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Couch Potato Monday: ESPN’s F1 Return Leaves Much to be Desired

Author’s Note: Due to the snowstorm that delayed the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck series races to Monday, we are going to cover those races in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday, along with a look at FOX’s NASCAR coverage to this point in the season.

Meanwhile, last weekend was also the return of Formula 1 to the ESPN family of networks.  The last time one of ESPN’s networks covered F1 was 2002 when ABC aired a couple of races a year.  The last time for F1 on ESPN 2 was way back in 1997 at Jerez.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YVotqHmLBs

As a result of the incident in that video, Jacques Villeneuve claimed his only World Championship.  Michael Schumacher was determined by the stewards to have tried to intentionally wreck Villeneuve.  In response, he was disqualified from the entire season.

That clip is from the U.K. broadcast with the ever-excitable Murray Walker on the call.  By 1997, he had a new partner in the recently-retired Martin Brundle.  Today, Brundle is in 22nd year commentating on F1.

As a result of ESPN’s new deal to air Formula 1 in the United States, Brundle is now the lead analyst for the World Championship here.  He comes highly regarded as a very professional and informative commentator.  Brundle was the least of anyone’s problems on Saturday night.

ESPN’s F1 coverage actually comes with a pre-race show entitled Formula 1: On the Grid.  I was surprised that we got that at all, especially since I went into the weekend not expecting it.

Having said that, what we actually got was not planned.  ESPN 2 cut to the pre-race coverage from Albert Park in Melbourne to only audio from the track with no people.

At first, ESPN 2 cut to a commercial, then tried again.  With no luck once again, they cut to The Dominant 20, a celebration of the 20 most dominant teams of the last 20 years.  It’s a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the launch of ESPN: The Magazine.  That show had actually aired as the lead-in to the race coverage.

A third attempt resulted in no audio at all at first, before kicking in in mid-sentence.  As a result, viewers got no introduction to any of the men and women that would be covering the race.  Basically, they got it figured out just in time for Brundle’s Grid Walk.

Here, Brundle talked to Safety Car driver Bernd Mayländer, who described the new Mercedes that he’s driving this year and how’s it faster.  We also got some thoughts from Niki Lauda, Marcus Ericsson and Stoffel Vandoorne.

Had viewers gotten the full pre-race show without technical issues, it seems that they would have been delighted with the sheer amount of content that was provided.  Having everyone on-site really helps a bunch.  With NBC Sports, they only had Will Buxton at the track with the exception of a couple of races a year.  Buxton always did a great job, but he’s only one man and can only do so much.

In regards to the technical issues, ESPN did release a statement about it after the race.

Australia also saw the debut of Formula One Management’s (FOM) new on-screen graphics, along with a relaunched Formula1.com.  They’ve gotten mixed reviews.  The font being used is a bit bizarre, to say the least.  To me, it’s legible, but the X’s are weird.  Thankfully, they’re not used all that much.

The race itself created another problem for the coverage.  Sky Sports’ F1 coverage is commercial-free during the race, but that’s not happening here in the United States, even in the middle of the night.

On lap 5, the race went to its first side-by-side commercial break.  Since the race didn’t go to break in the U.K., they didn’t acknowledge the break at all. In fact, they probably didn’t even know it was coming.  During that break, Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin dropped out of the race due to a brake issue.  In addition, Sauber’s Ericsson also retired due to an issue with the hydraulics.  The Sky Sports announcers likely explained everything about what happened during that break while we got commercials.  Also, if you watched the race on replay via WatchESPN or the ESPN app, you got full-screen commercials instead of side-by-side.

Outside of commercial, viewers were likely more informed than they were on NBCSN just because of the full court press.  Sky Sports was able to get a mid-race interview with Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner on the pit wall.

Post-race coverage was once again affected by a commercial.  ESPN took a full-screen break in the middle of Sebastian Vettel’s cool-down lap that lasted long enough that he was already out of the car and celebrating by the time they came back.

Viewers did get the podium ceremony and the champagne spray.  Then, you had the podium interviews with Mark Webber.  The broadcast was only scheduled through 3 a.m. and that time was reached in the middle of the interviews.  The broadcast allowed those interviews to finish, then immediately left Melbourne before the Sky Sports broadcast actually wrapped.

Overall, ESPN’s setup has all the potential in the world.  However, the execution in the heart of DVR Theater was horrific.  Obviously, no one told the people at Sky Sports what ESPN’s plan was.  Even if they did, the United States is not Sky Sports’ target audience for its broadcasts.  Instead, F1 fans in the United Kingdom are.

Sky Sports F1 is not a free-to-air channel in the U.K. and is actually a rather expensive cable network.  Probably the closest equivalent to that here in the United States (and it’s far from a match) is the NFL Network.

Having said that, U.K. broadcasters have provided commentary for other countries as well in the past.  When the BBC and ITV had F1 rights for the U.K., the aforementioned Walker would reference commercial breaks, take a pause of 10 seconds or so, then go back to commentary.  This was because not everyone took breaks at the same time (if at all).

ESPN claims it’s going to make changes before Bahrain to make sure that the instances noted in Melbourne don’t happen again, and there’s a list of things that need to be looked at.

The commercial cues need to be better. Some of the comments on the internet I’ve read indicate that ESPN should take an approach similar to soccer.  That can work for 45 minutes of uninterrupted action at a time, but not 90+.

