International Motor Sport: why it desperately needs to return to terrestrial television

Next weekend, the 2012 GP2 Series season comes to a conclusion in Singapore, with Davide Valsecchi and Luiz Razia aiming to win the championship. The series runs alongside the GP3 Series as Formula 1’s support package during race weekends, that particular championship concluding with a fantastic series finale last Sunday as Mitch Evans clinched the championship in the final laps.

While both championships have, for the most part, provided fantastic racing this season, there is a sad reality here in the UK. The reality is, that despite having three British drivers in GP2 and a further three drivers in GP3, the viewing figures on Sky Sports F1 have been embarrassingly low. Practice and Qualifying figures, understandably, are very low because I would not expect casual fans to watch that, but the race figures have been nothing to shout about. Here are the race figures that I have to hand for the season so far:

– 21/04/12 – GP2 Race 1: 56,000 (0.58%) average from 13:40 to 15:05; peak: 91,000 (0.98%) at 13:40
– 22/04/12 – GP2 Race 2: 46,000 (0.57%) average from 08:45 to 09:50; peak: 68,000 (0.86%) at 09:05

– 12/05/12 – GP2 Race 1: 62,000 (0.74%) average from 14:35 to 16:00; peak: 106,000 (1.30%) at 14:35
– 12/05/12 – GP3 Race 1: 42,000 (0.39%) average from 16:15 to 17:10; peak: 57,000 (0.57%) at 16:20
– 13/05/12 – GP3 Race 2: 32,000 (0.53%) average from 08:20 to 09:15; peak: 51,000 (0.84%) at 08:40
– 13/05/12 – GP2 Race 2: 35,000 (0.45%) average from 09:30 to 10:35; peak: 46,000 (0.59%) at 09:45

Monaco – all support race figures under 55,000

Europe – all support race figures under 42,000

– 08/07/12 – GP2 Race 2: 54,000 average from 09:35 to 10:40
– all other figures under 54,000

– 21/07/12 – GP2 Race 1: 100,000 average from 14:35 to 16:00
– all other figures under 72,000

Hungary – all support race figures under 24,000

– 01/09/12 – GP2 Race 1: 29,000 average from 14:35 to 16:00

Only once this season has the GP2 Series hit 100,000 viewers. When you consider that Formula 1 regularly attracts audiences of over 4 million viewers, surely it is not right that the series’ one tier down attracts only 2.5 percent of the Formula 1 viewership?

If you look at any other sport, the gap between two tiers is not as large as that, where one attracts 4 million viewers, and the others only attract 100,000 viewers. The first problem has to be the lack of promotion given to it by Sky Sports. Throughout the months of promotion it gave to Formula 1, the only promotion they gave to GP2 and GP3 was a thirty second trailer to put on their website before the start of the season. No on-air trailers with dates and times to alert people, nothing of that sort has aired once this season on any Sky Sports channel promoting GP2. And I think that’s pretty poor myself. I have only ever seen GP2 and GP3 mentioned on Sky Sports News once, and that was when Conor Daly had his horrific accident at Monaco. They’ve never had a brief summary of the results with one or two clips summarising events and a quick interview with the winner, after all I lose count of how many times goals from the second and third tiers of English football are replayed constantly on Sky Sports News.

The fact here is that GP2 and GP3 deserve to have viewing figures so much higher than what they currently are getting and it is a sad indictment that not many people will be watching the GP2 Series conclude next weekend. Had James Calado had a good weekend in Italy, he would have been in the championship name, but how many people know of the name “James Calado”? Not many. Someone on another blog post of mine said “James who? Max who? Oh, I’m sorry. You can only see them at work behind a paywall. Disgraceful.” It is hard to disagree with him.

But is it all Sky Sports’ fault that GP2 and GP3 are doing badly? Some of it is, I’ve outlined promotion issues above. In my opinion though, no it isn’t. In fact, I would argue that the BBC have some proportion of blame here as well. Let us go back to 2007. ITV were screening International Motor Sport, which summarised the events of GP2 (and before that Formula 3000), with commentary from James Allen (previously Simon Taylor). From 1997 to 2007, ITV had that commitment to screening a half an hour highlights show on ITV1 on Saturday afternoons irrespective of viewing figures, the will to screen it always existed so viewers recognised future talent. It is where I watched on occasions Lewis Hamilton’s GP2 races in 2006 alongside Eurosport’s live coverage. Whilst the ITV1 ratings may have been low for the slot, they were multiple times higher than the 100,000 viewers that the live races attract at their peak on Sky Sports F1. In 2008, the coverage extended so that races were covered live on ITV4 with Charlie Webster presenting, which re-affirmed their commitment to showing GP2. It turned out to be their last year covering Formula 1 and GP2 as they gave up the rights to concentrate on the UEFA Champions League.

