A step too far? Reviewing live F1 testing

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…

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Scheduling: The 2019 Mexico City E-Prix / F1 Barcelona test 1

Formula E hurdles towards one-third distance as the second leg of its South American tour takes it to Mexico for the Mexico City E-Prix.

The electric championship uses part of the Formula 1 circuit, encompassing the famous stadium section. As usual, the race airs live across the BBC’s digital platforms, with BT Sport, Eurosport and Formula E’s YouTube channel also covering the action.

Formula E’s support series, the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy returns in Mexico, with both qualifying and race airing live on BT Sport. Sweden plays host to round two of the World Rally Championship, where one expects much more snow than what fans saw in Monte Carlo for the season opener.

Meanwhile, Formula 1 testing gets underway in Barcelona, where the big news is that the first test will air live across F1’s over-the-top platform and Sky Sports F1. However, the F1 TV stream is only available to Pro users (which UK fans do not have access to), meaning that UK fans will need to watch Sky F1 for testing.

Sky are covering each of the four afternoon sessions live as well as the review show, whereas F1 TV is covering the complete day live. Sky are not repeating the live action, so if you want to watch it, you will need to set your recorders. Little is known about the presentation team currently, although Karun Chandhok has alluded to his involvement on Twitter.

Elsewhere, the Williams documentary premieres on BBC Two having been released on DVD in 2017. Whilst I am happy to see it premiere on a major platform, the decision to air it against Formula E on the Red Button is an odd move by BBC’s schedulers.

Formula E – Mexico City
Shakedown, Practice and Qualifying also air live on YouTube…
15/02 – 21:45 to 22:30 – Shakedown (BT Sport 1)
16/02 – 13:15 to 14:30 – Practice 1 (BT Sport 3)
16/02 – 15:45 to 16:45 – Practice 2 (BT Sport 3)
16/02 – 17:30 to 19:00 – Qualifying (BT Sport 3 and Eurosport 2)
16/02 – 21:30 to 23:30 – Race: World Feed
=> live on BBC’s digital platforms from 22:00
=> live on BT Sport 3
=> live on Eurosport 2
16/02 – 21:30 to 23:10 – Race: Voltage (YouTube)
18/02 – 00:00 to 01:00 – Highlights (Quest)

Formula E Radio – Mexico City (BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra)
16/02 – 17:40 to 19:10 – Qualifying
16/02 – 21:45 to 23:15 – Race

F1 Testing – Barcelona 1 (Sky Sports F1)
13/02 – 15:00 to 15:30 – Racing Point Launch
14/02 – 12:00 to 12:30 – McLaren Launch
18/02 – 13:00 to 18:00 – Day 1
=> track action from 13:00 (also Sky Sports Main Event)
=> review at 17:00
18/02 – 19:55 to 20:55 – Day 1 Review (R)
19/02 – 13:00 to 18:00 – Day 2
=> track action from 13:00 (also Sky Sports Main Event until 14:00)
=> review at 17:00
19/02 – 20:25 to 21:25 – Day 2 Review (R)
20/02 – 13:00 to 18:00 – Day 3
=> track action from 13:00 (also Sky Sports Main Event)
=> review at 17:00
20/02 – 20:05 to 21:05 – Day 3 Review (R)
21/02 – 13:00 to 18:00 – Day 4
=> track action from 13:00 (also Sky Sports Main Event)
=> review at 17:00
21/02 – 20:05 to 21:05 – Day 4 Review (R)

Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy Series – Mexico City (BT Sport 3)
16/02 – 14:30 to 15:15 – Qualifying
16/02 – 19:45 to 20:45 – Race

Williams Film (BBC Two)
16/02 – 21:00 to 22:45

World Rally Championship – Sweden (All Live – BT Sport Extra 1)
Every stage also live via WRCPlus.com
14/02 – 09:45 to 11:15 – Shakedown
14/02 – 18:30 to 20:00 – Stage 1
15/02 – 06:45 to 17:15 – Stages 2 to 8
16/02 – 06:00 to 19:15 – Stages 9 to 16
17/02 – 05:30 to 12:45 – Stages 17 to 19

