Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 81- Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where we intend to take additional looks at available racing action for public consumption. Up until now, we’ve been covering studio shows since before late March, there simply isn’t much out there.

However, this past weekend gave viewers four major events to pick from. Naturally, with the help of the good ‘ol DVR and internet streaming (legal, of course), I watched them all. I’m a fan of all types of racing, and that is why I often use this space to talk about other series. Last weekend, the American Le Mans Series presented by Patron Tequila and the brand-new World Endurance Championship (WEC) held their season opener in quasi-South Florida at Sebring International Raceway, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

I only say that its “quasi-South Florida” because Sebring fits almost no one’s idea of what South Florida is (unless you’re from somewhere near there). Press Your Luck giving away trips to Sebring back in the 1980’s was always a bit of a headscratcher for me. Outside of the big race, not much goes on there.

For the American Le Mans Series, this past weekend started year No. 2 of their relationship with ESPN, and specifically, ESPN3.com. The only way to watch the complete race (or watch any of it live) was to do it via their website online. Let’s just get this out of the way. That bites. Having the whole thing on television live today is probably impossible these days, but ESPN televised portions of sports car races live on TV back in the 1990’s. Remember when I wrote 4000+ words about the “1996 Rolex 24”:https://frontstretch.com/pallaway/32548/ last year? For that race, ESPN (via espn2) provided live coverage from 12:30pm-4:00pm on Saturday, then 7:00am-1:30pm on Sunday. For Sebring, ESPN would televise roughly the first three hours or so, then come back for the final hour. Heck, the race got live coverage on television back in 1986 on TBS.

The point of all this is to say that the American Le Mans Series is getting the major league shaft here. Its not just with Sebring, but for the whole season. Now, I recognize that it might be a little tough for Sebring to get live coverage with all the college basketball on, but its possible to squeeze a little in. Or, perhaps they could take some of that $6.5 billion in per-subscriber fees they get a year and start another general sports cable channel. Now, before I go on, it should be noted that the series is getting a couple of live TV telecasts this year. The first is race No. 2 in Long Beach on April 14, then Mid-Ohio on August 4 and Baltimore on September 2. Long Beach is a Saturday evening race, but starts at 7:30pm EDT and will air on ESPN 2. Mid-Ohio and Baltimore are Saturday afternoon races that will air on ABC. Perhaps these telecasts will be a step in the right direction for the series.

As for the telecast that ESPN3.com viewers got last weekend (which is still viewable in two parts until the middle of next month if you have access to the site), well, it was interesting.

The telecast started off with a look at Sebring’s past and the dominant makes (Ford, Porsche, Nissan, etc.) since 2012 marks the 60th running of the 12 hours before Brian Till and Johnny O’Connell introduced the telecast. Or, at least, that was what I was supposed to see. For some reason, I was having some issues with ESPN3’s service and missed a little more than half of pre-race. Not cool. What happened is that I went to watch the live coverage on ESPN3 at the scheduled start time of 10:15am, I was greeted with a message that said “Thank You for Watching,” as if the show was already over before it started. What’s worse is that apparently this issue was mine alone. I asked ESPN about it Saturday and they couldn’t replicate my problem. I don’t know what the heck was behind that, but I hope its not replicated the next time I watch a race live on ESPN3.

ESPN provided viewers with six pre-race interviews (the pole winner, Andre Lotterer, the top ALMS P1 driver (Klaus Graf), the top WEC and ALMS GT drivers (Gianmaria “Gimmi” Bruni and Jan Magnussen) and representatives from P2 (Tim Pappas and Olivier Pla). There was also a description of the new entry for Turn 1 due to the expanded pit lane.

While Till and O’Connell went to the booth to provide their commentary on the Sunday afternoon highlight package that aired on ABC, viewers went to the duo of John Hindhaugh and Jeremy West for their commentary. I’ve stated before that these two men are top notch commentators with a wealth of knowledge about sports car racing. They’re not really the type of people to dumb down anything so that it will play better to new fans.

ESPN’s pit reporters were the same group from last year (Jamie Howe, Rick DeBruhl and Kelli Stavast), plus a newcomer in Taro Koki who I had admittedly never heard of. A little research shows that Koki is the Executive Producer/Co-Founder of content for GTChannel.com and the CEO of Zigzag Asia Co., Ltd., a company that focuses on Asian pop culture and automotive DVD production. Interesting background, but not a whole lot in front of a camera (although a fair amount behind it). It showed a little on Saturday. However, Koki will have some time to grow into his new role, which he seems to be enjoying.

