The Battle of the Beams

We waited, and we waited, and then we waited some more, but after a little bit more waiting, Williams finally announced who would be driving the car on the other side of the garage from Pastor Maldonado; it’s Bruno Senna. My youngest brother was delighted by this news, because he’s a Bruno fan and has been since he entered top-flight motor sport. I, on the other hand, am not so sure it’s a good move from Grove. In my mind, Rubens Barrichello was the best option available, with Sutil the next best. Rubens may not perhaps have been able to bring as much money to the team as the young Brazilian, but he still has that fire, that desire to win. He’s quick too, and his experience would be worth more to the team than sponsor’s money in terms of finding the areas of the car that need developing. But more importantly, when there are big issues to be solved, you want to change as few factors as possible. Consistency in the driver line-up could well have helped the team find what needs fixing, whereas there is now another variable in the mix. As for Bruno himself, he still has yet to prove himself. There were some good performances, but not enough of them. His money will help development, but a lack of driver experience might well count against the team. With Maldonado in the other car, who has yet to prove that he is there for anything other than his money, Williams have less than three years total experience between two cars. It looks like a very steep slope for the team to climb. In fact, it looks almost too steep. I hope I’m wrong.

Williams are not the only ones to make an announcement about their line-up recently, as two teams, ready to go head-to-head, have told us who we will see on our televisions. Sky Sports and the BBC are controversially sharing the broadcasting rights for the F1 starting this year. Following the announcement, a mass exodus from the BBC occurred, with Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz from the BBC TV team and the entire on air talent from 5Live, David Croft, Anthony Davidson, and Natalie Pinkham, all leaving the Beeb for Sky. Simon Lazenby and Georgie Thompson will be part of the team, and at ten of the races, so will Damon Hill. It’s a strong team, but so is the BBC’s. Jake Humphrey remains, as does Eddie Jordan, David Coulthard, and Lee McKenzie. Replacing Martin Brundle in the commentary box is the excellent Ben Edwards, and in the pitlane is former designer Gary Anderson. There isn’t anyone I can think of who make better replacements for the departing team. As for 5Live, former ITV commentator James Allen will take up the mic in the ‘box, with Jenny Gow in the pits and paddock.

The question is who will win the battle of the broadcasters? Sky has the obvious advantage of showing all of the races live, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be the popular choice. Following the revelations over the last year or so, a number of people are reluctant to give money to Rupert Murdoch and News International, which could hinder them. For those not interested in the politics behind who is running the show, money will still be an issue. Sky has created a dedicated F1 channel, which is great, but to watch it you need either the HD package or the sports package, which cost approximately £30 and £40 a month respectively (correct as of 24/01/2012). Fundamentally, to watch all the F1 races live, it will cost between £360 and £480 per annum, which is rather a lot of money, especially in the economic climate. The website ran a survey of F1 fans visiting their site to see how many had a Sky Sports package, how many would buy one, and how many watched free-to-air Formula One. The stats suggest that Sky may struggle to pull in audiences, as 97.6% of those who participated watched F1 on free-to-air channels. To make things worse for Sky, only 14.1% had Sky Sports at the time, and 93.3% of all those surveyed said they would not get it to watch the races. These figures cannot be held to be definitive, as only 5,820 people responded, but must surely have given the big-wigs at Sky something to think about.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the BBC will win the popular support. Whenever Sky has become involved in covering a sport, the quality of the coverage has always improved, although the BBC have provided the best coverage we’ve ever had of Formula One. Indeed, they won the award for best broadcaster worldwide from the FIA this year. There are two issues; firstly, that a number of fans feel betrayed by the organisation for this deal, although Staffordshire University’s Ellis Cashmore tells us that the BBC won’t have any sport at all in around ten years, but more importantly it is how few races they will be beaming back live. In the main, the problem is that there is an agreement to show full race-runs, but instead they are showing ‘extended highlights’. Confusing the matter further is that European-time races will have a shorter highlights package than Far Eastern-time races. I struggle to see the reason why.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to see who will win the battle of the broadcasters. The losers are obvious; the teams, the sponsors, but mostly the fans. It has been said that people who can’t or won’t get Sky can go to a pub to watch the races live, but how many pubs are going to show the races? I doubt many, if any at all, will open up to show the fly-away races, which are at slightly anti-social times for European audiences, but for the other races, why show the F1 when the football will bring more people, and therefore more money, into the pub? Formula One has been through a revival recently, with the largest fan base for years, but it still can’t match the number of football fans. It is a shame this growth in popularity has coincided with this deal.

In 2012, I sincerely hope that Williams and Senna prove me wrong. The tragedy is no-one in the UK will know if they do.


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