Month: March 2014

Stuck in the dark ages

AbiteboulThat the question came from a 22-year-old female journalist was surprising – after all, how many 22-year-olds get access to an F1 media pass to sit in a male-dominated press room that surely boasts the oldest average age of any major sport? – but the source of the answer to it was revealing.

It was the usual drudgery of the mandatory team principal’s press conference at Sepang on Friday afternoon, where the same questions are asked in different ways by the same journalists from one race to the next to team principals who stitch together one banal sentence after another to avoid answering them. And then Yassmin Abdel-Magied got straight to the point.

What must F1 do to appeal to a younger and broader audience, she asked? Another follow-up question from another journalist asked if the broadcasting rights restrictions on F1 were preventing the sport from expanding its youth audience.

The blank stares and uncomfortable shuffling in chairs was broken by Caterham’s Cyril Abiteboul, who at 36 is the youngest team principal in the sport, someone relatively new to the role who has lived outside the bubble that F1 people typically immerse themselves in for decades. And his answer couldn’t have made more sense.

“I think we need to find the right balance between the accessibility, exclusivity and value,” he started.

“I think that there is a belief right now that more exclusivity creates value. Maybe this was true; maybe it’s less true with new media where it’s more the distribution, and our people need to react with content that is creating value. If you look at Facebook, there is nothing exclusive in Facebook and I think that the value of the IPO of Facebook is quite historic. You may argue that there is a bubble of internet, but I think Formula One would be happy to have such a bubble.

“I think those are the sort of things that we maybe have to look at, that maybe a lack of exclusivity maybe does not mean a lack of value.”

While half of the assembled press probably went back to their desks to ask someone half their age what Facebook is, I couldn’t help but think of how poorly F1 does in pushing its pictures across different platforms compared to other sports. With working interests in a number of different sports and without the need to constantly reinforce my credentials by telling everyone exactly how many years I’ve been working on F1 and why what I was doing in 1973 matters now [1], I can think of several first-hand examples of engaging with several sports on different platforms that leaves F1 in the dark ages.

After last year’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, I found myself thinking of my next assignment at Phillip Island in Australia for MotoGP the following weekend. The two-wheel calendar had the bikes in Malaysia the same weekend that F1 was in Japan, and I was keen to watch. So it was straight to the sport’s official website, and after paying a small fee for a one-race video pass, I was watching Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo go at it in a thrilling head-to-head battle as my train sped across the Japanese countryside back to my Nagoya base and the journey to Australia. Brilliant pictures, perfect commentary, replays whenever I wanted them and all sorts besides. And it was hardly an isolated incident.

The year before, I stayed up in the wee hours at my hotel in Indianapolis to watch my beloved West Coast Eagles play a relatively ho-hum Australian Rules football game against Port Adelaide through the sport’s official website. I may have been at the home of motorsport in the US on assignment to interview Casey Stoner, but the option was there to keep tabs on something happening back home, and I took it.

Years earlier, I vividly remember listening to an ESPN podcast where then-NBA commissioner David Stern was interviewed about the almost instantaneous uploading of video highlights to, the website of basketball’s biggest and best league. His response was fascinating. The league found that when a highlight happened in a game, viewers were recording them on their phones and uploading them to YouTube as fast as the public wanted to see them or tweet about them, but the quality of what was being shown was inevitably poor. Stern’s idea was for the league to take control of the situation by posting its own videos as soon as possible, with greater say in how its highlights and all of the commercial considerations of the sport were being presented. The NBA’s YouTube channel now has almost six million subscribers, and the sport’s League Pass offering – where any game can be watched at any time on any device for a quite reasonable fee – has revolutionised the way fans interact with that sport. Something big happens? Chances are you’ll be seeing it within five minutes in pristine quality, multiple replays, great commentary, and ready to share with like-minded enthusiasts.

