In a guest article for Motorsport Broadcasting, Andrew Young looks at the virtual motor sport scene, after a flurry of events since the cancellation of real-world activities.
In keeping with Motorsport Broadcasting ethos of looking objectively at the broadcasting element of motorsport, I thought we would take some time to look at the virtual replacement and the offerings so far.
It has become increasingly confusing to know what to watch, when and why, as all things Esports and gaming floods the motor sport world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A history lesson…
Competitive, online racing is not new, and in fact has been around for over 20 years away from the eyes of the wider racing community. Take for instance, Grand Prix Legends, a fiercely difficult game released in 1998 which, internet permitting, you could race others around the world.
Widely considered the first adapters to the online gaming world, Live for Speed followed in 2003, with semi-professional races largely for the German community. The game provided the platform for the first-ever Intel Racing Tour offline series, a collaboration between BMW and Intel during their participation in F1 in 2007.
The biggest platforms, rFactor and iRacing, hit the market in 2005 and 2008 respectively, changing the game. rFactor 2, Assetto Corsa and RaceRoom all followed, with the specific purpose of racing online against others, unlike games that provided accessibility on consoles or computer-controlled competitors (AI), such as TOCA, F1 and Gran Turismo.
Sim competitions are as old as the games itself. Formula Sim Racing, running on rFactor 2 nowadays, crowned their first champion back in 2001, whilst iRacing organisers kickstarted their own World Championship in 2010.
Drivers form teams to help each other set cars up, or indeed run in endurance races where they can swap drivers. Some will simply be engineers, monitoring the rest of the race to decide on strategy and help the drivers or team do the best they can. At the highest level, it is as every bit as professional as the real world it has run in parallel with for so long.
Although some way behind the likes of Fortnite, League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in the popularity stakes, online racing has gained momentum in recent years, thanks to an increase in broadcast quality led by the likes of the Gran Turismo Tour, helping bring sim racing into the mainstream fold.
Getting a group of people together to put on a race from a single venue is one thing, and as shiny and impressive as that may sound, COVID-19 has taken the organisation involved to another level. The pandemic has forced organisers to live stream competitions with racers from across the world. A very big challenge, but for some, the norm…
With COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of real-world races, the pandemic is forcing fans and championships alike to delve deeper into this virtual world.
The Race gets off the line on top
First out of the blocks was new publication The Race. The outlet, backed by Torque Esports, reacted to the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix by getting sim and real-world racers together on rFactor 2 (rF2).
So many real-world drivers and teams are familiar with the feel of rF2 (as used by teams) meaning that this was a wise choice by Torque. BBC’s 5 Live F1 commentary duo Jack Nicholls and Jolyon Palmer flew straight in from Melbourne to add star quality to the broadcast and, despite commentating from “a stranger’s bedroom,” sounded as though they were on 5 Live.
The entry list pulled in Max Verstappen, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmy Broadbent and the race coverage felt professional, with fantastic GFX and replays. Readers not versed in sim racing may wonder why I added ‘Jimmer’ to that list, but with 425,000 followers on YouTube, Jimmy is probably the most famous sim racer out there.
His numbers are staggering considering he only has made 1,500 videos, but Jimmy broadcasts fantastically well, which is the appeal of his channel in high-stake situations. His channel also offers a unique behind the scenes look, which Nicki Thiim and now famously Lando Norris both replicate. The ‘bloke in shed’ vibe gives Broadbent fantastic appeal and a second screen option which can be hugely addictive to watch.
While The Race totally nailed their first offering, Veloce Esports in comparison stumbled. The group replicated what so many people outside of sim racing believe sim racing to be, mates having a laugh with no care for professionalism.
This should have been the stream for F1 fans, but with the first 30 minutes littered with connection, sound, and picture issues, it was very much a miss. They may have had the numbers, thanks to Norris, Broadbent and randomly Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid footballer), and because they chose to use F1 (the business connections placed them on the F1 channels), but it was a mess.
We can excuse Veloce, while many of their individual athletes stream their online battles, this was a separate undertaking, but they did not have the equipment to cope and their ‘in-house’ presenting team struggled.
On the same weekend as all the above, iRacing eSports Network ran one of their special events ’12 hours of Sebring’ – a full replication of the famous event, a precursor to the actual race happening the weekend after.
iRacing broadcasts are stunning to watch, with immersive cameras, replays and GFX. At times however, the commentary suffers from inferior quality and, at high octane moments, a lack of discipline as to who reacts and leads the moment. Such is the number of events they do, and the commentators they have, the quality varies.
