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A Lil' Preseason Testing Treat

Howdy, hi, hello. Welcome to Engine Failure, a culture newsletter that dives into what the fuck is really going on in Formula 1. It’s written by me, Lily Herman.

Wow, would you look at that?! A second Engine Failure issue this week??? What lucky group of biddies y’all are.

Yes, today is the start of F1 preseason testing. I don’t really have much to say about that (plenty of other outlets do if you’re curious), but February 23rd also marks the beginning of something else: The Athletic officially announced the contributor lineup for its brand-new F1 beat, and after weeks of hearing things through the grapevine and penning this lil’ missive, I’m ready to talk about it.

As for Drive to Survive premiering on Netflix tomorrow, you’ll get my full review and analysis early next week. I figured I’d give y'all a few days to watch before we unravel the chaos ~together~.

Anyway, fire up that electric kettle and find your favorite Earl Gray, because we have plenty to go through.

What’s Going on With The Athletic’s F1 Team Hiring?

Back in December, I wrote pretty extensively about the fact that The Athletic (the famed American sports site that was acquired by The New York Times a year ago) was building out a Formula 1 desk and expanding its existing motorsports coverage. The F1 desk is reportedly financed for a year (to start) and funded at least somewhat through means other than The Athletic’s typical subscription setup (I've heard...interesting unconfirmed shenans as to who's fronting the dough); as such, the outlet was hiring a writer, senior writer, and managing editor all in the F1 space. (There’s also a listing still up as of this newsletter's send time for a motorsports editor role, which I’m told hasn’t been filled/announced yet.) All this to say, we now know who's on that team and what that coverage will look like. (And according to an Adweek article, its plans include a newsletter...LMAAAAOOOOOOO.)

(Also, to recount my own experience: An Athletic editor not at all involved in the hiring process nor on the motorsports desk emailed me the job listings back in December, and I declined to submit an application or move forward. I've joked for the past two months that the outreach was probably largely due to the hopes of a referral bonus, and it's looking...likely that that's correct. BEEP BOOP.)

Now, onto the analysis! While I dive a little bit into the individual people involved with the new team, I also move on to some of the larger themes around what this means for the F1 media ecosystem at large. And for those of you who are like, “Why should I care about this stuff?”, well, you don’t have to if you don’t want to; I’m certainly not going to force you to tune in. Plus, if you’re reading this, you clicked on this email, which means you’ve already helped make my open rate stats look good. (Thanks for that!) But I believe that tracking who reports what we’re seeing in any given space — whether that’s F1, other sports, politics, entertainment, wellness/health and more — offers important insights and also allows us to hold more institutions accountable in the future. Per that Adweek article I mentioned above, The Athletic's leadership made it clear that it sees the F1 media space as undersaturated as far mainstream publishers go, so it's obvious it really wants to make a play here for your time, attention, and money. In other words, they want to be a Big Fucking Deal. The questions, however, are should they be — and do you want them to be?

Who’s on the Team?

There are three people joining The Athletic’s Formula 1 team: Madeline Coleman as F1 writer, Luke Smith as F1 senior writer, and Alex Davis as F1 managing editor. I’ve mentioned Madeline's and Luke's work quite frequently in previous issues of Engine Failure, so they likely don’t need much of an introduction to this crowd, but I’ll give one anyway. 

Madeline Coleman spent the past bit of her career carving out much of the Formula 1 beat at Sports Illustrated. Unfortunately, the storied American sports outlet has been in trouble for quite some time, and her decision to jump ship earlier was a good one, in my opinion; just a week ago, the org laid off 17 staffers, leaving quite a few sports beats bare or eliminated entirely, and that's only the tip of the iceberg. (Also, to add some clarity/transparency: Sports Illustrated Studios, which my podcast was produced through, is an entirely separate entity from the print magazine and site and has nothing to do with either, nor were we in contact with anyone there. I know, it’s very confusing and would take me a good 10 minutes to explain. Media is a fickle business.) 

To me, Madeline’s hire by The Athletic is a no-brainer; she’s a promising name in F1 media, particularly in this American side of the equation that’s only really started gaining critical mass in recent years; I’d say her profile of Pierre Gasly from around this time last year really put her on the map. Not to mention, I trust a fellow Southern Girly™. (Read my lips: No one in the world collects, manages, and trades intel like Southern women. *George Russell voice* FACT.) When writing about her new role at The Athletic, Madeline said that, “Stories matter, and while data analytics and strategy are at the forefront of this sport, the people — both in front of the camera and behind the scenes — are just as critical. There is more to these teams, drivers and even the cars than simple data points."

