Formula One on the box

Formula One is an incredibly wealthy business and has more money flowing through it than any other sport in the world. It is the source of a four billion dollar per year industry which makes it larger than some small countries. The affluence of Grand Prix racing is insane, and is rather hard to fathom for those of us who are simply thrilled buying slightly cheaper groceries.

Almost all of that wealth is thanks to television. It gives the sport the global reach it needs to promote the brands associated with it. Sponsors want to be involved with Formula One simply due to the sheer number of people who tune in each and every fortnight to watch it.

With this in mind it is not surprising that Formula One Management invest heavily in their television broadcasts.

Coverage of the sport has come a long way since it first began in the 1970’s when the Grand Prix telecasts were amateur at best. Usually only a few cameras would be allocated to cover an entire circuit and back then there was no such thing as a replay.

Watching those old races on video can be rather comical at times. When the German Grand Prix was held at the massive Nurburgring local broadcasters came up with a novel solution to cater for their inability to show the entire circuit. When the cars were bunched together and out of view in the forest, TV viewers would be treated to a shot of a man holding a big stick who used it to point at a map of the track demonstrating exactly where the cars were travelling.

Thankfully those days are long gone and today’s coverage is world class. We have all sorts of onboard cameras, access to team radio, as well as a string of interesting graphics. Grand Prix fans have it pretty lucky.

In fact, if you want a reminder of just how good the current coverage is, think about the Japanese Grand Prix.

The race telecast from Fuji was abysmal, and in Japan it always is. This is because Formula One Management does not provide the footage from the Japanese Grand Prix and instead leaves that duty to Fuji Television. There are similar arrangements in Monaco and Brazil, but FOM cover all the other events themselves.

Not surprisingly this means the coverage from Japan is of a lower standard than everywhere else. During this year’s race we missed a lot of action. No one got to see what happened to Fernando Alonso, or how Sebastian Vettel ran into the back of Mark Webber. We also missed some of the best parts from the Felipe Massa – Robert Kubica battle. If you want to find out what really unfolded during the Japanese Grand Prix, the best option is to buy the official end of season DVD review.

It is a reminder of how well the other races are telecast.

The biggest challenge for TV directors is giving viewers at home a similar sensation to being at the track. Grand Prix cars are extremely fast, noisy, and spectacular machines but conveying that onto the small screen is not easy.

The biggest difference between watching a Grand Prix at the circuit and watching it on the television at home, is that when you are trackside you can actually see the different driving styles at play. You can tell who is hitting the kerbs hardest, or who is braking the latest. You can pinpoint each driver’s entry and exit points through a corner and you can see how well their cars are handling. You can pick up an awful lot when you are standing just inches away and that level of insight is missing from the current TV coverage.

For example, on the entry to turn nine at Albert Park there is a very big bump. When you stand next to this bump just behind the barrier you can watch the cars jolt and squirm over it under braking and it is very easy to identify which drivers are handling it best.

On television you simply don’t get that. The bump blurs through the screen as the camera follows the driver. This is because most TV angles focus on the car and not its surroundings, which is a shame because it takes away the opportunity to analyse things such as braking and turning points.

A stationery camera would be great and could be used to create a split screen affect allowing two driving styles to be compared side by side. That sort of innovation is lacking from the current coverage and would be a valuable addition. Wouldn’t you like to see Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton alongside each other on the screen, learning exactly how their driving styles differ?

It would be fantastic.

The Champ Car series took that concept one step further several years ago with a camera that overlayed the image of one car on top of another. It was a little bit like a ghost car that you might see on a computer game and it was perfect for comparing the different styles used by different drivers. Something like that would work very well in Formula One.

A ‘tracking’ camera would also provide a new and interesting way to watch a Grand Prix car in action. These are used in sports such as cricket to follow the path of a ball through the air, and Formula One could use that to follow the path of a car through a corner.

There is definitely something to be said for stationery cameras. If the focus is on the corner, and not the car, it will give TV viewers a much better feel of what it is like at the track. A camera that focussed on that Albert Park bump at turn nine would give fans at home the same level of insight as those trackside.

A few other cameras might be interesting as well, such as a small one inside the driver’s helmet. This was another gimmick pioneered by Champ Cars and it really gives you the driver’s point of view instead of that from the onboard camera mounted high above him. When you watch footage of ‘visor cam’ on youtube it is alarming just how little the drivers can actually see. The technology is already there so Formula One needs only to adopt it.

The existing cameras are fine though and can be used to great effect. Last year we saw some brilliant onboard shots, but often we didn’t get to see them for very long. It would be fun to ride a full lap looking through Adrian Sutil’s suspension, and it would be far more interesting than watching the leader circulating out in front by himself.

The graphics used by FOM are also great, but they could be using more of them.

Last year we briefly saw a map of the track that marked the location of various cars around the circuit. This was great during pitstops because you could see where a particular driver was in relation to his rival in the pitlane. This graphic would be interesting at any stage of the race though, so hopefully we get to see a lot more of it in 2008.

Another worthy inclusion would be that of an insert box displaying action in the pits so we don’t miss any racing on the track. This would have been very handy last year during the European Grand Prix when half of the field pitted at the end of lap one, and the other half slid about in the wet on dry tyres.

These would be valuable additions, but perhaps the best thing that FOM can do is probably the easiest. Why not have unmanned stationery cameras at every corner, almost like security cameras, so that every piece of track is covered? They don’t have to be anything special, but at least it would mean we’d never miss something important because the cameraman was looking elsewhere. The most frustrating part of the current TV coverage is when a big incident goes unnoticed, and it might be one of the easiest things to fix.

There are a number of possible improvements to the Formula One coverage and no doubt we will see something new in 2008. Some races can be a little boring so it would be great to see some interesting onboard shots and some cool graphics to liven up the footage. It would be fantastic to have the ability to compare different driving styles, and it would make the coverage enthralling even when the racing on track isn’t.

Here’s hoping the TV boffins at Formula One Management take the opportunity to prove to us there is no such thing as a boring Grand Prix.

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