Author Archives: Peter Habicht

ESPN’s 2018 Formula 1 debut with the Australian GP

In arguably the most competitive sports and entertainment television markets in the world, Formula One got its start to the 2018 season off on shaky footing.

For West coast viewing in America, where I moderate a group that gathers to follow the season together, the Australian GP weekend’s live coverage finds a larger audience with most sessions starting between 10 and 11 pm.  The lights went out at 10:10 pm Saturday night for the season opener, which meant our watch party in San Francisco drew a sizable crowd with over 50 fans packed into a local sports bar to watch live.

The San Francisco Formula 1 group has been following F1 together since 2005, and it’s been a pleasure meeting and interacting with fellow F1 fans whose passion and excitement for the sport has meant a commitment to waking up at strange hours while avoiding spoilers. 

There was more than the usual anticipation for this year’s Australian GP in the group, and with the return of broadcaster ESPN, many were interested to learn who they’d be sharing part of their weekends with going forward after NBCSN’s departure.  In the paddock, Will Buxton and Jason Swales covered a disproportionate amount every race, updating fans in bursts between advertisements before, during and after every race, with remote commentary from Leigh Diffey, Steve Matchett and David Hobbs.

Who would take the place of all these people?  Fans could only wonder as the bottom half of the hour approached and they waited for new presenters and a new pre-race show “Formula 1: On The Grid” to start.  What ensued were atmosphere shots, no graphics and no commentary.

Naturally, twitter exploded:

After viewers looked upon a sunny afternoon Melbourne and an empty circuit, they were treated to a commercial break, then the second attempt at live footage featuring crowd shots again with no commentary or graphics.  Absent any contribution to original content to this point, ESPN then chose to re-run an episode of E:60’s presentation of the 20 most dominant NBA teams.

It happens sometimes in the sport, when a driver pulls in to box and his crew is nowhere to be seen.  Usually the radios bring everyone to the car within seconds, but this night it was 19 minutes and 25 seconds until fans finally saw (and heard) two English chaps in the form of 1996 Drivers’ Champion Damon Hill and Simon Lazenby from Sky F1 appear on the grid, mid-sentence.  Sky’s portion of the show had now begun, without any introduction, and it was clear to fans in America that they were now watching a new team of presenters without the benefit of any opening remarks, explanation or acknowledgments to a new audience.

ESPN’s choice to use Sky’s coverage had been announced just before the weekend, and as the practice sessions got started, I was interested to learn how many American based F1 viewers were new to Sky’s presenters, so in a twitter poll during the weekend over 250 respondents watching F1 in the US were asked if had they ever seen a Sky Formula 1 broadcast.  Roughly half prior to the 2018 season replied they had never seen Sky F1’s coverage of the sport.

Sky did their usual stellar job with a seasoned team of presenters and crew, a solid grid walk from Martin Brundle and a routine start began the evening, but just how would ESPN go to commercial, and then catch everyone up on the action they missed?  Eight minutes after the start, we found out as the first break featured side by side advertising as Sergei Sirotkin pulled over in his Williams, speaking with Head of Vehicle Performance Rob Smedley on lap 6.

ESPN’s side by side broadcast on lap 6 of the 2018 Australian Grand Prix

With Busch beer on offer in the commercial and fans wondering what had happened on Sirotkin’s car, Smedley mouthed with his driver via headset while the audience listened to a confused hunter on hold repeating “representative” while staring blankly into the distance.  We all could suddenly relate at that moment.

The advertisements alternated between full screen and muted side-by-side coverage, and as if by luck, managed to stay on the race at its crux when Vettel overtook Hamilton in the pits.  It’s fair to say ESPN’s coverage of the season opener was tough to watch, and post race interview coverage was nonexistent.

Keep in mind that SKY F1’s team already produces an award-winning show, which ESPN repurposed for an American F1 audience.  What viewing audiences saw was the result of a seemingly very last minute attempt by ESPN, not too different from when a student is assigned to write 1,000 words on a subject, leaves it to the last minute, and then copies Wikipedia’s entry.  After cutting and pasting 1,200 words into a 1,000-word maximum answer space with no edits, it’s obvious what’s going on to the reader.

A source of frustration felt by many watching the broadcast in San Francisco last weekend was that there had been an entire offseason to sort out these kinds of difficulties, and plenty of available suggestions (and consultants) from the folks at NBCSN who’ve come up against the same issues and heard their share of similar complaints.  The problem (we hope) would appear to have less to do with an ability to implement the necessary changes, and more with ESPN’s ability to generate production.

