What do US F1 fans think of Speed?

F1 Fanatic’s American guest writer Gerard Hetman gives his verdict on Speed’s coverage of Formula 1.

For an American F1 fan like me the amount of commentary regarding the BBC?s new coverage has been fascinating to follow. It seems to have been well received by many people, but how good a job are Speed doing of covering F1 in the US?

The quality of the broadcast provided by Speed, and it?s parent company Fox Network, inspired a range of responses in an earlier article on this site.

The recognisable team of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, and Steve Matchett, plus with Peter Windsor reporting from the pit lane, seems to be well-regarded by some fans, while other viewers express disappointment at their work and seek a higher standard from Speed. While the discussion may not approach the fever pitch of the James Allen debates, the range of opinions on the Speed group is no less colourful.

Love it or hate it, Speed could be set to be a key point of discussion in what is shaping up as a critical juncture for F1 in America. Let?s take a look at the basics of the station?s operation, and what challenges it will need to resolve in the months ahead.

The nuts and bolts

Formula 1 has been broadcast in America for many years, with the coverage bouncing around between several different broadcast companies – including ESPN and CBS – before finally settling on Speed and FOX several years ago. The combination of networks broadcasts every F1 race of the season, with Speed carrying most races live, while a handful – including the U.S. and Canadian rounds in recent years – are broadcast nationally by FOX. The North American races were carried live, with a few European rounds broadcast on tape delay after being edited and packaged to fit into a two-hour timeslot.

Each member of Speed?s broadcast team brings many years of experience in motorsport and Formula 1 to the table, with each taking a different role in the coverage. Varsha serves as lead commentator, ex-F1 driver Hobbs offers insight on sporting decisions and strategy, while Matchett provides technical analysis and feedback. Windsor, in his role as pit lane reporter, is well known for his pre-race walks on the grid. The station carries live broadcasts of Friday afternoon practice, qualifying, and the race, with a pre-race show and full broadcasts of GP2 races also presented to the fans.

Several of the broadcasters also hold other commentary positions with the network, the best know of which may be Varsha?s twice-annual commentary during the Barrett-Jackson collector car auctions. Windsor also has an extensive journalist career of his own, with an extensive amount of work for F1 Racing magazine, in addition to his start up work with the USGPE project.

Problems

While the Speed crew have plenty of F1 experience and their broadcasts are well-received by many, several issues are set to bring the station?s status as F1 broadcast rights holder in the United States into the spotlight. How the station and parent company Fox handle them could determine how Formula 1 is received in America for many years to come.

The first is the issue of renewing the network?s contract with Formula 1 Management for the rights to broadcast the sport in the United States. According to various unofficial reports, the network?s three-year deal for broadcast rights is set to expire following the 2009 season, and as of this writing, no mention of a renewal has been made public. While a contract between the network and FOM may already be in place, no public word of such a deal seems to have come up.

It may seem natural for Bernie Ecclestone to agree to a quick extension, but the issue of F1 broadcasting in America has been a key point of discussion for many years, and the wish by FOTA and FOM alike to expand the American F1 TV market may prevent an easy renewal for Speed. The network is not carried on all mainstream cable and satellite providers, with some outlets making it part of special sports network packages that subscribers must pay extra to access. F1 team bosses- both before and after the advent of FOTA – have been critical of this lack of access, and have often stressed a review of how the sport is broadcast in America.

Second, and perhaps less pressing, is the possible loss of Peter Windsor as pit lane reporter after his USF1/USGPE venture hits the grid in 2010. While he certainly has his detractors, Windsor?s years in the sport make him a familiar face to many on the grid, and he often gets pre-race interviews with a slew of F1 drivers and VIPs. While he has said that he would like to be involved in some capacity with Speed in the future, it remains to be seen if his new duties as sporting director for his team would allow for his normal role to continue unabated.

If Ecclestone and FOM wanted to look elsewhere, it remains to be seen what options are available for the American market. A simple idea is to buy network TV time and pump in a foreign feed, such as the BBC broadcasts. While die hard fans may love the concept, it would perhaps be a risky move to have a completely foreign operation as the bedrock of F1 publicity in the United States. Other networks, such as American sports broadcast king ESPN, could also be courted for the role. But assembling a quality broadcast team and operation would be a challenge, and the risk remains that a new network would badly mishandle the product in a damaging fashion, such as assembling a poor quality broadcast team.