What does F1 do? Fans put a video on YouTube, and it gets taken down within hours. Want to see a highlights package of the latest Grand Prix? Wait several days [2] for an all-too-familiar cookie-cutter approach to the presentation of a race to eventually find its way onto the sport’s official site, music usually drowning out the action, the moment completely lost as the sport’s fans have moved on. It’s not good enough for any audience, especially a younger and technology-savvy one. Yes, the presentation of the highlights always looks great, but why does it take so long? It smacks of a sport that’s losing relevance with its audience. That notion doesn’t seem up for debate – what other sport would change the results of its opening race of the most highly-anticipated season in years five hours after it finished as was the case with Daniel Ricciardo’s belated exclusion from the Australian Grand Prix a fortnight ago? – but what’s of greater importance is what those inside the sport are willing to do about it. As the press room gets older and more detached from the future generation of F1 consumers [3] and what they want, and as so many of those on the inside in the sport live in their cocooned existences, turn left on airplanes and count their money as the circus shuffles from place to place, a young, tech-literate, hungry-for-more audience is left underwhelmed, which shouldn’t be the case given how much the sport has to offer.

Marussia’s Graeme Lowdon was also in the Sepang team principal’s presser, and while he’s some 13 years older than Abiteboul, he too made more sense than most.

“What we don’t want is an audience for Formula One that is big but aging,” he said.

“We want to capture young people. We operate in a sport that’s incredibly rich with data, and youngsters today, they interact. They enjoy interacting in lots of different ways. And so we have so many assets at our disposal as a sport. Not just in terms of video pictures, but in terms of data and information and comments and commentary.

“I think if we get the recipe right, there’s an enormous opportunity to grow the fan base exponentially. And that can only be good for the sport in the long run. So … it’s a huge opportunity, and hopefully an opportunity that the sport will take.”

I’m too grey to be considered a “youngster” these days, but I hope he’s right. Other sports have shown the way and have evolved to ever-changing markets and the wishes of the fans. Time will tell if F1 wants to – or feels it needs to – do the same.

—– —— — —

[1] No, I wasn’t hanging out with Jackie Stewart – I’d only just been born. But even if my memories of 1973 were vivid, I wouldn’t feel the need to continually recount them. Nobody cares.

[2] Or well over a week, as was the case for the dramatic 2012 season-finale in Brazil. How is that even possible?

[3] I have enormous respect for so many of my colleagues in the F1 press room that I come across on my travels, and some of them continue to set the standard in news-breaking, feature writing and observational content. Across any sport. And then there are some that are playing out time as they move further and further away from their last relevant moment. And they know who they are.


The Inside Line #48: Starting from scratch and second chances

TILI Logo Print

Things change very quickly in Formula One. To wit: last year, Red Bull Racing had such an advantage in Malaysia that it could issue radio instructions to its two drivers deciding who should win the race given they were running 1-2 and under no real threat. Other from within the same team, as Mark Webber was later to discover. But that’s beside the point.

Twelve months later, Red Bull arrive in Kuala Lumpur with precisely zero points to show from the year’s first race in Australia, have Renault engines that are still the least reliable and weakest on the grid (Daniel Ricciardo was over 20km/h slower than the pursuing Kevin Magnussen in the latter stages of the season-opener – imagine how much slower he would have been if Red Bull had been running a legal amount of fuel? [1]), and have an appeal against Ricciardo’s exclusion in Melbourne hanging over their heads until April 14 [2]. Hardly the ideal preparation for a race that needs to be the first step in a comeback against Mercedes, who clearly look to have the strongest package this early in the season.

When you consider that Nico Rosberg built an early lead that was wiped out by the safety car in Australia, then scooted away to win by 24 seconds without really hustling the W05 late in the race, and you get an idea of what Red Bull and the rest are up against.

A comprehensive preview of the Malaysian GP is the headline act on this week’s instalment of ‘The Inside Line’, and while Episode 48 looks at Red Bull’s past at this particular venue, we also profile a man who still holds hopes of being part of the team’s future, Jean-Eric Vergne [3].

It was interesting for the Frenchman to admit after former teammate Ricciardo got the call-up to Red Bull that he’d been mentally affected by the Australian’s pace in the big moments (i.e. qualifying) in their two seasons together at Toro Rosso; that level of candour from an F1 driver in this day and age is as rare as a Renault engine lasting a race distance. Somewhat lost in the wash at Albert Park was that Vergne finished eighth for his first points in 13 races, and Ricciardo’s superb debut for a genuine front-running team reflects well on Vergne too – while his qualifying record compared to the Australian made for horrific viewing, he was usually a match for Ricciardo in races, scoring just one fewer point across 39 Grands Prix together.

