Formula 1 Refuels To Take On The World Of Entertainment
Friday morning, just outside Barcelona. Workers unload kegs off a truck and unpack cured meats as they set up a stall on the path leading to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, a race track located in Montmeló in north-eastern Spain. In two days’ time, crowds will fill the grandstands for the Spanish Grand Prix, the fifth race in the 2018 FIA Formula One World Championship.
It’s 10:55am, and the first practice session of the weekend is about to start. Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsports’ Lewis Hamilton is leading the driver standings following his first win of the season in Azerbaijan, with Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel hot on his tail. The drivers prepare to take the wheel, ready to test out their car’s latest upgrades.
Back in the paddock, the F1 technical team is poised to catch it all on TV. Crew members take their positions in the Broadcast Centre, a 50-metre-long structure that looks like a big, grey polytunnel. It’s here that they put together the International Feed, the live race broadcast that goes out to more than 50 countries.
At the front of the main production room, television production team leader Philip Rorke sits silhouetted against a wall of screens.
“One minute to opening sequence,” he says into his headset.
I sit at the back of the room, beneath an illuminated “ON AIR” sign. I can hear Rorke through my headphones but no one else. The F1 title sequence starts playing on a large monitor, with images of drivers flashing up to the sound of a new theme tune – a dramatic classical score written by Hollywood composer Brian Tyler.
“This is great,” Rorke says. “Got time for a weather graphic?”
Rorke speaks in a constant patter, directing the show blow-by-blow as he chooses which camera angle to show at any one time. He has dozens of options at his disposal. There are 25 cameras positioned around the track, plus five roving pit operators and onboard cameras on each of the 20 cars. Then there’s the helicopter camera, the CAMCAT – an overhead camera on a wire that can zoom from one end of the starting and finishing straight to the other – and other special angles, such as cameras embedded in the track and pit lane for close-up shots as cars go whizzing past.
It’s too much for one person to keep track of. Instead, different teams make up their own sub-mixes, which Rorke then weaves together. One makes the “track mix”, while another is in charge of the onboard cameras. A third is responsible for replays. Other desks work on graphics and team radio. At the back of the room, a soundproofed container is home to the audio team that mixes sound from the 147 microphones placed around the track.
At 11:24am, the practice session experiences drama. Vettel spins on turn 13, swiftly followed by Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas. Two minutes later, Marcus Ericsson runs his Sauber off the track and into a gravel trap.
“Oh, a spin there, stop!” Rorke says. “Is this due to the tailwinds? Stay with this… I’ll take replays of Ericsson spinning please, got any replays?”
Later, Daniel Ricciardo has a full-on crash, ploughing his Red Bull head-first into a barrier. We watch his car get lifted out of the gravel pit by a crane. Cut to a clip of chief car engineer Paul Monaghan with his face in his hands, then a slow shot following Ricciardo as he walks into the Red Bull garage.
“Stay with him, we’ve got plenty of time,” says Rorke. “This is nice stuff everyone.”
After 90 minutes, the session comes to a close. The Broadcast Centre staff take their headsets off and stretch their legs. They’ll be back soon for the next practice, capturing everything on the track until the winner pops the champagne on Sunday. By the end of the season, they’ll have produced 430 hours of live TV, capturing episode after episode of an event that F1’s new management has vowed to make “the greatest racing spectacle on the planet”.
Until recently, Formula One was largely associated with one man: Bernie Ecclestone. After buying the Brabham team in the 1970s, Ecclestone, now 88, became increasingly involved in negotiating the management of the sport’s television rights, ultimately leading to him to heading up the Formula One Group, the band of companies that exercises the commercial rights to the championship.
In 2017, American media company Liberty Media Corporation acquired Formula One Group’s parent company Delta Topco for $4.4 billion in a deal that gave F1 an enterprise value of $8 billion. Liberty, which is controlled by US cable-TV billionaire John Malone, has stakes in various other sport and entertainment businesses, including radio broadcaster Sirius XM and the Atlanta Braves baseball team. The deal marked the end of the almost four-decade-long Ecclestone era. To replace him as CEO, they brought in media executive Chase Carey.
Carey, turning 65 this month, comes to F1 from a very different starting point to Ecclestone. His background is in TV rather than motorsport, with a CV including stints as CEO of satellite broadcaster DirecTV, co-COO of News Corporation (where he gained a reputation as Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man) and vice chair of 21st Century Fox. When I meet him a couple of weeks after the Barcelona race, at F1’s new headquarters in St James’s Market in London, he comes across as polite and reserved – almost nervous. He wears a crisp white shirt and speaks with an American accent, occasionally mumbling his words behind a remarkable handlebar moustache.
