of course he is. Some of his standout qualifying performances with Manor this year support that theory.

But, if Mercedes were a clear front-runner, and if Wehrlein was a clear number two driver, then the 2017 season will lack a championship battle. That won’t be good for worldwide viewing figures. You don’t want an artificial fight by any stretch of the imagination. I would prefer to see the likes of Valtteri Bottas or Nico Hulkenberg receive a chance at Mercedes, with Wehrlein promoted elsewhere.

I say all the above without having seen a 2017 car turned in anger yet. Mercedes could be a flop with the new regulations (highly unlikely, I know). For me, the idea of having Lewis Hamilton partner either Verstappen, Alonso, Vettel or Ricciardo with both drivers running the same equipment is a prospect that I would love to see, whether it happens for one season or five. Some of those combinations will bring new fans to Formula 1. The next few weeks could dictate the prospects for the next few seasons. Will Mercedes shake the Formula 1 cart, or will they go with the ‘safer’ option in Wehrlein? We’re about to find out…