Channel 4 to air Formula E in multi-year agreement

Channel 4 will broadcast Formula E live in a new ‘multi-year’ deal; series organisers have confirmed.

The broadcaster takes over from the BBC as the series’ exclusive free-to-air home. The BBC aired races in recent years via their Red Button service and online platforms, with a handful of races also airing on BBC Two.

The agreement with Channel 4 builds on the decision last season to air the London E-Prix double header live on the free-to-air station.

As part of the new deal, most races in Asian and European time zones will air live across Channel 4 and All4, with the remaining races, including the season opener in Diriyah next Friday, airing on Channel 4 Sport’s YouTube channel.

Based on the current schedule for the 2021-22 season, fans can expect around 10 of the 16 races to air on Channel 4’s linear channel, a significant increase on the BBC’s previous commitment.

Eurosport remain in the picture alongside Channel 4 as part of the new agreement, continuing their existing offering. Live coverage of the new look qualifying session will air via Channel 4 Sport’s YouTube channel, while race highlights will air on Channel 4.

Formula E in the UK – at a glance
2014-15 – ITV
2015-16 – ITV
2016-17 – Channel 5
2017-18 – Channel 5, Eurosport
2018-19 – BBC, BT Sport, Eurosport, Quest
2019-20 – BBC, Eurosport, Quest
2020-21 – BBC, Eurosport, Quest
2020-21 [London only] – BBC, Channel 4, Eurosport
2021-22 – Channel 4, Eurosport

Formula E says that UK fans will “have the opportunity to see more live races in Season 8 than in any previous season.”

As with their F1 offering, Bristol Street Motors will sponsor Channel 4’s coverage, while the Formula E presentation team consisting of Vernon Kay, Nicki Shields, Dario Franchitti and Jack Nicholls, return for the eighth season.

Pete Andrews, Channel 4’s Head of Sport, said “Formula E is a fantastically exciting sport and this deal is wonderful news for sports fans. We’re proud to be showcasing a sport with sustainability at its heart and one that plays such an important role in seeking to combat the climate crisis.”

Aarti Dabas, Formula E’s Chief Media Officer, added “We are delighted to build on our relationship with Channel 4 as the exclusive free-to-air home of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship here in the UK.”

“The multi-year partnership with Channel 4 is great news for fans across the UK and for the continued growth of our sport. Last season saw more fans around the world tune into our live race programming than ever before.”

“With Channel 4 established as the regular free-to-air home for Formula E in the UK, we look forward to better serving our passionate fanbase while attracting new fans to the excitement of all-electric street-racing.”

Vernon Kay and Nicki Shields outside Channel 4’s HQ in London with British driver Sam Bird, who races for Jaguar.

Channel 4 agreement not a “box ticking” exercise

Speaking to Motorsport Broadcasting, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Sport, Joe Blake-Turner confirmed that races will air ad-free on Channel 4, and that additional documentary content will air via All4 and Channel 4’s YouTube channel, emphasising that the broadcaster is in this “for the long haul.”

“We’re not doing this as a box ticking exercise,” he tells me. “We’re in it for the long haul, we want to help grow the sport and give it the platform which perhaps it hasn’t had consistently to date down the years.”

“I think Formula E appeals on different levels. It’s a natural bedfellow for our existing motor sports. It sits alongside Formula 1 as the leading single-seater format, and it helps build up our narrative across the year of top-class motor sport.”

“On a separate level, one of our jobs as a channel is to help drive change in the world, and the sustainability message behind Formula E is important. And I think, more than anything, it is just a good, exciting watch.”

Blake-Turner hopes Channel 4’s main sports offering will help “complement” the big attractions that Channel 4 have aired, such as Emma Raducanu’s victory in the US Open and the F1 title decider. Blake-Turner, who was part of ITV’s Formula E production team during their first season, has seen Formula E evolve over the past 7 years, taking the opportunity to bring Formula E to Channel 4 last July.

“We were very happy to take that opportunity, to put the London race on, giving the British viewers and fans a chance to see it.”

“It was an amazing occasion both from the sporting point of view, but also the staging of it. It looked spectacular and cool, inside, and outside, it was just brilliant.”