No matter who broadcasts F1 in America, Ecclestone?s recent pattern of commercial preferences and decisions have not made life easier for any broadcast company in America or, indeed, the entire Western Hemisphere. The recent late start times in Asia have led to live races being shown in the 2-5am range in terms of start times in America, and even European races often roll off while America is just rolling out of bed on Sunday morning. With only one race in either North or South America, showing live feed at prime viewing times is difficult. While tape-delayed broadcasts are an option and can bring greater ratings and exposure, they run the risk of further alienating existing fans.

The future

For me, the Speed broadcasts are both informative and entertaining, and provide quality coverage that is often not matched by broadcasters in some of my other favourite sports. I believe each member of the broadcast team knows his subject, and the group seems to get along well as a whole. See here for an example of Steve Matchett in action.

I also enjoy Windsor?s pre-race grid walks, as he often snags some of the biggest names in the business – he twice pressed Bernie Ecclestone on the subject of a future United States Grand Prix last season, which was a welcome sight. I believe Ecclestone and FOM would be wise to stick with Speed, with perhaps some specifics for more exposure, such as allowing more races to be broadcast on FOX at certain points in the season.

But for as much as I enjoy Speed, I realise that some of my fellow fans don?t share my view. Many have experienced F1 broadcasts in other countries, and would like to see standards and habits used by other networks adopted by Speed.

No matter what you think of the current deal, the future of F1 in America is becoming a hot topic, and broadcast rights are just part of the package. While Fox and Speed- whose studios are very close to the USF1 home base- will be pushing for a renewal, we all know that things can take some crazy turns when Bernie is in charge.

Do you watch F1 in America on Speed? What do you think of their coverage? Leave a comment below.

If you watch F1 on ESPN Star Sports in Asia check out this post by F1 Wolf for his thoughts on their coverage.

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127 comments on What do US F1 fans think of Speed?

  1. Viktor Nedelchev said on 16th April 2009, 0:32

    I think SPEED as one of the worst channels to watch F1 or anything else. The constant commercial “breaks” during practice, qualifying or the actual race are driving insane! Every 5-7min there is a commercial break. They even cut the coverage during moments of overtaking, crash, or some other exciting moments.

    During the last 9min of the 2009 Australian GP, Bob Varsha actually said, and he was surprised by it, that there will be “no commercial breaks for the rest of the race”(and that is before the finish line is crossed). I’m so angry at SPEED because of this that I just don’t watch them anymore, instead, I just find an online broadcast.

    The other thing is that the three commentators are no commentators. Compared to the BBC coverage with Brundle, SPEED’s team is just there to “entertain” us. I’m not saying that they are incompetent, but they are just past their time in commentating F1.

    I hope SPEED changes its policy on commercial “breaks” and let us watch F1 properly.

    I can’t stand them!

    Thank you BBC!:)

    • If you notice, their commercials during the races are not even paid commericals. They are promotions for other shows on the channel. I think throughout the broadcast, there was only one or two legitimate commericals during the broadcast. Just pathetic on Speed’ part.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 16th April 2009, 8:39

      It drives me insane when Eurosport do the same thing – interrupting live coverage (GP2, usually) for ‘house adverts’. If you can’t even sell proper advertising in your ad breaks, why compromise the quality of your coverage by leaving the breaks in? Madness.

    • LovesF1 said on 6th May 2009, 19:45

      Gotta agree with Viktor — not that I hate the Speed-TV team, but they are past it. With the pre-Senna era war stories and the British jingoism, it comes across as a bit of an old boys club. Windsor’s pre-race walks are often embarrassing since people just ignore him, whereas Brundle — a still respected driver — muscles right in and gets the interview. Windsor is just too busy being polite and not offending anyone. Now that we in Canada get a choice between coverage with the BBC commentary or coverage on Speed-TV, we always watch the pre-race on Speed, then switch to Brundle and Co. as soon as their coverage starts up. Brundle is the best F1 commentator, in English at least, around at the moment.

