A catalyst for change?

Fernando Alonso’s testing and rookie orientation day in preparation for the Indianapolis 500 later this month has drawn attention from far and wide. His orientation day has also reignited the debate about whether there is value in covering testing live.

From the outset, the circumstances around Alonso’s IndyCar appearance are unique, in a situation unlikely to be repeated. A peak of around 72,000 devices watched Alonso’s orientation via YouTube, with the stream provided by the IndyCar Series consistently above 40,000 devices.

Furthermore, IndyCar streamed the event via Facebook to a reach of 800,000 users. Other forms of motor racing, such as Formula E, have struggled to break through live streaming barriers on YouTube. The numbers recorded for Alonso’s orientation are staggering, especially considering that this was a weekday event.

There is a great deal motor racing can learn from this, not just Formula 1 but also other forms of the sport. Watching cars drive around a track, essentially collecting data, for hours at a time may seem like a useless activity for much of the population to watch.

The actual process of testing doesn’t have the intensity. It is much more difficult to understand because different people are doing different things. Testing highlights are really interesting, live coverage of testing is really, really boring. – MotoGP journalist David Emmett speaking to me last year.

Dorna broadcasts MotoGP testing live from Valencia post-season and Sepang pre-season via their app, combining ‘as live’ footage with studio discussion. Sky Sports F1 aired Formula 1 testing live in 2013, although this was shoe-horned around the 3D gimmick that never went any further.

The argument against live testing is that the cost is too high and the expected audience is too low. Setting up a full camera crew at say Barcelona requires a lot more people than the Indianapolis oval. For Dorna, cameras are already in Valencia following their season finale a few days earlier, so it makes logistical sense to cover the post-season test in an in-depth format.

Alonso’s Indy 500 test is the first time that testing, in any form, has aired live via outlets such as YouTube and Facebook in this live and raw form. Firstly, I absolutely applaud IndyCar and those involved from McLaren through to NBC for making this happen. The stream today allowed new fans to appreciate the demands of oval racing.

Discussions between Alonso and his mechanics were broadcast, with an openness displayed throughout. In comparison, during Formula 1 testing, the prying media have no access to drivers’ conversations with mechanics. To broadcast F1 testing in the same way as Alonso’s IndyCar test would require a significant culture change for teams up and down the pit lane.

Imagine Lewis Hamilton testing new parts on his Mercedes, and then openly giving feedback on camera in front of his mechanics instead of behind closed doors, with microphones picking up his every word. Whilst fascinating to those watching, the information provided would also be golden to his rivals.

Broadcasting testing live via social media would help viewers and fans of the sport appreciate the intrinsic nature of testing. It may bring new fans to the sport, if they stumble across live testing and become captivated by the nature of it, in the same way fans were captivated by the stream today.

Whilst I do not want to see every minute of testing live (a few hours at most each afternoon would suffice), the extremely positive reaction to IndyCar’s live stream ahead of the Indianapolis 500 may serve as a catalyst for change. How Liberty Media can implement that into Formula 1 might need a little bit of persuading from a variety of parties…

Bottas win peaks with 3.4 million viewers

A peak audience of 3.4 million viewers watched Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas clinch his first Formula 1 victory at the Russian Grand Prix, overnight viewing figures show.

Last year, Channel 4 aired highlights of the race with Sky broadcasting the race exclusively live, meaning that year-on-year comparisons are difficult to make.

Live coverage of the race, which aired on Channel 4 from 12:00 to 15:10, averaged 1.92m (19.7%). Channel 4 split their programming into three sections in television guides and on the EPG.

The pre-race build-up averaged 865k (11.8%) from 12:00, with the race itself bringing in 2.16m (21.5%) from 12:35 to 15:10. An audience of 656k (6.0%) stuck around for Channel 4’s analysis from 15:10 to 16:30.

Channel 4’s coverage peaked with 2.73m (27.6%) at 13:15 as the race restarted following the Safety Car period. Compared with last year, the peak is on the lower end of the scale for live races.

Sky Sports F1’s live coverage averaged 447k (4.5%) from 12:00 to 15:30, peaking with 752k (7.3%) at 13:55. The timing of Sky’s peak coincides with the gap between BT Sport’s Premier League game yesterday (Man Utd vs Swansea) and Sky’s first Premier League match (Everton vs Chelsea).

The combined average audience of 2.37 million viewers is marginally down on last year’s average audience of 2.40 million viewers. The peak audience is unusual, in that the peak audience did not occur at the same point as Sky’s and Channel 4’s own unique peak audiences.

In fact, the combined peak audience of 3.44 million viewers (31.3% share) occurred at 14:30. At the time of the peak, 2.72m (24.8%) were watching on Channel 4 (down 4,000 viewers on their own peak at 13:15) and 713k (6.5%) were watching on Sky Sports F1 (down 39,000 viewers on their own peak at 13:55).

There was a core audience of 3.2 million viewers watching with very little movement throughout the first 75 minutes, the race never once dropping below 3.16 million viewers. The audience breakdown for the respective broadcasters shows off the different audience profiles, Sky driven by other programming in their portfolio, with Channel 4 more general channel hopping. The numbers for the race are solid, but like the event itself, not spectacular.

Live coverage of qualifying across Sky Sports and Channel 4 fared poorly on Saturday afternoon.

Channel 4’s programme, which aired from 11:55 to 14:30, averaged 937k (12.4%). Their broadcast peaked with 1.60m (19.3%) at 13:55 as Sebastian Vettel claimed pole position. It is Channel 4’s second lowest audience ever for a live Formula 1 qualifying broadcast, only ahead of last year’s Malaysian Grand Prix (811k/11.4%).

Sky Sports F1’s broadcast averaged 197k (2.6%) from 12:00 to 14:40, which is one of their lowest qualifying audiences on record. Vettel’s pole position peaked with 371k (4.5%) at 13:55.

The qualifying session was up against other live sporting competition on free-to-air television: snooker on BBC One and horse racing on ITV, however both programmes started at 13:30, so are unlikely to have had a major impact.

The combined audience of 1.13 million viewers is the lowest for a qualifying session since the 2008 European Grand Prix, which was up against the Olympic Games closing ceremony. The combined peak audience of 1.97 million viewers (23.7% share) is marginally up on last year’s peak audience of 1.9 million viewers, last year shown in highlights form on Channel 4.

A larger proportion of Formula 1’s viewership is skipping the pre and post-session festivities, instead choosing to just watch the on-track action. Earlier in the day, an audience of 370k watched the third practice session across Channel 4 and Sky Sports F1 (291k and 79k respectively), peaking with 446k (7.3%) at 10:40.

The 2016 Russian Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.