“I was personally lucky enough to work on the first season of Formula E when it was on ITV, I was at Battersea Park for that, but just to see how Formula E has evolved from those, relatively humble beginnings to where it is now, it’s exciting to see where it’ll go from here.”

Positive move for Formula E as series looks to regain ground in UK

Formula E has struggled to gain traction in recent years in the UK. The series started off life on ITV4, but has since moved from Channel 5, to the BBC, and now back to Channel 4.

In the case of Channel 5 and the BBC, neither of those outlets were willing to give the series a consistent slot on free-to-air television, something that Channel 4 appears to be willing to try, for most races at least.

In the run up to London last year, Formula E’s senior leaders made it clear to this site that the lack of channel consistency was a problem for them.

“It’s a good question because we’re definitely looking at a more consistent channel strategy in the UK and other markets,” Dabas told this site last July.

“And when I think of the channel strategy, I know that every race currently we are like, is it on BBC Red Button, is it on network, is it on Quest. It’s hard.”

Thursday 27th January
14:55 to 15:40 – Practice 1 (Formula E’s YouTube)

Friday 28th January
10:25 to 11:10 – Practice 2 (Formula E’s YouTube)
12:30 to 14:15 – Qualifying (Channel 4 Sport’s YouTube)
16:30 to 18:30 – Race 1 (Channel 4 Sport’s YouTube)
=> also on Eurosport 2 from 16:50 to 18:00

Saturday 29th January
10:25 to 11:10 – Practice 3 (Formula E’s YouTube)
12:30 to 14:15 – Qualifying (Channel 4 Sport’s YouTube)
16:30 to 18:15 – Race 2 (Channel 4)
=> also on Eurosport 2 from 16:50 to 18:00

Full scheduling details for the 2022 Diriyah E-Prix. Scheduling details correct as of Tuesday 25th January and are subject to change.

Channel 4’s audience figures for the London E-Prix double header last July were solid, in the context of the lack of promotion, and it considered a one-off experiment by both parties.

An average of 382,000 viewers tuned in for the second race of the London weekend. While the figure was lower than W Series from Silverstone a few weeks earlier, Formula E did not have F1 as its lead in, unlike the W Series broadcast.

Following the London race, The Race reported that Formula E “surpassed the expectations of the C4 management team,” which this new deal between the two parties confirms.

Formula E has struggled with momentum not just in the UK, but worldwide in recent years. From a UK perspective, arguably the slide started when their Channel 5 deal started to go astray, and series organisers will be hoping that this latest deal with Channel 4 changes that.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal. If you wish to reproduce the contents of this article in any form, please contact Motorsport Broadcasting in the first instance.

Tracking the social media fortune of motor sports leading championships

Motor sport has successfully navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, with leading championships managing to put together championship seasons throughout turbulent times.

Off the track, each individual series has fought for the attention of viewers around the world, some more successful in others.

Across social media, the battle for followers has intensified, with real-world championships turning to eSports to try to hook the next generation of fans.

This writer has followed the battle every step of the way, and can now present a deep-dive into each series, including who is hot, and who is not…

Methodology

Since March 2017, Motorsport Broadcasting has collected and analysed metrics on 14 of the world’s leading motor sport series, dissecting their performance across the leading social media platforms.

The data gives us a greater insight on which championships are increasing their social media following the most comparatively speaking against their rivals, and which entities risk slipping out of the limelight in the years ahead.

The metrics focus on the number of followers for each series, across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, aggregating these totals together to form a wider view, as this is easily accessible data within the public domain.

The championships covered are:

  • British Superbikes
  • British Touring Car Championship
  • Formula E
  • Formula 1
  • Formula Two
  • IndyCar Series
  • MotoGP
  • NASCAR
  • Roborace
  • W Series*
  • World Endurance Championship
  • World Rally Championship
  • World Rallycross*
  • World Superbikes
  • World Touring Car Championship

* Added in September 2019

By analysing international and domestic series within the same time series, we can see what the natural ‘floor’ is, and whether any international championships are performing worse than anticipated against their rivals.

As thus, the surprise is not when the British Superbikes or British Touring Car Championships are at the back of the pack, but rather when someone else is.

By comparing multiple data points, we can analyse how much a championship has grown over a given period, ranking this data to see which series is the best and worst performer within the data set (1st means fastest growth of the championships tracked within the period, 15th means slowest growth).

