Mon 24 Sep 2007
If you are a regular visitor then you have probably grasped the fact that I’m an F1 fan.
I’m not a huge supporter of a particular team, and while it is true that of the current drivers I favour David Coulthard, I’m normally happy enough that the best driver on the day has won - mainly because I know DC has little chance of winning at the moment!
Formula 1 gets a lot of stick from viewers that it is boring, the races are processional with overtaking a rarity and I can see their point - a race without anyone overtaking each other is a bit like a football match without any goals, or a rugby match without any tries.
However, I feel that the majority of people who think this way must only really think about F1 for a couple of hours every second Sunday - ie, they must only switch on the TV for the races themselves, and perhaps qualifying as well at a push. If the race is the only glimpse into the sport that you get then I agree it must look like it’s in huge trouble, as I often find that part the most boring as well. Trying to convince this kind of occasional viewer that it really is worth investing the time to understand the sport better is like hitting your head off a brick wall.
The question to ask yourself though is that if you were only coming to F1 just now, after watching a couple of races this year would you be so eager to follow the sport?
Who is to blame for this lack of enthusiasm? Is it the FIA for meddling with the rules every year - at least once? Is it the teams’ fault for not trying hard enough, or indeed for trying too hard and spending too much money? Is it the media’s fault for the way the sport is presented? Is it the team and drivers’ fault for not be accessible enough?
Personally, I think the FIA do have to take some of the blame although to lay the blame totally at their door would be wrong. I have some sympathy with them as it must be incredibly hard to decide on rules for a sport - back when sports were conceived, the rules were invariably very simple but as time has gone on they will have got more and more convuluted no matter what that sport is.
A sport like F1 which is conducted at the cutting edge of technological innovation is always going to be the hardest to police, and also have the most complicated set of rules. The equipment used by the teams changes year by year so for the FIA to keep ahead of the game and effectively create rules to govern these changes before they happen is an impossible task - therefore they end up having to change or alter rules after these changes have been implemented. This can lead to unrest amongst the teams, as parts which were previously deemed to be legal, are later deemed to be in contravention to the rules.
These complications don’t make the sport any easier to simply “tune in and watch”, unlike football for example. Although there are some rules which are a little harder to comprehend - offside being the obvious example - in the main it’s basically an easy game to understand. You may say that F1 is easy to understand - drive as fast as you can and try to get to the finish first - but with the commentators talking about graining, optimum and option tyres, etc it’s easy to see how a new viewer could become swamped with unusual terms. As for trying to explain the current qualifying system to someone who hasn’t seen it before, don’t even attempt it.
Someone who does want to start to follow football has the perfect opportunity every week of the season. Every national newspaper devotes pages of print every day to the subject, together with three or four hours of match highlights available on the BBC every week split between Match of the Day and MOTD2 - not to mention the wall to wall coverage available on Sky Sports and Setanta, together with the odd live game on ITV or Five too.
This is where F1 really lets it’s followers down in my view. Obviously if there was only one football match on every couple of weeks then the TV stations couldn’t devote so much airtime to it, nor could the written press devote so much newspaper space to the sport either so F1 is always going to be on the back foot there. But does the media really make the most of what is actually available to them?
ITV currently hold the right to screen F1 in Britain, a right which is not altogether very popular among fans here. This must have cost them a fair whack and you would think that they would try to maximise the revenue they receive from advertising by increasing the viewing figures as much as possible. There are a couple of ways to do this - provide an indepth technical analysis of what F1 is actually all about and give us the lowdown on the behind the scenes stuff, or to hype up a British driver at every opportunity in the hope that patriotic Brits will all tune in to see “our man” strut his stuff. Anyone who has seen ITV’s coverage in the last decade will know which approach they favour.
I started watching F1 because of the racing - it was all you ever got to see on the BBC way back then, so basically you had that or nothing. Now, mainly because of the internet, we know that there is a whole other side of the sport that we never used to get to see. Because the technology has moved on, the races are only really a small part of the entire picture now - albeit the most important part as that’s where the prizes are dished out and therefore where the teams generate a lot of their revenue.
ITV fail totally in presenting this side of the sport to the fans. Yes, they have turfed their presenters out of their cosy studio and made them stand in the pitlane or the paddock instead - this would be to give the impression that they are right in the thick of the action and therefore have their fingers on the pulse of all that is F1, but in reality it’s just a nuisance and makes it harder for them to do their jobs.
Their show often starts an hour before the race, which should give them ample opportunity to update us on what has happened in the world of F1 since the last race, but normally the bulk of the show is taken up with a Lewis Hamilton interview and other chat about the Golden Child. This is helping noone, least of all Lewis himself, and must actually confuse anyone who doesn’t know much about F1 other than Hamilton is the champion-in-waiting. Lately when he has gone out and been beaten soundly by his teammate, surely that must puzzle the casual viewer?
There are the odd high points - generally anything involving Martin Brundle. His insights into how an F1 car works, and what it feels to drive them are genuinely brilliant and unlike anything available elsewhere. But features like these are far too sparse.
I dare say ITV would argue that the content has to be suitable for a wide and varied audience so they can’t afford to go too indepth in case it pushes some viewers away. I can understand this point so why not have another show on at another time which is specifically aimed at the more geeky hardcore fans? This doesn’t have to be primetime on ITV1, it could be on in the middle of the night on ITV4 because those who really want to watch it would make the effort to do so, or to record it.
Having this kind of access to the sport is the only way to ensure that viewers become lifelong fans of the sport. Drivers come and go - these days, even teams come and go - but the sport will remain.
ITV surely have a duty to ensure that it’s viewers remain also.