April 23, 2012
The debate over the 2012 Bahrain GP seems to have split many in the F1 fraternity between ‘yes it was the right decision’ – led, unsurprisingly, by those who were party to the decision e.g. Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone and supported by other commentators such as Jackie Stewart and Martin Brundle. On the other side were those who leaned towards ‘no it was the wrong decision’ – largely led by the UK press e.g. Richard Williams (Guardian), Byron Young (Mirror) and Tom Cary (Telegraph), and then there were those who were rather stuck in the middle and undecided – e.g. Damon Hill and, I have to admit, myself. One thing does seem certain, that F1 is a bit of an irrelevance in a country which is trying to deal with such deep seated problems, never have discussions on the details of DRS technology seemed so trivial and out of place.
There are two questions which seem to be hanging in the air. First as to whether it is right to place the teams and all those working in F1 into such a potentially volatile situation, and of course there are different views as to how much danger they were really in, the Force India incident was undoubtedly traumatic for those involved, and everyone was glad that F1 personnel were largely unaffected by the troubles in Bahrain. The second question seems to have been whether or not F1 can help or hinder in such a situation. It certainly seems that the unimpeded access which the F1 journalists appeared to enjoy allowed the opposition access to publicity which had previously been denied to them. The fact that, just as the F1 teams were leaving Bahrain, a Channel 4 News Crew was detained by the authorities suggests that the door may have been opened a chink for F1, but it is now being closed up again. However there will be a continued debate about whether or not there should be a Bahrain GP in 2013 (which has probably already started), and from that point of view further scrutiny will be brought to bear on the situation and the progress of the opposition in obtaining reforms. Time will tell. But one thing is clear, anyone who thinks a global sport, such as F1, is in some kind of vacuum and can ignore the political context in which it operates, is well and truly out of touch with reality.
There has been much debate and a great deal of emotion around the news that the BBC will no longer show all F1 races live from 2012. Through an arrangement with Sky they will be able to maintain live broadcasts for half and will show highlights for all of them. A good deal for the fans? Well if you’re a football fan then you’ve probably got Sky already, so no problem. However if, like me, your only sporting interest is F1 then it would be hard to justify the costs of going to Sky just to get the other half of the races live. Interestingly the F1 teams, who potentially will now have a smaller audience to deliver to their sponsors, are pretty ambivalent about the whole thing, the tenor seems to be, well Bernie got the best deal he could. The general view is that the BBC were going to pull out anyway, so this is the best solution for keeping (some of) it free-to-air and without commercial breaks.
So should we be grateful to Sky for helping out the BBC? Perhaps we should and perhaps we should also consider whether the real culprit is, as some have suggested, CVC Partners in requiring such high fees from broadcasters to cover their debt in acquiring F1 in the first place? The counter-argument for the BBC is that F1 has a less than pristine image and this makes it hard to justify spending many millions of the licence fee revenue propping up a less than transparent (think Bahrain), hugely rewarded (think Bernie) often unsporting (think spygate, liegate, crashgate) phenomena that is F1, and clearly the FIA, FOM and the teams have all played their part in this. I think the problem is that these aspects of F1 made it politically easier for the BBC to make the decision to pull the plug, but I think they are wrong and they should reconsider and I give three reasons why:
1. Showcase British sporting talent
The standard of driving talent in F1 today is incredible. Although there has been talk of pay-drivers and the like, the overall standard is far higher than it has ever been. If you look at the quality and mix of drivers there is a fantastic array of British talent – Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button being potential title contenders, but there is also the up and coming talent such as Paul Di Resta, surely the BBC should be showcasing such global talent for all to see, and to recognise.
2. Support the best of British industry
It has been one of the world’s best kept secrets but we are bloody good at producing F1 teams with technology that is absolutely at the leading edge. Eight of the current twelve F1 teams are based in the UK. Why did Mercedes Benz acquire Ilmor Engineering just north of Northampton and transform it into Mercedes Benz High Performance Engines? Can they not build high performance engines in Stuttgart? Of course they can, but they can’t produce engines with a centre of gravity a few centimetres from the ground and which you can change in 45 minutes – they can in Britain’s Motorsport Valley. We are often very good at putting British expertise down, but here we have it in spades and it really doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world (for now at any rate), so let’s celebrate and showcase it.
3. Stick to what you’re good at
There is no question that the BBC coverage has been superb. For me no-one can beat the combination of Murray Walker and James Hunt in the commentary box, the contrast in styles and approach was fantastic, but we are now in different times, and the mix of commentators between Jake Humphreys, the irrepressible Eddie Jordan, Martin Brundle, DC, Lee McKenzie and Ted Kravitz is world leading. The BBC likes winning awards and they like increasing viewing figures, that is exactly what they have been doing with F1, so why devalue it by letting Sky take the credit?
Think again BBC, for your own good.