F1 joins the party with ‘Virtual Grand Prix’
One week later, IMSA streamed their Super Saturday offering, with the Radio Show Limited (better known as Radio Le Mans) commentary team at their disposal, a clear step up from previously. Having BMW Motorsport heavily promote and support it with real engineers working with real drivers helped a lot. The event was exclusive to IMSA competitors, which helped the immersion.
The Race stepped up as well. A studio to show Nicholls’ and Palmer’s faces made it feel super slick and additional real-world drivers took part. Oddly, Verstappen withdrew late on, and a lack of buzz meant that audience figures were down, even if the product was more refined.
Nicholls also popped up again on F1’s official first attempt at filling the void, with their Virtual Grand Prix, partnering Alex Jacques on commentary. Veloce’s event preceded F1’s, in the same way Formula Two precedes F1 in real-life: same track, bigger stars.
The quality of racing in the Virtual Grand Prix fell into two camps: entertaining, or a joke. To take online racing seriously you first need the participants to take it seriously and Johnny Herbert cutting the first corner set the tone for a chaotic race comparable to Destruction Derby.
Unfortunately, the one-dimensional commentary worked as much as it did not, and similarly incorporating shots of the drivers in their rigs gave a small flavour of where some of the guys were situated, although it was out-of-sync. With the largest audience by far, F1 failed to impress on the big stage.
If the first two weekends were busy, the third weekend proved that oversaturation could hit Esports sooner than imagined. IndyCar, MotoGP, NASCAR, and SRO joined Veloce, F1 and The Race on the Esports stage, all trying to get a slice of the (smaller than real-life racing) pie.
The Race introduced a Legends event, in old cars, which was genius, just ask Jimmer who has been doing this for a while on his channel. Unfortunately, social isolation forced Nicholls and Palmer to commentate on the races from their own houses, which created minor technical issues. The pace of the broadcast resulted in a lot of studio chat, both pre-races and in between the heats.
The introduction of Esports personality Sadokist was a welcome addition, although the quality of the direction decreased compared to previous weeks. It just felt like everyone cared a little bit less, with this The Race’s third event in successive weeks.
Veloce switched to iRacing from F1 for the first time. Their partnership with sim racing experts Motorsport Games helped them understand other platforms, also replacing some of the ‘Veloce Athletes’ with a field of real-world racers. The on-screen line-up remained the same as previous weeks, meaning that, even with The Race’s own issues, Veloce’s product was still not as polished as The Race.
IndyCar shows all how to master the game…
A new king soon emerged in the form of IndyCar: a full grid of real-world drivers, combined with an awesome broadcast made for a great night of entertainment. NASCAR did the same the previous week, also on iRacing, but was unavailable to this writer.
IndyCar’s broadcast felt realistic to real-life: the same commentary line-up, a pre-race prayer and national anthem, and within eight minutes, the cars were off the line.
Lead commentator Leigh Diffey and the remainder of the crew treated sim racing with respect rather than a second-tier inferior product. On-screen interviews with retired drivers featured throughout, a nice addition to the broadcast.
It did not go quite as far as NASCAR showing drivers in their rigs, but ultimately it felt like a very slick production, one thinks F1 could learn a lot from the iRacing broadcasts. iRacing has benefited hugely in the US with both NASCAR and IndyCar Esports airing on linear TV.
SRO was next to step-up, using the visually stunning Assetto Corsa Competizione. Turn away, and it would be easy to think that you were watching a real event at Monza. It looked stunning. The racing was spellbinding and, coupled with the graphics, was immersive, but without the basics (such as replays), some of the storytelling disappeared.
…only to go live behind a pay wall one week later
After a successful opening weekend, IndyCar returned one week later at the start of April live on NBC for fans in the US and Sky Sports for fans in the UK. However, there was no live YouTube stream in sight, instead, IndyCar only uploaded a stream post-race to their social channels (see above).
VLN and the Porsche Supercup entered the fray to kickstart April, the latter aired on Eurosport, a first for sim racing. Both broadcasts were professional and clean, following the same iRacing model of broadcast.
