The 2018 Formula 1 season gets underway in Australia this weekend. And while not much has changed in terms of on-track rules, the sport’s bosses, Liberty Media, have been doing lots of tinkering elsewhere.
Now, quite enough has been written about getting rid of grid girls, so let’s not get into that here. Except to note that, in a sport as high-tech as F1, it’s amazing nobody has yet invented a better way to tell drivers where to park on the grid than a numbered wooden pole that needs to be held up manually.
Other notable but hardly revolutionary changes include a new F1 logo (my reaction: meh), and theme tune (no, it’s not The Chain). The sport even has a new ‘tagline’: Engineered Insanity.
No, me neither.
Still, shoving two unrelated words together into one largely meaningless phrase is at least evidence of the welcome attempts by Liberty Media to make the sport more accessible in the post-Bernie Ecclestone era – although most of the above equate to little more than redecorating a house you’ve just bought. At some point, Liberty Media will need to do some proper rebuilding work on the foundations.
But Liberty has made one change that could actually have a fairly substantial impact on how most people watch F1: it’s moving the start times of races.
Races – or, if we’re being picky, parade laps – will start at ten minutes past the hour, rather than on the hour. According to F1 bosses, this is because many broadcasters go on air on the hour, so the delay means “television spectators will be brought closer to the teams and the drivers and fully enjoy the spectacle offered just before the red lights go off".
I’m not sure that stacks up, since F1 is increasingly aired on pay broadcasters, with more pre-race build-up than ever. Sky, for example, begins its pre-amble 90 minutes before the start. Still, an extra ten minutes to prepare a pre-race coffee isn’t exactly a hardship.
More significantly, the start time of the European races has been pushed back a full hour, due to research that “a wider TV audience is reachable later in the afternoon.”
For British viewers, that means European races will start at 14.10, rather than 13.00. And the French GP on June 24 has been pushed back to 15.10 BST to avoid clashing with the England vs Panama World Cup match (although it does now clash with the vital Japan vs Senegal encounter).
Shuffling the start time of European races back 70 minutes might not seem all that significant – especially since they now make up fewer than half of the 21 rounds on the calendar.
But it’s quite a change for long-time F1 fans – such as myself. For more than 20 years, I’ve built entire Sunday routines around being in place for that awkward 13.00 start time. Adjusting that routine is a bit jarring.
In fact, as the F1 calendar has spread across the globe and the likes of floodlit night races have grown in popularity, it’s become hard to develop much of a routine around the start times of races.
The 21 races on the calendar this year feature nine different start times, which in the UK range from 06.10 (Australia and Japan) to 19.10 (Canada, USA and Mexico). Just three races (Azerbaijan, Singapore and Abu Dhabi) will start in the ‘traditional’ 13.00 (well, 13.10) timeslot.
Combine that with the way dates have shuffled to cram in 21 races – the traditional ‘one race every fortnight’ has long gone; this year there will even be three races on consecutive weekends – and F1 is a little bit harder to follow. Which is, at least, good news for websites that trade in ‘what time does the grand prix start?’ SEO-friendly click bait stories.
Now, I’m sure Liberty Media’s research is correct that running races later in the afternoon results in a wider audience. And I’ve long insisted that my favourite races to watch on TV are the North American ones that start at around 19.00 on a Sunday evening.
But gaining access to a wider audience only works if the audience knows when to tune in – a task made harder by having races start at so many different times of the day. Other sports – notably the American NASCAR stock car championship – have found that moving long-established start times has upset hardcore fans, without winning over many new ones.
I’m possibly over-dramatising this. I’m sure I’ll adjust. Maybe I’ll even come to enjoy having an extra hour before a race on a Sunday afternoon. But it will be stubbornly so – and that illustrates the challenge Liberty Media faces.
If Liberty wants to attract new fans to the sport then it will need to make changes – the challenges is doing so without alienating the existing fan base.
Let’s see how it goes when the Australian GP gets started on Sunday (at 06.10am BST, to save you a Google search…).