From 2009, Formula 1 coverage moved to the BBC. Whilst Formula 1 coverage got better on the BBC, what happened with the GP2 Series? The terrestrial commitment stopped. The BBC passed on showing the GP2 Series in any form, and instead Setanta Sports were left to pick up the live rights. As it turns out, that only lasted for half a year, Setanta went bust, and the live rights reverted to Eurosport, until Sky Sports won the F1 rights, taking with it GP2 and GP3. My point here is that had BBC decided “you know what, we will screen highlights in some form”, the conclusion may well be very different. It may not have been a ratings hit, it may have been under their slot average, but it would show their commitment to future Formula 1 stars. Place it neatly in the schedules, maybe directly after F1 Qualifying at 14:30. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, they did not take GP2 up.

I’ll finish this piece by linking to a video. It is an interview Steve Rider did at this year’s AUTOSPORT International show.

I know that the GP2 Series is worldwide rather than British based, but in my opinion, the point still remains. It is in GP2 and GP3 where the first glimpses of future world champions can be seen, where the next Schumacher, Raikkonen and Alonso can be found.

And how much coverage can terrestrial television viewers see? Nothing. And that, for me, is sad.

6 thoughts on “International Motor Sport: why it desperately needs to return to terrestrial television

  1. I think this all stems from the fact that after F1 went to ITV for 1997, the BBC slowly started to drop their commitment to motorsport in general and within the next 5 years, they lost rallying and BTCC. Maybe if F1 went to C4, we would have seen more in the way of GP2 coverage as opposed to the BBC, as C4 do have early morning British F3 highlights.

    1. I don’t think the GP2 issue stems back to 1997, myself. The highlights shows for GP2 could have been scheduled as (to give example for Belgium and Italy)

      12:10 – F1 Qualifying (Italy)
      14:15 – GP2 (Belgium)

      So as to give it the F1 lead-in, and therefore the audience will be there. Maybe get a piece with Calado/Chilton etc in the F1 build-up, and job is done.

      I do think, though, had F1 gone to Channel 4, we may well have seen GP2 live on the Channel 4. I did a mock schedule here and I think GP2 may have done better than their slot average on Channel 4.

      The thing with Sky is that F1 Qualifying has ~300k, GP2 has ~30k, they should not be losing 90 percent of the audience in a 45 minute period after the Qualifying has finished (in fact, it is really more than that when you consider Qualifying peaks with 600k).

      1. Yep that’s true. We may have seen GP2 live on Channel 4 but let’s not forget, I’m not sure C4 would have wanted Channel 4 Racing shafted onto More4 so we may have seen a situation where F1 Quali coverage on the Saturday ends at 2.05pm or 2.10pm to make way for C4 Racing with GP2 coverage on More4 perhaps. I would also like a bit more coverage from Sky on GP2/GP3 instead of just taking the world feed, and for a dedicated F1 channel, maybe 15-20 minutes pre and post-race would be good in making the support race coverage more rounded – maybe have Georgie Thompson present support race coverage. A major point is the lack of promotion as well – Sky don’t really promote GP2/3 enough when there is some really sterling racing on offer.

      2. Agreed, the poor ratings and poor promotion go hand-in-hand. I made the suggestion about a more rounded support races programme here, but I can’t see Sky adding to it for 2013. They would probably make the ratings argument. In none of the pre season adverts did they mention GP2, or even do a standard advert saying “GP2 live this weekend at 2:35pm on Saturday and 9:30am on Sunday on Sky Sports F1”, even that would be sufficient enough to alert people.

  2. Yep, that’s true. Sky are really taking the lazy way out with GP2 and GP3, just taking the world feed. For a dedicated F1 channel, they ought to be doing more but then again, outside grand prix weekends, it’s basically repeats apart from The F1 Show. There’s so much scope for more as regard the support races, but Sky aren’t realising it or don’t feel the need to put as much effort into post-pre race support race coverage.

    1. I agree with you completely. It’s sad in a way, because it is not often a dedicated F1 channel comes around, and we all know what happened with F1 Digital+ in 2002…. okay, Sky won’t pull the plug this year unlike what FOM did in 2002, but they could axe the channel, and move the content (F1/GP2/GP3/F1 Show) to the other Sky Sports channels.

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