The methodology is imperfect, but helps us identify how championships are performing over a longer period against their rivals in the marketplace.

Formula Two and W Series rises show benefits of current F1 support package

The chart above shows how Formula 1, Formula Two and the W Series have performed in direct comparison to their rivals recently.

As expected, Formula 1 has led the way, only briefly dipping behind their nearest rival twice. Formula E overtook F1 in the back end of 2018, with MotoGP doing the same two years later.

More interestingly is the consistent rise of Formula Two since Liberty Media purchased F1 and their subsidiary organisations.

In early 2017, Formula Two was lacklustre in the social media space, ranking 13th (and last) in the series that Motorsport Broadcasting is tracking. To put it simply, Formula Two was growing slower in terms of raw volume than its key rivals.

Since then, Formula Two’s reach on social media has risen faster than its rivals: gradually increasing to 8th in July 2018 and 3rd in Autumn 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Formula Two’s rise has not matched the dazzling heights it saw last year (a statistic supported by Sky’s UK audience figures for the series year-on-year), however we can attribute this to the poor calendar format as opposed to any misstep on the social media front.

Social media figures have grown for the leading feeder series by 748% in the past four years: from 156,000 followers in May 2017 to 1.33 million followers at the end of October, a massive achievement.

It shows not only how well Liberty Media have treated the series across their platforms, but also how much of an afterthought Bernie Ecclestone’s F1 treated the feeder championships.

Motorsport Broadcasting has not tracked Formula Three’s figures, but expect a similar pattern to have emerged in that space.

Pleasingly, the W Series is also performing well on social media, rising at a faster rate than some of their bigger rivals this season, including F2, as the chart shows.

The championship has doubled their following in the six months to October: rising from 165,000 followers to 331,000 followers. The total volumes are still small, but there is reason to be hopeful that W Series is about to break out on social media.

An expanded calendar, to give the championship more ‘growth opportunities’ would help in that regard as we head into 2022.

Formula E and IndyCar’s stats show mixed results

While Formula Two and W Series have generally seen a positive swing in momentum, Formula E and IndyCar have experienced turbulence in recent years.

IndyCar’s social media movement has fluctuated in recent years, with a strong 2017 and 2018 followed by a sharp slump in 2019, possibly influenced by Fernando Alonso’s first Indianapolis 500 appearance in 2017.

The series recovered throughout the pandemic, but failed to reach their earlier heights, in comparison to its rivals at least.

Whereas international championships such as MotoGP and F1 have increased their calendar length, IndyCar’s typical season lasts six months, the season beginning in March and finishing in September.

The result, from a social media perspective, has been a much sharper ‘off-season decline’ compared to their rivals, thanks to the length of their off-season. There is some evidence in the data that a long off-season hurts IndyCar to gain momentum at the start of the following season.

IndyCar’s trough came at the start of the pandemic, a surprising statistic considering how successful their eSports Series was in attracting attention, with McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris to the party. Evidently, Norris’s appearance in the video world had little impact on IndyCar overall.

Formula E’s trajectory is well supported by their decline in audience figures through the pandemic. At one point, in late 2018 at the start of the Gen2, Formula E was growing faster than most of their rivals, but has since slipped down the order. Although Formula E retains a higher reach (for now), the likes of Formula Two are currently growing at a faster rate than the electric series.

Reigning champion Antonio Felix da Costa acknowledged in an interview with The Race recently that the series has “took a few punches” recently, something that the championship needs to rectify heading into season 8.

World Superbikes performs well

The leading two-wheel championships have generally performed well in recent years. MotoGP sits behind Formula 1 as expected; however, the bigger surprise is World Superbikes.

Despite Jonathan Rea’s dominance from 2015 to 2020, the series has always been there or there abouts, consistently in the top six for social media growth since the start of 2019.

2021 has built on the strong foundations, with Rea’s time at the top of the series halted, for now at least, by Turkish rider Toprak Razgatlioglu, helping push World Superbikes into a top three spot for social media growth, only behind F1 and MotoGP.

MotoGP will be hoping that the impact of their new Amazon Prime documentary series, alongside the rest of their product offering, will help not only their social media offering, but also the broadcasters too.

