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. Jess said on 16th April 2009, 3:30

    If it was not for SPEED I would not know of F1. I like the coverage and the pre race. I like the extra shows ie inside grandprix and F1 debrief. This gives me more to F1 and I dont think any other channel can do it better. I dont like the races on Fox due to they only talk to the winner of the race and then cut away and we dont get anymore from the 2nd and 3rd and there is no pre race talks which I like. As for commericals well… They have to pay the bills and commericals pay them so I deal with it. I hope it stays as over the last few years I have come to enjoy F1 a lot.

  2. Raceaddict said on 16th April 2009, 3:31

    a fence-straddling American viewer.

    Think of a American CART refugee looking for a fix on TV. Tries F1. The obfuscation sometimes provided by someone too sophisticated and knowledgeable an F1 expert could easily work against nurturing the USA initiate.

    Actually, I don’t speak for myself. I myself would prefer the F1 BBC feed (can’t get it); it (the coverage) provides so much of what I consider right atmosphere. Besides I’m a Brundle fan). But consider too, am so buts I want someone to carry Euro sidecar racing again (with British commentary please). But that’s another forum…

  3. Raceaddict said on 16th April 2009, 3:33

    nuts, not buts. lol

  4. sam said on 16th April 2009, 3:46

    My main problem with Speed’s F1 coverage is Bob Varsha. This guy does not pause for breath. He talks endlessly. Bob has his little fact-sheet out and he constantly goes on and on and on about worthless trivia that has nothing to do with the race. Bob often keeps talking even when there is an important event going on on the track.

    In summary: I wish Bob wouldn’t talk quite so much. Take a breath.

  5. Texas Tony said on 16th April 2009, 3:59

    As a Brit domiciled in Canada, we have the choice of TSN using the BBC feed or Speed. Both suffer from adverts although this year TSN continue to show the action without commentary in a small split screen window whilst the adverts are playing.

    The new BBC format is great and they are certainly improving although picking up Anthony Davidson from BBC radio would be a favourable additon.

    The Speed Team of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, and Steve Matchett, with Peter Windsor doing his walks do a great job but for reasons unbeknown to me some of the advertised programs are subject to blackout…perhaps they don’t pay Bernie enough readies. I particular like the round table sessions which can be viewed on line.

    By the way I like your site alot…keep up the good work Keith.

  6. Any of you ever check out MotoGP’s internet subscription offer?

    I’ve watched many races in Europe with the subscription multicast (I think Nascar either does or tried something similar in the US). As a diehard fan, it’s great. Germany’s Premiere offering is fantastic.

    How many would be willing to pay for either a subscription TV or internet broadcast?

  7. hroundy said on 16th April 2009, 4:02

    The downside of Speed is the mentioned limited access in many markets. I would love to see F1 available without having to pay and extra fee for the sports package. Keep the same commentating team just move it to a network available on the standard package. How about Verses or get Fox to run them all. ESPN, why haven’t you started an EPSNRacing network?

    As far as time of day is concerned, I can record them as well as they can. Run them live and for the die hards may be on Speed and tape-delay for the masses on a more accessible network.

  8. John Cook said on 16th April 2009, 4:23

    I was lucky enough to see Speed TV’s coverage of a Grand Prix last year and have to say you guys over in the US are very lucky..Matchett & Co are hilarious! Plus the quality of your coverage is far, far better than anything we get in Australia

  9. I really enjoy watching Speed’s coverage. The commentators come across as very knowledgeable and honest. They realize that most of their viewers are fans already and so they don’t need to “dumb down” the commentary or feign enthusiasm. David Hobbs is unafraid to criticize the state of affairs in F1. Compare this to the commentary you get for other series like IndyCar where you get commentators who scream into the microphone and get all melodramatic and cheerleading for the series.

  10. I don’t want to knock Hobbs but there is SO much more to be had when you have a current or recently retired driver making comments. A lot of times Hobbs is very close to that “well back in my day we….” line! :o)

  11. Eastman said on 16th April 2009, 4:40

    One of those topics any F1 viewer loves to talk about: their tv team. As a relatively recent fan of F1 (2007 was my first full season) I never really witnessed the earlier versions of F1 on TV here in the states. That first year I loved the “Three Amigos” of Speed. But throughout that year I kept wanting more; more coverage, more information, more insight on strategy and tech. Instead what Speed gave me was more of was Extendz and Viagra commercials and Hobbs making engine noises.

    So I discovered pipelines and inroads into the ITV and BBC feeds. This has completely spoiled the campy Speed experience. The guys, not being trackside, miss many many stories especially during the race. The commercials come in flurries (but this does seem slightly improved through two races this year) and the infernal time-slip for the editing of quali makes following F1’s live timing useless. It’s unfair to compare the outstanding state-sponsored BBC coverage with specialty network of Speed. I usually make the comparison of a man bringing a spoon to a gunfight.