Thankfully, ESPN issued a public apology for their broadcast:

We deeply apologize to Formula 1 fans for the technical issues that caused them to miss the first 20 minutes of the pre-race show for the Australian Grand Prix. We are sorry that our first F1 telecast did not go as smoothly as we would have liked but we are taking steps to prevent those same issues from occurring in the future. We thank the fans for watching and for their incredible passion for Formula 1.

ESPN wasn’t the only ones to experience technical difficulties down under, and as the screenshot below shows, FOM’s new graphics package came up short as well.  For ESPN’s part, online feedback has been vocal and creative with suggestions from ticker-style updates during advertisements and ticker-style advertisements during the race without interruption to other forms of commentary to maintain continuity for viewers.  ESPN will have to do their homework, making changes ahead of Bahrain, while.  Two weeks should be plenty of time to sketch an outline if they’re prepared to commit the resources.

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A Chat with Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team’s Trackside Aerodynamicist, Kim Stevens

Mercedes AMG F1 Team Trackside Aerodynamicist Kim Stevens on the podium with Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen in Abu Dhabi, 2015.  Photo credit:  Sutton Images (@suttonimages)

Kim Stevens is the trackside aerodynamicist for Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team, responsible for collecting and measuring the effectiveness of the latest aero upgrades and improvements at each race weekend.  With 850 team members at the team’s UK headquarters in Brackley and 550 at Mercedes’ Brixton facility, each acts in concert with the 60 team members each race weekend. The measurements she helps collect provides some of the first real world data that the team can use to understand the cars’ performance on the circuit and improve upon in future car development.

A graduate of Ohio State University, Kim’s path to Formula 1 began with a passion for speed and motion where she was part of the engineering school’s ‘Buckeye Bullet’ team.

I had the chance to meet with Kim at the USGP in 2016, where she sat down to talk about her love of cars from a young age and a love of Formula 1.  Her journey to the sport is an example for more others who are interested in creating their own opportunities in racing, and her enthusiasm and passion for the work and the sport are truly remarkable:

So I’ve always been into fast cars, not necessarily racing cars, but exotic cars like Lamborghinis, since I was very tiny.  Nobody knows why, really. Nobody else in my family is, but there is just something that just really draws me to cars, going fast, and the sound.

I’ve always been passionate about cars, and airplanes, always been quite interested in airplanes. When I was little it became clear I was pretty good at math, so the aerodynamics thing was kind of a natural choice, really. I didn’t really have kind of an epiphany moment, it was more well, that sounds like a good thing to study in school.

Whilst I was learning, I started to learn CFD (computational fluid dynamics, a method of studying how objects move through a medium) because I was involved in a student project in school called the ‘Buckeye Bullet’ [video], an electric land speed record car.

It’s a project that’s been ongoing for over a decade now, with various iterations of the car, and two of the vehicles I worked on set land speed records both over 300 mph on salt flats. So, in order to design the body of these cars I needed a bit of help, with practical knowledge and not just the theoretical stuff you learn with a normal degree.

In learning CFD, that’s when it became super clear that there was a good opportunity to apply this to motorsport. It all just happened kind of serendipitously. I got my BSE in aerospace engineering, so once I was there, I worked on the land speed record car while I was in school. I also did a student co-op program at Honda R&D in America, so that’s actually where I learned a lot of the practical applications of aerodynamics, through my job with Honda.

I took a quarter off from school to work at Honda, and I liked earning a living there and they liked me working there so much that I ended up working with Honda pretty much for 3 1/2 years straight just a few days a week while I was still in school. It was pretty natural for me, because Honda was still in Formula 1 while I was still in school, so there was that link to the sport.

Honda had a subcontractor for their CFD department that worked closely with the Buckeye Bullet who knew that I loved working in motorsport. It wasn’t just watching the races that I liked, I was actually getting amongst it. It was all pretty natural. It was through my work with Honda that I got my first job at Sauber F1 Team.

There was an engineer that we worked with that my boss ended up knowing very well from Honda CFD who started to work at Sauber. That was my most direct link to F1, so when I was graduating, my CV was sent to Sauber with a note from my boss at Honda explaining that I was super keen on F1, and to ‘give her a look’. The rest is kind of history.

