Some lessons for F1 from NASCAR's return

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NASCAR returned to racing on Sunday at Darlington Raceway with an event held behind closed doors to everyone but essential personnel.

F1 hopes to do similarly at the start of July with an Austrian Grand Prix at an empty Red Bull Ring. If that event is successful, F1 has a provisional schedule including follow-up events at Silverstone and the Hungaroring.

So, what could F1 learn from NASCAR's comeback event?

No fans, no problem

While the return of the Bundesliga highlighted the importance of the live audience to a game of football, it had less of an impact during NASCAR's race at Darlington. It was hard to ignore the empty grandstands early on, but once the race was in full swing, it didn't really matter. The sound of the engines meant NASCAR did not have voices echoing around the arena like the stadiums hosting German football matches at the weekend, a jarring thing to hear over 90 minutes.

The key is the way the race is presented. Football's fans surround the action at all points, looking down on the pitch, and as such they almost feel like part of the broadcast. In racing, broadcasters can lean on clever camera work to minimise the impact, with on-board camera shots and, in NASCAR's case, cameras inside the car looking at the driver.

A behind-closed-doors race would be a perfect opportunity for F1 to experiment with new types of camera angles and ideas, such as a driver talking to a commentator before or during a race. That might seem strange or unprecedented, but we are living in strange and unprecedented times.

All of this is not to say F1 would be better off racing at empty circuits, of course, but what Bundesliga and NASCAR proved is that something is better than nothing.

Make more use of drivers' content

After crashing out of the lead, Jimmie Johnson posted to his social media from inside his trailer, with the rumbling of the engines in the background. The video was soon shown in place of an ordinary interview in front of TV cameras.

This would be an easy win for broadcasters during a behind-closed-doors race, with media coverage unlikely to be anything like it was previously. That's an easy one, but it could go further.

One issue with a race as long as NASCAR's is what to do when the race is between its dramatic or interesting moments. The commentators did a good job with what they had, but at points, as with any motor race, the coverage felt as if it needed an injection of energy that a long train of race cars simply can't inject on a lap-by-lap basis.

NASCAR was onto something with one technique it employed on a handful of occasions, best demonstrated three laps from the end as Kevin Harvick closed in on victory. While riding on board his car, the broadcast then switched to a short video of Harvick's wife using a leaf blower to dry his hair and clean up after a trim.

It might have been curiously timed so close to the end of the race, but the thought was a good one and it's surprising NASCAR didn't employ that kind of thing more during such a long broadcast.

During this spell of lockdown we have seen even more of F1's drivers than ever, and short, funny videos -- a montage of Charles Leclerc's funniest moments on Twitch, for example, or Alex Albon screaming "George!" at George Russell repeatedly driving into him in various games -- would be a perfect way to fill some of the quieter moments that inevitably occur in an F1 race. Not only does it give broadcasters a different talking point beyond the usual close-ups of fans or VIPs in the paddock (who won't be at F1 races for the foreseeable future) but it's all basically oven-ready content.

This isn't just a lesson for behind-closed-doors races, either, as it is a perfect way to show the personalities of F1's drivers to its peak audience on a week-by-week basis.

The world's new rules need to be respected

One oddity of the NASCAR race was what happened with the driver spotters around the midway point. As with IndyCar, NASCAR drivers rely on a series of spotters around the arena to advise them on the ideal driving lines to take and where rival cars are in relation to their own. At one point, the broadcast showed this group had bunched together opposite pit road.

NASCAR soon asked the grouped spotters to respect social distancing practices properly and spread out again, which they did.

It was clearly an honest mistake and NASCAR did a good job reacting quickly and effectively to it. It is important to go into these events with an open mind that things like this are inevitably going to happen at some stage, but reacting in the right way is crucial. F1 found this out the hard way at the Australian Grand Prix -- no-one objected to the race being cancelled in the circumstances, but they did object to how long it took for a decision to be made.

Comeback events will be under considerable scrutiny from the wider public, and moments like this will circulate quickly on social media. One of the main stories of the Bundesliga's return was Hertha Berlin players hugging and kissing after one had scored a goal. While that and the NASCAR spotters incident might seem minor, they are the exact sort of negative story that could undo any goodwill a series could create from a big return event.

The postrace ceremony needs to change

One thing F1 cannot do is stick to the usual postrace ceremony just because that's the way things have always been.

After the race, NASCAR still interviewed Harvick with his car parked on the circuit, with a microphone on a stick, and then it became painfully obvious he was in front of a completely empty grandstand -- Harvick even referenced this in his interview. This isn't a criticism of NASCAR, as the series did a great job presenting the whole event under the circumstances, but it was hard to escape that this didn't come across the same way it might have in 'normal' circumstances.

When an audience is used to seeing something a certain way, a change of key ingredient can be hard to ignore. For example, were an Italian Grand Prix at Monza to happen later this year with no fans, then three drivers or a race winner celebrating on a podium over an empty racetrack would look horrible compared to how it normally is.

Failing to embrace the world's new normal doesn't come off well. For example, the WWE has been running regular events -- including its flagship show WrestleMania -- in a small, empty arena, but one oddity has been how its performers will still occasionally act as if they are performing in front of a live audience. Behaving like this is completely unnecessary when everyone knows there is no audience, and knows why.

During the NFL draft, commissioner Roger Goodell announced every pick at his house in front of a screen full of fans of that team making noise. He even encouraged those fans to all boo him in unison at one point. It was a small thing, but better than him doing it from a podium in an empty building as if it were just a regular broadcast of a draft.

The postrace celebration is a good chance for F1 to think outside the box in terms of how it presents the winner with the trophy and how it marks the conclusion of races that will go down in history for just how different they were.