  2. Kieran said on 16th April 2009, 0:40

    Being in Canada, we have access to SPEED as well as the BBC broadcast.
    What I find I end up doing is watching SPEED for qualifying and pre-race, but I find I tolerate the BBC commentary better during the actual race. I don’t know why but that’s my preference.

    • Andrew said on 16th April 2009, 4:49

      Observing the past years when Martin B was ITV. As a team Speed rocks.
      As entity Martin is awsome but his mates mmmmmm…
      I enjoy Speed neutral comentary, and honest FIA crittical position.
      But then again, in Canada I can view both and download others.

  3. sultryBOB said on 16th April 2009, 0:45

    as an american i have never seen a sporting event without commercial breaks so untill now the breaks never got me mad but now that i now things can be done without the breaks i feel kind of cheated

    how does the bbc pay for there programing

    • f1ukjimmy said on 16th April 2009, 5:33

      the bbc pays for its programming via a ‘tv license fee’.
      every house in the uk has to pay a yearly fee of about £150 to have a tv. The bbc takes that money and produces programming for 9 television channels (2 terrestrial, 7 digital) and 10 national radio stations and 49 local radio stations. All of which contain no advertising whatsoever.

    • Jonatas said on 16th April 2009, 14:05

      The BBC is a government run channel and gets its money from the TV tax. From my understanding, households pay a tax for every tv set they have.

    • we all do, tax payers pay for it. :)

  4. MarkW said on 16th April 2009, 1:05

    Sadly, there is no better alternative than SPEED here in the US. I prefer the BBC broadcast by a mile. I travel overseas regularly and almost always find foreign broadcasts better, even if I can’t understand the language. I always feel as if it is GroundHog Day on SPEED, with Matchet and his extraordinarily predictable comments: “Get on it Boys!, If your going to do it, do it now” If I had a dime for every time I heard that, I’d have a few hundred bucks. I miss Murray Walker.

  5. IllinoisBob said on 16th April 2009, 1:07

    Good article. I agree with most all of it. Speed does an excellent job with the F1 races. Sure, they are not perfect, but the question should be “as compared to what?” Speed does a much better job than either ABC or (now) Versus does with the Indy Racing League, both of which sound like extended informercials for the IRL. Also, Matchett’s and Hobbs’s expert commentary is much more insightful than what passes for such in other U.S. sports telecasts: “Gee, Jim, with the Lions down by 17 points, they need to score more points.”

    As has been pointed out in the other comments, Speed runs far too many commercials and sucks some of the enjoyment out of the race. But, I can’t hold the guys and gals who make the production responsible for the decisions of their evil corporate overlords. Overall, the production is great, and I hope it stays with Speed. Also, jinyourhead is absolutely right that F1 will get lost in the shuffle if it moves to any other U.S. network. We won’t get practice, qualifying, or any other F1 content other than a tape-delayed race.

    And, to echo what ExPatBrit said, this is a great site. I also found it at the end of last year and read it regularly. Congratulations on all of your success, Keith. It is well deserved.

  6. F1Yankee said on 16th April 2009, 1:07

    let’s not forget, the legendary sam posey is still able to write and narrate the intro to every speed/fox f1 race.

    i get speed sd here, and picture quality for the PAL-NTSC conversion is terrible. i do get fox hd, and the races looked very good on it – particularly monaco (not FOM produced).

    i like the present crew, even if it will become a trio. what comes up lame is the fact they’re states-side, watching tv along with me. it feels very disconnected – i want to be immersed in the event i’m watching.

    the pre-produced pieces are pretty good, but too brief. the supplemental material on the website is good, but the site itself kinda stinks.

    the play-by-play and color commentary is comparable to martin brundle – very knowledgable, enthusiastic and funny, but a bit less attitude. after all, it’s only 1/3 david hobbs :D

    maybe the biggest gripe i have against speed is it feels dumbed-down, just like itv/bbc. i appreciate the fact that f1 is complicated (to say the very least) and they are trying to present it in a way pleasing, or at least tolerable, to the casual viewer, but…
    nobody watching live at 4am is new to f1!
    i don’t need to be told what a !@#$% diffuser/carbon brakes/whatever is for the eleventy thousandth time!

    i’d like to see speed keep the f1 rights, mostly because of the crew. i’d also like to see rupert spend a few bucks to put them on location.