I interviewed for Sauber in November of 2007, signed a contract within a month, then graduated in June and three weeks later started working in Switzerland.

Kim’s trajectory was fairly swift to the sport, so of all the motorsport opportunities here in America, especially Indycar, what was it about Formula 1 that drew her to live so far away from home?

For me it was about Formula 1 because it became quite clear through working with the folks at Honda F1 that the sport had the best resources, the cars are the fastest, they go all over the world, it was always going to be F1 for me, if it could be. So it was really quite cool the way it worked out that it did.

As one of few visible Americans in the sport, how did it feel to be racing in front of a home audience?

I really like it, it’s always nice to come and see Americans that actually understand what it is that I do and why I might do it, because there were a lot of people questioning when I was at Ohio State and packing up my house to move to Switzerland. My friends were like, ‘Why are you going to move to Switzerland to work on racing cars? Why don’t you go to California?’

I told them ‘No, you don’t understand, you don’t have Formula 1 in California. They look like Indycars, but no, they’re not Indycars. Yes they are open wheel cars, but they are not [Formula 1 cars].’

So I really do like coming here, and the fans that have embraced F1 here properly get it, and they know why.

It is super exciting, and I wear my cowboy boots when the cars are running, which is quite nice – I get a little bit of a pass to be super American, and for once we’re surrounded by people that talk like me rather than like all the other English people in the team. Yeah, it’s good!

For other Americans interested in getting involved in the sport, Kim had a few thoughts:

To be honest, in this business, especially to get in the first time, it’s all about who you know.

What I’ve told people, and students have asked me, is just get involved with anything you can that’s motorsport related. If you work hard enough, and show enough passion, somebody somewhere will notice, and try to help you out.

Programs like Formula SAE and Formula Student are one way young engineers can gain valuable experience working towards a career in motorsport, but with so many participants in these, Kim mentioned it always helps to be involved in something a little special to help stand out.

At Ohio State there were 60 people working on the Formula Student team, and it was hard to stand out as doing something special with so many teams and people involved, I’m sure in Formula 1 they get a lot of CV’s that list Formula Student experience.

What I would actually recommend is to try to find something special. There were 12 of us on the Buckeye Bullet at a time. When I had my interview at Sauber, the head of CFD and the head of aero were really impressed by that project, and I think with Formula Student, [Formula 1 teams] have seen it all before.

Whilst there is some really interesting stuff happening there, unless you do something to spectacularly stand out there, it’s hard to get noticed. Nothing against that program, it is really cool, and you learn a lot, but again, so many people try to get jobs in Formula 1 that you’ve really got to find something special, and the more you get involved in something, the better your chances are, especially finding links in industries that might somehow feed into Formula 1.

Kim went on to explain:

Let’s look at which companies represent other companies, for example: There’s some aerodynamics consultancies I know of in Columbus, Ohio that whilst they don’t necessarily work for someone in Formula 1 right now, they have a lot of Formula 1 personnel. So it’s about trying to find anything you can that’s motorsport related that interests you that you think you might excel in, and then trying to use that network to find your way in.

Formula 1 cars are the fastest in the world, you can show so many statistics on how quickly a Formula 1 car can go around a corner. You can compare that, for example, to [the Formula 1] safety car, which is a fantastic sports car. Most people would kill to have an AMG GT (Formula 1’s current safety car), but then you look at how that goes around circuit of the Americas compared to a Formula 1 car – it doesn’t come close. I think that’s a great way to sell Formula 1 to Americans, just how amazing the cars are, but also, its a super dynamic, global fast-paced sport.

[Americans] love sports like basketball, whilst many Europeans comment that American football is a bit of a slow game. It’s not, when you actually understand the game it’s quite quick. They slow it down a little bit to give the guys a chance to catch their breath, but it’s a cool, fast-paced game. To sell some of that speed and intensity, I think, blends well with the American style with what Americans like.

That speed and intensity isn’t just what fans see on the track, either, as Kim explained:

I heard from an old friend at the circuit today who texted me and wanted to know if I had some time between 10 and 3, and I had to let them know I was working flat out. Pretty much between when we land on a Tuesday night and fly out on a Sunday or Monday, I’m busy. I think if Americans can see the behind the scenes stuff, that would help also.

Everyone sees a fast pit stop, but they don’t necessarily know how much intensity goes into it. You hear a lot about how often NBA and NFL players practice in training camp, and we have a lot of the same stuff. For me Formula 1 is the professional sport that a lot of people can participate in who don’t need to be physically gifted, so for me this is my NBA or NFL, which I think you can sell, and market the hell out of that to the American people, I think.