World Rally Championship – Sweden
14/02 – 19:00 to 20:00 – Stage 1 (BT Sport 1)
15/02 – 21:45 to 22:15 – Day 1 Highlights (BT Sport 3)
16/02 – 08:30 to 09:30 – Stage 11 (BT Sport 2)
16/02 – 14:00 to 15:00 – Stage 14 (BT Sport/ESPN)
16/02 – 22:00 to 22:30 – Day 2 Highlights (BT Sport 2)
17/02 – 11:00 to 12:30 – Stage 19 [Power Stage] (BT Sport/ESPN)
17/02 – 20:00 to 20:30 – Day 3 Highlights (BT Sport 2)
18/02 – 19:00 to 20:00 – Highlights (5Spike)

As always, I will update this site as and when further details confirmed.

Update on February 15th – Two pieces of good news. WRC highlights will air on 5Spike on Monday, whilst Formula E makes it BBC radio debut on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra. Formula E has its own bespoke radio commentary, with Claire Cottingham, Tom Gaymor and Marc Priestley in the booth for Mexico.

“Geniune interest” from Sky for Chandhok to join ahead of 2019

Sky Sports F1’s newest recruit Karun Chandhok says that there was a “genuine interest” from the broadcaster for him to join ahead of the 2019 Formula One season.

Following his departure from racing in F1, Chandhok initially joined Sky’s F1 team in a supplementary role from 2012 to 2014, before joining Channel 4 in 2016 as their regular pit lane reporter. Now, Chandhok is back with Sky, although he says the decision to switch was not straightforward.

“It wasn’t an easy decision [to join Sky] because I’ve enjoyed my time at Channel 4,” says Chandhok, talking to me at the Autosport Show. “We’ve had three fun years, the people were lovely, and they all knew each other from the BBC days. I was the new person lobbed into it, but they were very welcoming.”

“I really enjoyed working with them, but when I started speaking with Sky around the middle of last year, I realised that there was a real genuine interest in wanting me to join the team. Scott Young [Sky’s Head of F1] made a really good case for wanting me there, and really made me feel wanted.”

“For me personally, I was going back to a team that I knew, that I’d worked with in the past, they’re all people who I call friends, even when I was with Channel 4. I’m looking forward to working with them again.”

The former F1 driver joins Sky’s existing roster of talent for 2019, which this year also includes 2009 Drivers’ Champion Jenson Button, who joins Sky for five races after a one-off appearance with them at last year’s British Grand Prix.

Chandhok, who says that he will be with Sky at most races this season, added that Channel 4 were aware of his negotiations with Sky early in the process, and was complimentary of the Channel 4 team on his exit.

“I signed a three-year deal with Channel 4 at the start [in 2016], so it’s a natural point, it’s not like there is any breaking of contract. As far back as the British Grand Prix in the Summer, I told Mark Wilkin, Sunil Patel, and Stephen Lyle at Channel 4 that I was talking with Sky, so they already knew.”

“I left things in a good way, Sunil sent me a lovely Christmas present for my little one, and I still trade texts with Mark [Wilkin] and DC. I’ve left on good terms, which for me is very important, it’s like changing race teams.”

“You’ve built up a relationship as friends,” he added. “There is a professional side, you make decisions for your professional life, but there’s also the personal side. While I’ve changed professionally from one side to the other, personally I’m still friends with these people.”

“At the very first race in 2016, I said to Mark [Wilkin], ‘I don’t want to know what I’m doing well, tell me what I’m not doing well’, and DC was like that, he would never want people to praise him, he only wanted people to tell him what he was doing wrong.”

“I think that’s the same with most racing talent, you come into the pits, you look at the data. You don’t look to see what you’re doing well, you look at the data to see the bits you need to improve on, and I think in many ways racing drivers carry on that same mentality to everything they do in life.”

Ahead of 2019, Sky’s first year of their new contract which runs until 2024, Chandhok is excited at the potential that Sky has to offer.

“Sky’s resources are amazing. We’ve got opportunities to do stuff with historic F1 cars,” he said. “Sky are really embracing the history of F1 through new marketing material that is coming out soon. They’ve got such a massive team of resources that we can tap in to, there’s great potential for great television and we have the air time to do that.”