The Race once again did their thing, needing to tweak the format due to competitor numbers, as well as getting some great competitors on-board. The addition of a proper functioning ‘on-board’ camera in Jenson Button’s house a treat. The Race refined their post-race visual interviews, however their numbers were again poor, by far their lowest of the four weekends so far.
Guess where the most entertainment came from? Testing! Yup, Saturday evening entertainment was joining 140,000 others with Jimmy Broadbent in a practice lobby with six Formula 1 drivers practicing in the virtual world, all having banter and a laugh with one another. “Can we just do this race on our own, it would be way more fun,” was one quote from Red Bull racer Alex Albon.
The F1 stream increased in quality massively compared to the first outing two weeks earlier, with more real-world drivers involved and much better wheel-to-wheel racing. However, continuing to host on-site from their Fulham studios with Alex Jacques, Jack Nicholls, Tom Deacon and Matt Gallagher is an extremely poor decision considering the lockdown restrictions currently in force in the UK.
Although Charles Leclerc winning generated some good PR, the evening was not without its faults. The F1 2019 game kicked Norris out before the race even started, leading to an amusing phone call from Verstappen, broadcast over Norris’s Twitch stream. “You should throw the game in the bin, that’s why I will never join that,” Verstappen said to Norris. Ouch…
With COVID-19 expected to last a while and F1 toying with cancelling July events, Esports is our new norm, for the moment, and providing us all with a lot of entertainment in this difficult hour. Here is hoping we don’t get overwhelmed by it all just yet…
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In a guest article for Motorsport Broadcasting, Edmund Wareham reports in from overseas, giving the low-down on a recent insightful podcast featuring RTL’s F1 presenter Florian König, as well as his own thoughts on RTL’s F1 offering in Germany…
One of the few benefits of the current crisis is that those who would normally be crisscrossing the world with the F1 circus now have the time on their hands to discuss their experience in the paddock. The good folk of Starting Grid, a German F1 podcast, were recently able to sit down with Florian König, the moderator of RTL’s F1 coverage, and chat for almost two hours about his time behind the microphone.
Starting Grid is a podcast on the meinsportpodcast.de platform, moderated by Kevin Scheuren and Ole Waschkau, in partnership with Christian Nimmervoll, chief editor of Motorsport-Total.com and Formel1.de. I can highly recommend the podcast for anyone who speaks German (and even those who are learning!), not least for the in-depth way in which they tackle topics.
British viewers may well be familiar with RTL’s F1 coverage through Kai Ebel, the channel’s pit lane reporter and interviewer, who has conducted podium interviews and whose sartorial choices rival that of Eddie Jordan. Florian König is presumably less well known in the UK but vital for what he describes as the “well-oiled machine” that is RTL’s coverage.
I thought it would be interesting for readers of this site to pull out some key headlines from König’s interview and consider the F1 broadcasting perspective from the German point of view. I watch F1 in the UK (Channel 4 at home or Sky in the pub) but always watched RTL’s coverage when I lived in Germany for a couple of years and when I still visit the country.
König’s Relationship with Lauda
König began his broadcasting career for Süddeutscher Rundfunk, a radio and television station based in Stuttgart, reporting on the Bundesliga, the Barcelona Olympics and the 1993 World Athletics Championships. In 1994, König moved to RTL, becoming the moderator of their F1 coverage two years later, during the rise of one Michael Schumacher.
Speaking on the Starting Grid podcast König admits that, despite watching the odd race before, he was never an F1 fan, much preferring to watch football, but argues that this distance gave him a certain advantage in his role as presenter.
“It wasn’t just F1 fans, insiders and specialists who sat in front of their screen to watch RTL,” he says. “The sport before Schumacher wasn’t a mass phenomenon in Germany, so it wasn’t actually all that bad to have someone with a significant role who could give the viewing public a voice, to ask questions which people at home might also ask.”
Triple F1 champion Niki Lauda joined König on-screen from 1996 until 2017 and some of the most interesting parts of the interview concern König’s relationship with the Austrian. Lauda’s forthright opinions and extensive contacts across the whole paddock made for excellent viewing.
Their partnership was not without its challenges, from Lauda running away to catch a flight before a RTL broadcast ended, to a controversial moment in May 2010 at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Lauda called Robert Kubica a “polack” (an ethnic slur for Polish people) live on-air and maintained that the term was not derogatory in Austria. König challenged him directly in the broadcast and hurriedly had to cut to a feature with Ebel. At the behest of RTL, Lauda later apologised to Kubica.
