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F1 Broadcasting and the Importance of Neutral Coverage

One of the biggest F1 news stories of the year broke last week, but Sky Sports elected not to write a word about it on their website. Should they be expected to provide neural coverage of the sport?
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This weekend Formula One pitches up in Bahrain, a noted bastion of free speech, following one of the biggest stories to break in the sport for some time.

Coincidentally, this also involved free speech: last week, the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) wrote an open letter expressing deep concern at the way the sport is being run. Signed by its president, the former F1 driver and two-time Le Mans winner Alex Wurz, as well as current stars Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button, it asserted that recent rule changes and business decisions were "disruptive" and "in some cases could jeopardise [Formula One's] future success."


This is a significant event and unprecedented in recent times. The drivers are rarely moved to place their heads above the parapet and talk about the sport's governance, preferring to keep on Bernie Ecclestone's good side, and when they do you can be sure that something is significantly wrong. Formula One is in crisis, and reform is required to save it from obsolescence, or perhaps even extinction.

So yes, one of the bigger F1 news stories of recent years, and certainly the biggest of the past six months. Odd then that Sky Sports F1 – who currently screen every race live in the UK, and will in 2019 become F1's exclusive broadcaster – did not cover it at all on their website. Not a single word.

Well, it seems that they did briefly report on the story (and very much in brief), only to pull it shortly after. A cached version can be viewed here, while the dead link is here. Meanwhile, there has been no social media mention of the letter – which, let's not forget, is the biggest F1 story of the year – from their on-air talent, including Martin Brundle, David Croft, and Ted Kravitz. A strange kind of free speech indeed.

Let's not be naive: such selective coverage and self-censorship is not just understandable, it is to be expected from Formula One's UK broadcast partner. One of the unmentioned but widely reported criticisms the GPDA have is F1's disappearance behind a TV paywall over recent years. There are a dwindling number of countries where the sport is still available on free-to-air TV, because broadcasters such as Sky and Canal+ pay irresistible sums to show grand prix racing. Naturally this has meant a drop in audiences, which in turn has led the sport to adopt cheap and hastily conceived gimmicks to keep fans interested (in reality, these have arguably done more to drive away existing viewers).


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But that is not the issue at hand. F1 on premium TV channels has happened in the UK and there's probably no way back; the fact that it might not survive there is not up for discussion right now. The issue, to my mind, is how the sport is covered by its broadcast partner.

By coincidence, Wednesday also saw the announcement that, as of 2019, Sky will be the sole broadcaster of Formula One in the UK. You'll not be surprised to learn that they had this on their website. Aside from the British Grand Prix, you'll only be able to watch the races on the premium Sky Sports package.

This has caused plenty of hand wringing and obituaries for the sport, many of them very thoughtful and largely correct, though the majority tend to agree that Sky's coverage is excellent. And in many ways it is: they dedicate innumerable hours to practice, qualifying and race coverage, produce excellent features, and I still believe Martin Brundle to be the most knowledgeable and clear-headed English-speaking commentator in any sport. In Ecclestone's opinion, "Sky's commitment to the sport and standard of coverage is second to none."

But I have to call bullshit on the 'unprecedented coverage' line that's so often trotted out. In reality, Sky Sports can't cover the sport in full, can't be 'your home of F1'. Because if they are unable to run the biggest story of the year – if, as it seems, they're forced to pull that story after publication – surely there is a conflict of interest at play that renders them void of credibility. This same story was the lead on, with a few supplementary analysis pieces to go alongside it, and was featured prominently on the BBC F1 page, by major newspapers such the Guardian and the Times, and by independent F1 sites and blogs.


Put simply, every site with an interest in F1 covered it – except for F1's soon-to-be sole UK broadcaster.

This is conformation of a broader trend from Sky Sports F1 to always present the sport in the best light possible, as opposed to covering it from a neutral, considered standpoint. Again, that's not surprising given their status and I'm not attacking them for it. They pay a lot of money for F1 (reportedly £1billion over six years) and it's not in their interest to run it into the ground.

But, as a viewer – as a paying customer – it is frustrating. Amid F1's current crisis, the Sky presenting team seem keen to bat away criticisms of the sport and encourage the audience to do the same, as if the viewers have a responsibility to unite and think positively about Formula One, as if we're all in this together. But, in the age of pay TV, we owe the sport nothing – it is they who owe us.

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It shows the importance of independent coverage from elsewhere, because a broadcast partner cannot be relied upon to tell the full story. And so the sport needs the likes of Autosport, mainstream newspapers, and 'privateer' websites and blogs – all of which face uncertain futures. None of these are perfect, nor can they hope to be, but at least they are not involved in a multimillion-pound contract with the sport and the conflicts of interest that stem from it.

On the TV side, it also shows the importance of the free-to-air channels, who have shown themselves to be far more inclined towards critiquing the sport when necessary. Last week, Channel 4 commentator David Coulthard posted a tweet in which he said he finds himself apologising for the sport. You won't see that from the Sky Sports gang.

This is not to encourage a barrage of needless criticism – when F1 is good, shout about it. But by the same token, we need broadcasters to talk openly about its failings. No sporting series can be allowed to control the media that reports on it, as much for its own good as anything else. If F1 is in crisis, the world needs to know now so that something can be done; it cannot paper over the cracks until one day the whole thing collapses.

Alas, when it does, I'm not sure many people will be watching any more. What we can say for certain is that the few who do will see it all unfold on Sky Sports F1. In stunning high definition.