This morning's surprise announcement that BBC and Sky Sports will share F1 coverage from 2012 has heralded an unprecedented outrage from fans who will now have to pay to watch all races from the comfort of their own homes. Only half of next year's 20 races will be shown live on BBC, with highlights of the rest, while all will be carried on Sky.
The news comes as a major shock after so many years of high-quality F1 coverage on television and especially as the BBC had the contract to broadcast F1 next year. But amid a stringent cost-cutting drive, the BBC was forced to seek alternatives and the deal with Sky ensures F1 remains partially free-to-air while also allowing F1 to tap into the rich pay-TV coffers of British Sky Broadcasting.
Teams have been keen to retain F1 free-to-air in Britain, arguably F1's most important market, and FOTA chairman Martin Whitmarsh recently urged the BBC to retain its coverage, insisting it was "crucial" for F1 to stay on free-to-air.
“It's crucial to the commercial model of Formula 1 that TV coverage should remain free-to-air, and therefore universally accessible, and therefore widely consumed and enjoyed by large numbers of viewers – and the BBC delivers that in the UK,” Whitmarsh said last month.
“Formula 1 is the pinnacle of world motorsport – always has been, always will be. As such, it's appropriate that the BBC should continue to cover it.”
Twitter and discussions forums have been filling with damning comments from disgruntled fans this morning. Many are angry that they will have to pay to watch more than half the races, although some will be pleased with the news that Sky will have uninterrupted race coverage, limiting ad breaks to pre- and post-race shows.
But it's not likely to be the last we hear on the matter. Speaking to Autosport this morning, Whitmarsh was reserving judgement on the deal.
“What we need to understand is whether the large audience we currently enjoy in Formula 1 will be maintained. I think we also need to understand exactly how this is being done,” said Whitmarsh.
“We've got a range of safeguards within Concorde, and the right thing to do is to explore how the Formula 1 coverage is going to be dealt with in the future, and take a view from there.”
Although teams will receive more money from the sport's commercial rights holder because of Sky's contract, likely to cost the firm well in excess of the £40m paid by the BBC every year, their sponsorship revenues could take a hit due to the lower viewership figures that Sky will bring to F1. That will be offset somewhat by the BBC hosting half the Grands Prix however.
The good news, if there is any, for F1 fans is that the new deal will introduce great competition in the quality of coverage between BBC and Sky. Both stations will be have to pull out all the stops to woo viewers to watch their coverage, although Sky will have the advantage of hosting all the races.
No longer will one station or the other be able to sit on its laurels with sub-standard commentary teams or pundits, while pre-race features, post-race analysis and coverage on their websites is sure to benefit also.
With the quality of coverage having improved so much in recent years with the switch to BBC, the arrival of Sky could see the coverage of F1 take on a whole new level in the coming years.