This week, Formula 1’s long-anticipated Internet streaming service went live just ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix. The introduction of its own online stream was a huge priority for Liberty Media, the sport’s owner, which is trying to bring the 21st century to a series that until now had stoutly ignored the Internet. This new stream probably represents the biggest fan-facing change Liberty has made since buying F1’s commercial rights from a vulture fund, and it’s an offering many of us have been crying out for. Many other racing series have been live-streaming their races for some time now. But I’m not going to sugar coat it—this new F1 viewing option seems really quite mediocre, particularly considering the cost.
You pays your money…
There are actually two different subscription levels on offer. F1 TV Pro—$11.99 per month here in the US—gets you the races as well as all the other track sessions live and on-demand after the fact, along with all 20 cars’ onboard feeds, unedited team radio broadcasts, an archive of past F1 races, documentaries, live timing, and a driver tracking map. F1 TV Access—just $2.99 in the US—is a little more basic. You still get the archives, documentaries, timing, scoring, and some radio feeds, but this tier only offers replays of each session.
The first hint of trouble appeared as I went to sign up his morning in time for the second Free Practice session for this weekend’s race. I dutifully purchased a year’s pass for F1 TV Pro, then spent some time getting site errors every time I tried to change my password. Figuring it could be an issue with Chrome I switched to Safari, but I saw more of the same. Eh, who needs a 25-character password anyway?
…and you watch the buffering screen
Once squared away, I fired up the stream and settled back to enjoy. Instantly, a mystery was resolved. I’d been wondering exactly who F1 was going to get to provide commentary, and the answer is David Croft, Martin Brundle, and the rest of the team from the UK’s Sky Sports. Yes, that’s the same bunch you now hear on ESPN calling the races. Additionally there are audio feeds in French, German, Spanish, as well as one with no talking soundtracked with just car sounds. Along the right hand side of the page is a list of all the drivers participating in the session. Click one of their names, and it brings up their onboard feed. At first it appeared as if these came with no audio at all, although that just turned out to be the default setting set to “Team Audio”—if the team isn’t talking to the driver, there’s nothing to hear. Thankfully you can change the audio for each onboard to the same selection as the main feed.
What I couldn’t find anywhere was the live timing and scoring, which actually lives in a different section of the F1 webpage. There’s nary a link on the TV section to help you find it. But such UX issues are slight compared to the bigger problem: the actual delivery of the stream. There was constant buffering, stuttering, and the occasional instance of the stream randomly rewinding itself back in time. The experience quickly became frustrating. And when you consider that the Friday practice sessions probably draw a fraction of the audience that will log on for qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday, it’s a little bit worrying.
Encouragingly, Formula 1 knows it has a bit of a problem. The team took to Twitter to let the world know it’s working on a fix:
2/2 We’ve had a few teething problems with the service as can be the case with any product launch, but our engineers are in the pit looking under the hood to fix this as soon as possible
— The Official F1® Help Channel (@F1Help) May 11, 2018
With the service as is, it’s not all bad, however. The archival content is great to have, and that currently goes back as far as the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix. But whether it’s worth paying $99.99 for a year’s access is another question.
If you have access to ESPN, I’m honestly not sure it is. You get the same video feed of the race with the same commentary team, and my experience of ESPN’s stream quality to our Apple TVs has been pretty darn good. And if you still want access to the archived videos, all that stuff is available in the much cheaper F1 TV Access tier.