Controversy notwithstanding, there was an obvious chemistry and understanding between the two. König says that it was “an absolute gift” to work with him.
“He was so clear. He always said what he thought. Of course, on the next day he always thought something different and would then say so,” König retells. When König asked Lauda how they imagined things would work between them, Lauda put it simply: “You ask the questions, I’ll answer them.”
In 2017, to the shock of König who had no inkling of what was to come, Lauda announced live on air that he would no longer be part of RTL’s coverage. “That was first a surprise, secondly live, thirdly emotional. That was really intense. That was very Niki,” he says.
Around the turn of the millennium, an average of ten million viewers per race were watching RTL’s coverage, thanks to the raised profile of the sport in Germany through Schumacher’s domination. Fans dubbed RTL ‘Schumi-TV’ in this era, something König openly and honestly admits would be different today.
“In retrospect, if I may say so, we concentrated insanely on Schumacher,” König tells the podcast. “We were intoxicated by his success and the very high viewing figures so that we didn’t question our approach. We would do it a bit differently today.”
König is critical of the way RTL presented Schumacher’s championship rivals on-screen, especially Damon Hill.
“We didn’t report enough on the other drivers and we weren’t fair about his competitors. Naturally Damon was the antagonist, the baddie. That was the narrative of the time, we reported in a very black and white way. That is how it was then and the state of things.”
But at the same time, he argues that RTL’s coverage was driven to a large extent by what people wanted to see, noting how RTL treated Schumacher’s other championship rival Mika Häkkinen much more favourably, in part because of his exposure on German TV in adverts for companies such as Mercedes-Benz.
The changing relationship between drivers and broadcasters
Pictures on König’s personal website show him first broadcasting from the paddock in jacket and tie but now, as seems de rigueur with sports’ presenters, it is the open neck shirt look. Fashion trends aside, over the course of 25 years covering the sport, König is in an excellent position to see how it has developed from a broadcasting point of view.
When König first started with the channel, only a handful of races aired live on location, with all other programmes filmed in the studio in Cologne, before switching in the early 2000s to circuit-based presentation.
Nowadays, production, editing, and sound mixing all happen back in Cologne, meaning the size of the team having to be on site at races has become markedly reduced from the sixty or so people who used to travel.
König’s first task for RTL in the F1 arena was to produce a feature on Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the 1995 French Grand Prix. In the podcast, König recalls spending the whole day pacing the Magny-Cours paddock hoping to catch a word with the Sauber driver, at time when there were not even dedicated press schedules.
In the intervening years relationships between teams and broadcasters have become far more professionalised. Whilst this obviously makes planning things easier, he does feel that the human element has become lost, such as joining other German journalists in drinking schnapps and singing songs with Norbert Haug after a race.
As with many broadcasters one of the aspects he most enjoys is forty minutes before lights-out and the unscripted pre-race grid walk. “It’s a challenge, but it’s what makes the programme so fun,” he says. While there are several German speakers in the paddock (Verstappen, for example, conducts interviews in German), there is the further demand placed on broadcasters of having to ask many of their questions in English.
The Future of F1 in Germany – and a future for RTL?
F1 in Germany faces its challenges and, with the retirement of Nico Hülkenberg last year, Sebastian Vettel remains the only German driver on the grid. The 2020 season also sees no race in Germany. But König says that viewing figures remain healthy with around four million viewers tuning in, especially with the much greater choice that is now available to viewers, which just was not the case when he first started out covering the sport.
In Germany viewers have two choices: either to pay a subscription to watch uninterrupted coverage on Sky or to watch free-to-air coverage on RTL with advert breaks. Figures from Motorsport.com show that a peak of 5.26 million viewers tuned into RTL’s coverage of Monza last year (a market share of 32.3%), whilst a further 450,000 viewers watched on Sky (2.8%).
The adverts breaks and constant competition plugs are obviously frustrating and remind this writer of the ITV days, but the figures demonstrate, especially when seen in comparison to the UK, that watching the event live has an obvious pull.
F1’s current deal with RTL was signed at the end of 2017 and runs until 2020. On F1’s future with RTL from 2021 König won’t be drawn and only says that “RTL would like to keep F1.” It will be interesting to see how the disruption of this season affects the negotiation of rights going into 2021 and whether König will be on Germany’s F1 screens in the future.
