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Press Call, or Hard Pressed Call?

March 18, 2013

Press Call, or Hard Pressed Call?

After almost four months of waiting, Formula One fans were finally treated to the opportunity of watching their favourite drivers break the silence and talk collectively about the event we’ve all been desperately looking forward to, the first Grand Prix of 2013.
The first driver’s press conference, commanding a half hour live TV slot and being frantically transcribed around the world, did absolutely nothing at all to enhance the excitement on the eve of the cars breaking cover for the very first time at a GP this year.

The age old media model of sticking a sportsman in front of a microphone or television camera before or after their big event, certainly has provided some great moments at times over the years.

Kimi in 2006 talking on the grid to Martin Brundle before his last race for McLaren and Schumacher’s last before retiring first time round. I was there, about to strap him into the car for my last time and remember thinking, that’s what I’ll miss about working with Kimi, he’s unique and there’s never a dull moment.

Jose Mourinho, upon his arrival to the English Premier League, announcing himself as “The Special One”, and his subsequent tactical playing of the media to his, and his team’s, advantage at every opportunity.

Who remembers Eric Cantona, with his short and sweet, bizarrely cryptic message about seagulls and sardines, to the assembled press following his conviction for the assault of a football fan in 1995?

Little gems like this are few and far between, even more so in today’s world and even more so still in the tightly controlled media world of Formula One.
Almost all Formula One drivers today say exactly what they’re told to the press and media folk at each Grand Prix and at a time of year when teams are more secretive and protective than any other, the leash around their star name’s neck is noticeably shorter than ever.

Thursday’s press conference at Albert Park, Melbourne was duller than most. Partly because, despite excited fans around the globe tuning in on the edge of their seats, only one out of the six involved looked like they weren’t hard pressed to be there. Homeboy (no, not Lewis), Australian Daniel Ricciardo beamed from ear to ear and appeared enthusiastic to even be in the press line up, let alone about to begin a crucial season, whereas most of the others came across like they were appearing in an Al Qaeda hostage video at gunpoint.
That was one reason it was dull. The other was undoubtedly the array of inane and repetitive questions from the worldwide media.
Anyone whose even stumbled across Formula One in the last few weeks knows about the difficulties faced by all teams with regard the incredibly low temperatures and poor conditions during pre-season testing. The casual follower will also know that no-one, either team or driver, is likely to predict its position in the pecking order right before the first race of the year.
Despite these givens, a series of questions, to which most people could have quite accurately predicted the answers followed and the responses barely raised an eyebrow. Asking a driver if he can win the race, or win the championship, is he motivated this year or how will the new tyres affect the car, generated the kind of ‘pissed off’ or deflected responses you’d imagine from some of them and made for almost uncomfortable viewing at times.
On a slightly different tack, which at least provoked a couple of smiles, one journalist from Germany asked Seb and Fernando to “describe each other as a person and as a driver”. The question was met with standard answers about the pair’s mutual respect for each other as you’d expect, but at least endeavoured to unlock a tiny bit of the personality of each and received perhaps the longest answers to any posed during the session.
The bottom line is it was dull TV and although the headline writers went away and did their best to churn each answer into a story, very little came out of the whole affair.

Is it time to change the way we do things here?

The microphone in the face of a driver or team principal during the heat of battle, type interview, will always produce some great answers, insight and controversy and should always have it’s place. However, have the days of individual freedom to speak openly at pre-arranged press events run their coarse?
With Formula One being the secretive, closed off world that it is, teams and their press officers are inherently wary and protective when it comes to dealing with the media. They’re terrified about giving too much away and, to be honest, stuck in a distant era shaped by widespread industrial espionage based around a very different set of F1 regulations and technical freedom.
Today, the sport’s slowly waking up to the fact that by showing fans behind the scenes images of their garages, or allowing their drivers to communicate directly with fans through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, it won’t cost them a world Championship.
Former Williams chairman, Adam Parr, commented earlier this year about the need for race fans to start demanding more from our sport. He’s right. There’s absolutely no reason today for fans to not be granted direct access to the teams, their factories, garages and drivers. It has all round benefits, commercial or otherwise, for everyone concerned and is surely the way we should be moving forward.

With that said, how about opening up the Thursday driver and Friday team principal conference to the fans of the sport?

Social media can deliver live, on the spot questions through written, spoken or video formats and because it’s the fans asking, those lined up to answer should feel a certain responsibility to put on something of a show with regards their answers.
If Lewis Hamilton knows he’s talking to a fan through Skype, rather than a ‘dreaded’ journalist, there’s no way he’d be anything other than enthusiastic in his response.
In the same sense, a fan sitting at home, watching on tv and sending a question through Twitter, will ask whatever’s on his mind. He won’t be worried about asking something difficult and having his media privileges or relationship with that driver disrupted at this early stage of a long season. He might ask something about the driver’s personal life, not about the cars and generate an interesting insight into the superstar’s ‘real’ persona away from the track.
The other thing of course, is that by doing something along these lines you not only let fans feel closer and more involved in the sport, but you open up the range of questions by an unlimited number. A producer off screen can obviously filter them, but he has millions, instead of just five, to skim through and choose from.
Journos still get their stories, perhaps some even more juicy ones and fans help to create a TV slot worth watching.

