Archive: widescreen

Today’s post in my series reviewing the 2007 Formula 1 season was going to be about F1’s bigwigs — Max Mosley and the FIA, Bernie Ecclestone and FOM. However, events in this area are continuing and show no sign of stopping yet, so I’ll leave it for later.

Instead, I’ll move on to what I was going to write about next week — the television and radio coverage. Because I live in the UK, this means ITV and BBC Radio 5 Live. But I’ll also have a look at the most important aspect of the television coverage, the FOM-controlled “world feed”.

ITV

It was a bit of a depressing year to watch ITV coverage. In previous years they hopelessly talked up the prospects of Jenson Button’s success but they realised they were flogging a dead horse so let other drivers get a word in edgeways.

Now that a Brit who can actually win regularly has come on the scene, the coverage has become completely myopic. “Britain’s Lewis Hamilton” (© Steve Rider 2007) was impossible to avoid and you would be forgiven for somtimes thinking that he was the only driver competing.

Even interviews with other drivers were littered with questions about Lewis Hamilton. I remember one particularly uncomfortable moment early on in the season during an interview with Robert Kubica. The question — if I recall it correctly — was something along the lines of, “What do you think of Lewis Hamilton? He hasn’t made any rookie mistakes yet.” Tough luck if you wanted to learn anything about Kubica.

I never thought I’d say this, but I think I would rather have Jim Rosenthal back in place of Steve Rider. The way he goes all gooey at the thought of precious Lewy-Lew-Lew is embarrassing to watch.

Next to him stands Mark “‘Ello guv” Blundell. He would make an excellent pet parrot. “Absolutely Steve” is all he ever seems to say. He would agree if Steve Rider said the world is run by lizards.

Ted Kravitz has his fans, but I don’t see it. He is supposed to be a pitlane reporter, but he seems more like the Correspondent for the Statement of the Obvious. “They’re putting some new tyres on… And, is it? Yes! They’re putting some fuel in as well!” Yes, I can see that Ted.

What’s really worrying is the fact that once or twice this year he has got confused between hard and soft tyres. This is despite the fact that James Allen goes over the tyre rules roughly every five minutes. It beggars belief.

As for James Allen himself, I still don’t like him as a commentator and it appears to be the majority opinion wherever you turn. He has had the job since 2001 now though, so I’m not holding my breath for a change.

He has improved a lot though. Compare two videos — one from 2006, one from 2007. The first is Jenson Button’s first win in Hungary. You can see a glimpse of the desperation of ITV’s bias:

Will the floodgates now open for Jenson Button as they did for Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill before him?

Well I think we all know the answer to that now. But the really scary bit comes after that. He sounds like he physically shits himself as Button crosses the line. Does a Button win make him turn into The Incredible Hulk?

I guess he must have been embarrassed when he watched it back, so he knew to moderate his excitement a bit for the next Button, er, I mean Hamilton win. But he got his timing all wrong and it came out as:

Lewis Hamiltoooon………

……

WIIIIIIINS!

The video isn’t the real coverage — it’s a loving recreation made by somebody on Grand Prix 4. You need to fast forward to around 3:35.

There are also the usual grumbles about adverts. I see them as a necessary evil, but it is just as well grands prix are broadcast on the radio as well because otherwise we would miss a lot of important events. I hate it when football fans complain about ITV’s adverts, because at least in football the actual action is never missed!

When Lewis Hamilton’s car ground to a halt in Brazil, ITV was showing adverts. A similar pivotal moment was missed under exactly the same circumstances last year, when Michael Schumacher’s engine blew in Japan.

Of course, ITV and the people who make the decision to go to a break cannot be expected to predict the future. But the presence of adverts will always count as a major black mark against ITV’s coverage of Formula 1.

Credit where it’s due though: Martin Brundle. What an excellent commentator he is. Some see him as biased in favour of certain drivers, but I don’t see it myself. He knows, for instance, when his client David Coulthard is in the wrong and says so (for instance, the incident in Australia springs to mind).

Brundle also knows how to praise Lewis Hamilton without completely crawling up his arse. And — most importantly — he never forgets that there are 21 other drivers racing as well.