It’s hard to imagine how Vergne will ever get his backside in a Red Bull, but stranger things have happened – like when a Red Bull driver so brazenly defied a team edict and got away with it scot-free this time 12 months ago. Actually, perhaps we should have seen that last part coming …

You can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm AEDT on Wednesday March 26, and again (if you’re so inclined) on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 9.30pm AEDT Thursday March 27.


[1] OK, so that was a cheap shot. Call it payback for having to write a bunch of words for multiple outlets that night and then being up until 4am hurriedly re-doing them after Ricciardo’s exclusion. The glamorous life of an F1 journo …

[2] Could this be stretched out any longer? Do we really need this to be dragged out for another three weeks? I guess for a sport that alters a result five hours after the chequered flag has dropped, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

[3] ‘JEV’ does a mean Australian accent, which always sounds funny from someone who often wears a very French scarf when he’s not in the car. We have a mutual Australian friend, so perhaps she’s helping him out, or something.

Catching up with Christian

MIN 50 - HornerFor a team that has won 47 Grands Prix in the past five Formula One seasons, including four drivers’ and constructors’ championships in succession, Red Bull Racing started the 2014 F1 season very much on the back foot in Australia last weekend.

The enormous regulation change between seasons, which saw the 2.4-litre V8 engines that have powered the sport for the past eight years replaced by 1.6-litre V6 turbos with significantly greater energy recovery capabilities than their predecessors, caught Red Bull out badly in pre-season testing, with world champion Sebastian Vettel and newcomer Daniel Ricciardo barely able to complete any running of note across 12 days in Jerez and Bahrain. With Renault scrabbling to make its temperamental engine more reliable and Red Bull searching frantically to find ways to curb the RB10’s chronic overheating issues, it wasn’t the smooth lead-in to the season we’re so accustomed to seeing from the all-conquering team from Milton Keynes.

While Vettel was an early retirement in Australia with engine problems that brought an end to his nine-race winning streak, Ricciardo performed brilliantly under pressure at home to finish a career-best second, but his efforts would count for nought after the Australian was disqualified for a breach of the fuel flow regulations.

Team principal Christian Horner could have been excused for growing more than a few grey hairs in response to Red Bull’s stuttering start, but he remains confident that the combination of Vettel’s brilliance, the design wizardry of chief technical officer Adrian Newey and the best-resourced team in the paddock can find its way out of an unexpected early-season mess.

At the announcement of the extension of Red Bull Racing’s partnership with Casio, I spoke to Christian ahead of the Australian Grand Prix last weekend about his new driver line-up, his style as a leader of a 620-strong workforce, and whether talk of a cost cap in F1 from next year is little more than paying lip-service to the age-old problem of Formula One teams spending what they earn in the relentless quest for success.

Tell us about your style as a leader, as a manager. Have you had mentors or people you’ve looked up to as your career has progressed?
CH: It’s a pretty individual style, I think. I tend to empower people and try to employ the right people to do the job – I don’t tell them how to do their job. I give them targets and goals of what we’re aiming to achieve and what our expectations are, and then support them. My function is and has always been to get the right people in the right positions performing as one team. There were always people I admired in Grand Prix racing, whether that’s Frank Williams, or Ron Dennis, or Bernie (Ecclestone). There’s always people that you look at and that you learn from, and I’ve learned a lot from certainly Bernie over the last few years.

What do you make of the new sound produced by the V6 turbos this year?
CH: Part of the DNA of Formula One is the sound, that spine-tingling sensation when you first hear a Grand Prix car. Hopefully the V6 will still provide that. It’s a different noise to the V8, but it’s still a great sound.

And what of the new regulations generally?
CH: We mustn’t forget that it’s still a sport. It’s man and machine at the limit, and we mustn’t take away from that. These new regulations are very interesting, but it still needs to be a sprint race, not an economy race. You can’t judge it on the sample of one event, it’s a question on judging at as a season. Let’s see how things pan out.