A sceptical, or new fan of Formula One watching Thursday’s live press conference would’ve been forgiven for turning off from the sport in disappointment. On the eve of one of the most hotly anticipated championships for some time, a selection of it’s premier stars sat in front of the cameras and looked uninterested and bored. They certainly didn’t look like a group of privileged young athletes, living their dreams, private jetting from luxurious holiday to winter retreat and back again…feeling refreshed and thrilled to be addressing their fans ahead of the new campaign…which is what I suspect most of their fans hope they are.

F1 has many areas which need addressing in order for it to move with the times, fan integration’s a big one and after watching thirty minutes of dull live television on Thursday in Australia, this surely has to be one to consider?

Marc Priestley


From → Formula One

  1. I thought exactly the same when I saw the photo of the drivers in the press conference, how dull and downcast they all looked, strange given the fact that they all have one of the best jobs (and best paid) in the world. Unfortunately I don’t think money and exclusivity has done much for the sport and it seems to get worse rather than better. The paddock is the preserve of the rich and famous other than those working there for a living of course and with the advent of Sky even the TV audience has fallen (In the UK anyway). I recall the days when you could go to Silverstone, go over into the paddock and get right up close to the drivers and cars, it was fantastic. At some ‘other’ motorsport events this is still ‘just about’ the case and the events are a lot better for it. F1 does need to take a pretty good inward look at itself sometime, because as you say some aspects of the sport can be incredibly dull, sterile and repetitive. On the plus side the teams do seem to be interacting well with fans on the social media side. As you say Marc perhaps the fans should be asking most of the questions to liven things up a bit.

  2. onionhead permalink

    Absolutely spot on Mark, this is such a big problem with F1 in general. I watched le mans for the first time last year and was blown away at how much more in depth the coverage was and how much more friendly and open the drivers and teams were.

    I mostly dont even bother watching build up to quali and races on tv because by and large you’re not going to learn anything new. F1 is a very complicated and interesting sport, and its almost like BBC and Sky have given up trying to explain that complexity to the viewers. Instead its dumbed down so much for the casual viewer, and thats a shame.

    Perhaps they could do a weekly segment analysing driving styles or the history of technical breakthroughs in the sport like ground effect and active suspension etc etc, stuff like that.

    …. The only people who you learn anything from are Brundle and Kravitz and also Gary Anderson for the BBC is absolutely brilliant, best thing to come out of the BBC/Sky tv deal.

    Its a built in problem in the sport. Sponsors are so important that nobody wants to say anything controversial. The teams are so secretive that they dont give anything away.

    Great article Mark, i really enjoy reading your work

  3. Marc, Firstly thanks for the blog, a great read! Really enjoyed the stuff you did for Sky in Barcelona, will you be doing more things for them through the season? I think that is a great idea about the press conferences, my interest drifts pretty quickly watching them but if something like that was implemented I’d be battering down the virtual door to get a question asked, and you could have some real questions out of left field!

    Would the F1 teams/drivers ever be open to live chats during the race between commentators and drivers, something I’ve enjoyed seeing in indycar and nascar? I appreciate there are less yellow flag periods in F1, but there are still some, the warm up lap…something to expand on the team radio which is quite effective at bringing out some personality and giving us funny moments and insight already!

  4. Steve D permalink

    Hi Marc, this is something that I have been tracking in sports journalism for quite some time.

    I have no idea if it has anything to do with the overly controlled environment that journalists work in, but they don’t seem to actually ask questions any more. “So tell me about your race” is not a question and is the same as asking a friend “so tell me about your day” So in a sense it’s not massively surprising that the answer will rarely be interesting. To entice interesting answers needs an interesting question in the beginning.

    This isn’t to say the journalists should be creating hyperbolic content where it doesn’t exist, but they should be allowed to ask questions where it matters and create quality dialogue and content between the drivers. F1 has expanded its TV offering hugely with Sky, but the issue I’ve seen on that channel is that in among some of the excellent analysis, is an awful lot of either repetitive or vacuous content (new drivers chatting on a beach and being really rather nice to each other anyone??) The BBC had a fairly lean level of coverage but it was also about the right amount. Unfortunately there isn’t enough action to take F1 to the level of a sport like football but that is what I feel they are trying to do in the UK at least.

    A recent example of something good in terms of fan interaction has been the fan forums, and in honesty if the drivers briefing could be swapped for a weekly fan meet and Q&A, F1 could make that press conference into essential viewing.

    I imagine being a journalist is a really really hard job in that environment, but I would love to see a return to question based content so the drivers are given a platform to express their characters and opinions on.

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