The 2018 Formula 1 season got underway in Australia this past weekend. And now in its second year of ownership by Liberty Media, there have been a few significant changes to the sport over the off-season. All the cars today sport the Halo device—a metal and carbon fiber structure that should prevent flying debris from hitting drivers in the head (despite looking for all the world like that bit on a flip-flop that keeps it on your foot). Pirelli now has seven different tire compounds to use throughout the year, from the orange “superhard” to the pink “hypersoft.” And here in the US, the sport has a new home on ESPN.
And, oh boy, did that last initiative get screwed up.
As previously detailed, Liberty chose to give ESPN the contract to broadcast F1 races from 2018 onward because the series’ previous home, NBC Sports, wouldn’t stomach Liberty launching its own F1 streaming service. That service is due at some point this season, but we’re not entirely sure when.
When the news about the ESPN move was announced in late 2017, I was hopeful that it would solve some of the real problems I had with NBC’s F1 productions. Particularly, I loathed how much of the race that network chose to waste with commercials and irrelevant b-roll rather than showing us the on-track action. Instead of producing its own shows, ESPN was going to use the British Sky Sports broadcasts, which meant a commentary team with lots of recent F1 talent and a huge presence at each race. (By contrast, NBC was only on-site for a handful of races each year; the majority of the network’s work was done from Charlotte, North Carolina.)
And, since ESPN was paying Liberty precisely $0 for the rights, there was a chance US F1 broadcasts wouldn’t be as horribly interrupted as they had been under NBC. You see, Sky Sports lives behind a paywall in the UK. Because people have to pay to get its F1 coverage, it doesn’t interrupt the on-track action with commercial breaks.
The reality, as it turned out, has been quite different, and it was apparent as soon as the first Free Practice session was shown on Friday evening. Not only were there plenty of ads on ESPN, they came with utterly no warning. The action would cut away jarringly, then after an ad or two, the feed would cut straight back, often mid-sentence. Oh dear.
Things got worse for Sunday’s race. First, ESPN messed something up and lost the first 20 minutes of the pre-race show. Then, anyone trying to follow the race had a hard time, thanks to the frequent ad breaks that caused viewers to miss some of the key moments of the race, including the retirement of both US-based Haas cars and the critical restart after a mid-race safety car period. Say what you like about NBC’s often-poor coverage—and I did—but at least Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, and Steve Matchett would provide some warning of a break and fill us in on what we missed, along with a replay. (Obviously with Sky’s coverage, that wasn’t going to happen, because its commentators would have no idea any ad breaks were being taken.)
The US broadcast was so bad that several readers emailed me to express their anger. That normally only happens when I write something they don’t like! But even ESPN recognized it screwed the pooch. The sports network released a statement on Sunday morning, apologizing for its rubbish effort:
We deeply apologize to Formula 1 fans for the technical issues that caused them to miss the first 20 minutes of the pre-race show for the Australian Grand Prix. We are sorry that our first F1 telecast did not go as smoothly as we would have liked but we are taking steps to prevent those same issues from occurring in the future. We thank the fans for watching and for their incredible passion for Formula 1.
Liberty’s own production wasn’t entirely smooth, either. Notably, at one point its graphics failed to show the drivers’ names:
— Giedo van der Garde (@GvanderGarde) March 25, 2018
If I was a cynical man, I’d suggest that Liberty doesn’t care that ESPN messed it all up; in fact the company might be glad. The mishaps may drive more Americans to Liberty’s forthcoming streaming service. Indeed, long-time F1 journalist Dieter Rencken reminded us that when F1 last tried its own pay-per-view service, the free-to-air broadcast noticeably deteriorated. The conspiratorial mind might even wonder if it was planned, given that F1’s new commercial director, Sean Bratches, moved to the sport from… ESPN.
But I think this is a case where we shouldn’t attribute malice to something that is explained by incompetence. One thing is clear, though: ESPN better pull its socks up before the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, which gets underway on April 6.