In my previous article about the post-Bahrain backlash, I noted that I thought the main reason why people felt that the race was boring was down to something fully within Bernie Ecclestone’s control. It is the most important thing to the vast majority of fans, although in the rush to blame the presence of heavy fuel loads or front wings or whatever personal hobby-horse they have, many people have forgotten about the television coverage.
FOM feed the world
Nowadays, the “world feed” carried by every broadcaster for almost every race is produced by FOM, run by Bernie Ecclestone. (The only exceptions at the moment are the Monaco and Japanese Grands Prix, where the world feed is produced by Télé Monte Carlo and Fuji Television respectively.) This is generally a very good thing.
Until a few years ago, races were covered by local broadcasters, meaning that the quality of the coverage could vary quite wildly from race to race. I always remember the Japanese Grand Prix being particularly bad because so much time was spent on board with a below-average Japanese driver trundling around doing very little.
This situation was not helped by the fact that the quality of this standard feed was deliberately stunted while Bernie Ecclestone attempted to launch a premium digital television service, F1 Digital+. “Bernievision”, as it was called, was a very good product.
There were lots of innovations that improved the quality of the coverage, including some smart systems that could detect when an overtaking manoeuvre or a crash was about to happen. You can see this in action here, when the coverage automatically cuts to the on-board camera of Jacques Villeneuve just before he crashes into Ralf Schumacher during the 2001 Australian Grand Prix.
Unfortunately, the main problem with F1 Digital+ was that it was ahead of its time. The adventure began in 1996, at an impossibly early stage of the development of interactive television. There were teething problems in the early days, including an incredible clanger at the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, where the “superior” product managed to completely miss the biggest crash in F1 history! But they learned over time and there were innovations aplenty. With the broadcasters struggling to make any money with it, the service was closed down in 2002.
Since then, the technology on which F1 Digital+ was based has been used on the standard world feed, which FOM have gradually taken over from the host broadcasters. This has brought about a noticeable improvement in the quality of coverage since 2004. Broadly, the pictures have been better. Incidents have been caught live more regularly, and replays have been shown quickly. The information displayed on the on-screen graphics has also improved considerably.
But after reaching a peak in quality three or four years ago, FOM’s coverage has stagnated. Many times, innovations have been brought to the coverage, only to be used sparingly, and eventually disappear.
For instance, whatever happened to the tyre temperature indicators that were used once or twice a few years ago? Why do we no longer often see the graphics comparing the telemetry of two drivers racing side-by-side? What has happened to the thermal images?
Why don’t FOM buy some of those awesome super slo-mo cameras instead of just using the ones in Germany? Why is line comparison only ever used during practice, and even then not very often? Why isn’t more use made of the graphics that show the position of drivers on a map of the circuit?
The poor usability of FOM’s new graphics
Things are not totally stagnant at FOM though. At Bahrain, they unleashed a new set of graphics. It has to be said straight away that they are very good looking, and with a few tweaks will work very well. However, at the moment there are some major flaws with them.
The font appears to be a version of DIN. This is a bold, clear and readable font.
However, FOM have made a mistake by choosing to display the drivers’ names in all uppercase. It is known that all-uppercase is more difficult to read. Often readers look at the shape of words rather than the individual letters. This is much more difficult when capital letters are all the same height and many are roughly square-shaped. It is thought that it may even increase the amount of time spent reading by as much as 20 per cent.
Then there is the odd slanting of the lower-third graphics. I see what they are trying to do, by echoing the slant of the Formula 1 logo. But while it looks stylish, it is pretty painful if you want to actually try and read it!
As you can see, unlike a normal table, the text is not aligned to allow for easy comparison of figures down the column. Instead, you have to read down and to the left. Slanting is one thing, but if you are going to slant one way, slant towards the right! We read from left to right. Effectively reading from right to left (and then switching back to left to right to actually read the information!) is completely counter-intuitive. I know Bernie Ecclestone is keen to take Formula 1 to new markets in Asia, but making us read from right to left really is going a step too far!
The graphics also animate on rather extravagantly. This is particularly irritating with the graphics that update as each driver crosses the line. Each driver’s name and time now takes a while to animate on. But when cars are passing through so quickly, this is vital reading time lost. The new graphics really are a bad case of style over substance.