  7. Steve_P said on 16th April 2009, 1:37

    I usually watch the SPEED broadcasts. My biggest gripe about SPEED as a network is that they do not show nearly enough road course racing and it does seem like there are an excessive amount of commercials during the F1 broadcasts. I like the commentary, but I think the pre-race show could be a lot better. Using the miracle of the internet and a torrent site, I have been able to watch the BBC broadcasts. The pre-race show on the BBC is pretty extensive and it just gets me a lot more excited for the race. Just as F1Yankee said, the SPEED guys are not live at the track. The pre-race show on SPEED really suffers as a result of this. Also, I watched the ITV coverage for half of last year and started watching only SPEED because I just not take the constant Lewis cheerleading. I’m American and of course I will be cheering for USF1, but I hope SPEED doesn’t treat the team like ITV treated Lewis in ’08.

  8. J. Singh said on 16th April 2009, 1:40

    I think until F1 is pushed by ESPN and Fox Sports, but more the former, it will be difficult for F1 to grab a foot hold in America. I love watching the races every two weeks but a lot of my friends, who are very knowledgeable on sports, dismiss it out right because they consider all racing to be similar to Nascar, which we are simply not interested in.

    ESPN, when they own the rights to something, hype it like no other company. They use their power over TV, Radio, Website, and Magazine to make America care about things. I know they currently have a deal in place with Indy/Kart, but I believe Americans would enjoy F1. We enjoy “first class” leagues in Basketball and Baseball, and getting first class racing pushed by ESPN my succeed.

  9. Bosco said on 16th April 2009, 1:44

    Speed does a good job and its great to have the qualifiers and training sessions live. I have a bit of a problem with their very obvious bias for British drivers, particularly Lewis Hamilton. Their treatment of Alonso the year he was in Mcclaren was embarrassing. I think it would be more profesional to tone their preference down, get the facts right and stick to them without prejudice.

    • Gman said on 16th April 2009, 2:04

      Good point, but I have never really picked up on the British drivers preference. I was not watching in 2007, but last year I diden’t see any emphasis towards Hamilton or others. Indeed, after the epic finish in Brazil, David Hobbs was not talking about Hamilton, or Massa, but Vettel and his very bright future in F1.

  10. ExPatBrit said on 16th April 2009, 2:01

    The trouble with F1 being pushed by ESPN or Fox Sports is that to be more mainstream it will be dumbed down.

    I use to watch it on ESPN or ABC ten to fifteen years ago and the inane commentary would get on your nerves.

    Things like “well bob, the motors for these cars are in back just like that Beetle you had in college!”

    Or pointing to the lack of tread on the tires. Very different from your chevy.

    I will stick with Speed and hope the internet evolves enough that I can watch in HD on a 60inch big screen in real time.

  11. Gman said on 16th April 2009, 2:10

    First, my thanks to everyone who has read and/or commented on this. As I always say, it is absolutely amazing to see people from around the world comment on something I write :)

    I agree with many of you that the SPEED coverage is good- I did not realize that some of you, living in places where F1 is pretty big, don’t get practice, qualifying or the GP2 races.

    I suppose that the USGPE team will get a good bit of coverage on SPEED, as the factory and HQ will be in the same city as SPEED’s studios. But I don’t think it will be biased in any way- hopefully the team can fight enough to merit some mention on results alone.

    Happy viewing everyone!

  12. Brendan said on 16th April 2009, 2:41

    I’ll leave my (positive) views on Speed to another post. But first, thoughts about what network F1 should be on in the US.

