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29 Jul 2011

F1: An open letter to the BBC

Dear BBC,

Your Formula One coverage has won awards, earned praise from all quarters and seen decade-high audience figures for Grand Prix this year. I can understand the need to cost-cut, but is reducing coverage your biggest crowd-puller by 50% the way to do it? Is saving BBC 4 really necessary? 

Formula One fans are some of the most loyal, many will simply refuse to miss a race. Why do you feel it is OK to slap them in the face by removing coverage of their sport in favour of "FULL COVERAGE OF THE 70-DAY OLYMPIC TORCH RELAY." Do you expect to collect 6.6 million viewers for this, as you did for the British Grand Prix? Do you expect to earn a BAFTA for coverage of various people carrying a burning stick around the country? I understand the importance of the Olympics to the UK and the BBC (as the Olympic Broadcaster), and that this is an opportunity that comes around perhaps once every 50 years, but is this what the public wants? 

The reaction of Formula One fans is one of near solidarity. That reaction is overwhelmingly negative, this speaks volumes. Even those who already pay for Sky/Sky Sports are disappointed that the BBC have agreed to this deal. I and many others urge you to reconsider.

Thank you.

F1: Bernie Ecclestone's great betrayal?

“Sky have been trying to buy the TV rights from us for a long time, but we won’t because they are not free-to-air broadcasters. With their viewing figures it would be almost impossible for teams to find sponsors. That would be suicidal.” - Bernie Ecclestone, May 2011.

Fast forward two months. 90% of Formula One fans are going to be forced to either pay to watch every race, or miss half of them. Bernie Ecclestone told us this wouldn't happen. He said it wouldn't make sense, the teams wouldn't like it, the fans wouldn't like it, he wouldn't like it. But here we are, faced with a choice between paying up or giving up.

Sky, the BBC and Ecclestone have agreed on a seven-year deal (2012-18) that will see Sky Sports broadcast every practice session, qualifying and race live and uninterrupted. The BBC will air just 10, including the Monaco and British Grand Prix, and the final race of each season.

Today, a customer new to Sky has to pay at least £40 a month for Sky and Sky Sports subscriptions, both of which are needed to watch every race live. Considering that on average there are two races per month, and as half are on the BBC, one of those will be free-to-air, you pay £40 for that one race each month. Such a great deal, according to Ecclestone.

Formula One is entering a dark time, it's popularity has grown and grown since the end of the Schumacher era, with the Championship battles in 2007, 2008 and 2010 going down to the final race, and 2009 being decided in the second-to-last race. 6.6 million tuned into the British Grand Prix, and over 8 million watched the rain-delayed Canadian Grand Prix. Both figures are 10-year highs. The German Grand Prix this year drew it's highest audience in 15 years, and the BBC have given that up to save money.

The BBC have done this in the name of 'cost-cutting'. This is the same BBC who sent over 400 reporters and technicians to Glastonbury Festival, the same BBC who sent 250 employees to cover a 1-day event marking one year to the 2012 Olympics. Sky, with a hundred times the budget, sent 11 people in total. The corporation pays Chris Moyles and Jeremy Clarkson £6million a year. All of this is funded by the license fee, which is used to "fund" the BBC. Most expect that to mean "paying for bringing us programs." Obviously not.

This letter appeared in a major UK Newspaper not to long ago, and sums up precisely why Formula 1 should appear on the BBC:

"What other international sport has two recent British World Champions competing in a British team? What other sport has a hi-tech support industry centred on Britain? What other sport has two thirds of the international teams choosing to base themselves in Britain?
 What other sport is the pinnacle of an industry estimated to be worth £5 billion a year to the British economy? What other sport has as many Brits in key positions in foreign-based teams? What other sports is associated with cutting-edge engineering, and is a stimulus to youngsters to enter engineering? The BBC should feel a patriotic duty to broadcast Formula One."

Fan reaction so far has been overwhelmingly negative:

"Not impressed."- Martin Brundle

"F1 on Sky is a joke! So much for the sport's own rules. If the money is there then the rules go out of the window"

"F1 has won many new fans because of the BBC F1 coverage the last few years, the new deal will loose those not prepared to pay" - Sir Stirling Moss

"I can't afford Sky TV let alone a sports package on top, unfair, I feel cheated."

"I can assure you that I won't be paying for Sky. This is awful."

"I can't afford Sky, so that will be the end of 12 years of watching Formula One."