König, a self-styled “great friend of this sport” has done much over the last twenty-five years to promote F1 in Germany in his professional, down-to-earth, and articulate manner. As we await with uncertainty whether we will see any F1 this season, it is good to have these sorts of high-quality podcasts with their interesting insights available so that, in the words of the podcast Starting Grid’s slogan, we can “Keep Racing!”
Thank you to them above all for putting together such a wide-ranging and insightful interview.
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A massive audience of over 200,000 viewers watched a special F1 Esports event on Sky Sports, consolidated viewing figures from BARB show.
With no action taking place on the circuit within the near future, organisations in the Esports arena have taken advantage by holding their own replacement races.
F1 opted to run a Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix using their F1 2019 video game, featuring McLaren’s Lando Norris, Williams driver Nicholas Latifi and a range of celebrities, including singer Liam Payne and Olympian Sir Chris Hoy.
The action aired live across three Sky Sports channels to an audience of 208,200 viewers from 20:00 to 21:30 on Sunday 22nd March via the TV set.
82,900 viewers watched on Sky Sports Main Event, with 82,600 viewers watching on the F1 channel, and a further 42,700 viewers watching on Sky Sports Mix.* The event was the most watched programme on those three channels for the week commencing 16th March.
To put that figure into comparison, last year’s running of the Indianapolis 500 averaged 172,000 viewers exclusively on Sky Sports F1, which in itself was a record high, whilst the Esports figure comfortably beats any Formula Two or Formula Three race that Sky has aired.
It is possible that the audience figures are some of the highest ever for an Esports event on UK television, but Motorsport Broadcasting is unable to confirm that as of writing.
This is in addition to the online average audience reported by Echarts of 279,000 viewers worldwide across Facebook, YouTube and Twitch.
The Virtual Vietnam Grand Prix is set to air live across Sky’s outlets and social media again this Sunday from 20:00.
* Technical Note: Logs on the BARB website shows the description for the Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Mix as ‘Sky Sports News’ and ‘NBA’ respectively. However, Motorsport Broadcasting can confirm that the underlying figures are for the F1 Esports event.
Throughout its seventy-year history, Formula 1 fans have witnessed amazing stories play out on and off the circuit, some of which filmmakers have excellently retold in recent years to a new generation of fans.
Asif Kapadia and Manish Pandey brought the story of Ayrton Senna to the masses, utilising F1’s rich archive to fulfil their objective.
More recently, Ron Howard successfully turned Niki Lauda’s rivalry with James Hunt into a box office hit, with Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth doing the larger than life characters justice in Rush.
But there is one recent story arc from the late 2000s that deserves a showcase on the grand stage, and it is not what you think.
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic looking unlikely to stop soon, the chances of Netflix’s F1 Drive to Survive being able to focus on the 2020 season diminishes by the day.
Luckily, Motorsport Broadcasting has an alternative suggestion. I started watching Formula 1 in 1999 aged 7, so have seen the Schumacher era, Red Bull era and Mercedes era unfold in front of my eyes.
These eras exclude a period encompassing the rise of Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel, Button, Kubica, Massa, all trying to emerge as F1’s new top dog following Michael Schumacher’s retirement.
The 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix marked the end of one era, whilst at the other end, the sun rising in Barcelona in March 2009 would begin the greatest underdog story in Formula 1 history.
The events in the intervening period, encapsulates everything that resembles what Formula 1 is about. Political drama, on-track drama, controversial moments, sub-plots, and two title races that go down to the wire.
Could Netflix turn this era, culminating in the Hamilton versus Massa showdown in Brazil, into a ten-part documentary? Maybe. Here is how it could work…
Episode 1 – Schumacher
Every story needs a beginning, and the first episode covers the closing phase of the 2006 season, as Spain’s Fernando Alonso dethrones Germany’s Michael Schumacher in a battle that went back and forth for the entirety of the season.
The episode introduces us to Alonso, as he clinches his second championship at the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix, stepping out of Schumacher’s shadow as the German headed into retirement.
Although everything looks comfortable from the outside, Alonso is not one to stay in the comfy chair, shocking the F1 world by jumping from Renault to McLaren (in a move done the previous Winter) ready for the 2007 season.
World champion makes you the de facto team leader, right? Unfortunately for Alonso, not quite. Enter, Lewis Hamilton.
Episode 2 – Pretenders
The key challenger to Alonso’s throne would turn out to come from within at McLaren, with Britain’s newest F1 hopeful.
