The 2017 Formula One season started in Melbourne this past weekend, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel emerging as victor. On the broadcasting side, the ‘new’ Formula One Management (FOM) under the arm of Liberty Media made a step up in several areas. However, as was evident over the weekend, not everything was plain sailing for FOM…
Timing graphics tweaked
One of the biggest changes for 2017 is the introduction into the World Feed graphics of the individual mini timing ‘loops’. For those that are unaware, each of the three main sectors is split into mini sectors. This information has been available to teams for years, and as of last year was made available on the ‘Data’ feed. This year, FOM has integrated the loop information into the World Feed.
To briefly explain the graphic above, the three horizontal purple lines cover your three traditional sectors; with each ‘blob’ above that representing a sub-sector. Purple means that a driver is fastest of all, green means that it is the drivers’ personal best and grey means no improvement. So, for sector one, Lewis Hamilton was fastest of all. However, within that sector, he was fastest only in one individual loop, setting a personal best in two other loops and failing to improve in the other loops.
During Friday practice, the graphics also displayed the drivers’ predicted time throughout the lap, along with ‘as live’ gap updates. FOM removed both of these features from Saturday onwards for reasons unknown (there is an argument that seeing the cumulative gaps in qualifying would dilute the spectacle as cars finish their qualifying lap). I am glad to see the timing loops integrated into the World Feed, if anything it shows that FOM are ahead of the curve in comparison to other series that have access to this information, which is great to see.
A neat addition during the weekend was the usage of infographics. Infographics helped explain in a non-technical language what key phrases meant, such as a ‘red flag’. Yes, regular readers to this site may know the sporting regulations inside out, but the first time viewer is unlikely to know, so it is important to have these explained on-screen in a non-offensive or obtrusive manner, which FOM perfected.
Improved track cameras show off the speed
Even with the faster 2017 cars on show, what was clear is that the FOM have made some slight, yet noticeable, changes to track cameras in order to capture the speed of the cars. The placing of some cameras was lower than in previous years on the Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit course.
The broadcast gave off a F1 Digital vibe from the late 1990s and early 2000s, which Formula 1 needs again. The picture will not be perfect overnight, and you can understand why Liberty Media will want to keep the balance between showing trackside advertising and capturing the speed of the cars. Technical issues aside, it felt like the direction was better in Australia than we have seen for a long time, with more focus on the cars and less focus on the surrounding advertising. The move to ultra HD for the majority of trackside cameras has helped.
There is a lesson as well in strategically positioning the cameras, the video which best shows off the speed of the cars is actually from a static fan camera on the entry of the turn 11 and 12 chicane. A video, shared on reddit, shows one of the Toro Rosso cars passing through the shot. Blink and you will miss it. It is an amazing piece of footage, demonstrating the change of direction, however the shot includes little sponsorship exposure and falls right on the other end of the spectrum, were FOM to use a shot like this in future races.
Failures blight World Feed coverage
On the negative, the World Feed graphics for the majority of the weekend were sub-standard, with numerous failures from the outset. Various sources have confirmed to this site that there was a major outage on the production side just nine minutes before the World Feed was due to go on air for qualifying. Initially, this meant that FOM only had access to pit lane cameras and the heli-cam, with only a limited set of graphics. Normal service was restored towards the end of Q1.
The race itself featured only a basic graphics set, and way below the usual output from the team. The direction was fine, but with no supplementary graphics such as the timing ticker at the foot of the screen, the race was difficult to follow at stages. An inferior product, especially one that fans have paid for through pay television in some instances, is unacceptable and resulted in some social media backlash.
As a fan, failures on the World Feed are frustrating. However, as someone who also works with IT systems (and has had to deal with failures on a much more localised scale), I sympathise with the team in Melbourne and in London. In the circumstances on Saturday, FOM did a fantastic job to get things up and running as quickly as they did, meaning that Q2 and Q3 went off without a hitch.
In IT, failures do happen. However, failures in recent years have been too frequent, compared to say the likes of Dorna’s MotoGP coverage. Maybe FOM’s production team would welcome a proposed ‘round zero’ from next year to ensure that their systems are up to the expected standards… a ‘round zero’ would not only test new ideas on the sporting front, but also ensure all the production systems are up and running as expected.
Social media rules relaxed
As reported throughout the pre-season across motor racing websites, Liberty Media have relaxed the social media rules for Formula 1’s teams and drivers. During an interview in Channel 4’s Australia qualifying programme, Sean Bratches, Formula 1’s Commercial Director, noted that prior to testing FOM had never issued any social media guidelines, which shows how just behind the curve the corporation were.
As they did in testing, teams have exploited the social media relaxation to varying degrees, with Red Bull, Williams and Mercedes heavily using social media to their advantage. Of note, Williams ran a few Facebook Live sessions, the first of which saw Paul di Resta and Karun Chandhok joined by Lance Stroll and Paddy Lowe on ‘Williams TV’. Every video for every team is a social media experiment as they learn more about the demographics of their audience, and which videos are more popular than others are.
FOM have been continuing to produce live social media programming through the Australian Grand Prix weekend, building on the content produced at last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and during testing. FOM streamed a live fans forum to social media on Saturday morning with David Coulthard hosting in front of the Melbourne crowd. Some of this may have been in the works prior to Liberty Media’s take over but arguably, change has occurred on a greater scale thanks to Liberty. Small steps, such as presenting the FIA World Drivers’ Championship on the starting grid help go a long way to giving the sport a more human element.
On all fronts, the genie is out of the bottle. There will be bad moves; there will be experiments that fall flat on their face, by both the teams and Liberty Media. Now is the perfect time for mistakes to happen when fans are generally accepting that change is happening, and are prepared to accept that there will be early bumps in the road. You would rather make mistakes now when these forms of communication are niche for Formula 1, working to establish common ground, themes and decision-making as the season progresses. I would much rather see risk taking over the next few races instead of an organisation that is clearly relaxing or unable to adjust, as was clearly the case with FOM in previous years.