Over the past seven years, the BBC and Channel 4 have negotiated with Sky on a yearly basis to decide which races they would like to broadcast live, and which races they will air in highlights form.
The picking process is complex, and required compromise, strategic thinking, and scheduling discussion with other departments to avoid significant clashes. For example, a live Formula 1 race on free-to-air television clashing with an England World Cup game would not be in anyone’s interests.
With seven years of data, we have enough information to work with to pick out some trends. Which races were popular with free-to-air broadcasters, and which races failed to scratch the surface? In addition, is there any correlation between a driver winning, and the race airing live on free-to-air television in the UK? The second part is not entirely serious, the analysis was more out of intrigue rather than trying to seriously suggest there was a genuine pattern.
For readers unfamiliar, the pick process worked as follows:
- BBC / Channel 4 make three live picks
- Sky make three exclusively live picks
- BBC / Channel 4 make one live pick
- Sky make one exclusively live pick
- BBC / Channel 4 makes one live pick
- Sky make one exclusively live pick
The process continues until there are no more races to select. The free-to-air broadcaster cannot air three races live consecutively, and similarly Sky cannot air three races exclusively live in a row. In the end, there should be a balance of races live on free-to-air television, with no skew towards one way or the other.
Both sides have their priorities, and restrictions because of the rules around the process. 139 races have taken place across the seven seasons, 25 distinct races, whilst 15 races have kept their place on the Formula 1 calendar between 2012 and 2018.
There are some obvious skews to this data, in that the free-to-air broadcaster aired the British Grand Prix as well as the final race of the season live every year as part of the agreement.
Hamilton and Mercedes more likely to win when F1 airs exclusively live on pay-TV
If you are hoping for a competitive 2019 when F1 moves primarily onto pay television, look away now. Since 2012, 68 races aired live on free-to-air television, with the other 71 airing in highlights form.
Of the races that aired in highlights on free-to-air, Mercedes have won 61 percent of them, compared to 51 percent when F1 airs live on free-to-air. In 2016, Mercedes were victorious in all the races that Channel 4 aired as highlights, with the only two non-Mercedes victories (by Red Bull in Spain and Malaysia) airing live on Channel 4.
Overall, the chances of Red Bull and Ferrari winning increases by 7 and 5 percentage points respectively when F1 airs live on free-to-air compared to in highlights form. This season, Mercedes won eleven races, of which seven aired exclusively live on Sky. Four of Ferrari’s victories aired live on Channel 4, with their other two (Australia and Canada) covered exclusively live by Sky.
In a parallel universe where only races that aired live on free-to-air television in the UK counted towards the F1 championship, Sebastian Vettel comes within a whisker of winning the championship, losing out to Lewis Hamilton by just eight points.
Unfortunately for Vettel, it is not quite as simple as that, as in the ‘Sky exclusive’ championship, Hamilton waltzes away with an 80-point lead, Vettel finishing the season in a four-way scrap for second, also involving Valtteri Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, separated by just six points!
It does, however, highlight the absurdness of the 2012 to 2018 deal. Imagine choosing to only watching the races that aired on free-to-air television live, you would be bemused as to how Hamilton won the 2018 championship relatively comfortably in the end.
Although Vettel did not have it all his own way in 2018, the balance of wins for him between free-to-air and pay-TV is similar at 15 and 16 wins respectively over the course of the seven year period. Both Hamilton, and ex-Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg’s win ratios skew towards pay-TV, whilst Daniel Ricciardo skews in the opposite direction.
Of course, races such as Austria, China and Italy have traditionally been pay-TV strangleholds, as well as Mercedes’ playground, explaining some of the skews in play here.
Australia left out in the cold
Since 2012, there have been 31 early morning races, 77 afternoon races and 30 prime time races for UK fans.
If you liked your early morning doses of Formula 1, the 2012 to 2018 contract did not live up to expectation, with only 12 of the 31 races (or 39 percent) of them airing live on free-to-air television.
Despite being the season opener on all seven occasions, the Australian Grand Prix had a raw deal from the BBC and Channel 4, the race has now not aired live on free-to-air since 2011.
More recently, the Chinese round did not receive good treatment, only airing live in 2012 and 2013. Despite a similar timeslot to China, the Japanese Grand Prix received a much better bite of the cherry, airing live in four out of the 7 seasons.
13 of the 30 prime time races aired live on either the BBC or Channel 4, whilst 55 percent of all afternoon races between 2012 and 2018 (42 out of 77 races) aired live on free-to-air television.
Airing the early morning races as highlights made little difference to the fan at home, but airing the prime-time evening races in highlights form several hours later meant a very late night for UK fans without Sky.
Aside from Britain (a compulsory pick), the Belgian Grand Prix aired live on all seven occasions, possibly a result of following directly after the Summer break. Abu Dhabi aired live on six occasions thanks to its season ending time slot, but there was no obvious trend for the other races, this depending on their exact placement on the calendar.
During their time covering Formula 1, the BBC avoided picking either the USA or Mexican rounds live, Sky picking these races as part of their opening set of picks. The pendulum swung their way in the Channel 4 years, but at the expense of both the Canadian and Brazilian rounds, neither of which aired live on Channel 4.
The joys of the system meant that Sky had two or three prime time races locked in from the outset, making it difficult for the free-to-air broadcaster to get a look in.
If you believe statistics can predict the future, then expect Hamilton to dominate the 2019 Formula One season, with around 14 victories to his name. Joking aside, it is fascinating how your interpretation of a given season can differ depending on where, or rather who in the case of F1’s broadcasters, you watched the show with.