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2018 Canadian Grand Prix: Report from Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

Sebastian Vettel regained his championship lead today in Montreal after a dominant drive at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 40 years after its namesake took his maiden win in a Ferrari there.

Today’s emotional win for the team came after setting their driver up with the fastest car in qualifying yesterday, taking P1 with a new course record of 1:10.764.  It was his 50th win in Formula 1, and the team’s first victory in Canada since 2004 with Michael Schumacher.

“40 years after Gilles won his grand prix here, I think it’s great to show that Ferrari is still alive, that Ferrari is still there, winning races.” said Vettel.  He then dedicated the victory to the team and fans in Montreal.

Finishing just behind and qualifying just under a tenth of a second behind Vettel, Mercedes-AMG Petronas driver Valttieri Bottas explained that “second place as a driver when you really want to win races is not the best place to be – but you know, honestly from today where we started, with the start we had, with the pace we had, there was nothing more possible.”

Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen finished third and had to pit early in the race after his hypersoft tires began to cost him time.  After switching to the harder supersofts, he told journalists: “[he] was steadily closing the gap, and especially the last few laps I think we were really competitive. I think it was only one-tenth on the line, which was a shame, but yeah, good race. I enjoyed it.”

One surprise today at the finish happened when one of the many celebrities on hand in the paddock was chosen to wave the checkered flag, and did so 1 lap before the end, causing spectators to wonder if the race had been called a lap early.  Sebastian, Valttieri and Max all deferred to others in charge to make a call on future guest flag wavers, but the sentiment from the media present at the circuit clearly sided with the idea that it may be an idea whose time has passed.

The racing this weekend was a bit reminiscent of the 2004 era when Ferrari last won at the circuit, with Vettel controlling the race lead from lights out through *both* checkered flags.  An early clash between rookies Lance Stroll and Brendan Hartley on the opening lap saw the hometown favorite Stroll move to the outside at turn 5, forcing Hartley up the barrier and taking both out of the race.

In addition to Vettel’s 50th victory, this race also marked McLaren driver Fernando Alonso’s 300th start, one which saw him run with the team’s new Renault ‘B-spec’ engine installed for Montreal.  Unceremoniously, Alonso’s McLaren experienced exhaust failure on lap 42, and retired.

Tire strategies varied across the grid, and preservation figured heavily as many hoped for a second safety car to shuffle the running order, Haas F1 Team’s Romain Grosjean among them.  Grosjean, who suffered from engine issues in the opening minute of qualifying yesterday and failed to set a time, drove his way from last through nearly half the field to take 12th, just ahead of his teammate Kevin Magnussen.  Grosjean commented after the race: “…we tried to come back, [after pitting on lap 49] but our strategy didn’t quite work. When we came out of the pit we had a lot of blue flags and so on.  We couldn’t really come back through the field. We did our best. The car is fast and I enjoyed driving it.”

A relatively uneventful second half of today’s race following a processional Monaco Grand Prix two weeks ago called into question the spectator experience, and when the drivers were asked why fans didn’t see a more exciting race, Sebastian Vettel replied: “Life’s like this, or racing. Racing’s probably like this. I don’t think it’s justified to criticize the racing, or criticize this race… From my point of view, obviously, it’s still busy inside the car no matter where you are but I don’t like… I don’t know why people today are so short-sighted… next week the World Cup is starting and I promise you that a lot of the games will not be exciting – but still people will watch it – but some games will be incredible.”

Valttieri Bottas added: “For me it was, at the second place all the time, all through the race. I think Turns One and Two was quite exciting with Max, that was good fun but yeah, since then, for us, we really tried to push Ferrari in the first stint – but we just couldn’t match the pace.”  Complacency was not a problem, he explained:  “There is always something to do, and we needed to keep concentrated 100 percent – so yeah, for sure, there will be good races, there’s no doubt it’s just we’ve had a couple of races in a row where there is not many things happening – but this year already there have been races that have been amazing to watch.”

Third place finisher Max Verstappen has had a run of misfortune so far this season, and he faced increased scrutiny this weekend after a crash in Monaco took him out of the race there.  Today’s podium finish could signal a shift, and just to keep things interesting at one point the 20-year-old turned to Vettel after he was asked about driving for Ferrari in the future:

“How old is Kimi? . . . 37, 38? He could be my Dad. I don’t know, time will tell. I have a contract with Red Bull and I’m very happy where I am at the moment and also, you know, we have a great car but I’m just waiting for the full package to be able to challenge every single weekend for victories, because in Monaco, I would not want to change car because we had the best car and package there. It is very tricky. It is a very special brand and I’m only 20 years old so if Kimi is 37 or 38, I still have 17 or 18 years to do something so we will see.”

Finishing order, Driver, Constructor, Time (gap), Season Points Total:

1 S. Vettel Ferrari 1:28:31.377 25

2 V. Bottas Mercedes +7.376s 18

3 M. Verstappen Red Bull +8.360s 15

4 D. Ricciardo Red Bull +20.892s 12

5 L. Hamilton Mercedes +21.559s 10

6 K. Räikkönen Ferrari +27.184s 8

7 N. Hülkenberg Renault +1 Lap 6

8 C. Sainz Jr. Renault +1 Lap 4

9 E. Ocon Force India +1 Lap 2

10 C. Leclerc Sauber +1 Lap 1

11 P. Gasly Toro Rosso +1 Lap 0

12 R. Grosjean Haas +1 Lap 0

13 K. Magnussen Haas +1 Lap 0

14 S. Pérez Force India +1 Lap 0

15 M. Ericsson Sauber +2 Laps 0

16 S. Vandoorne McLaren +2 Laps 0

17 S. Sirotkin Williams +2 Laps 0

18 F. Alonso McLaren DNF 0

19 B. Hartley Toro Rosso DNF 0

20 L. Stroll Williams DNF 0

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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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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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