“We’re not the target of these new products,” Manel Arroyo, MotoGP’s Managing Director told me earlier this year. “The purpose is to bring in a new audience of people that are normally visiting different platforms.”

“And then, they find these kind of products and documentaries, discovering us in the process. Our main target with our platforms is to create new audiences and to bring these audiences to our broadcasters, whether in Spain, Italy, Germany, UK, everywhere.”

“It’s not just about social media growth, but looking at how we deliver the growth as well to our broadcasters.”

Another consistent performer is the World Rally Championship, with the All Live platform helping. However, a poor Summer saw the series drop to 7th in the social media standings, its lowest ranking in three years.

The overall picture

What does this mean when all the data points are crunched together into one chart?

Highlighted are some of the series with the biggest fluctuations referenced in this article.

IndyCar’s standing has not necessarily declined from 2017 to 2021, but what has happened is that both it, and Formula E, have encountered competition from what an unlikely source in Formula Two.

This makes it more difficult for both IndyCar and Formula E to stand out from the crowd, with Formula Two now on the social scene. 2022 is critical for the latter, who have now fallen behind the likes of the World Endurance Championship on social media.

Overall, it shows just how important it is to have momentum on track, and how that then translates into the social media metrics.

Statistics last updated on October 31st, 2021.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal. If you wish to reproduce the contents of this article in any form, please contact Motorsport Broadcasting in the first instance.

Formula E’s ‘record breaking’ live audience figures fail to hide COVID slump

Formula E has continued to grow its live television audience during the seventh season, “reaching record breaking levels,” according to figures released by series organisers.

The season, which saw Mercedes driver Nyck de Vries clinch the Drivers’ Championship in Berlin, saw a cumulative audience of 316 million viewers tune in across the 15 races, a growth of 32% year-on-year.

Formula E says that the growth is “driven by new distribution agreements with free-to-air (FTA) channels in key markets,” in key markets such as Germany, Italy, Brazil, UK, France, USA, and Indonesia.

The championship says audiences in Germany increased by 336%, in Brazil by 286% and in the UK by 156%.

Jamie Reigle, Formula E’s Chief Executive Officer, said “This was a record-breaking year for Formula E as we worked with our teams, media partners and sponsors to deliver a fan-first strategy emphasising live race audience development and direct engagement on our digital platforms.”

“It’s clear there is strong fan interest in Formula E’s electric racing in cities and we are delighted to see our strategy of partnering with broadcasters committed to localised, engaging and accessible free-to-air coverage paying off.”

“We are set for a fantastic Season 8 as we welcome back fans at our races in some of the most iconic city locations in the world.”

“We are focused on strengthening our broadcaster footprint and relationships, increasing our global audiences and delivering an integrated media platform to serve our fans and support our continued growth.”

Formula E says that the live television audience makes up most of their audience (62%) for the first time, while the viewing duration has grown by 26% for each live race.

Press release masks overall decline

Most fans will look at the release issued by Formula E, and think that this is good news for the electric championship.

However, by portraying the data in this way, organisers have cleverly masked the overall decline in the race-by-race audience.

Formula E did record a cumulative audience of 316 million for season 7, which represents a 32% year-on-year growth, and both are factually accurate statements.

What the press release does not tell you, is that season 6 featured 11 races, with season 7 featuring 15 races, a 36% increase.

The cumulative audience was always likely going to jump, because there were more races in season 7 compared with season 6.

A 32% cumulative increase for Formula E represents a 3% decline year-on-year in the race-by-race average.

SeasonCumulative Audience% y-o-yAverage Audience% y-o-yRaces Held
2014-15 (1)Unknownn/aUnknownn/a11
2015-16 (2)192 millionUnknown19.2 millionUnknown10
2016-17 (3)223 million16%18.6 million-3%12
2017-18 (4)330 million48%27.5 million48%12
2018-19 (5)411 million25%31.6 million15%13
2019-20 (6)239 million*-42%21.8 million-31%11
2020-21 (7)316 million32%21.1 million-3%15
Source: Companies House accounts / Formula E press releases / Motorsport Broadcasting analysis
* never reported publicly, derived from the % increase for 2020-21 season.