    First, F1 in its current image (no American drivers or races) will never gain a bigger following in the U.S. if it stays on Speed. It simply gets very, very little publicity on other TV channels or in print. On a Sunday night, SportsCenter on ESPN might show a minute or two of highlights from a race, but they really don’t tell any of the story. Compare this to the daily half-hour of NASCAR news that ESPN shows. As for print, F1 gets a short blurb in most sports pages every weekend, excepting the occasional longer piece on Lewis Hamilton (in the last year, in both the NY and LA Times).

    The current TV contract serves the devoted fan pretty well, but does nothing to bring in new viewers. It’s nice that FOX shows its 4 races a year on national TV, but they do *zero* advertising for these races. I’ve never even seen an ad during the previous day’s baseball coverage. Because of this, you have to be flipping channels at 10AM in the middle of June/July to randomly happen across an F1 race. It doesn’t help that the FOX telecasts have a lot of ads–to me, it seems like more than Speed usually shows.

    So, some possibilities for the next time FOM negotiates the TV contract:
    * The idea of FOM buying network TV time and doing its own broadcast is interesting, but I can’t see it happening. Mostly because FOM doesn’t care enough, but also because there isn’t much Sunday time to spare on the big networks. No single network out of ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX could carve out a 2-hour chunk every Sunday from April to November. For a start, FOX, NBC, and ABC all take different parts of the NASCAR season. And CBS has NFL, tennis, and golf obligations.

    Now, the current NASCAR TV deal is up for renewal soon, and NASCAR is far less popular than it was the last time they made a TV deal. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of the current networks dropped out, and NASCAR ends up relegated to ABC/ESPN. This could leave FOX with Sundays free from April to the NFL season in mid-September.

    * A different cable channel picking up F1. I could see this happening–Versus (a channel known for cycling, hockey, and fishing/myriad outdoors shows) just started their new TV deal for IndyCar. They seem committed to doing a good job on the broadcast, which is in stark contrast to ESPN/ABC, who did a largely crummy job. I’m not sure that Versus could take on both IRL and F1 though, and there are no other (non-FOX) sports networks that I could see doing it. ESPN would be able to promote the hell out of F1, but they didn’t do it for IndyCar.

    * Or, just keep the same contract going. Yeah, we have complaints, but they are relatively minor compared to other countries. The commentary team is good, we get to see Friday practice, qualifying, and the race live, there’s widescreen, and a few races get national broadcasts. Seeing as how Bernie clearly doesn’t care about the American market, we could be doing so much worse.

    • I really hope Versus doesn’t pick up F1. Did you see the ratings for the first IndyCar race? Something like 233,000 viewers! That is absolutely horrible. Certainly a large part of the terrible ratings is the limited availability of Versus, but those are disasterous numbers any possible way you look at it.

  13. As much as I dislike the way SPEED and FOX are run the coverage of F1 is excellent. Very good production and the commentary team is very knowledgeable. I havent yet watched the new BBC coverage but I preferred SPEED over last years ITV.

    I think the best way to increase exposure without alienating fans would be to keep the team together with live broadcasts on SPEED and tape delayed broadcasts on FOX. Only the hardcore fans watch races live and they all have SPEED anyways. I would be worried about bringing in other commentators especially from their NASCAR broadcasts. NBC covered one ALMS race last year and it was probably about the worst commentary I have ever heard. They had their NASCAR team do it and they didnt know a thing about sports cars or racing strategy.

  14. kingKUPA said on 16th April 2009, 2:50

    as a very new f1 fan i think that the speed covrage is good. i played american football for a big school and after stoping i feel in love with f1. some times you dont think about how complicated f1 is. i have loved racing but never followed till now and speed did a great job of giving a new unknowing fan a way to understand why a race finish takes a week to sort out

  15. Well you can say a lot about Speed’s coverage — I was watching them during the Indy debacle, and I wanted to strangle Hobbes for suggesting that the drivers who had withdrawn be stripped of all their points, as if his entertainment was more important than (what was apparently) a safety issue — but the one thing I miss in their coverage is since there are no US drivers, we don’t have to listen to how bloody wonderful Lewis Hamilton (sorry, typo there, I meant Jenson Button) is.

    ITV, and BBC before and since, indulge in unabashed homerism that really detracts from the coverage.

    Just cover the event. Don’t play favorites.

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