There are rays of hope for people opposed to this deal. Some fans have raised the legality of the deal, and teams are confused over what the benefits actually are. The teams, FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have all signed the Concorde Agreement, a contract that determines the rules of the sport and how it is run. It states that Formula One should be on free-to-air TV until 2013, which was when the original BBC contract was due to expire. The deal could be in breach of that aspect of the agreement. Several people have pointed out that teams must be consulted before any new broadcasting deal is agreed. The surprised reaction from many teams suggests that this has not happened. A couple of teams have questioned the benefits of the deal. Sponsors pay for the right to advertise on the cars. They are much happier paying for sponsorship of a team in a free-to-air sport. The sport going to pay-TV means that sponsors must pay even more. Along with this hit, less people will be watching on pay-TV as not everyone can afford it, this results in sponsors paying more for less exposure. Many would simply walk away from the sport, leaving huge holes in some budgets and causing other teams to fold altogether. Teams such as Virgin, HRT and Williams rely heavily on sponsorship deals to balance their books.

10 Jul 2011

F1: Brit GP raises more questions

The British Grand Prix was supposed to answer our questions. Were Red Bull unbeatable? Would the ban on off-throttle technology alter the playing field? What sort of performance would Lewis Hamilton turn in?

We got answers to some, but ultimately left with question marks surrounding relationships within Red Bull, Ferrari's sudden discovery of pace, McLaren's tactics and yet more controversy around the off-throttle technologies employed by many teams.

The race itself was another fantastic story, Sebastian Vettel looked to have his 7th victory of the year in his pocket until a shabby pitstop dropped cost him dearly. Lewis Hamilton, starting in tenth, made up 5 places in the opening 2 laps and was up to 3rd and just 7 seconds off the lead after 14 laps. He passed Webber through cunning pitstop strategy, before his tires failed him and he fell backwards, with Alonso taking a lead he would never lose.

Vettel's poor stop put him behind Hamilton who seemed to have lost the pace he had early on. The German spent 5 laps stuck behind the Brit, who defended beautifully to frustrate his rival. One sequence will linger. Vettel got the better run onto the old pit straight, sitting mere inches behind Hamilton yet struggling to decide whether to go left or right, in the end, he came mere millimetres away from a costly accident and lost his chance to overtake.
Alonso streaked to his first win of 2011 (pic: Autosport)

Jenson Button had a relatively quiet afternoon until an error in his second stop resulted in him driving off with nothing holding his left-front tire on. Retirement was not on the menu for Button, but one simple mistake was all it took.

The first of these new stories came about on Friday morning during a public press conference. McLaren's boss Martin Whitmarsh and Red Bull leader Christian Horner were asked about the reduction on off-throttle engine technology. The FIA had limited the usage of hot-blown diffusers so that only 10% of throttle gas was allowed to pass over the rear of the car. This was supposed to cover all teams, until it was discovered that the Renault engine was allowed to have 50% of throttle gas flow through the rear of the setup. This is allegedly due to the reliability needs of the Renault engine, and Red Bull, the biggest beneficiaries of the technology, claim they use cold-blown diffusers rated than the hot-blown variation used by the teams powered by Mercedes (McLaren being the biggest). McLaren contended that the Renault powered teams were getting an advantage due to the less restrictive measures on their technology. Red Bull's Christian Horner contended that their limit would result in the same performance loss as the limit on the McLaren cars.

Make up your own mind, this row is set to rumble on and on.

Next up on the controversy desk today is the atmosphere inside the Red Bull camp. Sebastian Vettel led Mark Webber from the first corner onwards, and was never troubled by the Aussie. In the final 2 laps however, Vettel slowed and Webber closed right up to put pressure on his team-mate. At one stage the pair were side-by-side approaching Copse corner.

Now, it is Inside Sports' view that Vettel should have let his faster team-mate through given his 77-point lead in the championship standings. The team sent out a radio message ordering Mark to stand down and not overtake, a request that did not sit well with the Australian: "I'm not okay with it, no. I ignored and battled to the end."

A division opened between the two Red Bull drivers after last year's Turkish and British Grand Prix, and boss Christian Horner did little more than stoke the fire when he said that he couldn't let his drivers fight because "we all know how that would end."

A glowing reinforcement of Mark's overtaking abilities there then.

If anything, today proved that with the right strategy and environment, Sebastian Vettel can be beaten, and he may well need to count on his team-mate to act as a rear gunner in later races. He can little afford to alienate his colleague if he has designs on back-to-back championships.Webber is the only other man with a car that is a match for Vettel.

The title race may be being dominated by one driver, the on- and off-track action has been more enthralling than ever.