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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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The 2016 Mexican GP Report: With Documentation

A beautiful fall afternoon in Mexico City provided the backdrop for the second race at the newly redesigned Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in front of 135,026 fans today for a 1pm start, but the official results would change twice after the checkered flag waved, and take over 5 1/2 hours to confirm from the time the lights went out on the grid.

After a good start off the line the Mercedes front row was ready to enter into turn one unhampered until pole sitter Lewis Hamilton realized he was carrying too much speed, locking up his right front tire trying to brake too late for the right hander. Missing the entry, he careened across the grass to rejoin the track at turn 3 ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg who was busy making contact with Max Verstappen as slippery track conditions caught most of the grid out. Farther back, the Manor of Pascal Wehrlein made contact with Esteban Gutierrez’ Haas into turn two, launching Wehrlein into Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber, spinning Ericsson off the circuit facing backwards and ending Wehrlein’s race.

Farther along on lap 1, Carlos Sainz, Jr. made contact with the McLaren of Fernando Alonso along the back straight, forcing Alonso entirely on the grass at speed. In an impressive save, Alonso put the car back on circuit, and Sainz would later be penalized 5 seconds for his unsafe maneuver on the circuit.

The majority of teams employed a one stop strategy, opting to complete the majority of the distance on the Pirelli medium tires, which were rated for the entire race distance. Ericsson, who dove into the pits on the first lap after Wehrlein’s contact, was released after a long stop to examine his Sauber for damage, going back out on a Pirelli medium tire compound which he made last for 69 laps to finish 11th.

Hometown favorite and Force India driver Sergio Perez spent much of his race battling Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa, initially for 5th position, and later for 10th, ending up behind the Williams drivers for a point.

Both Haas drivers struggled this weekend with slow speed grip, as well as electrical and aerodynamic issues, and finished 19th and 20th, while Jolyon Palmer finished 14th ahead of his teammate Kevin Magnussen after starting from 21st on the grid with a new Renault chassis after a crack had been discovered in his car over the weekend.

Lewis would lead most of the race, trading off with Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel briefly as they came in for medium tires, and in the closing laps a battle ensued for the final podium position as Vettel’s Ferrari was held up by Verstappen’s Red Bull. Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo was on fresher tires and applying pressure from fifth position when Verstappen outbraked himself 4 laps from the end at turn 1, going off onto the grass where Hamilton had done earlier to rejoin ahead of Vettel and Ricciardo. The incident was put under investigation by the race stewards, and Verstappen continued on in 3rd place, refusing to give up a place gained against the advice of his team.

Vettel, who had been pleading with his team to ask the race stewards to allow him past the Red Bull driver, became enraged at a lack of response from the race stewards, and proceeded to have an heated exchange over team radio prompting team principal Maurizio Arrivabene to call for calm at one point after Vettel began to invoke the FiA Race Director Charlie Whiting’s name in a verbal tirade. (Penalties for race incidents are issued after the finish if they occur during the final 5 laps.)

Hamilton and Rosberg took first and second handily, and shortly after crossing the line in 3rd ahead of Vettel, Verstappen left his car in parc ferme, continuing on to the podium staging room. He was then asked to leave after a 5 second penalty was applied by the race stewards, giving the position to Vettel. Timing and scoring was immediately adjusted before the champagne was opened, placing Verstappen 5th behind his teammate Ricciardo. At about the same time, Vettel was said to be out of his car and apologizing to the race director for his comments on team radio, and upon hearing the news of Verstappen’s penalty, Vettel then ran to the podium to join the Mercedes drivers for his 3rd place celebration.

That would have been the end of the story, normally, but yours truly was still here later this evening, when at 5:53pm local time, media was alerted to a report from Mr. Whiting regarding statements from team drivers and representatives in the following memorandum:

In short, Vettel was deemed to have driven in a ‘dangerous or erratic’ manner approaching turn 4 while moving under braking during his battle between the two Red Bull drivers, and the FiA stewards announced that Vettel was discovered to be in breach of regulations, given a 10 second penalty as well as two penalty points for his actions on the circuit. The net result has now put Daniel Ricciardo in 3rd place officially, and word is that the trophy was delivered to the Red Bull team.

This sequence of documents shows the final outcome as determined by the race director, and the official results were announced at 6:40pm local time:

Race winner Lewis Hamilton still trails points leader Nico Rosberg by 19 points, Rosberg (329) has two more races in which to seal his title hopes, with 50 total points left to be decided between Brazil and Abu Dhabi. Hamilton’s win has broken AMG Mercedes F1’s own 2015 record for most race wins in a season with 17, and ties Alain Prost’s record for all time Formula 1 victories with 51.

Current driver’s standings:

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