The declining standard of F1 television coverage

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!

Example of FOM's new graphics

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.

Example (a rare one) of FOM's tower graphics 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.

Screengrabs nicked from stefmeister. If you are as much of a geek as me about both Formula 1 and television presentation, I highly recommend the F1 coverage thread on Digital Spy.


  1. I absolutely agree with you about the quality of the the FOM feed and your suggestions are well founded.

    Spot on with the slanting graphics, I found it too hard to read as well.

    One area I feel there could an improvement in the coverage is in the area of pit stops. In Bahrain lots of cars pitted at the same time, and I feel a Nascar/Indycar style of multiple screens could be used to display different cars pitting at the same time. We would have seen where Redbull had delays on their stop in which Button was able to jump them.

    I am a massive fan of the line overlays, but why we only see this in so spairingly is beyond me.

    I am still getting used to the colours of the new on screen telemetry for things such as throtle, revs and brakes. I think the colours they used last year were better.

    Sometimes I think they purposely hold footage/replays back to use on the end of year review. I imagine a Bernie replica in the directors box chuckling to himself as he decides that no one will get to see that until they unwrap the DVD on Christmas day!!

  2. Thanks for the comment Scott — some good thoughts.

    Another conspiracy theory is that the tower graphics disappeared just when’s new live timing mobile app has come out…

  3. TV coverage is indeed bad, but Basketball on ESPN is in HD, BUT 4:3 aspect. Internet TV is the future, go with it F1. Many views, all HD, 15:9 and available to everyone.
    We already view the live timing on the net as its not on TV.
    Sorry, screw the TV stations, they have stuffed too many things up & they still fight the battle to keep sport on free to air TV.

  4. Never mind the lack of HD, they’re still in the 20th century with their graphics laid out to suit a 4:3 TV despite the feed being a 16:9 aspect ratio!

  5. It is truly strange that they don’t show so much of the action even though they do get it on camera.

    We only see it when they put their video edits on, usually a good week or more after the race, or in the end-of-season review DVD (not Blu-Ray or HD download, of course).

    This is an important and often-overlooked part of the “improving the show” argument.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    David S — In fairness to FOM, they do offer a feed where graphics are designed for 16:9, but it is the BBC’s policy that all on-screen graphics should be 4:3 safe.

  7. It’s incredible how right you are and how much i agree with you!.

    I’ve been complaining about the tv coverage for quite a long time now since my uncle told me few years ago that F1 was boring because of the way they showed it. And he was absolutely right!

    Just watching the national motorsport series here in Argentina, the races feel better and it looks awesome. And we’re talking about Argentina.

  8. Seeing all of FOM’s televisual failings laid out like this is depressing stuff. Great post, though! 😉

    One graphic/bit of data I would like to see a return of is the heart rate monitor. I’ve only seen it in clips online (it was used before my F1-watching time, that I can remember), but I think it was a nice, if relatively superficial, little detail.

  9. Was a heart monitor used live on the world feed once upon a time? I certainly don’t remember that, but it sounds very interesting. Are there any examples on YouTube of it being used?

  10. I completely agree with you, but instead of moaning about the wind angle shots etc which bernie is maybe rightly using to attract non f1 “geeks” (we are really 🙂 ) What i think is needed is to make the most of the interactive services and the internet, why cant I chose to watch on board from only button all race, why cant i chose which graphics i want on the screen at any given moment. Most of the graphics, although over stylised, are pretty good i would just like to be able to pick what i see and when.

    I also think its a huge shame that F1 still isnt in HD, football has long past that and is now embarking on 3D, why!!

  11. Fair points Richard — I completely overlooked the potential for interactive TV and the internet. I would happily pay for more online video to be available — all the feeds on Kangaroo TV could be made available, for instance.

  12. Some of the friends I went to Melbourne with invested in the Kangaroo TV. They let me have a play with it & can I just say it was excellent. Being able to choose which driver to follow, being able to configure the screen so that you could watch 4 drivers at once, having all the timings there etc. It was great, and how I’d like to watch F1 at home.

    I didn’t hire one myself simply because I was trackside & wanted to watch the action live (otherwise why go?) but for when that isn’t an option & I am watching it on TV, then I think the Kangaroo TV format should be the way to go.

  13. Good to see I wasn’t the only one a little bit pissed off by the new graphics on tv. Using capital letters is ok when they’re showing just the initials, but really annoying for the complete name, specially when it’s on a long list.

    Apart from that, I’m not really enthusiastic about the new revs/speed graphics either. Sometimes it feels like I’m playing a videogame instead of watching a real F1 race.

    I completely agree that, sometimes, the live tv coverage it’s not what I would call brilliant, and misses very important actions and battles in the race; but I also imagine that, sometimes, there must be really difficult to achieve it, given the amount of interesting situations on the track happening at the very same time. Interactive options would be great to help solve this problem, either on tv or on the internet.

    Once again, great article, Duncan.

  14. […] of the people behind the "world feed" are locally hired and who travels. However, i found this blog entry claiming that Monte Carlo is one of only two Grand Prix which are produced independentely of the […]

  15. US Formula 1 fan here. We do get HD pictures will all of our broadcasts no problem. But compared to the graphics we see at the Indianapolis 500 and other American racing series, Formula 1 graphics are absolutly terrible. There is a constant scoring ticker that on many networks show who the leader is at all times. If scoring isn’t on screen for more than 2 laps, you get an apology from the announcers. The Valencia race I only saw a scoring update once every 5 or so laps. LAME by American standards.

  16. And why do we have so many shots of the back of heads on the pit wall or wide shots of mechanics ‘sitting’. Often while something exciting happens on track we cut to pictures of team members watching the very action we are now missing! Sure the “reaction shot” is a standard film cutaway technique but we are watching a race, or a rare overtaking manoeuvre, save all the arty cut aways until the third reply, backs of heads are notoriously boring!


  18. Ivor, not nowadays. The only grands prix where the world feed is produced by local broadcasters are Monaco and Japan. All other race coverage is directed by Formula One Management.

  19. I am a US F1 fan. Great article! However, the graphics should revert to the one used between 2004 and 2009. Those were the best. I say the 2004-2009 graphics should be used until the year 2030.