Formula E’s metrics on both the television and social front surged between 2017 and 2019, with strong increases across the board as the series transitioned from Gen1 from Gen2 machinery.

As COVID struck though, Formula E suffered, with season 6 wrapped up across 6 races in Berlin, the season unusually finishing on a Thursday. With that in mind, a depleted season 6 average is more than understandable.

A further decline, even if only 3% year-on-year, shows that Formula E is struggling to recover from the pandemic, despite what series organisers may say, with audience figures now at their lowest level since season 3. An average of 21.1 million viewers worldwide tuned into each race during season 7.

On the social front, over the nine-month period from October 2020 to July 2021, Formula E’s following rose by 150,000, from 2.57 million followers to 2.71 million followers, or an increase of 5.5%.

These are small pickings for Formula E, who will be hoping for a more normal season 8, to get their metrics heading back in the right direction.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal. If you wish to reproduce the contents of this article in any form, please contact Motorsport Broadcasting in the first instance.

The making of the London E-Prix

For the past seven years, Formula E has raced on city streets around the world, from Beijing back in 2014, all the way through to Berlin last month.

The 2020-21 season was the most competitive in the championship’s history, with Mercedes driver Nyck de Vries clinching the title by 7 points in the season deciding round.

The nature of the championship has presented challenges for North One Television and Aurora Media Worldwide, who produce Formula E’s television offering under the FE TV banner.

We caught up with the team in London to find out how the ExCeL facility came to fruition from a broadcasting perspective…

Influencing the circuit design

The London set up is unusual for the television production team, with their facilities laid out across multiple exhibition halls, something Sebastian Tiffert, who leads Formula E’s broadcasting department, describes as ‘luxury.’

“Normally, we’re doing an event in the city centre of Paris, in Rome, where there’s no space. Instead of rocking up with big TV trucks, everything is temporary and small.”

“We travel with multiple pods, built by Timeline. The pods carry all the technical equipment, sound desks, vision, and so on, around the world,” Tiffert explains.

“It gives us flexibility, as sometimes you must set them up around the corner or a u-shape. This [in London] is luxury for us, with everything in a nice line.”

The production layout reminded me of the World Rally Championship service park in Deeside, Wales, the series taking over multiple buildings within the Deeside Industrial Estate for the TV production and media to use.

Preparation for the ExCeL has been years in the making, The Race reporting that the ExCeL was Formula E’s ‘plan B’ option in early 2015, when the fate of the Battersea Park race was hanging on a knife edge.

The indoor start-finish straight for Formula E’s London E-Prix.

One of the key considerations for West Gillett, Formula E’s television director, was ensuring that the contrast between the indoor and outdoor elements of the circuit was noticeable to the viewer watching at home.

While Gillett has no influence on the locations that series organisers choose, his team can influence the circuit design.

“The decision on which venue we’re going to is not something we would be involved in, but we get heavily involved in the track layout,” he tells me.

“Here, I did not want the indoor of the venue to look like outside. I didn’t want all the house lights; I didn’t want the cars coming in and for it to look like daylight.”

“The idea was to have that contrast between night and day, so indoors would be the equivalent of our Saudi race, a night race with the track lights. I’ve been really keen from the beginning to get that contrast.”

Gillett utilises the external camera angles to aid the transition: “Camera 17, you’re taking them indoors, visually the viewer knows now. If we look at the shot [see image below], you can see on the right-hand side it’s light and on the left-hand side its dark.”

Also a factor for Gillett at all of Formula E’s venues is the location of the Attack Mode. Attack Mode gives drivers up to 8 minutes of additional power, the length varying from race-to-race.

To activate the boost, drivers must drive through the activation zone on circuit, which Gillett prefers to be in an area unlikely to feature much action during the race.

“I won’t want the Attack Mode down at corner where we expect there to be lots of overtaking, and then also we don’t want it too near the start.”

Around the circuit, sound equipment in the form of
RØDE Microphones help bring Formula E to life.

“A place that is quite difficult for us is Santiago, because I’ve got to show the Attack Mode and drivers coming down the start-finish straight to establish positions at the same time,” Gillett says.

“Ideally, the Attack Mode is half way around the track, with nothing else prior to it or after it that I need to show.”

