By LARRY CORNWELL
Special to The Post and Courier
The 2012 Formula One season was one of the most engaging in its long history.
This was in stark contrast to the 2011 season when Adrian Newey and his Red Bull RB7 chassis made the year a snore-fest by winning 12 of 19 races.
The 2012 season featured six Formula One world champions, which included unretired seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher and unretired Formula One world champion Kimi Räikkönen.
Unlike the 2011 season, the 2012 season sparked off in grand style with seven different drivers winning the first seven races.
The 2013 season opens in Australia this weekend to great anticipation. Formula One fans have had to wait 124 days, 15 hours, 23 minutes and 18 seconds for the start of the new season. Alright, that was an exaggeration, but I am sure many Formula One fans have been counting the days during the four month off-season.
The two most intriguing stories for the 2013 season involve team changes. Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton left McLaren (the only team he had raced for, and for whom he won the 2008 world title) and will race for the Mercedes team.
The story that has the attention of U.S. Formula One fans is the change of television broadcast teams. For the first time in 17 years, the Speed Channel no longer has the broadcast rights to Formula One. The NBC Sports Network now has the broadcast rights to air Formula One races for the next four years. That is, if malevolent dictator — excuse me, CEO of Formula One management Bernie Ecclestone — does not have a bad hair day.
Like many Formula One enthusiasts, I wondered how committed the NBC Sports Network was to the sport. Many felt that the NASCAR channel, also known as the Speed Channel, treated all other forms of racing like half-cousins three-times-removed.
The NBC Sports Network made their position clear during my interviews with NBC Sports executives and members of their Formula One broadcast crew. During a press conference, Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, and Steve Matchett conveyed how serious NBC Sports is about their coverage of Formula One.
The crew will be broadcasting live from the NBC Sports Network’s new state-of-the-art studios in Stamford, Conn,, which is ironically where Speed Vision, now Speed, was founded. The Formula One broadcast team will leave the studio and record live from Monaco; Austin, Texas; and Montreal, Canada.
NBC has three unique features that will hold the interest of Formula One fans throughout the season. F1 36 will follow Formula One pilots for in-depth driver profiles for 36 hours. F1 Extra reports will follow each race with post-race coverage. The NBC Sports website has also launched Motorsports Talk, which is a part of its Motors section.
In the U.S., NASCAR is the most popular motorsport league, with more than 16 million viewers tuning into the 2013 Daytona 500.
On a global scale, Formula One is only outpaced by the Olympic games and the World Cup, with more than 100 million fans from 200 countries tuning into every race. These numbers compare to the viewership of Super Bowl XLVI, which drew 111.3 million viewers.
“Formula One is a truly global sport and the responsibility falls on us to make this connection with new fans here in the States. The technology is astounding with Formula One cars capable of accelerating from zero to 100 miles per hour and then braking to a complete stop all within seven seconds!” says Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports.
The technology that is first seen on Formula One cars eventually filters down to road cars. Competing manufacturers like Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes Benz all design and sell cars featuring technology they pioneered on the track.
Ferrari has models like its $330,000 F12 Berlinetta with 730 horsepower, 509 pounds feet of torque and boasting a 0-60 time of 3.1 seconds. Mercedes Benz has its $300,000 SLS AMG Black Series with 622 horsepower, 468 pounds feet of torque and a 0-60 time of 3.5 seconds. And McLaren has the $240,000 alphanumeric-soup-like named MP4-12C that has 592 horsepower, 443 pounds feet of torque with a 0-60 time of 2.9 seconds.
All sports fans love rivalries and Formula One has one of the greatest, between Ferrari and McLaren. “Someone tweeted that they thought the rivalry between Ferrari and McLaren is so deep that it must have been painted on a cave wall thousands of years ago. Once someone starts watching Formula One they get hooked, because it isn’t just about the drivers, it isn’t just about the cars, it’s everything that revolves around and gravitates towards the sport,” says Steve Matchett from NBC Sports.
One of the greatest challenges facing Formula One and NBC Sports is converting new U.S. viewers. Current U.S. Formula One fans are some of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic. There is even a Formula One club in Charlotte. Yes, there is a Formula One club in the heart of NASCAR country. Bojan Held started F1Charlotte.com with the hopes of bringing Charlotte F1 fans together and attracting new ones. “Our current membership is very diverse. We have students, engineers, architects, insurance agents, business owners and even whole families that watch Formula 1 with their kids. Our members are diverse in ethnicity featuring Americans, Europeans, South and Central Americans,” said Held on F1Charlotte.com.
