F1 coverage to get its much-needed boost?

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.