There was also a large outcry over the fact that the ‘tower’ graphics — which display a list of positions down the left hand side of the screen — appear to have been done away with. Although the tower made a couple of appearances during the race, it really is much more useful during qualifying, where positions change much more rapidly.
During the commentary, Jonathan Legard mentioned that the BBC had received plenty of complaints about the disappearance of the tower, although the content of the world feed is beyond the BBC’s control. For commentators to start bemoaning the poor quality of the world feed once again shows how much of a backward step FOM have taken lately.
On the plus side, there were a couple of interesting new additions as a result of the renewed emphasis on the speed of pitstops. The pitstop time graphic now shows the length of time spent in the pitlane as well as the amount of time spent stationary. However, the stationary time displays only after the driver has exited the pitlane. Why not reveal this first?
They also get the thumbs up for finally switching the lap counter so that it counts up rather than down. I generally like the new graphics, but they have some major flaws just now. With a bit of tweaking, it will look great and work well. But I do wonder what FOM were thinking of when they made some of these decisions.
Too much action was missed
But, of course, the design of the graphics is small beer compared with the actual pictures themselves — and it is here that I think FOM are particularly letting themselves down just now. A few years ago I was amazed at how much action they caught live. Today, I find myself with difficult believing how little action they catch — and how few replays they show.
For instance, what actually happened to Karun Chandhok? We know he binned it, but how? All FOM showed us was his slightly smashed-up car. A replay of the event was never shown. Did their cameras completely miss it?
Moreover, the BBC’s post-race ‘forum’ showed several replays from the on-board channels that brought to light much more action than FOM showed us. Nico Hülkenberg’s first lap was rather eventful, but FOM showed very little of it.
Another on-board shot, not shown on the world feed, revealed how Felipe Massa squeezed Lewis Hamilton early on in the lap. This was totally missed by FOM, and caught all viewers, and even apparently the pundits, by surprise when the BBC showed it later.
And why were viewers never given the full story of the mêlée caused in the midfield as a result of Mark Webber’s blue smoke on lap 1? And, for that matter, why was so little attention paid to the recoveries by Adrian Sutil and Robert Kubica, who made their way back up through the field following that lap 1 incident?
I have to admit that I am baffled. The race was allegedly “boring”, so there was plenty of time to show replays of interesting incidents, but clearly the opportunity was passed up. Why?
The whole style of FOM’s product has become rather stale, clinical and formulaic as well. While a few years ago the feed contained interesting shots of the cars and the circuit. Now there is a greater emphasis on wide shots of the venue. While these shots are attractive, they do not showcase the race.
The coverage of last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is a prime example. There were so many wide shots that it was often difficult to pick out the cars. It felt like most of the time was spent looking at the giant sparkly hotel that looks a bit like a rude sex toy rather than the race itself. And the final lap lunge by Jenson Button on Mark Webber was missed by the cameras!
You can see the moment on this video, at 2:30. Also watch out for when the cars out out of shot when Robert Kubica is battling with Sébastien Buemi at around 1:40, so we don’t properly see what Kubica really did.
It is worth noting that the FIA obviously thought that FOM had done such a good job of producing an uber-slick but ultra-dull feed that they awarded the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix an award for the best television coverage. I thought it stuck out as a particularly poor performance from FOM. It was another triumph of style over substance. I guess they were trying to trumpet this new grand prix, when it was widely recognised to be an underwhelming circuit that produced a rather dull race.
When will HD finally come?
I feel as though FOM have almost given up on improving the television product. F1 is supposed to be the most technologically advanced sport in the world, yet it is still not even broadcast in HD. It is probably the last major sport in the world to only offer an SD feed, and before you know it 3D will have come along by the time F1 goes HD.
Fuji Television are prepared to produce an HD feed for the Japanese Grand Prix (although this is only shown in Japan). I also noticed people praising the Japanese GP coverage for its interesting shots and pretty solid coverage. But Fuji were once universally recognised as one of the worst of the host broadcasters back in the bad old days.
Fuji really have upped their game in the past couple of years. It is notable that we can actually now compare Fuji with FOM and say that Fuji may actually be better. Certainly, Fuji provide a welcome breath of fresh air to F1 coverage when every other race is presented using the formulaic approach that has increasingly been taken by FOM.