“If you look at it today, Sky are the biggest investors in F1, bigger than any sponsor. To be a part of that programme, you know your part of something that’s in it for the long-term and believe in the sport.”

“They’ve been doing a great job ever since they arrived in F1 in 2012, if you’re a keen fan, and you’ve paid to be a subscriber, then I think Sky tick a lot of the boxes. There’s always opportunity to juggle things up, and I think in some way that’s where I come in, just to change it up. It’ll be interesting to see what we make this year.”

F1 to broadcast the first pre-season test live in 2019

Formula 1 will broadcast the first pre-season test of 2019 live, one of the championship’s main broadcasters has confirmed.

The test, which takes place from Monday 18th February to Thursday 21st February in Barcelona, will air live via F1 TV’s premium tier service in its entirety. For UK fans however, coverage will air exclusively live on Sky Sports F1, but only the afternoon element.

Across the four days, F1 TV Pro will cover the full test, with every second of on-track action covered. In comparison, Sky are airing twenty hours of coverage, with their broadcast running from 13:00 to 18:00 each afternoon. For the first four hours of Sky’s programme, on-track action will be the centre of attention, with special guests throughout the coverage.

Following the conclusion of each day an hour-long review show, Welcome to F1 2019, will air from 17:00 to 18:00 on both Sky F1 and F1 TV Pro. As of writing, it is unclear whether the on-air team will consist of purely Sky personnel, or whether the coverage will be a hybrid of Sky and FOM personnel. Sky’s newest recruit Karun Chandhok will be involved in coverage.

Given the different lengths, with Sky on-air much later than the World Feed, it is possible that Sky’s programme will be completely bespoke. Formula One Management (FOM) are providing a feed for the first test, however sources close to the situation say that this is a one-off move to inform future decision-making, hence why both Sky’s and FOM’s article contains no reference to the second Barcelona test.

Most extensive coverage of F1 testing ever
The foray back into the live testing scene means that the first Barcelona test will be the most extensive for a Formula 1 test ever. But it is not the first-time F1 testing has aired live.

In 2013, live coverage of the second Barcelona test aired on Sky Sports F1, although it was designed to promote Sky’s 3D offering, and was largely a Sky production. Nevertheless, the broadcaster provided two and a half hours of live action each day, half the amount that Sky are airing this year.

Back then, combined over the live airing and the repeat showing, audience figures peaked with just over 100,000 viewers, a good number for pre-season testing and on a similar ballpark to GP2 (as it was then), GP3 and IndyCar, although that excludes devices such as Sky Go. Numbers may suffer this time round, with no weekend action to draw fans in.

One of the great things about Sky’s live coverage in 2013 that I mentioned at the time was hearing from new voices from down within the pit lane, back then it was Marc Priestley getting some on-air screen time alongside Ted Kravitz.

Airing testing live gives Sky an opportunity to experiment, see what works and what does not, which should inform their main coverage this year. The same applies for FOM, testing may be an appropriate time to test a new graphic or camera angle to see what gets a good reaction on social media, and again what does not.

The main industry argument for not airing testing: it is dull. Airing eight hours of on-track action each day would make for terrible television, and I agree with that view-point. However, the ‘2013 model’ which Sky ran with, airing the last two hours live, interspersed with the best bits from earlier in the day, worked extremely well in my view.

Although I will be watching with interest what the ‘2019 model’ has to offer, my initial gut feeling is that five hours per day is a little too much. Three hours at a push maybe, but five hours may become repetitive fast, especially if rain hits any of the four days. But who knows, maybe five hours is the optimal amount, we shall see.

How much analysis FOM and Sky can get out of the product will be intriguing to see, considering how restrictive teams tend to be at each of the F1 tests.

MotoGP have covered testing live in some format for years, so this is not new for motor sport. The post-season test from Valencia has aired live for several years, with full World Feed treatment, helped by the fact that all their facilities are already on site from the final race weekend a few days earlier.

The championship gives the pre-season Sepang test coverage from their hub in Spain, with pre-recorded bike shots from the track interspersed within the studio chatter, purely on the grounds of cost. Clearly, they feel there is a small audience for it, but not enough to justify sending the full crew to Sepang for the test.