Carey speaks in business terms when he explains why Liberty bought F1, referring to the sport as “content” and describing a media landscape that is “fragmenting” as digital platforms move to disrupt the traditional TV industry. Against this backdrop, he says, Liberty believes that unique events will remain “winners”. In his previous life at Fox, he oversaw digital platforms, bringing new competition to the world of scripted entertainment – but while there may now be 500 different scripted series to choose from, he says, “there’s only going to be one F1.”
Carey’s vision is to transform F1 from a motorsport company first and foremost to an entertainment brand. He talks of making each race a spectacle on par with the Super Bowl or a heavyweight boxing match in Las Vegas – a multi-day celebration that takes over the host city and appeals to casual fans as well as committed supporters. He wants to simplify the cars, make racing more competitive and turn all drivers – not just household names like Hamilton, Vettel and Fernando Alonso – into superstars.
One of F1’s main selling points, he says, is its global nature. “Probably the only ones like us are the Olympics and the World Cup, which are once every four years for a handful of weeks. We’re nine months a year, every year.” He is particularly keen to grow F1 in China and the US. The current F1 calendar includes a race in Shanghai and one in Austin, Texas; in May, local authorities approved F1’s proposal for a Monaco-style street-race Grand Prix in downtown Miami, with the inaugural event slated for October 2019.
The change in F1’s management also marks a major shift in style. Ecclestone ran the company largely as a one-man show, negotiating deals himself and keeping tight control.
“One of the things that I was unaware of when I accepted the role was that there was no commercial business structure in place,” says Sean Bratches, F1’s new managing director of commercial operations. “There was no digital group, there was no communications team, there was no sponsorship group, media rights, marketing, nothing.”
One of Liberty’s first priorities has been to shepherd F1 into the digital era. At the Barcelona race, the company debuted a new subscription streaming product, F1 TV, which, for $2.29 a month, allows fans to watch the races live and access drivers’ onboard cameras (though many features are not available in the UK owing to rights agreements with Sky). The F1 TV launch got off to a rocky start, with the company forced to refund some customers after they complained about lag and buffering issues, but Bratches believes it will prove popular among more hardcore fans.
F1’s new owners are also embracing online platforms in a way Ecclestone never did. In March this year, they announced a deal with Netflix to produce a behind-the-scenes documentary series that will air early next year; two months later it unveiled its new partnership with Twitter to stream an exclusive post-race live show at ten events. It also posts more race clips on YouTube and Facebook, and has relaxed rules around drivers and teams filming videos on their own social-media accounts.
Former F1 champion Nico Rosberg, who is a host on the Twitter show, says the new focus on digital is important. “We don’t reach enough youth,” he says. “That’s where you’re going to reach the younger generation.” He says that bringing more “American ideas” to the sport is a positive move. “The Americans know how to entertain,” he says.
After taking over, Carey’s team also embarked on a rebrand of F1, changing the logo, updating the TV graphics and commissioning the new TV theme song. Not all changes have received a warm welcome from fans. The new logo – a sleeker, red design compared to the old black-and-white text illusion – provoked some strong negative reactions when it was unveiled.
Similarly, F1’s decision to stop using “grid girls” – models whose dubious raison d’être was to stand prettily in front of each starting position holding a placard – has met with a surprising degree of resistance, including from some drivers and organisers.
At the new London headquarters, I meet F1’s first ever director of marketing, Ellie Norman, who took the position in August 2017. Norman, a former advertising executive with cropped hair and wearing cream-coloured brogues, is a keen motor sport enthusiast. She says the branding changes were necessary to keep F1 up to date and to attract the next generation of fans, particularly women and girls. F1 research suggests that its fan base is around 70 per cent male. “For me, it’s about removing essentially what has been defined as the role of a female within the sport,” she says. (For his part, Carey says that F1 would “love to have” a female driver to broaden the sport’s appeal – he’d ideally like an American and a Chinese driver too.)
