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Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Red Bull Racing during the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix at the Hungaroring on July 31, 2011 in Budapest. (Mark Thompson/Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Red Bull Racing during the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix at the Hungaroring on July 31, 2011 in Budapest. (Mark Thompson/Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Motorsports

Free TV ride is over for F1 fans Add to ...

Cautiously optimistic about a good deal for everyone.

With that sentiment about the recently announced pay-TV deal in the U.K., the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) chairman Martin Whitmarsh likely destroyed all the goodwill it built with the sport’s followers through its popular fan forums, one of which it staged in Montreal during Canadian Grand Prix weekend.

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Late last week, the BBC dropped a bomb on U.K. fans when it announced a deal with pay channel Sky to broadcast F1 races, essentially because the British public broadcaster could no longer afford to show the series on its own.

The agreement sees the pay channel offering live coverage of all 20 races next season, with the BBC showing just 10 grand prix live and the remaining 10 as delayed broadcasts. In today’s Internet Age, watching the race hours later and still not knowing who won and what happened is virtually impossible.

While the arrangement is expected to add $24-million annually to the sport’s revenues, the bottom line for F1 fans in the U.K. is simple: No Sky means an F1 fan in the U.K. will only see half the races live until the deal runs out in 2018. That fact had social media site Twitter abuzz with protest and sparked several online petitions against the deal, including one on the British government’s e-petition website, which would force a parliamentary debate on the subject if it gets 100,000 votes of support.

And with U.K. fans lining up against the idea – one online petition to keep F1 on free-to-air TV collected more than 30,000 signatures in less than a week (link: petitionbuzz.com/petitions/keepf1onthebbc) – and the $750 annual subscription fee to get a TV package for the privilege of watching all the races live on Sky, Whitmarsh called the Sky deal “better than expected.”

“The BBC will show every grand prix in full, half of them live and half of them deferred, so free-to-air is available to everyone,” Whitmarsh told reporters last week after a meeting with F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone to discuss the implications of the deal.

“Bernie assured me, and I asked him several times, the deferred coverage will not be highlights, it will be a full race. That, to some fans, will be very important, depending on exactly what races they are, so hopefully that means it’s a good deal for everyone.”

If Whitmarsh’s comments left any doubt that the teams are completely out of touch with F1 fans, Williams chairman Adam Parr made that fact crystal clear when he essentially encouraged them to be happy that the BBC kept half the races. The alternative, he mused, was no free-to-air races at all.

That’s cold comfort for U.K. fans who can’t afford to buy a subscription that includes Sky and will likely see their enjoyment of the sport plummet. To make matters worse, Parr essentially told fans that the teams have to get money to pay for the high costs of the sport from somewhere.

“The fundamental challenge is that F1 is a very, very expensive show: It is not two blokes with a couple of tennis rackets and a pair of plimsolls [running shoes]all of which was provided free,” he explained at last weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix after the deal was announced.

Parr went on to point out that the average F1 team spends $160-million putting on the show for the fans and those who get pleasure from their outlay should start pitching to cover some of the costs of developing the latest trick devices needed to squeeze another 1/10th of a second per lap from their cars.

“We have to balance the books, which let’s face it, not many teams in F1 are doing. And we are trying to keep the quality of the show and everything at the same time,” he insisted.

“I’d like the fans, perhaps, if they felt supportive, to be a bit more supportive of some of the things we are trying to do to reduce the cost in the sport.”

Translation for U.K. fans is that the free ride is over and they should no longer expect to watch F1 on TV without also paying a share of the costs the teams incur as they travel around the globe to race cars developed at great expense. Apparently buying tickets to races, team merchandise, and adding to the sport’s global TV numbers which determines the astronomical amount they can charge sponsors simply isn’t good enough.

Perhaps as a gesture of goodwill to the fans, Parr and his colleagues will divulge exactly where the extra revenue per team from the Sky deal was spent. For their sake, it might not be a bad idea to ensure it doesn’t go toward gassing up their private jets.

Senna opening cancelled

Canadian fans of Ayrton Senna will have to wait to see the fabulous new documentary by Asif Kapadia and written by Manish Pandey after its limited release scheduled to open on Aug. 12 in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver was cancelled. No explanation was given.

A compelling film that will captivate fans and non-fans alike, Senna follows the F1 career of the Brazilian from his entry into the world championship in 1984 to his death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

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