Onto the next one: Anyone who reads or follows F1 media likely already knows who Luke Smith is; in fact, he was one of three names I sort of hinted at likely being part of this project given his previous association with NYT. Luke’s eyes and ears appear to be everywhere around the F1 paddock, where he’s covered pretty much every topic under the sun for Autosport and its affiliates. If you’re a Times reader, you’ve also probably seen his work about the changed regs in 2022, the 10th U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, and the role of F1 race engineers, to name a few recent pieces. I think Luke's name adds more credibility and legitimacy as far as working with folks in the F1 machine. (Quite a few of them are...a little skittish about new people...and Americans.)

In his introductory musing about working for The Athletic, Luke wrote (in addition to penning a lovely part about his mom), “Throughout my time on the F1 frontlines, I’ve been committed to telling the best stories, reaching beyond the on-track action that is often the focus. I’ve wanted to know more about who these people really are, both the drivers and the hundreds of men and women who make it possible for them to go racing on Sundays.”

As for Alex Davies, I wish I could use this space to talk about his vast array of experience covering Formula 1 and/or motorsports given that he’s steering the ship. There’s just one problem: Aside from roughly a dozen articles under his byline mostly circa 2014-2016 for WIRED (out of hundreds of pieces in his archive), he’s never covered these beats — F1, motorsports, or sports — in an ongoing professional capacity. Instead, he worked as a transportation editor for WIRED, a job that was sandwiched between two similar roles at INSIDER. (I wasn’t able to easily locate any F1 articles in his Insider or Business Insider archives, which span literally thousands of pieces.) The articles he did write though also suggest more interest in the technical and engineering aspects in F1 and not necessarily a ton of focus on the racecraft or human interest side; in fairness though, that likely has to do at least somewhat with what WIRED itself covers as a publication. And while I don’t necessarily care about people not posting every single thing about themselves on social media, there’s no other digital suggestion of any long-term Formula 1 fandom in his case, nor have I encountered anyone in the space who can speak to something of the sort. (To add some more color, Alex has written a book on autonomous cars, so once again, I don't doubt his interest in the technical aspect of vehicles at large, though that's still...a different subject matter.) And if you think I'm being ridiculous here, The Athletic itself published this cringe tweet pointing out the F1-specific achievements of both Madeline and Luke and put nothing for Alex — not even something about his work as a transportation editor. WHEW. I'm the Discerning Hater™ over here, but did no one tell The Athletic that they're supposed to hype their own people up???

As for what Alex had to say in his own words about his role and his love of Formula 1, he skipped that stuff (GOOD GOD, THROW ME A BONE HERE, SIR) and introduced the entire vertical instead, saying that, “Our coverage will build on The Athletic’s mission of going beyond the chyron delivering scores and stats to the bottom of your TV screen. From each racetrack around the world, we’ll dive deep into the personalities, technology, strategy, business, politics, culture and miscellanea of F1. We’ll tell you what makes Max Verstappen so dang fast and why it’s somebody’s job to spray glue on the desert surrounding the Bahrain International Circuit and how Mercedes’ new matte carbon look is actually about saving weight. Whether you’re new to F1 or a Serious Fan, we’ll get you up to speed by telling you not just who won, but how and what it means. Not just fighting words, but the roots of the rivalries. Not just how to tune into a race, but how to watch it like a pro.” I mean, that sounds good, right?

At this point, I'm sure many of y'all are scratching your heads over a similar question of...why? Admittedly, when Alex’s name was first floated to me a few weeks ago, I was a bit confused. When I then heard some of the names of folks who were reportedly also in the running for the position, I grew…well, even more confused. My best guess is that perhaps The Athletic decided that years of helming verticals in the transportation space (which is, to be clear, an entirely separate beat with very different aims and objectives) would make up for some deficiencies. But the Athletic’s own job listing said it was looking for someone with “high-end knowledge of F1 and familiarity with other competitive Motor Sports including NASCAR and IndyCar” and “10+ years of experience in digital sports journalism at a management level”; while I get that “requirements” sections for jobs are BS past a certain point, those seem like two big ones to overlook on the hiring team’s part based on what they're claiming they want this section to be.