Toto Wolff, executive director and CEO at Mercedes, says the change at the top of F1 has been “a bit of a shock to the system” given Ecclestone had been in charge for so long. He says there is more transparency with Carey’s team, and that the change in ownership is overall positive. Before the Liberty deal, Delta Topco was owned primarily by private equity stakeholders, whom, according to Wolff, are more interested in short-term profitability than long-term health. “We were probably not making decisions for the long-term benefit and growth of the sport,” he says.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner characterises Carey’s management style as “far more democratic” than that of Ecclestone, whom he describes as “an outright dictator”. But while he supports Liberty’s vision for the future of F1, he says that it will all come down to the execution. “I think the problem is, you need an element of that dictatorship,” he says. “When you go for compromise, you end up with vanilla.”
Speaking through his personal assistant, Ecclestone said that, as he is no longer in a hands-on position, it was not up to him to comment on changes at F1: “It is up to the public, who watch the F1 on TV and buy tickets for events, to judge.”
Inside the paddock at the Spanish Grand Prix, the teams’ huge trailers line up behind their garages. Ferrari’s trademark red stands out against the more subdued colours of the other teams (with the exception, perhaps, of Sahara Force India’s saccharine pink). Mechanics stride past with trolleys of Pirelli tyres while a forklift drives by with silver barrels labelled “unleaded race fuel”.
F1’s Broadcast Centre is tucked behind the trailers, with a security guard standing watch outside. All of the equipment is transported to every event, taking up two jumbo jets or 26 flatbed trucks. “The circuit provides us with concrete slabs, water supply and a drain, and we pretty much bring everything else,” says Bart Richardson, principal track systems engineer.
As soon as one race wraps up on a Sunday, the Broadcast Centre is packed up and transported to the next, where it will be set up again by Monday evening. Most races have a two-week interlude between them, but some are back-to-back. For the first time this year, the calendar included a triple-header, with France, Austria and Britain taking place on three consecutive weekends in June and July. “All our procedures are built around ‘get it running quickly, fix it when we’ve got time,’” says Richardson.
At one end of the Broadcast Centre is a radio workshop and a camera workshop, with workbenches and tools for engineers to make repairs on the fly. Steve Smith is responsible for the onboard camera team. Dressed in F1 uniform, with a radio on his belt and an orange lanyard around his neck, he tells me that he started his F1 career in 1987. The first time he went to a race, he recalls, he was taken in by the sound and the smell. “I had never experienced anything like it,” he says. “I was hooked on it.”
Smith takes me across the paddock to the onboard camera garage, on the end of the row of team garages. In one corner, 20 multi-coloured, smartphone-sized devices stand on end in a charging deck. This year, F1 has started using 360° cameras, each decked out in its respective car’s livery. In session, they are mounted on the chassis of the cars to capture video of the race from every angle, with viewers able to watch laps from over the car’s nose or flip their vantage point 180° to watch their favourite driver instead. The 360° footage isn’t yet streamed live but is uploaded after the race, with select clips published on F1’s Facebook page. “Eventually, we hope to be able to stream that live from the car and then people at home could watch the main feed on their TV and [a 360° feed] on a mobile device,” says Smith.
F1 only started routinely mounting cameras to cars in 1989. Now, the technical regulations specify that every car must have five onboard cameras or camera housings (the frontrunners often carry the full five, but all cars must carry dummies to make sure they gain no aerodynamic advantage). Two cameras, one front-facing and one rear, are mounted in the main onboard camera unit, a T-shaped box on top of the car’s roll hoop, behind the driver’s head. Others are placed on the nose and chassis of the car.
The onboard camera team constantly experiments with the location of the cameras. This year, the introduction of the halo – a protective barrier that goes around the car’s cockpit – resulted in the chassis camera’s image getting obscured, which viewers were quick to complain about. Smith explains that, according to regulations, F1 must inform the teams of any new camera positions for a season by the end of the previous June, so that teams can design the cars around the new requirements. As a result, they cannot change the chassis camera now, as this will affect the airflow over the car, but they are working on a new placement for 2019.
“You still have the halo in the shot, because it is part of the car, but the crucial part is to see the horizon,” says Smith. “If you can’t see the horizon, you lose sense of what is happening.”
Bart Richardson, principal track systems engineer
As well as cameras, Smith’s team is responsible for putting microphones on the cars. Good audio is critical for making viewers at home feel as if they’re in the middle of the action, but in recent years fans have complained that the cars’ engines have become too quiet. This year, F1 debuted a new type of microphone that sits underneath the car, as close to the exhaust as it can get without being destroyed by the intense energy and heat. Smith pulls one out of his pocket that has just come off Fernando Alonso’s McLaren. It looks like an oversized thimble, 27mm long and 17.5mm in diameter. Inside, exhaust fibres reduce the wind noise whistling through the microphone. It can withstand temperatures up to around 120° Celsius.
