Formula 1 racing is reaching new, if not unprecedented heights of popularity here in the United States. The racing and presentation during the 2021 season has been head and shoulders above most years gone by, leading to a bigger discussion about the international sport on our shores. Even NFL standout J.J. Watt, (who I didn’t know was a race fan), is tweeting in on the fun with some deep cut F1 knowledge. There’s a national conversation brewing that I haven’t seen in my lifetime. A tertiary motorsport once only discussed by dorks and old-heads is being embraced by race fans of all ages and experience levels. Moreover, a refreshing lack of gatekeeping by older fans has allowed new fans to join in live-tweeting races to aid the conversation still further. There’s a Sunday morning ritual gaining traction that is starting to rival the Premier League soccer games from the UK in popularity. The competition, the drivers, the “comeback” energy from a near lifeless 2020 season are helping to push the sport worldwide, and a special element has increased that feeling in the United States.
Starting in 2018, the American television coverage has been handled by ESPN and to a lesser degree their network parent ABC. F1 coverage has bounced back and forth between networks over the years just like the rest of our favorite sports, but a new cost cutting measure for this go ‘round brought a new flavor. Rather than using their own production, ESPN has been simply simulcasting the UK’s Sky Sports F1 coverage, basically giving America the UK feed for the entirety of the 3-hour program. To my mind, this is the overwhelming cause of the new revival of interest here in America.
To misquote an old baseball adage, the reasons for this opinion are multifold. The first and most obvious reason is the lack of commercial interruption. Sky’s coverage is wholly uninterrupted once the racing begins. I don’t really know how to explain that any further because it’s just fucking incredible compared to what we deal with as American race fans. In the NASCAR world they invent new ways of pushing products in our face week to week. With Fox and NBC it’s like we’re watching a race running in the background of unchecked consumerism, and it’s equal parts irritating and grotesque. Seconded only to the commercial free broadcast is the actual broadcast itself. On paper, the format isn’t all that different than what’s seen in most motorsports. You’ve got your play-by-play, ex-driver color, various analysts from different eras, and reporters on the pulse of what’s happening in the pits. The separation of excellence for the current F1 coverage comes directly from the people themselves. Waxing the collective member of the Sky team is a bit outside the scope of this article, so for the sake of brevity let’s just say that NASCAR needs to find its Martin Brundle and put him or her to work as soon as possible. Once you further consider the level of transparency with driver and team radio messages, the guaranteed “top of the hour” formation lap, the 1.5-2 hour races, I could go on for ages about what makes F1 an extremely tantalizing brand of racing. But for those that have taken the plunge recently, you can probably just feel it when compared to your more familiar racing style. ESPN’s current deal ends in 2022 and with the “new car” coming next season the level of unpredictability will alone keep tv ratings high and there’s a real chance that the number of viewers could be in the millions in the United States by the season’s end. With those millions of viewers will invariably come millions of dollars in a new television deal, either by ESPN or by a higher bidder. In a way, this could be a benefit for the continued expansion of the sport. However in a more accurate way, this will ruin everything and make most people hate F1 and bollock off to the series’ they came from. America has no idea how to produce an F1 race, and they will literally die trying. Allow me to explain.
Before the ESPN deal, F1 coverage was handled by NBC Sports for several years, preceded by Fox/Speed Channel with very similar structures. For the most part, the commentary was “okay” at best but the whole production was playing with ankle weights as both networks pinched pennies throughout the ordeal while still trying to badge it as their own broadcast. Generally speaking, the commentary was not done on location, but at an American television studio with 1 or 2 reporters actually on location at the track on race day. In essence, we were just watching the same thing as the people calling the race. This can be done with some degree of success but given the age of the color commentators (most commonly David Hobbs and Steve Matchett) and the lack of any extra work to bring in more on-track analysis, there was very little there to welcome a new viewer. If you weren’t already a fan of F1, the American broadcast really made you work to get immersed. The rules of Formula 1 racing are complex, and the machinery even more so. It wasn’t until 2018 that I truly realized what we’ve been missing during the broadcast. This isn’t meant to be a dig on what we used to do, it worked fine for the era and is only “less” when compared to the real-deal main squeeze coverage we’re currently being spoiled with. But for all that’s good with what we have, can we really expect our current batch of American networks to come anywhere close?
Picture it: your living room, 2023. Formula 1 racing is better than ever. The new cars have created a brand-new spectacle and going into each Grand Prix there’s a genuine mystery as to who might take the win. The beautiful backdrop of European countryside… the majesty of a 100-year-old track… this is going to be a fantastic Sunday morning! As race time approaches, the brand-new television detail inked in the off season has you excited for a more personalized and welcoming coverage. It’s time, it’s here, the camera pans to the paddock and the man on location is our only source of live information as its happening. The camera pans over and it’s…….Rutledge fucking Wood. Dressed in his finest summer flannel and probably wearing a corsage for some damn reason, this goofy happy lad, entrusted to be an ambassador to motorsports because he was on the shitty Top Gear, serves as the first dagger to the cruel reality that is 21st sports television production.
Okay, okay, that’s not entirely fair, and I took a lot of liberties in that little hate-fantasy, but the vibe is all the same. American coverage has never proven to go the extra mile to give us what we need, and I’m quite confident that whatever network gets the deal will be wholly unqualified to get the right people in the right places. NBC has been cutting back more than ever with their television coverage, and certainly would not pay the price for anything close to the Sky experience (as well as the aforementioned obsession with man-of-the-people characters). Fox, while potentially spendy enough to make it big, is the most inept when it comes to commentary choices. If you think Michael Waltrip wouldn’t be involved in some capacity, you’re just kidding yourself. ESPN, well they’re all but broke apparently, and that’s probably for the best. Left to their own devices, they made Rusty Wallace an IndyCar commentator some years back; a crime so unforgivable it made Eddie Cheever a genius by comparison. Perhaps something new like a CBS deal could prove me all wrong, but their return to the world of racing has been slow, and F1 would probably be a bit steep for what they’ve been working on. Oh by the way, this is of course all before considering how junked up we’d make things with commercials. You don’t need my temper tantrums to explain it, but we’re too far gone to ever accept anything less than commercial-free F1 coverage at this point.
In short, we need to keep what we have. The hands-off approach has been refreshing. Quite honestly, ESPN has always been at its best when they provide the means of communication, and simply let the experts do their job. I’m worried the cost may be too much to keep things grooving the way they are now when we crunch the numbers after 2022. Underwritten by one advertiser and left to enjoy the real show has been a treat that I’m afraid of losing, but that’s just not how business is done here. Still, for the time being I can cling to hope, and enjoy what we have until then. I’ll start bathing in Mother’s brand chrome wheel polish if that’s what it takes to keep what we have, and I’d suspect many of you would do the same. It’s lights out, and away we go.
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