Why watching F1 down the pub won’t work…

You know the scene. Standing twenty-deep on a sticky wooden floor, bellowing to converse with your mates and craning past the tall guy in front in the checkered Burton short to try and get a glimpse of the big screen. The septic aroma of urinal cake periodically wafts through as punters seek to relieve their bladders of cheap English lager. Loud yelps and roars from the throng are punctuated only by loud exclamations of who’s got money on what. Twenty on Rooney to get a hat trick. A multiplier on Man U, West Brom and Newcastle all to win. Fifty on Arsenal for the title. Watching football in the pub is crap, but yet it seems to work.

Watching F1 in the pub, by contrast, would be an unmitigated disaster. And yet that’s what it seems we’ll all have to do next year, when the grand prix circus moves to Sky Sports and we have to pay to watch it rather than enjoying it on cooncil telly like we do at the moment. I’m not entirely convinced that’s going to happen, though – and one of the key reasons for my belief in this is that for those that don’t have access to Sky Sports (or have too strong a moral compass to pay for such a scummy product), public grand prix viewing is going to be utterly repulsive. So much so that I reckon it will drive viewers, fans – and thus the people that F1 ultimately relies on to work as the massive business Ecclestone likes to push it as – away.

Let’s look at the difference between football and F1 for a start. Football in the pub works because you don’t need the commentary. In fact, given the kind of people Sky get commentating, you might well argue that the expert punditry of thirty drunks is an improvement – or at least an adequate substitute for the bizarre situation that arises on Radio Scotland when Richard Gordon, Murdo MacLeod and Jim Traynor all try to debate Craig Levein’s team selection at once. You can see quite clearly what’s going on on the pitch, because it’s all there too see. If there’s been a goal, one team are running about, dancing like tossers and kissing each other. If someone gets sent off, you get to see twenty replays of the opponent who hurled himself to the ground with the poise and grace of Rudolf Nureyev in order to get a red card produced. And if things get a bit heated, the players have it out by posing around in the centre circle, gently tickling each other on the chest and occasionally administering a light slap to the opponent’s jowls.

In F1, on the other hand, the commentators add an awful lot. If a car bogs down off the line at the start and loses five places, you need Martin Brundle to tell you if the revs dipped at the wrong moment, if the car’s got a problem or if the driver’s just a muppet. When someone pulls up at the side of the track with wisps of smoke rising from their car, you want to hear Lee Mackenzie surmising that they must be bitterly disappointed and probing them to just talk her through what happened. Or if you follow a driver a bit further down the field who might vanish without trace (as happened to Kobayashi at Monaco last year, prompting Japanese commentator Ukyo Katayama to actually leave the commentary box and go look for his compatriot on foot), you will wait eagerly for Ted Kravitz to saunter down to the team garage and relay what’s happened.

Post-event press conferences would be particularly baffling. In football, you get to see a sweaty man in front of the camera being drowned out by the hoards seeking to refill their glasses of Carling. But even without words or lipreading, you know full well that sweaty player is simply saying that he’s going to keep his head down, give 110% and try to please the gaffer. Were the F1 press conference to be muted in a similar manner, all you’d see would be three men staring awkwardly out at the room and muttering under their baseball caps, with Mark Webber regularly reaching over the microphones to refill his glass from the squash jug.

So we’ve established that F1 needs words to work, something not necessarily compatible with the raucous pub atmosphere. The fact Murray Walker and Martin Brundle have both won plaudit after plaudit for their commentary speaks volumes for the value a good commentator can add to a grand prix. That aside, though, Sunday afternoon is a busy time for sports – and can you really guarantee that there are going to be enough F1 fans in any one pub to beat off the cast of hundreds who have rocked up to watch whatever Premiership game happens to be on? If it’s an Old Firm day, you might as well forget it unless you can persuade McLaren to revert to the orange testing livery and persuade Ferrari to get some green and white hoops on the car. That logic would also turn Toro Rosso into Partick Thistle, which would just be silly.

Further, the culture of watching F1 is not, for my mates and I at least, something accompanied with the sinking of pint after pint after pint. Rather, our grand prix viewing is accompanied by food in copious quantities, jugs of squash and significant quantities of tea. It’s something to watch sitting down, reflecting and digesting. The motor sport club I was a member of at university once tried to watch a race in the pub, and everyone ended up destroyed within half an hour. That may have had something to do with the way in which they turned the whole race into one massive drinking game (a drink for a pit stop? Seriously, what did you think was going to happen guys…), but still, I think the point about the mesmerising effect blurred colours, fast-moving shapes and loud noises have on the drunk brain still stands.

The last thing I want to say about F1 in pubs is a particularly Scotland-specific point to do with the timing of races. Grand prix generally fall into two categories: those on at lunchtime, and those from the Far East on at the crack of dawn. Now, don’t worry, there are always pubs open somewhere in Scotland at any time of day, but at lunchtimes and early mornings you get a particularly nasty kind of drunk in the pub. For a race starting at, say, 5am GMT, the chances are that if the pub’s open, most of its patrons will have been there since mid-evening the day before, or they will have gravitated to the pub in a rather intoxicated state in a desperate bid to continue drinking. In other words, only nutters (or perhaps next year’s F1 fans) are in the pub at 5am. And likewise, for a midday race, only people bursting for a drink – or those mortally hung over and in need of ultra-greasy food – will be frequenting an ale house of a Sunday pre-lunchtime. Such folks are less than likely to be cooperative towards the prospect of Eddie Jordan’s voice booming out through the speakers.

F1 in the pub, then, is going to be crap. But if the Sky deal does go through and at least some of the races end up on pay-to-view television only, I think I’ve got a solution. Lindbergh’s, my favourite bookstore in Tokyo specializing in automotive products, has a big telly in the middle of the shop, with an array of comfy sofas surrounding the screen and a counter with an espresso machine nearby. Ordinarily these sofas are used to allow customers to curl up with a book and a latte, but for big sporting events or film showings, the TV gets turned on and the geeks come out en masse. Even if it doesn’t cost anything to watch the F1 in the shop, most folk will buy a cup of coffee and a bun – and perhaps a book or two – while they’re there. I actually saw a similar thing for cycling in Edinburgh a couple of weeks back, where a fancy cycle-café had scores of bikes chained up outside, their riders inside, sipping on espressos and transfixed to the Tour de France being beamed onto a big screen above the cash desk.

Or, if F1 in the café sounds a bit too poncey (sorry, I’ve been living in Stockbridge too long), how about some of the more motorsport-oriented car dealers wheeling out a big screen on Sunday lunchtime, laying on a buffet and charging punters £3 to come and watch the race in the showroom – with the proceeds going to an appropriate charity? It could even be a good way of getting potential customers through the door for the more mainstream car companies who still have an interest in motor sport – Renault and Skoda, I’m looking squarely at you here.

I am yet to see some statistics correlating Sky subscriptions with Formula One viewers, and would  be genuinely interested to see such things. Should it transpire that the vast majority of F1 fans do not have access to satellite television and have no desire to take out a subscription, then it will be very interesting to see what happens to viewing figures and major sponsors’ views on the whole process. But one positive side-effect of this is that it creates whole new ways to tap into the generally more sedate viewing culture of motor sport. If I get 100 people signed up by next February, you can bet I’ll be buying that empty café downstairs from my flat…

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