My ending note on this front would be that I think Alex has a difficult (though not impossible) road ahead of him, especially because he’s likely not bringing an endless Rolodex of F1 contacts and other insider connections the way his two subordinates are; that matters not just given that F1 is a "who you know" business but also because The Athletic as a publication leans more into the access journalism side of things than the “let’s discuss some wacky tangential shit!” chaos of something like, say, Engine Failure. At this point, the best he can do in his role is advocate for Madeline and Luke, protect them when certain people in the Formula 1 ecosystem are inevitably dickheads at times, and push them do the journalism they’re capable of, especially given that they’ll have money, support, and resources from a major sports media institution. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the editorial equivalent of Risa Heller in terms of being a metaphorical bulldog for the people he needs to look out for, albeit hopefully with fewer incredibly iffy morals. (That RH profile has consumed my every waking thought for the past week, btw.)

And above all, while we could argue forever about qualifications and/or someone’s audacity to apply for a role where they maybe don't meet a bunch of supposedly key requirements (hey, most of us have done that before!), somebody hired Alex despite these discrepancies; I actually have more questions for those folks than for him. So, let’s turn our focus to The Athletic at large and what their current F1 and motorsports teams show us.

So, Uh, Let’s Address the Larger Elephant in the Room

One of the points I made back when I first discussed The Athletic’s F1 beat hiring situation back in December is the fact that I was going to be mighty disappointed (and yet unsurprised, because media’s gonna media) if we ended up with a crew mostly composed of white dudes. Currently, keeping in mind that the motorsports editor hasn’t been announced, this team (which also includes motorsports writers Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi) appears to be entirely white and almost all men, with the exception of Madeline. These are obviously veeeeeery rudimentary markers of diversity to look at, but they don't even pass that simple vibe check.

Considering the supposed ~bevy~ of applications that these positions had, I find it hard to believe that there wasn’t a single “qualified” (I use that term with the biggest eye-roll humanly possible) person of color in the bunch, not to mention other women and non-binary folks. Moreover, if you’re going to ~take a chance~ on one person whom some may argue doesn’t meet certain criteria to handle this specific opportunity, it’s hard to not make that argument in regards to other applicants, especially when they’re not juggling as much broad responsibility and oversight as a managing editor typically is.

The Athletic has a very promising, interesting, and intriguing opportunity at its feet. But based on the information we now have, I’m waiting to see what exactly the outlet at large will do differently than what we’ve already seen in F1’s media apparatus; as I previously laid out, they’ve got some stiff competition elsewhere. My bigger questions at this point are if Madeline and Luke’s talents are going to be used to their fullest and if they’ll be given the time and space to do what they do best and expand on it. I’ve been in plenty of places in my career where I had more knowledge than the people leading me, and there’s a specific type of frustration and rage that can come from trying to justify great ideas to people who don’t know any better (or worse, have no interesting in knowing better).

Of course, as my general stance is and has always been in these matters, I hope there's a bright road ahead for The Athletic's F1 team. I root for these opportunities and these individual contributors to succeed in the long term. It’s just infuriating that American media in general — regardless of subject matter — appears to never learn its lesson.

What Does This Say About the State of F1 Media?

As we continue to look at the forest and not just the trees, it’s also important to contextualize this opportunity at The Athletic within the greater Formula 1 media ecosystem. I can see the appeal of these positions for so many different reasons: They’re salaried, supported by a major institution, will reportedly help journalists travel to and stay at races, and more. 

Lots of outlets in this space — including many of the ones you probably read or watch frequently — pay paltry sums to writers and editors (if anything at all), which often aren’t livable wages in their own right. Plus, many people in F1 media (writers, photographers, podcasters, you name it) are technically independent contractors, which can open them up to a lot of other liabilities and out-of-pocket expenses. (For instance, it’s not uncommon in this space for journalists and photographers to pay their own way to get to and from race weekends and other motorsports events. That adds up quickly no matter what you're commissioned to do.)

All this to say, I get why there was so much competition given that only three spots were available on this F1 team in an ecosystem where opportunities like this don’t come around often. I sincerely hope this desk does well, not just because I deeply admire and respect Madeline's and Luke’s F1 work as a peer, but also because I hope to see more Formula 1 media sources thrive. I’d love nothing more than to see this group continue past the one-year mark and add more people to it. 