    That said the absolute worst place for F1 to wind up is ESPN. You’d still have the guys commentating while watching the world feed in Connecticut rather than trackside and I suspect there would be even more commercial interruption. Similar to the coverage of the UEFA Champions league; you have exactly two hours blocked out for the game and the commentary is piped in from offsite with world feed pictures. I also have no doubt they’d farm the practices and qualification to their new online espn360 service rather than try to cram it into the family of networks. Versus would have been the ideal channel with its collection of niche sporting programming, but with Indy cars now locked into a long deal this is extremely unlikely.

    Lots of rambling but basically… Speed is perfect for growing the new F1 fan here in the states. It’s simple, the guys play up the soap opera aspect quite regularly, and have identifiable catch phrases you can come to echo (or drink to). But once you become a fan of the world of F1 rather than just a viewer you quickly come to want much, much more from the coverage. It’s up to Bernie if he just wants eyeballs or if he wants to build on the rabid stateside fan-base.

  12. F1Yankee said on 16th April 2009, 5:16

    “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 thought this was fascinating:
    eddie jordan: (somber tone) bernie, do you think brawn gp are good for f1?
    bernie: oh yeah, they’re doing very well blah blah blah
    ej: but
    bernie: blah blah blah
    ej: (oh, i get it now. i should move on if i know what’s good for me)

  13. Steve K said on 16th April 2009, 5:30

    Sports broadcasting in America seems to get worse by the day. With College sports they tend not to be harsh on the players because they are amateurs. I can live with that, however in Pro sports they never are critical if it is warranted because they all tend to be former players or coaches looking to stay buddy buddy with the current players in coaches. They never want to burn a bridge to a future job.

    The SPEED coverage of F1 is the exception. I recall Hobbs just drilling a Ferrari in one of the first races I watched in 2007 because he couldn’t pass a Spyker way in the back and I was sold. High comedy, high entertainment and totally justified. Things always are changing but I hope this doesn’t for a long while.

  14. Paul said on 16th April 2009, 6:04

    I have written this before (in fact, I’m taking it from my comment in a recent entry on this site on “how we will be watching F1 in 2009″), so here is how I feel on Speed.

    I’m American, I have Speed. It’s a decent team that I used to like a lot more than I have recently.

    But it’s probably not as great as I once thought it was. Matchett is easily the class of the field. He’s relatively neutral and provides a unique perspective absent from most F1 broadcast teams. If you haven’t had a chance to read his books, by all means, try to do so. He has a fiery passion for the sport and its history and is easily the most accurate on the team. His fuel calculations are on target and he can frequently diagnose any problem or situation at a given time. And best of all, he keeps his trap shut when it doesn’t need to be open. Because of that last part, he is the only one who would ever potentially have a shot of being employed on a non-American F1 broadcast.

    Hobbs used to get me sometimes, but what’s impressive (or maybe not) here is that he’s actually better than Varsha. His personality makes him a babbler and sometimes a foolish one, but in reality, he gets it wrong less than Bob. Not a particularly great guy in a booth and he was totally outclassed by TV newbie/American racer Townsend Bell at the Italian GP in 2007 when Hobbs was attending to personal issues. That kid blew him out of the park. But as a whole, for someone who has been out of the sport for so long, he has a decent grasp on the sport.

    But Varsha though. For someone who really puts words together well and has a flair (and usually an honest, non-plastic flair) for TV and PR, he gets flustered much more than I once thought. He is incredibly biased, perhaps even rivaling Peter Windsor. He makes countless errors each broadcast and is the one most susceptible to hype and unfounded beliefs in the sport. And since he is obviously the #1/PBP in the booth, that’s just unacceptable. And he nearly has almost as much TV experience as Hobbs (and maybe even more if you consider outside the booth). And that’s a lot. Blowhard comes to mind.

    Windsor I give a free pass to because his purpose IS to be an opinion guy. It’s his job and always will be in his capacities…this is why he writes.

  15. As many others have mentioned, considering the popularity of the sport in this country, the coverage we get here is pretty good.

    Hobbs just has to go in my opinion. He’s constantly reminiscing about the old days which is nice but I’d much rather have the relevant and insightful commentary by a recent driver with a good way with words like a Coulthard. Why can’t they get someone a little younger as the “driver” on their team. Plus, Hobbs kills me with his purposeful mispronunciation of almost everyone’s name… Louiiseeee Hamilton? Bob Kubica when Robert’s said repeatedly he hates being called Bob? Hikey instead of Heikki? Cmon man you’re a professional just do it right.

    And Windsor’s a biased sonuva… And it would be great if there was an additional 15 minutes of post-race coverage with interviews like the BBC does.

    On another note, watching the BBC commentary for Malaysia after watching the race on SPEED, I noticed that the SPEED guys made less mistakes in that broadcast, including with the rules around the rainy race being called, than the BBC guys did. In fact I was a bit shocked at the number of mistakes the BBC’s broadcasters made during that race. I can’t remember the exact ones now though…

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