Friday, 29 July 2011

The Sky's the limit?

After being put under pressure I've decided to get back blogging and writing about the sport I love. I've spent a few hours putting some ideas together on what I could write about, but a shock announcement literally overnight (is anything ever a shock when it comes to F1?) pretty much handed me a storyline that has the potential to impact the long-term future of Formula 1 broadcasting in the UK.

The news that the UK broadcasting of Formula 1 from 2012 onwards will be split by the BBC and Sky has sent shockwaves through the paddock and the general Formula 1 community. I'm a frequent tweeter and the first reactions of many have been of anger, frustration and disappointment that the BBC will broadcast 10 full race weekends instead of the full 2012 season, with Sky taking over the reins. And this isn't just a trial run - the sharing deal lasts until 2018, forcing fans to pay up for a Sky Sports subscription or be left with less access. It sets a stark contrast to when the BBC took the rights back from ITV in 2009, with uninterrupted coverage of practice, qualifying and races (and all the little bits before and after) free of charge.

It's all about cutting costs at the BBC in a difficult economic period
 There's no doubt the BBC coverage has been stellar and has continued to go from strength to strength. This has had a significant impact as the F1 fanbase grows stronger, evidenced with some outstanding viewing figures, even during and most particularly the marathon Canadian Grand Prix. But, like with Grand Prix racing itself, all good things have to come to an end, as the BBC has had to cut back it's Formula 1 offerings in a bid to save money. The BBC runs very differently to other TV channels, relying on the licence fee more than anything else, and cannot afford to meet the demands of a Formula One Management that shows no mercy when it comes to funds. And this is where Sky come in.

With piles of money larger than Eddie Jordan's pile of unfashionable clothes, Sky never appeared off of the radar when the rumours started circulating over the future of BBC F1 coverage. Takeover rumours were quickly hushed down but Sky taking the rights to future F1 seasons always remained. Channel 4 and Channel 5 were suggested, but evidently nothing has materialised. The arguments against F1 going to Sky, coming from concerned Team Principals such as McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh, was that the fanbase was never going to be as large if Formula 1 was on pay TV, which would make sponsors unhappy resulting in more teams pulling out with financial difficulties. On the plus side, FOM and the teams have got a massive financial boost as Sky allegedly have paid more for the full rights than the BBC ever did. And with the BBC offering non-pay TV viewers a taster of what Formula 1 is like, fans will be queueing up to buy subscriptions to watch the full season. It's a win-win situation for Sky, who have access to every single race weekend from 2012 onwards. The BBC, however, have had to compromise severely, instead offering full radio coverage across every weekend as well as a highlights shows at the end of every Grand Prix.

Get ready for Sky's coverage featuring British Heroes Hamilton & Button!

What will be interesting, however, is the direct comparison in viewing figures between the BBC and Sky when both broadcasters show the same Grand Prix. The BBC's impartial coverage has been fantastic over the past two seasons and free-to-view figures are traditionally a lot higher than subscription channels, as demonstrated by WRC coverage in recent years, but will the lure of live coverage be too much for non-Sky customers come 2012? Only time will tell.

Vettel given food for thought

Despite the calls that it was a matter of not "if" but "when" the rain would fall at the German Grand Prix, a significant downpour failed to threaten the racing and a fantastic spectacle. However, dark clouds will still be hanging over the Red Bull camp, as their dominance over the rest of the field becomes ever closer to being non-existent. Sebastian Vettel in particular, whose calm and measured approach to 2011 has been taken with that of an experienced Champion despite being only 24, could be forgiven for thinking he can afford a mistake or two and play a conservative game. The action in Germany confirmed that this would not be the case, as Vettel made a costly mistake early on and had his Championship lead slashed by resurgent drives from Hamilton, Alonso and team-mate Webber.

How many times will we see this in the second part of 2011?
Early pace in free practice at the Hungaroring is that McLaren and Ferrari look to continue the trend that was set at the Nurburgring by posing a constant threat to the Red Bulls from here on in. While you shouldn't read too much into the times at this early stage, with Webber 4th and the reigning Champion in 5th, the times between all three cars look very comparable. Remarkably, the Hungarian Grand Prix has sprung up exciting races, none more so than in the past few seasons where Webber fought hard to claim a great win and a resurgent McLaren broke their 2009 troubles with Hamilton's first win as a Champion. McLaren need look no further for inspiration to reignite their Championship challenge. It's all to play for in Budapest.