What about the expense of such a big regulation change at a time where a cost cap is being mooted for next year – aren’t they in complete opposition to one another?
CH: They’re in conflict with each other because on one hand the regulations are the things that drive the cost, and it’s down to a team to decide how much money it spends or has available to it. The biggest cost-driver is through the regulations, and of course a big regulation change like we’ve had this year inflicts a significant amount of cost. I’ve always been sceptical as to how you police what a company spends and how you control that through the different corporate structures of the different companies. Of course, everybody wants to reduce costs in Formula One – I think every team would agree that. What they’re disagreeing on is how to achieve that. For me, if you address the regulations, then the cost control takes care of itself. Otherwise, as is the nature of Formula One, people will look to find ways around whatever cost control rules there are. Fundamentally, the best thing to address from my perspective is to go to the root cause of the problem and address it bottom-up rather than top-down.

How do you address going into the season so far behind compared to recent years?
CH: We go into this season as the underdog, which is remarkable considering the success we’ve enjoyed over the last four or five years, and that we’d won every race since July last year (before the Australian Grand Prix). But it is what it is. We have a great team, we have great strength in depth and we’ll be working hard to get ourselves back into the fight. Both drivers are working very well together. It’s great to have Daniel (Ricciardo) in the team – he’s full of enthusiasm and you can see he’s really relishing the challenge ahead. Of course he’s got a massive challenge being teammate to Sebastian (Vettel), but he seems to be up for that challenge and I’m sure he’ll cope with it very well.

Is it a case of Sebastian needing a mental reset after being in such a dominant position last year? What have you seen in his attitude and approach as he tries to help the team resolve its issues?
CH: He’s pushing as hard as he can and to do the best job he can for the team. We’ve been in this position before, in 2012, where we had a regulation change that affected the performance of our car and we had to fight our way back into the championship. Sebastian grabbed the points where he could in those early races.

Are you happy with the way the relationship is developing with your two drivers?
CH: Very much so. They’re getting on very well and working closely together, and it’s a very healthy relationship. Daniel knows the team pretty well from what he’s done with the team previously, and he sees it as a great opportunity.


Australian GP review: Rosberg’s walk in the park


As one of Formula One’s most intelligent drivers, Nico Rosberg has an affinity with languages and numbers, but he clearly has a soft spot for history, too. In winning the 30th world championship F1 race held in Australia last weekend in Melbourne, Rosberg emulated the feat of his famous father Keke, who won the inaugural race Down Under in Adelaide in 1985. And he did so with a spectacular start that would have made his father, one of the most robust and exciting drivers of the 80s, immensely proud.

Mercedes was predicted to be the class of the field as the new-look Formula One came to Melbourne, commencing a season where reliability looked to be as important as speed after racking up plenty of pre-season mileage across 12 days of pre-season testing in Spain and Bahrain. And with so much unknown about how the new season would play out, Rosberg’s dominant display showed the one aspect of the new V6 turbo era that we can be certain about is that the Silver Arrows look to be shooting their way to the very top.

After qualifying third in a Melbourne downpour that affected qualifying for the second consecutive year in Australia, Rosberg made his intentions clear lining up behind teammate and pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton on the grid, angling his car slightly to the right to make a beeline for the centre of the circuit as soon as the lights went out. Even with that suggestion of intent, his jack-rabbit start would have been beyond his wildest dreams, scything past Hamilton and fellow front-row starter Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Racing) to be easily in the lead before the braking point into the first turn, a 289-yard dash that effectively sealed the race.

Read more:

The Inside Line #47: Off and racing

TILI Logo PrintFormula One got some of what was expected – Mercedes domination – and plenty of things that weren’t as the lights went out on the season start in Melbourne last weekend. That one Mercedes (Lewis Hamilton) took pole and the other (Nico Rosberg) romped to a comfortable win wasn’t an enormous surprise given the way pre-season testing finished, but elsewhere, there were plenty of unexpected stories at Albert Park.

