For the first time ever, at the beginning of this Formula One season, I found myself feeling something other than delight. Yes, there is still half a season standing between me and it, but it is there nevertheless, staring me in the face undeniably. I refer to the imminent loss of free-to-air TV coverage in the UK, which threatens to leave me without regular access from 2019. Just like running water, it has always been something I have taken for granted during every race weekend. I could find solace in knowing that I would have a constant, eight-month stream of race action to make everything better in my life. It would be uninterrupted (apart from the ad breaks on ITV and Channel 4), and as far as I was concerned then, things were going to stay that way. Unfortunately, however, this is no longer the case – one of Bernie Ecclestone’s last acts as F1’s leading man before being removed by Liberty Media was to close an exclusive deal with Sky, allowing them to continue showing every lap live from next year onwards.
That makes 2018 the last season for Channel 4’s coverage. As I write, no replacement channel has been announced, and this prolonged silence is making the prospect of not seeing next year’s races even worse. At university I may end up with a TV licence, but I won’t be able to afford a costly Sky Sports package. This causes me to be infuriated even more by the deal, since I have put at least 15 years of time and enthusiasm into the sport. I have never willingly missed a race in that time. I have invested in race tickets, video games and merchandise, and this is how I am repaid – by being deprived of my main link to F1. Yes, there is excellent radio coverage provided by the BBC, but F1 is a visual sport – and listening to the lights go out on the grid, or a collision between two title protagonists, doesn’t have quite the same impact as it would on screen.
Since taking the helm in early 2017, Liberty Media have impressed many by keeping the humble fan at the centre of attention. After their early efforts, they are yet to truly put a foot wrong, but their work is far from over. They are compensating for the changes in TV coverage with the launch of a new online streaming service, but the live racing action it provides is not yet available in the UK. We now live in a world where it would be foolish to ignore the internet and social media in promoting F1, but I feel Liberty urgently needs to address the TV situation in order to make a long-term impact. Is it really worth focusing on an online presence if it will completely exclude those fans who cannot join it?