It has been interesting to note the comments from readers in response to Jenson Button’s point that the team radio extracts of conversations between drivers and teams can lead to a skewed view of what is really happening within a team.
Team radio in the live broadcast coverage has been around for a while, but its’s noticeable as a commentator how much more frequently it is employed this season.
And without it the drama of Button’s tussle with team mate Sergio Perez in Bahrain or the Red Bull driver’s clash in Malaysia would have been a lesser experience for the fans at home.
“The problem with the radio is that my message is not meant for the masses, it’s meant for the team,” said Button. “In a way it’s a pity that TV companies just choose the messages they want, because they can come across in the wrong way.”
This is of course true, but it’s also the case that teams and drivers know anything they say can be broadcast and therefore they need to bear that in mind when speaking.
On the whole team radio has greatly enhanced the audience’s understanding of what’s going on during a race or qualifying session; it has brought the fans closer to the sport.
When I presented the ITV show Nigel Mansell’s IndyCar in 1994, it featured team radio from Mansell’s crew chief Jim McGee and it brought the action sequences to life. Radio also featured prominently in the BTCC highlights shows on BBC TV around that time and in coverage of races like Bathurst, where they even spoke to drivers during the race via a radio control camera in the cockpit. F1 was quite slow to the party, but is making up for it now.
F1 is some way from having the coverage interacting with drivers at the moment, but to eavesdrop on the conversations between pit wall and driver is an enriching experience.
The flip side, as Button says, is that it can present a slanted picture; at Renault in the mid 2000s Pat Symonds used to complain about the coverage given to team messages to Giancarlo Fisichella urging him to push harder, making it look bad for Fisi. Other drivers like Takuma Sato have been made to look hapless by messages which portray weakness.
But there is no doubt that F1 has evolved in the last few years to be more deliberately entertaining as a broadcast spectacle, with lots more team radio, DRS wings to aid overtaking and Pirelli short-life tyres to mix things up. Whereas in the 2000s F1 was like a 1-0 football match, now it’s like an NBA basketball game which ends 94-92. There is so much going on.
Reading through thousands of comments from readers on this site, many find it offensive and long for the simple purity of a pole sitter in the best car driving away for a lights to flag victory with perhaps one pit stop along the way. But is that the right product for F1 at the moment, especially with the trend moving more to the NBA model? Even that most conservative of sports, cricket, has introduced a 20 over slugfest, called 20-20, which is proving popular with younger audiences.
F1, led by its broadcasters and commercial rights holders and supported by the teams, has taken the decision to “sex it up” and that is what we have now.
As long time JA on F1 reader Aura F1 commented on the original Button post, “I enjoy hearing the radio messages but just like a drama director, the feed is carefully chosen to build tension and taken out of context so as to build a ‘narrative’ for the fans. If it was just open on a full feed and everyone could tune in to any messages at all it would be sport – but when we get selected voices and selected parts of those voices – lets call it what it is – a dramatic tool.” And this is a spot on observation.
The proof of the efficacy of this strategy will come in the TV ratings; viewers will either be attracted or turned off by NBA-F1.
F1 has a very large and mature fan base, with around 60 million people globally, on average, watching a live Grand Prix and over four times that number watching at least some coverage of a race, whether live or highlights (known as the “all broadcast” audience). This latter figure is up on previous years, whereas the live audience is falling, partly due to the Pay TV deals in Italy, UK and France.
But team radio is at the heart of the modern F1, whether the drivers like it or not.