In sum, though, I am seriously considering just turning the volume down on the television and listening to Radio 5 Live for commentary. I would miss Martin Brundle though. Mind you, at the rate things are going, Martin Brundle might have his accreditation snatched away by the increasingly totalitarian Max Mosley anyway!

BBC Radio 5 Live

I mentioned above that I am considering listening to Radio 5 Live’s commentary with ITV’s pictures next year. So what has BBC Radio got that ITV hasn’t?

Well, the BBC is free of adverts. However, Formula 1 isn’t the only sport covered by Radio 5 Live, so coverage usually isn’t interrupted. So it doesn’t trump ITV in that respect.

But the commentary is pretty good. David Croft is obviously very passionate about the sport and there is usually some sensible analysis from whoever his co-commentator is (usually Maurice Hamilton). It is not completely immune to Hamilton hype, but it is a whole lot better than ITV.

The BBC also often provides coverage of practice sessions as well on Sports Extra. So if you are at a loose end on a Friday it is often worth switching the radio on and getting the live timing on your computer.

In addition, there are excellent race previews and reviews available as podcasts. The features on these programmes are usually of a much higher standard than the drivel (cookery lessons with Kovalainen and the like) served up by ITV.

I notice that Radio 5 Live’s Formula 1 coverage gets a bit better every year. It has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years and it’s difficult to find fault with their coverage (at least in comparison with ITV).

FOM

This year saw a big improvement in FOM’s television coverage. It finally made the leap to producing the coverage in anamorphic 16:9 format and started filming (but not broadcasting) in HD.

There has also been the usual trickle of new graphics to display more information. One that particularly surprised me was a graphic that showed the temperature of the tyres on Lewis Hamilton’s car during the formation lap! It was only used once, and the needle was fluctuating all over the place which suggests it might not be quite up to scratch. Nevertheless, how does it work?! Amazing stuff from FOM yet again.

Another graphic that I liked plotted a car’s position on a circuit map while a competing driver was in the pits. A great idea, and pretty well executed (if a bit large). But as far as I know it was only used once in the entire season! More please!

I’d also like to hear a bit more team radio. It feels like this varies from race to race, which I don’t really understand. It also depends on the teams opening up their radio communications. Only Renault seems to have the right attitude in this regard, and McLaren and Ferrari are both obviously so paranoid that we only ever get fleeting snatches of conversation.

FOM also took control of the world feed for all but three of the races. This meant that we no longer had to suffer as much of the dire direction that used to be the norm in F1. It’s good to see FOM finally sorting it out, but why do Monaco, Brazil and Japan still have local directors?

The Japanese Grand Prix coverage was particularly atrocious. It normally is. It’s famous for focussing rather heavily on Japanese no-hopers. This year several important incidents were missed by the director — including Alonso’s crash and the collision between Webber and Vettel. Not even a decent replay was shown, even though the footage exists (it is included on this year’s review DVD)!

Aside from these little mishaps though, I’m finding it difficult to fault the FOM coverage this year. It seems to get better every year.

As the 2007 Formula 1 season approaches (only a week to go, wheee!), there is only one question on everybody’s lips:

Is the television coverage going to improve?

I am not talking about ITV’s coverage. Although we would all prefer there not to be any commercial breaks and would like to believe that there is someone better for the job of lead commentator than James Allen, that is not my target today.

Formula 1 is meant to be one of the very biggest sporting events in the world. Football might be more popular, but only at a local level. Each country watches its own domestic matches. Few football matches are watched world-wide on the same scale as an F1 grand prix is.

Formula 1 is only really beaten by the World Cup, the Olympics and the Superbowl in terms of world-wide popularity as a sporting event. And those tournaments (except for the annual Superbowl) only come around once every four years — there are between 16 and 19 grands prix every year.

So why is the television coverage still stuck in the dark ages?

Well, maybe not the dark ages, but Formula 1 coverage has barely changed in its approach since the early 1990s. Infact, for several years, Bernie Ecclestone has actually stunted innovation in order to teach the teams a lesson, or some other obscure political reason.