The result is a sound that Smith describes as “visceral”, “meatier” and “more emotional”. One of the biggest challenges, he says, was working with the teams to find the best place to install it, as each car is different. “It has taken from the beginning of the season to find the perfect spot for microphones on Mercedes,” he says. “But we have found it.”
For all the attempts to turn F1 into a bigger spectacle, a more fundamental issue plagues the current championship: the racing has become boring.
Many races this year have been essentially decided in qualifying, with little in the way of drivers overtaking or jostling for position. It’s a problem that F1’s new technical director and managing director of motorsports, Ross Brawn, hopes to address by changing the car regulations – the “formula” in Formula One.
Brawn is a familiar figure to F1; on top of briefly owning Brawn GP, which won the Constructors’ Championship in 2009, his CV includes stints as technical director at Benetton and Ferrari and as team principal at Honda and Mercedes (which bought out Brawn GP). In 2010, he was awarded an OBE for his contributions to motorsport.
He retired in 2014 – but not for long. Now 64, he says that he had no ambition to get involved with a team again, but relished the chance to take a more strategic role within F1. “I always, in the back of my mind, saw a scenario where Bernie Ecclestone would have to stop,” he says. “We’re all mortal. When that happened, there would be a change, and it could be quite a seismic change in the way that Formula One was managed.”
Brawn says that F1 cars today are simply “not raceable”. They may be faster than ever, but the aerodynamic design has reached a point where the cars struggle to race nose-to-tail. This is all to do with aerodynamics –the car needs airflow to create the necessary downforce to drive at high speeds around corners. However, if a car is right behind another, that airflow will be disturbed, creating a wake of “dirty air” that messes up the aerodynamics. “[The aerodynamic performance] is so refined and so tuned, that it works beautifully in free air, but as soon as it’s in disturbed air from another car, its performance is shuttered,” explains Brawn. As a result, races can end up more like high-speed processions, especially on circuits not conducive to overtaking in the first place.
One of the most exciting moments of the season so far came in Baku, Azerbaijan, when Red Bull teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen fought an unusually close battle on the track. Ricciardo started in fourth and Verstappen in fifth, only for Verstappen to overtake about 15 minutes in. Ten minutes later, Ricciardo went in for the attack on a couple of turns, with the pair getting close enough to bang wheels. Almost an hour into the race, Ricciardo very nearly managed to pass on the outside of turn one, only for Verstappen to squeeze down the inside, again getting within a whisker’s distance of his teammate. Ricciardo eventually got by, only for Verstappen to come out in front after a pit stop. Soon after, Ricciardo made one last move – only for the Red Bulls to collide, the two cars spinning off into the safety road trailing smoke, sparks and bits of bodywork. For racing fans, it was a pleasure to watch (for Red Bull, a nightmare).
After the race, Brawn spoke out to the press to say that downforce was a clear factor in the collision. When Ricciardo attempted to overtake, Verstappen made defensive moves to guard his position, disrupting the airflow behind him. This would cause Ricciardo to lose downforce, making it difficult (if not impossible) for him to stop his car in time.
After a vote that divided teams, F1 has pushed through some aerodynamic changes for 2019 to promote closer racing and more overtaking, including a simplified front wing and wider rear wing.
Bigger changes are proposed for 2021, including a particularly controversial suggestion: a budget cap. The idea behind this is to make the sport more competitive. At the moment, three teams dominate; in 2017, only one podium place in the entire championship went to a driver outside of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, with everyone else competing for the middle of the field. By capping the amount teams can spend on developing their cars, Brawn hopes to see them able to compete on a more equal footing. “Any good team should have a chance of finishing on the podium, and, on a special day, win a race,” he says.
F1 has not yet publicly revealed what number the cost cap would be set at, as they are still negotiating with teams, but it is rumoured to be in the region of $150 million. It would not include drivers’ salaries. The ongoing debate is a major test of the new management’s leadership, as it will likely be impossible to find a solution that keeps all ten teams happy.
Guenther Steiner, team principal of Haas, a US team that took part in its first championship in 2016, welcomes the budget cap. “There’s too much of a class difference,” he says. “You’ve got three teams that are far in front and then you’ve got the rest.” Without a cap, he says, that gap will never close. “If we invest $20 million more, the big teams invest $40 million more.” He says that Haas spends “somewhere between $100 million and $150 million” and that this is lower than the proposed cap.
