News broke today that Formula One would be returning to the House of Mouse. ESPN, owned by Disney, will begin airing all Formula One races on their ESPN, ESPN 2, and ABC networks starting in 2018. While this is not as much of a homecoming as it was, for say, the BBC regaining coverage of F1 back in the mid-2000s, it is still a major shakeup for F1 in the US market.
ABC was the first network to bring the glitz and glamor of F1 to American audiences back in the 50s when it aired as a part of their “Wild World of Sports” programming slate. Since then, at least in recent memory, F1 has made its home at the now defunct Speedvision and NBC Sports.
When NBC picked up the series from the FOX subsidiary, they made a wise decision. They kept on two of the voices, those of us who live stateside, had grown used to hearing in the wee hours of the morning. Those voices, of course, belonged to ex-driver David Hobbs and ex-mechanic Steve Matchett. Between the friendly banter, off kilter remarks, and out there expressions (if anyone can actually spell Schmozzle correctly I will be in awe) the two created a technical basis on which F1 coverage was able to be anchored.
Matchett was able to give insight into the inner workings of the car, explaining tire strategy and mechanical minutia in such a way that a lay-viewer was able to easily comprehend. Hobbs, on the other hand, was able to shed light on just what it was like to be a driver in the pinnacle of motorsports. Were they silly and ridiculous at points? Yes. Did they sometimes get a little too off topic? Yes. But they were the voices of Formula One. You bet your ass.
Matchett and Hobbes were the two holdovers that NBC wisely decided to bring on when the bought the rights to broadcast F1. But they added a new flavor to the mix in the form of Leigh Diffey. Now, I’ve heard many opinions of Diffey ranging from the satisfied to those who believe he is laughable. I’ve never had a problem with his commentary personally, but I’ve never been in love with the man as a turn by turn commentator.
No, the man I will always love in the role is Bob Varsha.
Varsha was the third part of the F1 commentary team when F1 was broadcast on Speedvision. When the series jumped to the world of NBC, he was not able to make the jump with them due to contractual issues with Speedvision’s owner, FOX. In the years since, Varsha has filled in on occasion when Diffey has been unavailable and the result has been magical. It was a reunion of the three voices that I grew up listening to every Sunday morning. It was a blast from the past that put a smile on my face no matter the result of the race.
I say all of this in order to ask this… Who will the new commentary team be? Matchett seems most likely to make the jump. To my knowledge, he does not cover anything but Formula 1 for NBC and his contract very well could be F1 dependent based on his history. Hobbes too covers F1 almost exclusively, although he has jumped over to cover the occasional IndyCar broadcast. He will, most likely, be able to move as well. If both commentators were able to transition away from Speedvision and to NBC, it stands to reason that they would be able to do the same now the ESPN holds the rights to F1.
Diffey is a different matter. Diffey frequently makes the jump to cover IndyCar, NASCAR, and other NBC broadcast properties, including several Olympic sports. Based on his CV, it is more than likely he will be forced to remain at NBC rather than being able to jump over to ESPN like Matchett and Hobbes.
Who then will take the turn-by-turn role for the new ESPN broadcasts? No doubt many of us out there (including myself) will be clamoring for Varsha to rejoin the broadcast and remake the dream team. Not knowing what his contract with FOX is like, he very well might be able to, but it is just as likely that he is locked into a contract with no exit clause and is stuck at FOX.
We could potentially see a new name pop up and take over, some one who we are not immediately familiar with.
We could also see a veteran driver or reporter jump over and take up commentary duties. The obvious choice there would be Alan Bestwick who has covered the Indianapolis 500 for the past several years for ABC/ESPN. However, he announced last year that he was being released by the network and would no longer be covering racing for them. So he is out. From there the options remain open.
It is doubtful that ESPN/ABC will bring in a recent driver to cover the turn-by-turn duties as the networks traditionally try to keep drivers as a color commentator, but I’ve been wrong before. The last two American drivers in F1 (Scott Speed and Alexander Rossi) are both currently employed and actively racing.
There are a plethora of ex-drivers from Australia and England that may be willing to make the jump if the paycheck is right. But here once again we run into a problem. Doing F1 in the American market is kind of like well… Doing NASCAR in the UK. There are fans and die-hards but not a lot of people get it. Because of that lack of eyeball, the sad fact is that F1 simply does not generate the viewership to warrant paying out top dollar for on-air talent. As a result, the ability to get a recently retired F1 driver on air might be just as difficult as plucking one of BBC or SkySports commentary team for a job stateside.
The best we can hope for is that ESPN gets some one who knows their stuff. Not some one who has done commentary for NASCAR and gets surprised by the number of right turns drivers make in F1.
I want the dream team back together. I want Varsha, Matchett, and Hobbs. But I do not make those calls. So who knows who gets the commentator’s seats. Only time will tell.