Working within the ExCel confines

Living in London has been to Gillett’s benefit, having visited the venue multiple times in the run up to the E-Prix.

The indoor nature of the venue, plus the proximity of the ExCeL to the London City Airport, are obstacles that the team has had to work with from the outset.

“We came down a couple of years ago, and then again around six months ago [before the race],” he recalls.

“For us, it’s looking at the height of venue, the ceilings involved, the podium positions and cameras, making sure we could optimise the coverage inside the venue itself.”

“I was thinking about having a cable camera like we’ve had in the past, but the ceiling is just too low. There’s a lot of things like that that you just couldn’t do.”

“Another example is with the podium: we quite often have a jib camera for the podium, but because the space is really small, we can’t have the swinging jib.”

“Outside, we can’t have the helicopter live because we’re right next to the airport. It’s critically important to get that skyline and the relationship between the racing and the city itself,” Gillett believes.

“We did send a helicopter up on Friday to get some views for the pre-show to tie the London city to the venue, but we couldn’t do it live unfortunately.”

The build starts the week before the race, from the ground up, setting up all the infrastructure required to hold the E-Prix.

“We’re not coming to a venue which is pre cabled, like a football stadium,” Tiffert tells me. “We are starting on a white sheet of paper every time we go somewhere.”

Up close and personal with the start line gantry, all the wiring built, completed and tested in the run-up to the E-Prix.

“You need a crew which is very experienced in what we do, because you don’t have time to adapt. Certain things you can control when the track is finally finished, but the weekend goes so quick for us that you don’t have time to change on the spot.”

“Now, currently is a bit different because we have double-headers, we had a free practice session on Friday, so there’s a bit more space to, to improve and adjust things.”

Keeping the crew safe

The ExCeL is one of Formula E’s tighter venues, even by the electric series’ standards, with very little room for run-offs, making some corners dangerous for camera operators.

In some areas of the track, Formula E uses the Pan Bar system, as Gillett explains.

“Wherever there’s a TechPro barrier, I’ll have cameras that are using a new remote Pan Bar system,” he says.

“We anticipate that where the TechPro is, the wall could move up to three meters, so it unfortunately isn’t safe enough for a camera operator to be standing.”

“If I’ve got a head on shot, the camera operator is not standing there, there’s a camera head there and the lens.”

“The operator is standing five metres on the other side of that fence, in a completely safe location, operating with a Pan Bar system remotely.”

Gillett mounts cameras in unique locations to get the shot that he is looking for, something that is common for all street circuits that Formula E goes to, but more so with London.

“For example, we’ve mounted camera 4 up nice and high on a truss, allowing it to pan round and get the city skyline and the water.”

Inside Formula E’s international gallery, including all the external angles and on-board cameras. Camera 4 in the screenshot is located towards the bottom in the centre, Camera 17 is the angle with prominent BOSS advertising.

“With camera 17, the operator is in the basket of the cherry picker that’s mounted just over the fence. However, the cherry picker base is on the pavement below next to the canal.”

“There’s no room physically there to build a scaffold, because there’s a roof, and for other shots you’re up against the water. There are a lot of fiddly things like that, more machinery, more specialist camera equipment and remote heads to cover this event,” he says.

Reflecting on the first part of the weekend, Gillett was “quite happy” with how things had gone so far.

“Generally, I can visualise it [the camera positions] beforehand, I think that’s our skill set, I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, so can visualise it well. We’re in pretty good shape,” he believes.

“It’s rare that I change things when we’re on-site. I’m actually quite happy with this, I think the track coverage works quite well.”

“Obviously, I’m always trying to strive for getting as much speed, show the driving styles, show the rear of the car sliding, show the drivers racing, but also showing the cities.”

“It’s finding that balance between like wide shots and close up low action stuff.”

Gillett believes that the indoor section of the circuit will be even better once all COVID restrictions have lifted, hoping that a packed grandstand will add to the atmosphere.

Currently scheduled to begin in January, season 8 will take in 12 locations across 16 races, with new events in South Africa, China, Canada. The season finishes in August 2022, heading to South Korea for the inaugural Seoul E-Prix.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal. If you wish to reproduce the contents of this article in any form, please contact Motorsport Broadcasting in the first instance.

