It’s fair to say Formula One hasn’t had the easiest of weeks, given it’s had to deal with the repercussions of the incident between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and the backlash by many towards Vettel. Many fans have moved on since the incident, while many more chose to move on after Vettel’s hearing with the FIA over said incident, in which he received no further punishment. Despite this, much of Sky Sports’ coverage at this week’s Austrian Grand Prix has focused on the aftermath of this incident. A driver relationship has been scrutinised over and over, as if there is an obligation to delve into the fine details of this and find something to dig at, a desperate attempt to create a narrative for this season.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s fair to say Sky have made Lewis Hamilton the poster boy of their coverage, and it’s hardly a surprise given there is no restrictions into how a private media organisation such as Sky sways in order to appeal to an audience, just take BT Sport’s coverage of MotoGP and their favouring of British riders as proof of this occurring in motorsport. But for Sky desperately trying to make an issue of a non-issue, especially an issue that was proven to be over by the FIA’s own standards, can only be detrimental to Sky’s own coverage.
You can go onto Sky Sports’ website and can see a story over whether Hamilton and Vettel refused to shake each other’s hands after qualifying in Austria, despite there being video footage proving otherwise. It’s as if they want there to be an issue between the pair, tension like what we’ve seen so often in the past with Sky with the intra-team rivalry of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Sky can only go so far in pushing this specific agenda before it turns away viewers, and for the benefit of the sport in this country, that may have long-term problems.
Currently there is a viable alternative to Sky’s coverage of F1, this being Channel 4. However, Sky will eventually gain exclusivity rights over F1 coverage in the UK in 2019, and this comes with an element of responsibility. Yes, it is perfectly acceptable for a British organisation to slightly favour British drivers in the sport, as I’m sure the German & French media do to their respective drivers. Yet to paint certain drivers in a bad light, like we’ve seen with the seeming vilification of Vettel after the Baku incident and its aftermath, is such an irresponsible move for an organisation that will eventually have to lead by example in promoting F1 in this country.
While the ‘hardcore’ F1 fans won’t think twice about subscribing to Sky’s coverage, there is also has to be an appeal to the casual viewer that may plan on watching given there will be no free-to-air alternative for these casual viewers to watch, unless you include “legal” sources. It is already a given that F1 viewing figures in this country will decline should the planned exclusivity deal with Sky go ahead, and this is without considering the casual viewer, not to mention the never-ending saga into the future of the British Grand Prix.
Sky Sports has the potential to define the future of Formula One in this country for a generation. While many (including myself) have expressed concerns over the exclusivity deal, it needs to show itself as a leading partner of F1 & that starts with giving everyone in the sport a fair share of the credit. Of course as a British organisation appealing to a British audience, it is acceptable to focus on the British drivers in the sport. However, to create pantomime villains like we’ve seen so often with Sky, like with Vettel and Rosberg, will only frustrate the fan base. Cracks are already very visible from those aware of the tricks that Sky try to slyly (or not) pull, and this will only deepen further once the pay wall takes full effect in 2019.