But Red Bull’s Christian Horner is not convinced. He says he is in favour of reducing costs, but that a budget cap would be difficult to police. It would be more effective, he suggests, to limit costs by introducing stricter technical regulations. He declined to comment on how much Red Bull spends but said that it was “probably twice” the amount being discussed.
At the same time, Liberty also plans to reassess how F1 distributes revenue to teams. Each team receives a share of commercial revenue according to a contract called the Concorde Agreement, the current version of which runs until the end of 2020. Carey says he believes the revenue distribution has become “too skewed” in favour of bigger teams.
Mercedes’ Toto Wolff says he agrees with the idea of a budget cap, despite the fact that Mercedes would have to make dramatic cuts as one of the biggest teams. He says that he recognises that the gap between the smaller and bigger teams has become too big. “Equally we like to have a structure that is cash-positive,” he adds. But, he is “very much against” the plan to redistribute revenue, arguing that Mercedes would already be making a compromise on the cost cap and that the team’s commitment to the sport should be honoured. “I believe that you can’t lose on all fronts,” he says.
Leading up to 3pm on Sunday, all is quiet in F1’s Broadcast Centre. Everyone has taken their places, ready for the biggest show of the weekend. Hamilton is in pole position after qualifying in first place, followed by his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas and then the two Ferraris. The Red Bulls take fifth and six.
Phil Rorke is back in the director’s seat. The Spanish and Catalan flags are carried onto the track, and he reminds the camera operator to keep a wide angle with both flags in frame to avoid any political insensitivity. At 15:05, the countdown begins: “Opening sequence in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…”
The drivers set off on the formation lap and line back up on the grid.
“Good luck everyone,” says Rorke.
Just seconds in, the drama starts: Romain Grosjean, following Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen, spins on turn three, losing control and scattering across the width of the track, taking out Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly.
The safety car comes out and Rorke selects shots of Grosjean and Hulkenberg walking away from their cars before rolling with a replay of the incident with some team radio from Grosjean: “Oh mate, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Yep. Are you OK, man?” his engineer responds.
“Yeah, I’m OK, I was – I tried the outside, Kevin lost it a bit, and then I got the dirty air, that’s it.”
After the replay, Rorke uses the track mix to re-establish the order of the race and show marshals sweeping gravel off the track.
“Dean, do you think it’s worth these replays again?” Rorke asks a while later, speaking to executive producer Dean Locke. It’s a yes. “OK, do them again and I’d like that lovely shot of Grosjean on the steps.” It’s a striking image, with Grosjean sitting alone on some steps next to the track holding his gloves, looking utterly repentant even with his helmet still on. It’s a “perfect replay scenario,” says Rorke – even if the rest of the race turns out boring, they can keep revisiting the opening lap drama.
Philip Rorke, F1 TV production team leader
The race continues to play out fairly predictably, with Hamilton comfortably holding on to his lead and little in the way of overtaking. At one point, the graphics team highlights a “battle” between Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen; Verstappen overtakes as Räikkönen appears to lose power. It’s the end of the race for him.
About an hour into the broadcast, we go back to a recap of the first lap and Grosjean’s crash. Force India’s Esteban Ocon is forced to retire after an engine issue. Vettel pits his Ferrari for a second time under the virtual safety car but emerges behind Verstappen, who’s now in third. Verstappen clips his front wing on Lance Stroll’s Williams but keeps his place. Team radio comes through: “Structurally, the wing is fine – as long as you’re happy with the balance, all good.”
At 16:48, Hamilton crosses the finish line for the last time, winning the race with a comfortable lead. His teammate Bottas takes second place, and Verstappen finishes third, his wing still broken. The podium camera is ready – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and we get a full-page graphic showing the three winners. An RF camera follows Hamilton as he jumps out of his car and throws himself at his cheering teammates. Rorke ends with a “soft closer” – pans of the crowd, slow-motion shots of Hamilton crossing the line and the winners spraying champagne. With that, the live show is complete.
“Well done everyone, that was very good,” he says. “That was quite a start, crikey.”
He stands up and takes off his headset. Now all that’s left is to pack everything back into its containers, ready to be transported to the next race.
Photography: Christoffer Rudquist
This article originally appeared in Wired UK