Episode two gives us Hamilton’s backstory into motor sport, featuring archive footage of him racing the likes of Sebastian Vettel in the lower formulae.
Ferrari’s challengers for 2007, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen, also get their first outing in the series, with emphasis on Massa given his friendship with Schumacher. There is news of a reshuffle in the off-season since Schumacher’s retirement, causing friction at Maranello.
But the focus is very much on McLaren, and it is clear all is not well at Woking. Hamilton is performing better than expected as the 2007 season begins, leaving the team with difficult decisions to make.
Do McLaren back their number one driver, or do they back the young Brit on the charge?
Events come to a head at the 2007 United States Grand Prix, as Hamilton and Alonso battle side-by-side down the start-finish straight…
Episode 3 – Spy-gate
As if the on-track action was not dramatic enough, activities off-track were about to take a sinister turn, with internal politics and turmoil at McLaren and Ferrari colliding.
Accusations flew of McLaren stealing Ferrari’s intellectual property, all playing out in front of the public eye.
The result was F1’s governing body the FIA fining McLaren $100 million and stripping them of all their Constructors’ Championship points for the 2007 season.
On-track, it became increasingly clear that Alonso was heading out of McLaren and back to Renault for 2008, following a bizarre sequence of events during the Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying session.
Nevertheless, the Drivers’ Championship fight continued between Hamilton, Alonso and Raikkonen, heading towards a three-way tussle at Interlagos, Brazil.
Episode 4 – Brazil
Brazil again was the scene for a championship decider. Technical problems would get the better of Hamilton, with Raikkonen clinching the Drivers’ Championship for Ferrari.
The story here is that Ferrari have won, and McLaren have lost in a year where the off-track drama dominated the headlines. The challenge now for McLaren was to rebuild ready for the 2008 season, and put the sorry situation that was 2007 behind them.
Elsewhere in the field, episode four introduces us to fellow British driver Jenson Button, who drives for the Honda team.
Whilst Hamilton is getting all the limelight from a British perspective, Button is trundling around in his Honda, with only one win to his name in his eight F1 seasons.
Hope remains for the Brackley based team however, with reports that Ross Brawn is set to join the outfit ahead of a regulation change coming soon to F1…
Episode 5 – Canada
Another two young talents begin to make their mark on F1 in 2008 and episode five focusses on the first of those, recounting the events of Canada 2007 and Canada 2008.
From an accident that almost ended Robert Kubica’s F1 career, to his first ever victory, the episode covers Kubica’s journey up until this point. Is Poland’s rising star about to spring a surprise?
A calamity involving Hamilton and Raikkonen at the end of pit lane allowed Kubica to take his first ever victory with BMW team-mate Nick Heidfeld following him home in second.
Episode five also focuses on the opening phases of the 2008 season, with Hamilton and Massa leading the way.
Episode 6 – Seb
Also rising in stardom is Germany’s Sebastian Vettel, hoping to emulate his compatriot to become an F1 mega-star.
The episode features more archive footage with Vettel and Hamilton, this time from Vettel’s perspective as opposed to Hamilton.
Vettel breaks into the Red Bull ranks in the Summer of 2007, joining sister team Toro Rosso, building up experience with every passing race.
And then, the heavens open in Monza for the 2008 Italian Grand Prix, allowing Vettel in the Toro Rosso to shine. At just 21 years of age, Vettel becomes both the youngest pole sitter and youngest race winner in F1 history, a remarkable feat.
Meanwhile at Honda, times remain tough for Button, finishing over a minute behind Vettel at Monza, as rumours begin to swirl that Honda are looking to exit F1. Has Button lost his chance to break into the big time?
Episode 7 – Spa
With two-thirds of the 2008 season gone, Hamilton and Massa were leading the chasing pack. Hamilton stepped up to the challenge for his second season in F1, winning a classic race at Silverstone.
Massa was never far away, winning three races up until that point. An engine failure robbed him of what should have been a fourth victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Another thing seemingly never far away for Formula 1 was controversy, as the Belgian Grand Prix proved, with politics coming back to haunt McLaren.
Another classic saw Hamilton overtake Raikkonen for victory, the Finnish driver eventually crashing out.
After the race, Hamilton was controversially penalised for cutting the chicane handing victory to Massa. Both Hamilton and McLaren strongly disagreed the judgement handed down, opting to appeal the steward’s decision.