Nick D, an F1Charlotte.com member, says, “I was immediately hooked on the sheer excitement. Keeping track of various driver/team strategies and how it unfolds as the race wears on is pure drama.”
Most motorsports leagues feature a level of glamour, but Formula One is by far the most glamorous. Anyone that is attracted to celebrities, drama and intrigue would also like Formula One.
“People like glamour, they like money, they like fame and Formula One has it all, but painted on a global canvas,” adds David Hobbs from NBC Sports.
Like most sports fans, Formula One fans love intense debates. One of the hottest debates in Formula One surrounds three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. Some believe that chief designer Adrian Newey and his designs are the reason Vettel has won three titles. Even two-time world champion Fernando Alonso weighed in, giving much of the credit to Newey.
Unlike most motorsports leagues, Formula One teams are true manufacturers that produce designs featuring bodies, chassis, suspensions and aerodynamic methods that are all vastly different from one another. This leaves the door open for some Formula One cars to be vastly superior to their competition.
Personally, I believe Sebastian Vettel is clearly one of the best Formula One drivers of all time. However, I do not think that he would be a world champion without Newey. Vettel is good, but I feel that Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen are better drivers.
In closing, NBC is in a better position to grant the NBC Sports Network greater latitude with its coverage of Formula One than Fox gave the Speed Channel. Signs of this are already being displayed; Formula One is featured on the NBC Sports home page this week, which is unusual for a mainstream American website. This is even more impressive when one considers this is the start of NCAA Basketball March Madness.
Unlike the Speed Channel, the NBC Sports Network will utilize Will Buxton more at the tracks for insight, interviews, and reactions.
When broadcast rights change hands, the proverbial ball is sometimes dropped by the new network. Early indicators show this will not be the case in this exchange. Most importantly, the on-track performance should be keen this year!
Car and tire regulations have largely remained the same since 2009, and this is the last variation of this generation’s car and engine package. Typically the last iteration of a particular generation of race cars produces the best competition. If this holds true, the 2013 season will be one of the best in recent years. I can’t wait to watch it unfold as the Formula One flying circus treks around the globe.
Larry Cornwell is an automotive journalist based in the Charlotte area.
2013 FORMULA ONE BROADCAST PROGRAMMING
Date Program Time Network
Friday, March 15 Practice #1 12 a.m. NBC Sports Network
Friday, March 15 Practice #2 1:30 a.m. NBC Sports Network
Saturday, March 16 Qualifying 2 a.m. NBC Sports Network
Saturday, March 16 Qualifying Re-Air 1:30 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sunday, March 17 Australian Grand Prix 1:30 a.m. NBC Sports Network
Sunday, March 17 F1 Extra 4 a.m. NBC Sports Network
Sunday, March 17 Race Re-Air 1 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Date Grand Prix Time Re-Air (NBCSN) Network
Sun., March 17 Australia 1:30 a.m. 1 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., March 24 Malaysia 3:30 a.m 3 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., April 14 China 2:30 a.m. 1 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., April 21 Bahrain 7:30 a.m. 12 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., May 12 Spain 7:30 a.m. 2 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., May 26 Monaco 7:30 a.m. 10:30 a.m. NBC
Sun., June 9 Canada 2 p.m. 7 p.m. NBC
Sun., June 30 United Kingdom 7:30 a.m. 12 p.m. CNBC
Sun., July 7 Germany 7:30 a.m. 12 p.m. CNBC
Sun., July 28 Hungary 7:30 a.m. 1 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., Aug. 25 Belgium 7:30 a.m. 12 a.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., Sept. 8 Italy 7:30 a.m. 1 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., Sept. 22 Singapore 7:30 a.m. 1:30 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., Oct. 6 Korea 1:30 a.m. 4 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., Oct. 13 Japan 1:30 a.m. 1 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., Oct. 27 India 5 a.m. 1 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., Nov. 3 Abu Dhabi 7:30 a.m. 6 p.m. NBC Sports Network
Sun., Nov. 17 USA (Austin) 1 p.m. 6 p.m. NBC
Sun., Nov. 24 Brazil 1 a.m. 4:30 p.m. NBC