Motorsport TV coverage: Will making it worse make it better?
"Every cloud has a silver lining", they say. While looking for the silver lining of COVID-19 is difficult, it's meant a bit of a unique opportunity for us motorsport fans. Now that most of the world is forced to stay at home, MotoGP, WorldSBK and F1 have all released archives of old races online for free, helping stave off the boredom that confinement has forced upon us. All of which means that we can sit back and re-live some of the greatest motor racing ever.
Quarantine ain't so bad when you've got Murray Walker for company. (Image: Martin Lee/Wikimedia Commons)
What a treat it's been to re-watch some of the great races of history! Troy Bayliss vs. Colin Edwards at Imola for the 2002 World Superbike Championship, Felipe Massa's emotional walk down pitlane after retiring from the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix, and The Doctor's first MotoGP win at Donington in 2000. More gold is just an internet search away, and to be fair, both IMSA and Indycar have been putting up full races from the 80s and 90s on YouTube for years. Truly, there's never been a better time to either acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with some of motorsport's greatest-ever battles.
And while watching the old races has been fantastic, there's been one thing that's been nagging me this whole time as I got transported back in time: what's happened to motorsport?
"Yeah yeah", I can hear you say, rolling your eyes at the grumpy old man on the internet talking smack and pining for the "good old days" (I am on the wrong side of 30, after all...). But I reckon I've got a point: motor racing has lost its gladiators. Its heroes. Its bravery. Its "how do they even do that?". Drivers and riders of old seemed to be giants, doing something that seemed impossible for us mere mortals, sitting on the couch. Drivers and riders of today look like they're not far removed from playing F1 on PlayStation. Why do old racers, in old races, seem more impressive? It can't just be nostalgia.
Not that today's drivers are any less than their historic counterparts: I know that racing on the limit is racing on the limit, after all, whether it's 1959 or 2019. And I'm not saying that drivers aren't still taking huge risks these days, either: whether you're Fangio or LeClerc, Agostini or Marquez it still takes guts, determination, skill, fighter-pilot reflexes and enough core strength not to grunt when you get out of bed in the morning (that rules me out, then). Yet that aspect seems to be missing now.
And then it hit me. Onboard cameras.
That little T-shaped sucker on the airbox is responsible for making motorsport boring. Fact. (Image: Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool)
Ever since Channel 7 Australia's pioneering work with live onboard cameras at Bathurst in the 1970s (and before with onboard video recording) fans like you and me have relied on cockpit shots of drivers to get a sense of what's happening inside the car. Unlike the spectator in the stands, the TV viewer has to view all the action of a motor race condensed into a small box in their living room- so you have to amp up the excitement for them to really get the full experience. Camera shots from the side of the track are fine if you just want to find out who wins, but to actually get a sense of what's happening you need to see and feel what the driver is actually going through in that symphony of noise, vibration and speed.
Take this famous onboard clip of Satoru Nakajima in a Lotus during the opening lap of the 1987 Austrian Grand Prix (this opens in YouTube due to rights issues, and yeah, you'll want the volume up for this one):
What a rush! Now that you've enjoyed that, go back and watch it again. But this time, I want you to listen. And feel. Listen to the whoosh of the wind rushing past the onboard microphone- as it amps up you get a true sense of just how fast we're actually going. Watch Nakajima-san's hands shudder as the car goes over the bumps, how the camera shakes and even goes out of focus when it can't cope with the violent environment of a turbo F1 car. The low angle gives us a great view of Nakajima's helmet, too- bouncing around as he tries to combat the g-forces in the car. If you don't believe me, there's plenty of other classic onboards online that all show the same thing: the noise and violence of a car mere mortals could never hope to master.
Now compare that to this video of Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes at last year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix:
Is Lewis going just as fast? Yes, actually he's much faster in a modern car. Is he trying just as hard? Probably even harder, as it's a qualifying lap compared to Nakajima's first lap of the race from a standing start, in traffic. But is it as exciting to watch? No. Categorically no it is not.
But why, though? This camera angle is technically better as you can see more of the racetrack. The sound is better because there's no wind noise to distract you from the sound of the engine. There's no picture breakup, to cut out at the critical moment, no vibration to make your vision blurry...
But that's the point. It's TOO good. And it gives you nothing of what driving an F1 car would actually be like. The higher camera angle gives you a better view of the car in front, but it's nothing like what Lewis actually sees. The sound has no wind rush- again, technically "better", but now it feels like we're listening to a recording rather than sitting in the cockpit. And the movement is all silky-smooth and buttery soft- at 1:08 when Lewis runs over the inside kerb it barely even registers. How is this meant to tell the story of what driving an F1 car is all about?
It's one thing that motorcycle racing seems to have fared better at, but it's still not the same. Take this clip from MotoGP (500cc Grand Prix) at Donington in '93 (starts at 8:00):
Sure there's the Steve Parrish commentary over the top, which means it does lack the aural experience of the F1 clip above. But can you actually feel your bum tightening as the bike squirms under brakes? Or the horizon dip as the bike goes under the Dunlop Bridge, letting you know the front wheel has come off the deck?
Compare that with one of Marc Marquez at COTA:
The sense of speed is still there, but GyroCam? Seriously? Call me crazy, but I kind of like having to tilt my head going into corners, it kind of makes you feel like you're riding the bike. The modern-day obsession with smoothing the camera as much as possible makes it feel like Chase Cam in MotoGP games, not like riding the bike. At least, unlike modern F1, you can see the rider.
So why has this happened? My guess, as the quote from Jurassic Park goes, that the scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should. In pursuit of the perfect onboard camera that was crystal-clear, with no image shake, no stuttering, no dropouts, no out-of-focus, we've lost the experience that made an onboard camera so good in the first place: that when Murray Walker shouted that "AND NOW, YOU RIDE WITH DAMON HILL!", that it felt like we actually were riding along. Teeth chattering, ears bleeding and all.
So what do we do about it? It may be slightly difficult to downgrade all the onboard cameras to 1992-spec, but there is hope! One camera shot they haven't completely ruined is Indycar's Visor Cam, seen with Graham Rahal as he takes the start of the 2018 Indy 500:
LOOK at the unique drivers' eye angle we get! MARVEL at the way you can see when Graham looks in his mirrors at the surrounding traffic. BASK in the glorious feeling as you get to experience the start of one of the world's greatest motor races amongst 300,000 fans and 35 milk-hungry competitors! BASK. IN. IT. This is what a great onboard shot is all about. The visor cam was adopted by Indycar in 2017, and has already been providing us with some great live shots- my only hope is this: please, please, Indycar- don't take away the imperfections. Give us camera shake. Give us wind noise. Make us FEEL things! Tell the story. Because otherwise, onboard cameras, placed on these racecars solely to get us TV-watchers into the cockpit, will only remove us further from the action.
And now I should like the links to your favourite classic onboard shots in the comments, please.