Episode 8 – Renault
A missing character from the past few episodes is Alonso, whose return to Renault had not gone according to plan, his highest position fourth in the Monza rain.
Nevertheless, fortune was about to pick up for Renault in F1’s inaugural trip to Singapore, which is where episode eight takes us.
A conveniently timed spin from team-mate Nelson Piquet Jr was enough to trigger a Safety Car, leading to Alonso’s first victory of the 2008 season, and Renault’s first since 2006.
All is not as it seems though and, although the episode may not explicitly state this, Renault’s victory was not a genuine one…
The events of Singapore also cost Massa a near certain race victory, and potentially his first Drivers’ Championship, thanks to the accident successfully executed by his compatriot.
One thing is for certain: yet again, the Drivers’ Championship is heading down to the wire…
Episode 9 – Showdown
It all comes down to this. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton. Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. One race. One champion. The venue? Massa’s backyard in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
For Massa to win the crown, he must win the race, with Hamilton finishing lower than fifth. A tall order, but still possible.
Massa takes the early advantage, clinching pole, as Hamilton starts down in fourth. Vettel continues to surprise, qualifying seventh. Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, Button qualifies a dismal 17th.
Race day dawns with rain on the horizon, dramatically turning into a storm minutes before the start. Massa keeps his lead off the line, but Hamilton remains favourite for the title.
The rain clears, but dramatically returns in the closing laps. The leaders pit for intermediate tyres, however other runners stay out on dry weather tyres, an inspired decision as conditions continue to deteriorate.
At this point Hamilton is set to win the title, that is until a mistake sends Hamilton wide on lap 69, dropping him to sixth and putting Massa in championship winning position!
The destination of the 2008 Drivers’ Championship hinges on the final two laps…
Episode 10 – 38 Seconds
Spygate. Alonso. Controversy. Spa. The past two seasons for McLaren have seen the team at some of their lowest points internally. Can Hamilton turn everything around?
Massa crosses the finish line, as champion!
“Is that Glock going slowly? That’s Glock! Hamilton’s back in position again!”
Hamilton moves ahead of Glock on the final corner of the final lap, taking fifth position to become the 2008 Formula One World Champion! Jubilation at McLaren, heartbreak at Ferrari. Massa was champion for just 38 seconds.
The cameras follow the scenes from garage to garage, contrasting fortunes everywhere you look, capturing a moment in Formula 1 history that even Hollywood could not write.
As the teams begin to leave Brazil, news emerges of Honda’s imminent exit from Formula 1, appearing to end Button’s Formula 1 career.
Back at base, McLaren and Hamilton celebrate their title victory, as attention quickly turns to the 2009 season, with new regulations set to change F1 forever.
As 2009 edges closer and the new look cars hit the circuit, stories emerge from around the sport that Ross Brawn has saved the Honda outfit from oblivion, rebranding the team as Brawn GP.
The ten-part series ends with Jenson Button taking the Brawn car onto the Barcelona circuit for the very first time, as a familiar bass riff plays in the background.
And well, the rest is history…
Is a documentary series like this, in the style of ‘Drive to Survive’, possible?
In my view, yes.
You may argue that covering two years of F1 in one series makes little sense. But, in the context of the Hamilton and Massa battle, both grew in stature throughout the 2007 and 2008 seasons, reaching a climax in Brazil 2008.
The first nine episodes would result in viewers, in F1 and beyond, becoming invested in both characters, and the associated sub-plots, ready for the finale in episode ten.
Senna, released in 2010, shows what you can do with the archive material on offer, and that covered an even earlier period than suggested here.
A series of this nature would utilise footage from F1’s own internal archive, including footage filmed by Formula One Management as well as F1’s broadcasters during that period (ITV in the UK, Speed in America, Premiere in Germany, TV3 in Spain).
Supplementing the in-house footage includes footage from news reports, as well as amateur film from that time, like we saw in the Senna movie.
Every broadcaster records hours of footage in the paddock ‘off-roll’ for usage later if needed.
WWE recently aired a documentary series on their over-the-top platform called Ruthless Aggression, focusing on what made the mid-2000s special for them, retelling stories for a new audience, using never-before seen footage spliced with present day interviews.
F1, and motor sport, can learn a lot from WWE in the archive space.
In my view, there is enough footage in the archives, both at F1 and elsewhere, to make a series like this a reality, creating some excellent new material for fans to watch in the process.