Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 44: Grand Prix of Australia

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to The Critic’s Annex, where we take an additional look into motorsports on television. This past weekend served as the season opener for two separate open-wheeled series. One was the Izod IndyCar Series, which raced Sunday afternoon in St. Petersburg, FL. I covered ESPN’s telecast of that race in detail on Tuesday. ESPN has some momentum coming out of the race with the much higher than normal ratings (1.4, the highest non-Indianapolis 500 rating since 2007), but they still have some issues that need to be fixed. Also, that rating cannot be properly compared to last year because last year’s event in St. Petersburg was postponed a day due to heavy rains and high winds. The rescheduled race ended up running at 10 a.m. Monday morning as not to conflict with the rescheduled Sprint Cup race from Martinsville.

The other series that debuted last weekend was Formula One. However, the Grand Prix of Australia was not originally supposed to be the first race of the season. The season was originally scheduled to start in Bahrain in March 13. However, as you may have seen in the news, Bahrain has been embroiled in civil unrest for much of the past two months. Recently, that unrest resulted in the government’s decision to blow up the Pearl Monument, a symbol of Bahrain’s past (before the discovery of oil reserves), because demonstrators would congregate around it. It is currently unclear whether the race will be run this season (there is a May 1st deadline in place to clarify a date).

Because of the unrest, the first race of the World Championship moved back to the Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne, Australia. For the 14th year, SPEED returned with live coverage with the team of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett. In addition, there was live coverage with commentary of Free Practice No. 2 on Friday afternoon (late Thursday night here) and Qualifying on Saturday (late Friday night). SPEED also provides free streaming of Free Practices Nos. 1 and 3 on speedtv.com, but that is without commentary.

Generally, there are few changes to SPEED’s presentation of the World Championship from year to year. The commentary trio do not go to the races. Instead, to save money, the telecast is done from SPEED’s studios in Charlotte. In the past, viewers never saw the trio during the race broadcast. For 2011, they now do a live standup in their studio before cutting to the action at the track. I don’t think it really adds much to the broadcast, but it does remove the “disembodied head” effect.

Also new for 2011 is a presence on Twitter. Matchett, along with reporter Will Buxton are already relatively active on Twitter by themselves, but now SPEED has a Twitter page for their Formula One coverage. On it are links to SPEED articles about Formula One, cheeky behind-the-scenes pictures and news. For example, “this”:http://yfrog.com/gzj1ymoj picture of Varsha and Hobbs’ “broadcast booth” from when they were actually going to the races in 1990 for ESPN was posted last weekend.

Enough of the actual changes, onto the actual broadcast.

After the new stand-up introduction, the coverage of the Pre-Race Show (now sponsored by Mercedes-Benz instead of Acura) shifted to Melbourne and Buxton. The broadcast booth more or less controls the proceedings, but Buxton is given leeway to interview (basically) whoever he wants to. On Saturday night, he did a live interview with Mark Webber. In addition, interviews with Vitaly Petrov and Vitantonio Liuzzi were shown on a tape delay basis.

The main discussion in the paddock was about a bunch of the new changes for 2011 (KERS (Kinetic Energy Retrieval System), the movable rear wings and so on), so there was considerable discussion about it. Buxton introduced a piece where five or so top drivers gave their opinions of it. The opinions differed slightly.

Formula One has never been known for rules that are easy to understand. Take the new movable rear wing for an example. In qualifying, drivers were allowed to activate the DRS system (DRS stands for “Drag Reduction System”) whenever they wanted. During the race, it can only be used in a designated zone, and only by a trailing car within one second of an opponent. In the case of Melbourne, it could only be used on the pit straight during the race. Also, said system cannot be used in the first two laps of the race. Admittedly, the rules befuddled Matchett a little (and probably most of the audience watching at 1:50am).

2011 brings new graphic packages for both SPEED and FOM (Formula One Management, the company that provides the World Feed). For SPEED, the new package more or less mirrors what the other series that SPEED televises have been getting. Its a lot cleaner and easier to read for those of us who do not have gigantic TV’s (I do all my critiquing off of a 22 inch HDTV. Of course, today, that’s like having a 13 inch regular set).

FOM’s new graphics have color-coded numbers on the speedometer and a sliding-scale for the selected gear. The KERS is represented by a vertical column next to the tachometer. The meter also shows how much KERS is remaining for that lap. Finally, when the DRS is in use, a small green icon lights up. Other than the on-board graphics, everything else is the same as 2010.

The rapport between Varsha, Hobbs and Matchett was at its usual level of undenying support (2011 marks the 11th full season that the trio . Its always a pleasure to listen to them describe the race, even though the race wasn’t exactly all that exciting by Melbourne standards.

FOM’s broadcast was heavily focused upon the frontrunners. However, that always seems to have been the case with them for most of the time that they have fully been in charge of the World Feed. If you’re outside of the points, there is a good chance that you won’t be seen on screen very much. That is, unless you wreck or find a way to exit the race spectacularly.

Also of note, Australia marked FOM’s very first HD broadcast of a Formula One Grand Prix. Digital broadcasts have been available since the late 1990’s (as part of a pay-per-view service that ultimately failed), but not in HD. The first digital Formula One broadcasts that were available in the United States aired in 2001 on ABC. The World Feed went digital around 2004 Yes, they’re very late to the party compared to almost everyone else. The pictures looked very nice. Wish the race wasn’t so late in the day to benefit European audiences, though.

There was roughly 25 minutes of post-race coverage on SPEED. That coverage is heavily regulated as per the rules and regulations of Formula One. As a result, the only interviews shown were those of the podium finishers (Sebastien Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and the aforementioned Petrov) during the press conference. There was also the pre-requisite podium ceremony with the national anthems of the winning driver and constructor and a recap of the race.

Also, there was a big announcement made. Pixar’s Cars 2, which comes out in theaters on June 24th, will feature Hamilton and Jeff Gordon as drivers. SPEED’s announcement was that Hobbs will also have a role in the film. He’ll be playing a character called “David Hobbscap,” a 1963 Jaguar E-Type Coupe. Hobbs will be one of three commentators in the film for the World Grand Prix that Lightning McQueen will be racing in, along with the returning “Darrell Cartrip” (you know who that is) and fellow newcomer “Brent Mustangburger” (Brent Musburger). Kind of makes you wonder what that booth would be like in real life. Musburger would be the play-by-play man, despite his limited experience covering motorsports. Meanwhile, Hobbs and Waltrip would settle into their normal roles. They’d probably confuse each other with their terminology.

It should be noted that news of the disqualification of both Saubers (Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez) broke hours after the race ended. As a result, there was no mention of the Sauber wing issues.

I hope you enjoyed this look at SPEED’s broadcast of the Grand Prix of Australia. Next week, I have a special treat for you. Instead of critiquing race broadcasts, I will be critiquing the new game from Activision and Eutechnyx, NASCAR 2011: The Game. Until then, have a great weekend.

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