ESPN’s American Le Mans Series finally received some of the new ESPN graphics that all the other divisions of the network received last year. Better late than never, I guess. However, a fair amount of the graphics on the ESPN3 telecast are generated by the American Le Mans Series themselves and not ESPN. Those plain-looking graphics are back for another year.

Early on in the telecast, I noticed some sound issues with the telecast. I had no problem hearing either Hindhaugh or West, but you could barely hear the cars at all, especially when in-car cameras were being used. That would have been a great shame had it not been fixed. It was, but it took over half an hour for the ambient sounds to be adjusted up to their proper volume.

Speaking of in-car cameras, ESPN went all out for the season opener. Nine cars representing each of the major classes carried cameras. However, looking at my notes, all the cars that carried them (with the exception of two of the Audi R18’s) were ALMS teams. Interesting. The race itself provided a rather interesting issue for ESPN since there were technically nine classes racing out there and being scored separately. In order to cut down on confusion, ESPN chose to combine the P1, P2 and GT classes from the WEC into the equivalent classes from the American Le Mans Series. A fair move, especially since there is very little (if any) distinction between the cars racing in GT-Pro and GT-Am (its more of a driver distinction than anything else).

Since the WEC takes priority over the ALMS, it creates a rather annoying numbering issue. Last year, when Sebring was a joint round of the ILMC (Intercontinental Le Mans Cup) and ALMS, all of the ALMS teams were forced to run a zero in front of their number in order to not clash with the ILMC teams. That rule was still in effect this year, but only for those teams whose numbers clashed with the WEC teams’ numbers since those numbers are locked in with series registration. For commentators, that causes issues because it could lead to a long discussion of a certain team’s plans while mistaking the car on-screen for another. This happened during Hour 2 when Hindhaugh was talking about Dempsey Racing’s plans to race in P2 later this year. They have the No. 25 in ALMS this year for their LMPC contender. However, the No. 25 is assigned to ADR-Delta in the WEC, forcing Dempsey Racing to use the No. 025. This resulted in Hindhaugh spending over a minute talking about the Dempsey team after misidentifying the car. For next year, I would advise that ALMS and/or WEC take a look into this since the American round is the only one in which this is an issue (the other seven are WEC-exclusive races).

Jean Todt, President of the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the sanctioning body for international motorsports) stopped by the booth to talk about the WEC and its goals of bringing endurance racing to developing markets in the Middle East and Far East (three of the eight WEC rounds are in Asian countries). Todt could be best described as quiet during his interview, which was cut short by a multi-car crash caused by oil on the course. It was hard to tell whether he was happy with the inaugural WEC event, but that’s Todt. He’s a nervous fellow. Anyone who saw him when he was still at Ferrari would know. There’s a reason he always wears tape on his fingers.

ALMS head honcho Scott Atherton stopped by in Hour 6 and blushed about the general direction of the series, which is based heavily on manufacturer involvement and return on investment. The P1 ranks are almost non-existent at the moment, but overall entries are great. The Long Beach round closed their entries recently, maxed out at 36. Atherton believes that between the five normal classes (P1, P2, LMPC, GT and GTC), they’ll have that many all year. Things are looking up for the series. In regards to the TV deals, Atherton considers the series to be pioneers in what they believe to be the wave of the future. If so, they’re definitely early adopters, possibly to their own detriment.

Overall coverage of the race was fairly varied. Hindhaugh and West didn’t simply focus in on the P1 class or the GT class. Everyone got their time on-air. As mentioned previously, cars in all five main classes had in-car cameras. In addition, cars from each class received isolated pit stop commentaries from the pit reporters and coverage of their on-track battles. When there was a lull in actual battling for position, which happens in a 12 hour race, the Hindhaugh and West would talk about individual teams. I’d argue that with the Audi vs. the field dynamic in play, the P1 class probably got less coverage than normal.

Post-race coverage consisted of interviews with the class winners (Allan McNish for P1, Joey Hand for GT, Stephane Sarrazin for P2, and Dion von Möltke for GTC), in addition to Olivier Beretta (main challenger to Hand). There were also checks of the unofficial results in each class and the results of the Michelin Green X Challenge.

Overall, the coverage was pretty good. Lots of action for position and generalized excitement in the booth. I was happy with the telecast. I just wish that we could see more of it on regular television. The ABC version of the race just wasn’t as good. O’Connell and Till seemed to mix cars up repeatedly. Just not as good.

I hope you enjoyed this look at ESPN3’s coverage of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. Next week is the second installment of our diary with Paulie Harraka, but this column will be back on April 5 with a look at SPEED’s telecast of the Porsche 250 from Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama. Until then, enjoy the action from Fontana, St. Petersburg and Kuala Lampur this weekend and have fun.

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