In some ways, Formula 1 fans are now suffering because its television coverage was originally a little bit too far ahead of its time. In the late 1990s Bernie Ecclestone’s FOM began experimenting with a high-quality digital television service, nicknamed “Bernievision”. Viewers had six different channels to choose from, ranging from conventional race coverage, to a channel focussing on back-markers, to one focussed on pit lane activity, to a data stream showing drivers’ times and speeds in detail.

To encourage people to sign up, though, Bernie Ecclestone had to deprive normal viewers of their normal service. That’s right — standard Formula 1 television coverage actually decreased in quality.

To take one prominent example, the director of the standard feed could only choose from two on-board cameras out of the entire pack. This usually meant Michael Schumacher and a local hero, leading to some pretty monotonous viewing. This is not to mention the patchy quality of the “world feed” which is usually controlled by a local director. Often the local director will concentrate on — you guessed it — Michael Schumacher or a local hero.

And there have been multiple times when the director has literally lost the plot and missed important events that were developing on track. This led ITV’s commentators James Allen and Martin Brundle to complain live on-air — often in quite strong terms, such as calling the director a numpty — about the shoddy quality of the coverage, which ITV was at pains to point out it had no control over.

Meanwhile, FOM had the best equipment and expert directors who often seem to have a sixth sense about developing incidents. On the one hand, that was fair enough and understandable from FOM’s point of view. There has to be something to encourage people to upgrade to the new digital service. Unfortunately for everybody concerned, Ecclestone’s ambitious digital project failed as it was deemed too expensive (or ahead of its time) for viewers. It was put to bed five years ago, apart from in Germany.

After that, standard coverage stayed pretty much as it was, while the top-of-the-range offering from FOM was left to gather dust. FOM has occasionally been used to provide the world feed as Formula 1 has increasingly moved into developing countries where television coverage is not up to scratch. Still, most European races are controlled by local directors, and the vast dips in quality are shockingly obvious.

Over the past few seasons, Formula 1 fans have seen a gradual improvement in coverage. The “world feed” had access to all of the onboard cameras, rather than just the two T-cams. There has also been a steady improvement in the on-screen graphics that can convey to the viewer differences in driving style between drivers.

But there has still been the feeling that Formula 1 coverage has been behind the times ever since it bit off more than it could chew in the mid-1990s. While other major sports have fully embraced, for instance, HD, Formula 1 has been churning out coverage exclusively in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio.

Thankfully, it appears as though we are indeed about to see a vast improvement in Formula 1 coverage. It has been confirmed that the world feed for all of this year’s Formula 1 races will be produced by FOM. Moreover, they will be produced in anamorphic 16:9 format (ie. widescreen) and an HD feed will be made available to broadcasters.

This news has been kept relatively quiet (although I concede that these details are probably only interesting to geeks) and it is unclear whether or not viewers will actually receive these pictures this year, or if these pictures will be for the archives. But seeing as ITV have bought a load of HD equipment for F1 races, it seems as though British viewers at least will receive the improved pictures.

I joked on F1Fanatic that since ITV has no control over the world feed, HD only meant that we would be able to see Steve Rider’s dandruff (if he has any dandruff — and with that perfectly coiffured barnet, it is difficult to imagine!). But it actually seems reasonable to put two and two together.

How about on-board cameras though? On-board cameras ought to be exciting, but they aren’t really. I don’t know if it’s just because we have become so used to it, but the T-cams seem really sanitised. They don’t really give you a good impression of how much skill a driver has to have to hit the apex lap after lap at high and quickly varying speeds.

Recently on YouTube there was a video from a 1994 (?) race featuring footage from a camera that was actually inside Mark Blundell’s helmet. Unfortunately the video has now been removed. But it was a much better illustration of what a driver goes through. Such cameras still exist today, so it is a puzzle as to why they are not used in Formula 1 coverage.

Could it be because drivers found it off-putting? It would be interesting to see what Mark Blundell thinks about it. Today he is a broadcaster, so he knows the story from both sides of the coin.