Inevitably, the whole testing argument boils down to cost. If the metrics simply do not add up, then there is little point continuing with the experiment, which will determine whether FOM push ahead with airing testing live again beyond 2019.

Update on January 23rd – I have modified portions of the article as F1 has today confirmed that the entirety of the first test will air live on F1 TV Pro, with Sky airing the afternoon element only.

Whilst F1 TV Pro is the most logical place for testing in full, I do think FOM would have been wiser to air some of the test for free via social media and YouTube, because I do not see subscriptions to F1 TV Pro spiking, just to watch testing. Relatively speaking though, it should be a hit with existing subscribers.

FOM’s release also covers those countries receiving F1 TV Pro for the first time in 2019, including Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Sweden.

Scheduling: The 2019 Rally Monte Carlo / Santiago E-Prix

Every stage, of every rally, live. All Live is back for year two, with the Monte Carlo rally opening the 2019 World Rally Championship!

The rallying curtain raiser takes place from Thursday 24th January through to Sunday 27th January. Every stage is not only available via WRC’s over-the-top service, but for the first time ever is also available on BT Sport.

BT are airing the main All Live feed via their Red Button service throughout the 2019 season, offering rallying fans an alternative way to view the action. BT’s existing 2018 commitments remain, with a select number of stages (WRC’s live World Feed content) airing on their linear channel as well as the daily highlights packages.

Further west, Mexico City plays host to the Race of Champions this weekend. The action airs live on Sky Sports F1, with Will Buxton and Neil Cole on commentary, and David Croft and Jennie Gow reporting from the pit lane.

Elsewhere, Formula E heads to Santiago for the third round of the season, with BBC, Eurosport, BT Sport and YouTube covering the race live.

Race of Champions – Mexico City (Sky Sports F1)
19/01 – 19:00 to 22:00 – Nations Cup
20/01 – 19:00 to 22:00 – Race of Champions

Formula E – Santiago
Shakedown, Practice and Qualifying also air live on YouTube…
25/01 – 18:15 to 19:00 – Shakedown (BT Sport 3)
26/01 – 11:00 to 12:00 – Practice 1 (BT Sport 3)
26/01 – 13:00 to 14:00 – Practice 2 (BT Sport 3)
26/01 – 14:45 to 16:15 – Qualifying (BT Sport 3)
26/01 – 17:45 to 18:30 – Qualifying Delayed (Eurosport 2)
26/01 – 18:30 to 20:30 – Race: World Feed
=> live on BBC’s digital platforms
=> live on BT Sport 3
=> live on Eurosport 2
26/01 – 18:30 to 20:10 – Race: Voltage (YouTube)
27/01 – 18:00 to 19:00 – Highlights (Quest)

World Rally Championship – Monte Carlo (All Live – BT Sport Extra 1)
Every stage also live via WRCPlus.com
24/01 – 09:45 to 11:00 – Shakedown
24/01 – 17:30 to 18:15 – Opening Ceremony
24/01 – 18:30 to 20:45 – Stages 1 and 2
25/01 – 06:15 to 17:15 – Stages 3 to 8
26/01 – 06:45 to 14:30 – Stages 9 to 12
27/01 – 06:45 to 12:45 – Stages 13 to 16

World Rally Championship – Monte Carlo
24/01 – 18:30 to 19:30 – Stage 1 (BT Sport 1)
25/01 – 21:45 to 22:15 – Day 1 Highlights (BT Sport 3)
26/01 – 13:00 to 14:00 – Stage 12 (BT Sport 1)
27/01 – 00:45 to 01:15 – Day 2 Highlights (BT Sport 1)
27/01 – 11:00 to 12:30 – Stage 16 [Power Stage] (also BT Sport 3)
27/01 – 19:15 to 19:45 – Day 3 Highlights (BT Sport 1)

Eagle eyed readers will spot zero reference to World Rally Championship’s free-to-air highlights programme. That is because there is currently no word on who is airing the package, and there is no sign of it in Channel 5’s current schedules either. As and when – or if – the schedule updates, I will update this article.