Sunday, 31 July 2011

Hungary Victories Under A Dark Sky Deal

Once again the rain made F1 an interesting and exciting affair this Sunday in Hungary. Back to back races are an unusual treat for F1 fans, and I watched this race straight off the back of my trip to Germany. This weekend, Sebastian Vettel was on much better form after his mechanics broke the curfew and worked through Friday night to get the car back to his liking. This work seemed to do the trick, as Seb ended up back on his usual front-row spot - much to my relief.

Now, usually if Seb isn't on the pole I'm not overly worried - drivers have their off days, this is perfectly natural. However, Germany was Sebastian's worst qualifying and race result (although by normal standards, 3rd on the grid and 4th in the race isn't exactly terrible) for a very long time which prompted immense debate about his ability. Now, I'm always one to come to the defence of drivers, and this being Vettel I am even more charged to defend his driving. Recently on Twitter I noticed a heck of a lot of Vettel hate, (largely from Hamilton fans, which is quite a surprise) and when I challenged these views I got some interesting reasoning. The main reason for the dislike of Vettel was that he apparently "didn't win on merit". This is an intriguing definition of 'merit' in my opinion - apparently merit doesn't include leading races from the front in perhaps the best car out there. People are of the opinion that when someone in the fastest car gets pole position, has the best pit stops and leads races from the front, they're simply not trying hard enough for the wins and as such they're not deserved, thus the driver isn't any good. So what we seem to have is the conflicting idea that while Vettel is getting all the wins, all the poles and having the best stops, he simply is no good and we must dislike him for not 'earning' it.

Now my take on this is that yes, while Vettel is in the best car and starts from the best position most of the time this doesn't mean he's not trying for his wins. Mark Webber has been on pole several times this season in the Red Bull sister car, yet he hasn't won a race since Hungary last year. Surely if Vettel's wins were due to the Red Bull on pole, Mark Webber would have enjoyed similar success? Another argument that Vettel's quick but not good at racing seems somewhat unfounded too. Vettel hasn't had to overtake as he's led the race from the start. In these situations it seems unfair to criticise Vettel for not overtaking. Why not criticise the second place drivers for not overtaking Vettel? At the end of it all, Vettel is world champion and is leading the 2011 world championship and so he must have some racing prowess somewhere!

Overall, I don't understand dislike of drivers at all. It's not just Vettel that people dislike - Alonso endures similar levels of dislike, however people can't criticise Alonso's driving ability. My acknowledgement that it's mostly Hamilton fans who dislike Alonso and Vettel has always struck me as odd - why should fans of a particular driver dislike other drivers? Vettel is my favourite driver, yes, but I don't go through the gloating and put-downs of other drivers unlike many Hamilton fans I've seen. Of course, fans of other drivers probably react the same way, and not all Hamilton fans react like this, but of those who do engage in this behaviour the majority are fans of Lewis. Food for thought really.

Anyway, after I'd engaged in my debates this weekend I settled down to watch the race and it certainly was a thriller! The start of the race was wet, which nobody had foreseen. Everyone started on inters, however the track was so slippery that it was hard for anyone to pull out much of a lead. I've never seen drivers slide the cars so much as the start of this race, it's definitely worth a watch. Lewis Hamilton eventually overtook Sebastian Vettel, and a dry line started to form once the pack had settled down. From there on in it looked like plain sailing for Lewis, however rain falling around turn 10 prompted him to change to intermediate tyres from the super-softs that everyone had donned. Quite a few other drivers were with Lewis on this, including Mark Webber, however it became clear that the tyres were unnecessary and staying on slicks was the better option. From there, Lewis's race went wrong. He had a spin, and in the heat of the moment span the car back round in the middle of traffic, prompting Paul Di Resta to take an off-road excursion. For doing this, Lewis took a drive through penalty - a somewhat harsh penalty many thought - meaning that not only did he have to stop to change back to slick tyres but he had to come into the pits a second time to take a penalty. This gave the lead back to Jenson Button, and ultimately he won the race with Vettel second and Alonso third.

One other event worth mentioning includes Nick Heidfeld's car essentially exploding after he came into the pits. Apparently the car had been stationary for quite some time, leading to the engine overheating and catching fire. HeidfeldVettel pitted and came across Heidfeld's stricken car in the middle of the pit lane. Luckily, Vettel managed to narrowly avoid Heidfeld's car and the race continued unabated.

Amid the action this weekend was the dark cloud of the BBC/Sky deal for next year's race coverage. A lot of fans have been upset and angry at this decision - me being among them. The deal is basically that Sky will get full coverage of every race, qualifying and practice session and BBC will get live coverage of 10 races only, with extended highlights for the rest. This means that in order to enjoy a full F1 season, fans have to pay £30.50 per month for the Sky Sports package, as well as the price of a usual Sky subscription. This is something which is unaffordable for many fans, myself included. As a result, F1 is highly likely to price out a number of its audience, as well as lose its casual viewers.

It was thought that the Concorde agreement had safeguards to prevent F1 being shown on Pay-per-view (PPV) television and remain exclusively free-to-air (FTA), and that the teams would obviously try to prevent a loss of F1's audience. Martin Whitmarsh was quoted as demanding clarification on the deal, and a number of teams stated that they hadn't been consulted which gave us hope that the deal would be quashed. However, once Bernie Ecclestone had met with teams it became clear that the teams wouldn't be fighting it due to the short-term financial gain the deal would bring. As for the Concorde agreement, well it would seem that there were either no safeguards, or that the BBC's limited coverage was enough to warrant F1 being shown on PPV television. While the fans are angry about the deal, seemingly there is little that we can do and many of us have drawn the conclusion that F1 is likely to sell off its fans in favour of buckets of cash. A lot of people involved in this deal have broken their word, another source of anger among the fans. Bernie Ecclestone for example stated that it would be suicidal for F1 to move to Sky. Clearly, a large amount of cash later and the deal is more attractive. What the sponsors think of the deal remains to be seen. In my opinion, if the audience of F1 is sufficiently decreased when F1 moves to Sky the teams may lose sponsorship money. If this is the case, it could prompt a rethink of the whole deal, and hopefully F1 would return to FTA TV.

Honestly, I'd much prefer F1 on FTA TV with adverts, rather than F1 being PPV. The BBC coverage simply isn't enough in its proposed form - 10 races isn't a season, and deferred highlights means that many of us will have to avoid the result of a race until the highlights are shown. Personally, I've never understood the point of highlights programmes without showing a race; would you want to watch only the goals in a football match? Of course not! You want to see the build up. In the case of F1, you want to see the build up to an overtake, not just the move. You want to see perfect laps which lead to a race win, not just the driver on the podium. Will the limited FTA coverage work in this case? I don't think so. So, F1 fans are stuck between being forced to pay for Sky (therefore lining the pockets of someone who many people dislike) or to watch half a season. This hardly seems fair to dedicated fans, and we can but hope that someone sees sense. For now, we'd better enjoy the rest of the season - it could be the last full season that we see for free, and I intend to love every second.