Formula 1 is back on our screens this weekend as the 2017 season kicks off in Melbourne. This is a new look F1, and not just because the cars have undergone one of their biggest regulation changes in years, moving to wider, lower slung chassis and larger, grippier tyres.
How we watch the sport is also changing, with Sky Sports to air each and every one of the year’s 20 F1 GPs live in visually superior Ultra HD.
This is more than a sign of the growing adoption of 4K TVs and breakthroughs in the ability to offer live 4K feeds too. With TV audiences dwindling in recent years and F1 being acquired by new owners, it’s a technical step forward that holds the hopes of a sport on its shoulders.
Unlikely the fateful 3D tests Sky Sports did with football and golf, however, this is a TV advancement that people are set to get on board with. More than that, it’s one that could get people back watching F1. How? Well, we asked those in the know to find out.
Why 4K Is Key To F1's Future Success
“Ultra HD is essential because the world of sport and media is changing,” former F1 driver and current Sky Sports F1 commentator, Martin Brundle told Gizmodo UK ahead of the new F1 season.
Why are 4K feeds so important? Well, with global F1 viewing figures decreasing in recent years, the technology possesses the solution to gaining the attentions of a new, younger audience, and that’s essential to keeping the sport as the pinnacle of the motoring scene.
“We’ve got to keep changing, especially as we try to engage the next generation which is the big challenge,” Brundle said. “While I want a television that’s this big and has all of this information on, one generation down from me is happy with a piece of grainy YouTube crap on their phone.”
Suggesting that the allure of 4K could draw younger audiences back to the stickier big screen, he added: “That’s what we’re all fighting, so somehow we’ve got to keep innovating and change.”
Just because Sky’s Ultra HD efforts are giving the visuals an upgrade, doesn’t mean the content itself will be radically overhauled, however.
“Formula 1 television is actually dead simple,” Brundle told us. “Pre racing you bring the fan up to speed on what happened at the last race, what happened in qualifying, what happened this morning, then you start to take them on the grid.
“During the race you put them on the pit wall and behind the wheel, and after the race we’ve got to put them in the paddock. Once you thread all that together it’s dead easy, you just have to have the style to go with it.”
There are certain elements that need to be addressed though. With 4K footage offering sharper, truer to life images, it’s been suggested it will help viewers feel more connected with what they’re watching, and broadcasters need to take advantage of this.
“You’ve got to get the fan closer to the action,” former British F1 GP winner Johnny Herbert suggested. “Not just the action on the track, but the action that’s going on in the garages and the drivers.”
His views were echoed by Geoffrey Willis, Technology Director of reigning World Champions, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport who, giving an insight to the action, added: “We are in a very difficult environment to work in. It’s very, very busy, it’s very noisy, it’s electrically very noisy, time is short and there are people and equipment all over the place.”
It’s not just visually that F1 can grip viewers with close-up insight either. Audio too can play a part with renowned F1 engineer, Pat Symonds telling us: “Just listening to the drivers talking to the teams, that’s not something you get in other sports. You can’t hear the footballers talking to each other.”
Moving Beyond 4K
4K might be a way to draw new viewers into F1 in 2017, but it’s only going to be the new, exciting tech for so long. According to Brundle, however, this is just step one of getting new viewers in to F1 and, more importantly, keeping hold of them. A step that couldn’t have come quickly enough.
“About 14 years ago I was walking past my son’s bedroom and there was loads of engine noise, pedals, steering wheel,” he explained. “I opened the door and Alex is on his seat like ‘not now, dad, I’m racing’. I asked who he was racing and he said ‘I don’t know, some guy in Denmark’.
“He’s a professional racing driver my son, and he would struggle to sit down and watch a full Grand Prix today.
“I thought back then, how are you going to get that kid in that seat having a load of fun racing some guys in Denmark to sit on a couch and watch somebody else to have fun for two hours. It’s just not going to happen. If we don’t start offering this next-generation something, we’re going to lose them.”
Ultra HD is the start of this push to adopt new audiences. Although the visually superior TV tech can help get younger audiences excited about motorsport, it’s not the only solution.
“One of the reasons I joined Sky, much to a few people’s chagrin when I left the BBC, was that I saw commitment to the future of Formula 1 that I didn’t see elsewhere,” he said. “They just keep investing in the platforms we’ve got. The multimedia, the scope, the range, everything we’ve got is improving.”
“Sports like golf are dying on their feet. They are really losing out in this battle, and sports like Formula 1 can not get complacent. Keeping up with the technology, the connectivity and the social media is mega important.”
Social media isn’t enough to win over new audiences on its own, however. The action on the track needs to continue to deliver as we all enjoy a view of the high-octane sport up to four times sharper than in past years.
“We need to never lose sight of the fact that people tune in to watch motorsport because they want to see something exciting. They want to see the cars, hear the cars,” former F1 World Champion Damon Hill said speaking with Gizmodo UK.
“It’s very disappointing if you turn up to a race and just watch cars follow each other for 70 laps. That can be very sole destroying for everyone.”
On this year’s changing regulations, he added: “The danger is that you make an artificial sport out of it if you pursue too much the entertainment route at the expense of the challenge of the sport.”
Fortunately, it would appear that the latest on track tech changes are ready to solve this, at least according to reigning F1 World Champion, Nico Rosberg, who said: “What I’m getting is a very positive vibe. That’s so important for our sport.
“There’s this excitement and the drivers are excited that these cars are so fast. That’s what F1 should be. The drivers should be warriors in there. The cars take the drivers to the very edge and you see that they’re suffering and its going to cause them to make mistakes. That’s what we’ve got at the moment.
“It’s exciting times, and not only that, but we don’t know who’s going to win. In past years, Mercedes have been so strong that it was very likely that we were going to win. This years it’s all been thrown open and you can see Ferrari being very strong.”
The first race of the new F1 season will air live on Sky Sports F1 this Sunday at 6am BST.