It is such an exciting industry, and that goes beyond how quick the cars are or how quickly we can change the tires or what superstars the drivers are, it’s really intense to the core. It’s super American, I would say.

Kim shared the podium with Nico and Lewis in 2015 (pictured above, courtesy Sutton Images) when she accepted the winning constructor’s trophy on behalf of the team in Abu Dhabi, and had some thoughts on the aftermath after getting doused in the celebrations with Lewis and Nico:

I lucked out in Abu Dhabi because its a Muslim country and they use rosewater, so my eyes didn’t sting quite so badly, but to be honest after the podium you’re on cloud nine, but you do smell bad, let me tell you what!

You’re just soaked in it, and of course the team packs up and we stay around to help the guys pack up the garage, so it’s not like you go grab a shower. So you’re just sticky, and hot and a bit smelly for a while, but it’s great. That’s part of it. It’s just so extreme, that we cover ourselves in champagne and then get back to work until the job’s done.

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Formula 1 CEO Chase Carey and Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei on CNBC

Formula 1 CEO Chase Carey highlighted some key areas for the sports growth with Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei as the two spoke on CNBC’s morning business report today.

With the past several seasons as a springboard for change in Formula 1, Carey gave credit to the newly appointed CEO Emeritus Bernie Ecclestone and outlined some areas for change.

“I think first, Bernie deserves tremendous credit for the sport that’s been built over the past decades…he should be recognized and we certainly do appreciate what he built here.  But that being said, when you look at last four or five years, the sport has really not grown to its potential.  We have an opportunity to really grow this sport in a new and exciting way, and I think there are two fundamental parts:  One, put an organization in place that lets us make these events everything they can be, [one that] reaches out across digital media that we’re not connecting to today, build[s] a marketing organization that connects to fans, enables fans to connect to the sport.  And on another level, to really build a spirit of partnership with our teams, promoters, sponsors, broadcasters that enables us to work together with a common vision.”

In the past, the sport’s deals have consistently been done over one desk, Ecclestone’s, and it’s clear the days of autocratic rule have been set aside as Formula 1’s new guard prepares it for more profitability.  The key areas of broadcasting, sponsorship and promotion were highlighted, with sponsorship front and center according to CEO Carey:

“The one that grows the fastest is probably sponsorship, realistically today we have a one man sponsorship operation.  There are many categories we’re not even selling into.  We have signage at tracks we’re not selling, so in many ways, putting an organization in place that enables us to execute on that is probably is the most immediate impact.”

In response, Liberty Media [Formula 1’s owner] President and CEO Greg Maffei added: “I know that [Major League Baseball] has something like 75 or 80 people on sponsorship, and that contrasts with you said Formula 1 having one?”

Speaking from a remote studio, Carey continued:

“We have one… In TV, there’s no question.  There’s a lot of growth there, we just did a deal recently in the UK that increased our annual revenue by more that two times.  We are not yet really even a player in the digital media landscape, so thats an opportunity for us to add some digital dimension to our traditional broadcast media.  I think for the opportunity on the events side is really creating more making our events bigger, broader, better.  I’ve talked about having 21 races, [so] we have 21 Super Bowls.  Realistically we only have one race in every country, and we should make these races week long extravaganzas, with entertainment and music…events that capture the whole city, not just events at the track, and that is an opportunity for us to really over time to continue to grow the dimension a bit.”

21 Super Bowls require some star power, so who are the stars in Formula 1, and what is the sport doing to promote itself to a wider audience?

“We have great stars…Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen was an 18 year old who broke out in a great way this year.  Today I said we have one person in sponsorship and we have zero in marketing, and we don’t have a connection on the visual media.  So we’ve got to do a better job enabling fans to connect to our stars.  We have wonderful stars, we have incredible cars, and we’ve got to create the vehicles that are available today…to enable those fans to connect to them, to understand and relate to them.”

As Formula 1 is looking for growth in the United States, so in addition to the race at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, where could the next race take place stateside?

“The US is clearly a real opportunity for us.  We didn’t acquire the business…depending on the US success, but there is a real upside for us in the US market.  What we’d like to add is a race in a destination city:  New York, L.A., Miami, Las Vegas, a space that really people would come to for a week long event that has multiple dimensions with the race at the center.”

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