That said, if more white dudes are hired in the process, I might actually start yelling in all-caps, and I won’t be nearly as nice or generous in the midst of some incredibly obvious fuckery.

Someone Other Than Box to Box Films Is Making a Netflix Sports Docuseries

Netflix’s sports docuseries obsession will continue this summer — but Box to Box Films won't be the sole purveyor of all things ~athletic drama~: The NFL partnered with Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions and Patrick Mahomes’ 2PM Productions to create a show called Quarterback, which follows QBs Mahomes, Kirk Cousins, and Marcus Mariota during the 2022 season.

I was struck by the NFL’s press release on the subject, where the league made it clear that they intend for this to be an ongoing series focusing on different quarterbacks every year. It also said that this is the first time that QBs have been mic’d up all the time.

While football is a waaaaay bigger sport in the States than Formula 1, golf, or tennis and there’ve been plenty of successful football-related reality shows (and projects centered on major athletes) on Netflix, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw shades of Box to Box Films’ storytelling here. The NFL has also already started leaning into this ~mic’d up~ culture in other spaces (like TikTok) with a lot of success, so I’m curious about how that'll fare here.

Will I watch it? Eh, the jury’s out. I grew up in the South and went to a sports-obsessed high school that won everything; if I was going to like football, it would’ve happened by now. Besides, being a football fan would make me 0% Quirky™ in the States, and that wouldn’t be good for my rep. And no, I likely won't cover it for EF unless there was some obvious F1 or Box to Box Films angle.

A Quick Word About Extreme E

I’ve tangentially followed Extreme E (the FIA-sanctioned electric off-road racing series) from afar since its start and somehow ended up on their press list a year ago. Their third season kicks off soon, and I was struck by a recent email from them touting that the series had 135 million viewers last year, a 30% increase over their inaugural 2021 season.


There were only five races, but according to their own breakdown: There were 90.5 million viewers on linear TV and 44.5 million viewers watching on Extreme E’s digital platforms, including its website that offers livestreaming in most countries. About 40% of these folks watched races live, 33% did delay or repeated programming, and 27% watched highlight shows.

Another part of this press release that had me like, “Wait, what?”: “Moreover, the split between male and female viewers is 71% to 29%, respectively, which is significantly greater than the motorsport average of 90% males to 10% females.” Okay, where on Earth is that second stat coming from, and which series are they averaging here???

And a last pull from the email, which had me eye-rolling a little bit because I’ve seen plenty of other companies inflate numbers like this: “Beyond the dedicated race programming there was comprehensive news coverage generating over 900 million viewers globally and more than 30,000 press articles across the campaign.” Suuuuuure.

Odd math aside, I might take a closer look at Extreme E in 2023. I can’t promise much since F1, IndyCar, and Formula E eat up my life, but we’ll see.

Like what you see? Check out other recent Engine Failure issues, check out the EF website, join EF’s Patreon, and then forward this newsletter to a friend because you're a nice person who wants to see me ~succeed~:

And if you have tips, suggestions, theories, intel, gossip, or questions, tweet me, DM me, send me an email, or use EF’s anonymous tip box.
We’ve got the first Lewis fits of 2023 and they’re…low-key. But hey, it’s preseason testing. Nothing too big ‘n’ shiny.
Motorsports journalist Elizabeth Blackstock is eating her way through F1 races this year. Lando Norris reacts to the first four seasons of Drive to Survive. Here are the IndyCar drivers to root for this season. Esquire wrote its version of the “how DTS ruled America” article. Lewis Hamilton won a legal battle to…protect his right to prune some trees? Let’s talk about golf for 12 seconds now that we’ve covered Full Swing, including this feature on Anthony Kim, this roast of the LIV Tour, and this article on why the LIV Tour is in trouble already. The Athletic wants to know which sport will become the next F1 in the States. Guess who bought Lewis Hamilton’s old New York penthouse. New year, new rules for shortened races. Here’s how Valtteri Bottas became a gravel cyclist. We have the F1 Academy’s race calendar. Will AI take over Formula 1 strategy? Toto Wolf is ready to slay the 2023 season.

This week’s question: You can choose only one F1 driver as your single source of paddock gossip during the 2023 season. Who do you pick and why?

Submit your answer here.

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