Who imagined Daniel Ricciardo would out-qualify four-time world champion teammate Sebastian Vettel on his debut for Red Bull Racing? As Vettel’s chances of a 10th consecutive win disappeared quickly on Sunday afternoon with engine problems, Ricciardo recovered from a poor start from the front row, kept his composure and sent the local fans wild with a second-place result, marking the first time an Australian had finished on the podium in 30 world championship Grands Prix Down Under. It almost sounded too good to be true, and in the end it was, Ricciardo excluded from the results after a breach of the fuel flow regulations on the RB10. While the outcome of Red Bull’s appeal into the decision remains unknown, we can say for certain that Ricciardo will be back on the rostrum, and soon. It seems that Dan really is the new man for Australian audiences. [1]

A comprehensive review of the opening race of the year features on Episode 47 of ‘The Inside Line’, where we detail all of the week-long build up [2], who left Melbourne with a smile on their face, and who has plenty of work to do ahead of round two in Malaysia. Lotus qualify for the latter category, as last year’s Albert Park winners could barely make their cars reliable enough to stay on track last weekend. And Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg belongs in the former camp, finally completing his first lap in Australia in four Grands Prix and breaking through for points. He’s probably quite pleased Lotus brushed him for Pastor Maldonado’s millions too. [3]

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm AEDT on Wednesday March 19. There’s also an encore on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 9.30pm AEDT Thursday March 20.


[1] Surprised Mark Webber’s autobiography hasn’t hit the shelves yet – not sure what the publishers are doing. The past tends to get forgotten quickly in F1; to quote Webber himself, “people move on, mate”. The trick to squeezing an orange is to realise when it’s about to run out of juice and move onto the next one. Assuming there is a next one, which might explain a few things.

[2] F1 drivers playing soccer. F1 drivers with AFL players (groan). But no F1 drivers with koalas/kangaroos or on trams, sadly.

[3] Maldonado’s comment that his move to Lotus was “the best decision ever” is getting funnier by the day. For everyone else, mind you.

Paper talk

TheAge_tearouts2014As the dust settles on the opening race of the Formula One season in Melbourne, it was great to again cover the event for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers (among other outlets) from Albert Park.

Thanks to Andrew Tate, Darrell O’Connor and Janelle Ward for their guidance and patience, and to Mark Fogarty and Michael Lynch for tolerating me tagging along (as well as sniffing out a free lunch).

Some linkage from the weekend:

Red Bull back after sputtering start

Weighty matters for Hulkenberg
Ricciardo lights up Albert Park
Ricciardo’s big moment

Podium finish bullish for Ricciardo
Daniel Ricciardo disqualified 

Pressure point: Ricciardo ready to roll

daniel-ricciardo-red-bull-racing-silverstoneAlbert Park, Sunday, 5pm. It’s the moment Daniel Ricciardo has been awaiting ever since he was announced as Mark Webber’s successor at Red Bull Racing last year.

Lights out for the start of his first Grand Prix for a front-running team. The eyes of his home country – and the Formula One world – watching his every move. Enormous expectation. The sole Australian in a brutally-competitive global sport where just 22 drivers – the same number of participants who turn out for each of our much-feted footy teams – get to play.

While the identity of the driver who’ll spray the victor’s champagne at Albert Park on Sunday afternoon remains an unknown after a chaotic pre-season rendered the sport’s pecking order of recent years irrelevant, one thing that is for certain is that Ricciardo will take the pressure in his stride. It’s always been the West Australian’s way. His gregarious personality, ever-present smile and unflappable nature has underpinned his rise to the best team in Formula One over the past four years, and it isn’t about to change.

Ricciardo has proven time and time again that he’s built for the big moments. Pressure? That’s something found in Pirelli’s tyres.

Spain, 2009. The Jerez circuit is playing host to an end-of-year young drivers’ test, a chance for the sport’s up-and-comers to press their claims for a coveted race seat in the future. There’s much at stake, and even the most promising of drivers can blink when faced when their first chance to impress the sport’s bosses. His nerves assuaged by an out of the blue phone call from Webber, Ricciardo takes the Red Bull RB5 straight to the top of the timesheets and stays there for the three-day test, his best lap more than a second quicker than anyone else could manage. For a first outing an F1 car, it was a performance that marked the 20-year-old as a man to watch – and one that earned him the role as reserve driver at Red Bull Racing and sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso for the following season.