Behind the scenes with Formula E’s television production team

For the past seven years, Formula E has raced on city streets around the world, from Beijing back in 2014, all the way through to Berlin last month.

The 2020-21 season was the most competitive in the championship’s history, with Mercedes driver Nyck de Vries clinching the title by 7 points in the season deciding round.

The nature of the championship has presented challenges for North One Television and Aurora Media Worldwide, who produce Formula E’s television offering under the FE TV banner.

We caught up with the team in London to see how the championship makes its way to fans watching around the world…

The high-level geographical setup

As well as the complexities caused by racing around the streets of cities such as Rome, Paris and London, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused extra issues for the TV production.

During normal times, most top-tier sports keep the same ‘core’ production team week in, week out, ensuring that the quality of the output remains the same for the viewer watching.

However, the late cancellation and rearrangement of events has resulted in clashes, meaning it has been harder for the team, led by Formula E’s TV director West Gillett, to keep providing a consistent product to viewers.

“It’s definitely been a harder season for us, not only because of the restrictions, but also because a lot of the crew don’t want to travel, to come home and have to quarantine,” Gillett explains, chatting to Motorsport Broadcasting from the expansive ExCeL Centre, home to the London E-Prix.

“We’ve had to open up our crew to a much bigger pool of people, and to not have that consistency is hard,” he says.

“We’re having to start afresh every time, and that’s been quite tiring, but we’ve been fortunate enough to have the right people in the right places.”

Prior to COVID, around 20 broadcasters brought their own personnel with them on-site, a number that reduced to just 1 when the pandemic hit.

Geographically split across three different locations, Timeline Television’s base in Ealing, West London serves as production base for Formula E’s wrap-around programming and team radio feed.

Timeline supports broadcasters such as Star Sports in India, and CBS in US, as well as other broadcasters who take the English language feed, with 35 people producing content from Ealing.

Al Kamel Systems operate from Barcelona and houses Formula E’s graphics operators. In addition, a team of 100 people, led by Gillett, produce content on-site.

The on-site team produces the race feed, as well as the ‘big screen’ displays around each venue, linking in with both the Ealing and Barcelona bases throughout.

At any one time, the production team have up to 40 different feeds coming into them. For the London E-Prix, Formula E operated 18 track cameras.

In some instances, Gillett positioned cameras on top of scissor lifts and cherry pickers, with Jib cameras also utilised.

Capturing the speed

The external angles have evolved significantly since Formula E’s first race in Beijing 2014, helping to capture the speed of the machinery.

“We were panning quite wide [in Beijing], and we found the cars to be a bit slow. A little trick is to start wide, and then zoom into the car, as it enhances the speed on the pan,” Gillett explains.

“I also bring the cameras closer and lower, as the closer you are to a subject matter when it comes past you, the faster it looks. When you’re much further away, the subject is moving slower across your eye line.”

“It’s finding the right balance, we have the ground level cameras where we need them, to enhance the speed, and then the higher cameras to show the circuit and the corner.”

Inside the Formula E production gallery with director West Gillett.

In addition, Gillett has 6 high-speed mini cameras, 8 on-board camera angles and 6 RF cameras to utilise during the race itself.

With a limited number of on-boards coming through however, there is a risk that incidents further down the field go uncaptured from a close-up angle, as has happened on occasion during season 7.

Gillett relies on the engineers to “choose the on-board that is most relevant at the time, otherwise we’re going to have 24 cameras coming in, which is too much.”

“If [Sebastian] Buemi is chasing [Lucas] di Grassi down, ideally, if di Grassi has a rear facing camera, I’ll have that on and I’ll have Buemi’s forward facing camera on.”

On the team radio front, a professional motor racing driver, believed to be Charlie Butler-Henderson, listens to the incoming feeds from Ealing.

“He is listening to the feeds remotely through the MRTC, which is the same system that the teams listen to. If we’re focussed on a particular subject, he’ll start listening to that driver and bring in anything of relevance,” Gillett tells me.

Like with the on-board angles, the team may miss some of the ‘juicier’ team radio snippets with only one person from the team monitoring the feeds, however, given the length of the races, it would be impossible to fit in every interesting soundbite.

How replays happen

Formula E generates replays from a separate production booth on-location, with four different operators analysing all the available angles for the gallery to play out on the feed.

