Testing is, by its very nature, boring.
No matter which way you gloss over it, testing is boring. During testing, Formula 1 teams run their own programmes, with varying strategies, tyre choices, fuel loads, engine settings, which makes it difficult to analyse instantly.
Yet, fans clamour for live testing coverage, and I hold my hands up, that includes me too! February comes around, the tweets amplify, we get excited in anticipation for another season of racing, but the earliest we get to see live action over the airwaves is in the middle of March for Australia.
That was until this past week, when Formula 1 for the first time aired the entirety of the first pre-season test live on their over-the-top platform as a one-off experiment. How did the coverage look, and are we likely to see it return?
Data gathering exercise for Formula 1
From the outset, the rationale for producing a World Feed for the first test from Formula 1 and Liberty Media was to gather user data, informing future decision-making around testing heading into 2020. F1 never produced a World Feed for testing while the sport was under the custodian of Bernie Ecclestone and CVC.
This week, F1 has gathered a significant amount of data from users accessing F1 TV’s premium tier: how long each user accessed and watched testing for, what parts of the day were more popular than others, and most importantly how many watched, amongst many other artefacts.
Of course, like many data gathering exercises, this exercise is incomplete, given that F1 TV Pro is geo-blocked in some territories. The fact that testing ran from Monday to Thursday instead of say, Thursday to Sunday was another downside, with lower metrics mid-week compared to a weekend slot.
In addition, Sky Sports opted out of broadcasting the morning session in the UK and Italy, an odd decision considering that is when the fastest times are set. Had F1 in a parallel universe streamed testing live on YouTube, the metrics would be significantly different.
But, as insiders closer to the scene pointed out, the exact wording of each broadcasting contract may prevent that from happening, depending on the language used (for example ‘event’ or ‘race weekend’). And live testing is not worth wrangling with a broadcaster over for what is essentially an add-on.
F1 TV Pro and Sky was what fans got, but it in the very least provides Formula 1 with a baseline to work with, which they can model and extrapolate against to try to work out how many viewers testing could get if streamed live, partial or in full, on social media. Live testing could live or die based on the metrics from this past week.
Slimmed down production on offer
F1 and Sky Sports worked together on the daily ten-hour offering, providing a hybrid offering on and off-screen. Whilst F1 provided the graphics and track side cameras, Sky provided interviews from the paddock via Sky Sports News reporter Craig Slater, the latter at the test regardless of F1’s own offering, so made logistical sense.
Sky brought most of their team to the test, including Simon Lazenby, Karun Chandhok, Johnny Herbert, and David Croft, with Rosanna Tennant, Will Buxton, Tom Clarkson and Alex Jacques playing their part from FOM’s in-house team.
The World Feed output was slimmer than a normal race weekend. F1 were never going to take the full ‘bells and whistles’ product of a race weekend, but what they did was generally good, even if it was unclear why the director was following a specific car from time-to-time.
There were fewer track side cameras, and no live on-board footage on offer, the latter not a huge surprise in the secretive testing environment, although the F1 production team did play delayed on-boards into the broadcast each day.
The lack of timing graphics on display however made the coverage less engaging, and was by far the biggest flaw of F1’s testing experiment. Static times for individual drivers appeared on-screen after each lap, but other timing information, such as the timing tower was noticeably absent, despite this data being available elsewhere for free.
Most of the commentary was discussion based and unrelated to the on-track action, which was fine to a degree, but given the fact that F1 were covering the whole test live, the coverage would have benefited from having additional on-screen information to help paint the overall picture. When Sky covered testing live in 2013 as part of their 3D experiment, their bespoke graphics set displayed some live timing data.
Having graphics displayed on-screen to show that driver X was on lap Y of a run would have been extremely helpful to both the commentators and the viewers watching, keeping fans engaged for longer and crucially for F1 from a data gathering perspective, reduce the bounce rate.
Who was present… and who was absent?
Ignoring the timing gripe, the commentary itself was excellent with a variety of voices on offer throughout, helping to keep the coverage fresh.
There was nice, free-flowing, sometimes irrelevant, discussion on many topics aided by #AskCrofty during the first two days, including F1 in 2021, an in-depth team by team outlook on the season ahead, and the impact Brexit will have on F1 (admittedly a topic that ruffled a few feathers, but an important conversation nevertheless).
The hybrid setup between F1 and Sky resulted in some unique commentary trios, with Buxton, Chandhok and Croft in the box at the same time on Monday afternoon, a real treat for fans who never have previously had these three voices together in the same broadcast.
From the outset, hearing Chandhok talk eloquently about a range of topics in detail during his stints on-air, it is clear to me that he is going to be a huge addition to Sky’s F1 team this year, bringing a vast array of knowledge and experience to the table.
A surprise standout for me also was Lazenby. Traditionally Sky’s lead Formula 1 presenter, Lazenby made his commentary box debut on Tuesday afternoon. Fans saw Lazenby in a different light to usual in the box, and if the opportunity arose, I would not mind hearing him as a guest in the box during a practice session this season.
Jacques and Buxton from the F1 digital side put in marathon shifts in the commentary box across the four days, with many anecdotes and tales to tell. Their efforts, as well as those working behind the scenes on the whole operation, I should applaud.
The end of day wrap-up shows had a Sky feel to it, with only Sky on-air personnel involved. If you watched the entire day of coverage until that point, some of the discussion felt recycled. On the other hand, if you opted out of the on-track action, there is an argument to suggest that the wrap-up show as a standalone offering was inferior to last year’s digestible, but short, round-up that Sky offered.
A major absentee on-screen was Ted Kravitz, with no reference to him throughout Sky’s coverage. Normally at this stage, Kravitz is on-air with his trademark Notebook programme as well as Development Corner, both of which have formed part of Sky’s testing offering in recent years (one of the reasons why the wrap-up show felt inferior in comparison).
Fans noticed Kravitz’s absence across social media but, as of writing, neither Sky or Kravitz have commented on the record about his status, and whether he is still with the broadcaster.
Too far in one direction?
There is only so much you can talk about in 40 hours of on-track action during testing without the discussion becoming repetitive. I absolutely enjoyed the commentary, primarily the reason I stuck with the live coverage for Monday and Tuesday afternoon (when the UK had access to it). The product was decent, although the novelty began to wane after a while.
With additions on the graphics side, the commentary would become more meaningful and focused on the on-track action, as well as being discussion based, resulting in a better balance rather than it feeling like a radio feed. During the test this week, timing has been an afterthought.
If it is simply not possible to present additional on-screen graphics, I hope there is a world where F1 produces a basic World Feed for testing for those that want to watch it, and then go on-air with a full product towards the end of the day, consisting of the final phase of on-track running and an additional hour of genuine analysis on what each team was doing.
I use the word ‘genuine’, as the end of day wrap-up show never provided that in my view because the talent on-air had not had the opportunity to dissect the day’s events as they were on-air from the get-go. Okay, there was rotation, but there was never a fresh pair or eyes to provide new analysis within the review show.
For me, there is a limit. Two or three hours of discussion and action per day, fine. Five or six hours, and my attention will dip, unless the F1 production team make changes for 2020, although some of these may need the approval of all ten teams. I like what F1 did this year, the only way they will know if live testing is going to work is by doing it, and I applaud the team for doing that.
Is there an audience for testing all day, every day? Only F1 knows the answer to that question…