Abu Dhabi, 2010. The smell of champagne had gone slightly stale in the days following Sebastian Vettel’s world championship win at the Yas Marina Circuit, but the media members who stayed for the young drivers’ test the following week began to get an understanding of Ricciardo’s ability to deliver. Driving the same Red Bull Vettel had used to secure his second title the weekend prior, Ricciardo sliced 1.3 seconds off Vettel’s pole position time to again top the timesheets. It was a display that fast-tracked his ascension to an F1 race seat, which he earned midway through the following season for HRT, Red Bull loaning its young gun to the backmarker outfit to give him some immediate practical experience.

Japan, 2012. In just his 25th Formula One race, Ricciardo had edged his way up into 10th place in his Toro Rosso in the closing stages at Suzuka, one of the world’s most revered circuits for its elevation changes and sweeping turns. Within sight of the chequered flag, Ricciardo faced the most intimidating test of all, Michael Schumacher in a faster Mercedes getting ever-bigger in his side mirrors as the seven-time world champion ripped his way through the midfield. Resistance appeared futile, but lap after lap, Ricciardo held his ground, beating the German over the line by eight-tenths of a second after absorbing 15 minutes of the toughest pressure imaginable in inferior machinery. His reward was one measly world championship point, but it was a performance that enhanced his reputation. “He did not offer me one single chance,” was Schumacher’s surprised response afterwards, while Ricciardo post-race comment – “it was definitely nice to get a battle with him in the scrapbook” – told you the Australian understood the importance of what he’d just achieved.

Silverstone, June 2013. Webber had just announced to the world that he was leaving F1 at the end of the season, and in a sport that is hell-bent on moving forwards at a rapid pace, thoughts immediately turned to the future identity of Vettel’s stablemate at the most dominant team in the field. Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso teammate Jean-Eric Vergne held the upper hand in the battle between the Red Bull-backed protégés, coming to the British Grand Prix off a career-best sixth in the previous race in Canada, and ahead of Ricciardo in the championship standings. But with the stakes raised, Ricciardo delivered the knock-out punch.

A season-best fifth on the grid at Silverstone kick-started a run of five top-10 starts in the next six races in a car that had no business being that high in qualifying, and as a mentally spooked Vergne floundered in the back of the midfield pack and failed to score a single point for the rest of the year, Ricciardo was named as Webber’s replacement by September.

Albert Park, this week. Ricciardo could scarcely been busier in the lead-up to the Australian Grand Prix, a wall-to-wall schedule of media and promotional appearances in Sydney last weekend only an entrée to the attention he’s faced since he’s been in Melbourne. Time to exhale, let alone see family and friends who have come across from his hometown of Perth to wish him well, has been all but impossible, but Ricciardo has handled the demands with aplomb, signing autographs for the fans who waited patiently for him to emerge from pre-race engineering meetings late on Thursday evening long after most other drivers had left the circuit. Away from the spotlight and with no publicity, Ricciardo even found time to organise an autographed auction item for a WA-based charity, rifling through his collection of memorabilia at the family home in Perth’s northern suburbs to find something appropriate when his energies could have undoubtedly been directed elsewhere.

It says much for Ricciardo’s unflappable demeanour that he was almost disappointed that Red Bull’s well-documented pre-season testing woes lowered the team’s expectations for this weekend.

“With the testing we’ve had, we’re not as optimistic as we thought we would be. So from that respect, the pressure’s probably dropped a notch or so, not that I would wish for that,” he says.

“If the pressure’s a bit lower, I’m not necessarily happy about it. It’s absolutely awesome to have a home Grand Prix – I think any driver that has a home race is really fortunate. A lot of people wonder if it adds pressure, but it definitely motivates me.”

While Ricciardo may have to wait for his moment in the sun given Red Bull is still in recovery mode after the pre-season, his combination of talent and temperament suggests he could become just the fourth Australian to win a world championship Grand Prix. No less of an authority than Webber believes Ricciardo will “win Grands Prix this year”. If and when that happens remains uncertain, but based on his career to date, we can expect Ricciardo to deliver when the opportunity presents itself.