Gillett explains, “My VT coordinator will select what’s going to be coming each time. For example, if I’ve got a replay of Nyck de Vries, there might be two or three angles.”

“With any replay, the first angle tends to explains what happens, the second angle would be an effects angle and the third angle an onboard. If I’ve got three angles, I start the first one on line A, the second one on line B, the third one on line C.”

The narrative from the production team helps commentators Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti decipher what happened with each incident during the race.

Nicholls, who has been lead commentator on most of Formula E’s 84 races, helps both new and existing fans interact with the electric series through his old-school ‘red car, blue car’ commentary style.

“You don’t want to spoon feed people and make people feel patronised. But I think there are ways you can say things that explain, but also inform,” Nicholls believes.

“If I say, ‘there goes the black and gold DS Techeetah,’ I’m explaining to people who don’t know what it is, but I’m also just describing it in terms of, for example, ‘look at that blue sky.’”

“I think it is important to differentiate especially when we have a mixed-up field here, a lot of whom won’t be household names. It’s important to point out who’s who to the viewer, I also struggle to identify drivers in a team,” Nicholls adds.

Sitting next to Gillett in the International Gallery is Formula E’s television Executive Producer Mike Scott, who Gillett calls ‘invaluable’ to the production.

“We’ve worked together for 23 years now, and he’s calling each session,” Gillett says.

“He’s invaluable because he’s looking at the timing and scoring, seeing who’s magenta [fastest] in each sector, and then telling me that I can get to camera X in time to follow the car.”

Formula E ‘one step ahead’ in innovating

While some aspects of the production have their limitations, Formula E have also innovated their offering through Driver’s Eye, Attack Mode and their full-screen ‘wipes,’ helping their coverage to stand out.

“The [Driver’s Eye] technology works on an RF frequency, coming down one of our on-board lines to us. Over time, we’ve tried different lenses to see [the effect it would have].”

On-board via Driver’s Eye with Porsche’s Andre Lotterer during the Berlin E-Prix.

“We’ve tried some wide lenses, we’ve had some narrower ones, and now it’s got to point where we’ve found which is the right lens for us. We digitise the steering wheel because the teams don’t want us to broadcast it. It really does pop, particularly on low light,” Gillett explains.

“But, it’s a really immersive camera and it’s definitely something Formula E have done well.”

Gillett believes the championship is ‘one step ahead’ on the innovation front, citing the fact that Formula E innovations have since made their way into different championships, such as the driver replay wipes.

“I think the key thing to note is right from the beginning, Formula E have always been pushing the innovation, trying to be one step ahead. We led the way with broadcast graphics.”

“Like, the Safety Car [graphic], it takes over the whole screen, ‘there’s a Safety Car.’ Sometimes people miss the information, so we’ve made it really bold, very clear, and the design of it I think has definitely led the way,” Gillett believes.

“The driver replay wipes, this is something we introduced around four years ago. We’ve done green screens, we cut them all out, with a wipe for each person. It makes it so much simpler; you clearly know, the replay is going to be of Alex Lynn.”

“There is another championship now that’s adopted that, Formula 1, but that was led from Formula E. So, it’s the simple things like that we’ve introduced over the years and the design of it.”

Since Motorsport Broadcasting interviewed Gillett, Driver’s Eye has also made its way over to Formula 1. The camera, homologated by the FIA and manufactured by ZeroNoise, appeared during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend.

F1’s iteration featured no steering wheel digitisation, putting them ahead of their electric counterparts, something Formula E may wish to review with teams.

With fans returning to motor racing circuits worldwide, Gillett is keen to bring fans closer to the action, and from a broadcasting perspective looking to ‘amplify’ that relationship further as the championship heads into season 8.

“There’s always going to be new ideas, for example with the podiums and things like that. We introduced the sequence with the drivers coming through the crowds to the podium which I really liked.”

“I think that’s something that has been missing this last year and a bit now, and I think that in season 8, I’d like to really amplify that relationship between the drivers and the fans in some way.”

Coming up in part two of this feature, we look at how the ExCeL circuit evolved from concept, to reality.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal. If you wish to reproduce the contents of this article in any form, please contact Motorsport Broadcasting in the first instance.