Additionally, the communications need to be better with Sky Sports F1. Nothing more nothing less. Whoever’s on the button in Bristol has to allow the broadcast to actually conclude like it should.  You didn’t get that in Melbourne.  Who knows what would happen had the race actually run long?

Finally, they’ll need to make sure that the technical connections are all set before the race. Ultimately, that will be the easiest issue to work out.  I’d be shocked if that’s a problem again in Bahrain.

That’s all for this week.  Next weekend is Easter, potentially the quietest weekend of the entire year in motorsports.  Nothing of note is actually racing this weekend.  There will still be broadcasts on television and we will have listings on the TV listings page later this week.  Also, we’ll have TV ratings as well (with a note attached) once they are made available.

For next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday, we’ll properly cover Monday’s action from Martinsville.  We’ll also talk about FOX Sports’ coverage of the season up to this point.

The Critic’s Annex is undecided at the moment.  Sunday’s Grand Prix of Australia was meant to be covered there.  However, the snow out and shenanigans resulted in it moving up to prime-time.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below.  Even though I can’t always respond, I do read your comments. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons. If you would like to contact either of NASCAR’s media partners, click on either of the links below.

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As always, if you choose to contact a network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

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Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as Tony Stewart's Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.

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12 comments

  1. Avatar

    ESPN will work out the technical issues, but still a shame Hobbs and Matchett arent part of the team.

  2. Avatar

    What’s with the cars rolling off at ten minutes after the hour? It had to be a network decision to improve their “product.”

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      What network? Surely ESPN doesn’t have much pull with F1.

      • Avatar

        Isn’t Sky Sports F1 supplying the feed?

        • Avatar

          Indeed. Thats my point. I dont believe ESPN has much influence with any decesions to improve the “product” or “brand”. That said I wish ESPN had gone back to their old format of having their team in Connecticut providing commentary to the feed from F1.

  3. Avatar

    That was awful. F1 is supposed to be a champagne event, and ESPN is putting on discount beer showing. This will not ever grow the sport in the USA, it is terrible to watch. Hard core fans will put up with it until they can spend more money on some promised internet app, but it appears that needs to be rushed through some technical problems and likely won’t be ‘polished’ either.

    NBC couldn’t afford to continue broadcasting a quality program, when Liberty retained exclusive internet rights.

    ESPN can’t afford to do more than they are, which is rebroadcasting a British feed with poorly overlaid commercials at bad times, and no USA content or info.

    The whole deal is just a mess that will drive away interest in the USA from F1, Liberty did not understand what they were doing when they chose to skim off the big bucks with an inhouse internet app.

    Sad. I won’t try to watch that horrible coverage. The combination of dull pit walk, non-USA announcers, very little interesting info given all in stoic monotones, and the awful editing by ESPN is more than can be fixed in one year.

    F1 is dead in the USA.

    • Avatar

      Think its more accurate to say that motorsports is dying in the US.

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      There was no USA announcers on NBCsn coverage of Formula One. All of them foreign born, not that there is anything wrong with that. They were just annoying with their snarky remarks.

  4. Avatar

    I found the announcers not very informative. either that, or they were as overexcited as Mikey Waltrip. They have a LONG way to go to match NBCSN’s overage.

  5. Avatar

    The “start at :10” rule is new for F1 in 2018. Some broadcasters in other countries wanted it.

    Part of what I think is a difference between US and UK motorsport commentary is excitement, but also, with apologies to current UK broadcast home Channel 4 (losing those rights at the end of 2018 because of a Bernie contract to make it pay only in 2019, which many in the UK dislike), is easily heard by C4’s legendary game show “Countdown” with Nick Hewer (formerly of “Mark Burnett’s The Apprentice UK,” as it is known in the US) and Rachel Riley with the signature tune that plays during thinking time. US motorsport commentary often is designed to stimulate thinking. Late in the race, you never even heard Croft or Coulthard think of the Vettel-Hamilton battle looking ahead with F1’s new three-engine rule in 2018. Hamilton had said if he could push it with the engine overheating issues earlier in the race, but they only said Hamilton surrendered. If we had a McReynolds, Matchett, or Letarte on that booth, you would have immediately heard Hamilton was saving his engine because they only have three engines a year, and they need to run seven races with each engine. The same would have been able to catch Haas with the wheel nut issue immediately. The style of Sky has US viewers thinking we’re spoiled by what we have in NASCAR and INDYCAR with pit whips, technical data, and rule books. The Sky commentary also made viewers think Vettel could violate Virtual Safety Car rules by pitting under the system close to the Electro-PACER system at the Indy 500 in the 1970’s. With a 12-second lead over Hamilton during the VSC, Vettel pitted and had to go 37 MPH (60 kph) down pit lane and do his three-second pit stop for a full 21 second pit delta, while Hamilton had to be at caution car speed (still in use in the VSC) of roughly 62 MPH (100 kph) or so during that situation. An average lap of Melbourne is about 135 MPH (220 kph) at race lap speed — compare that to Road America where they average 141 MPH for a fast lap in INDYCAR. We heard nothing of comparing the cars during the VSC.

    The F1 OTT service plays the Sky broadcast also, so that doesn’t help.

    NASCAR has a similar rule in 2018 with engines where team is limited to 23 engines during the season.

    So what is clear — Sky dropped the ball on the Haas issues, VSC, and Hamilton’s conservation of engine. It was much later when Hamilton admitted what a McReynolds, Matchett, or Letarte would have spotted on the fly. It’s because we have a “break down the Cover 2” style that isn’t familiar in Sky F1.