BLOG: Formula 1 Is Shifting Gear

Bernie Ecclestone is out. The man who worked extremely hard to make Formula 1 into the iconic sport of the 1980s, and even harder to keep it there, is gone. Around the Formula 1 community, rumours are already ablaze as to what new direction the sport will take. There isn’t yet any clear plan on what new direction this will be: strict season-to-season regulations around car design, engine power, parts manufacturers and driver ego size means the series will be unlikely to make dramatic changes overnight. The same players will be in broadly the same grid positions. The commentary will still involve shirted men talking about their preferred brand of rubber.

A big talking point. Credit: Formula 1

What’s more interesting however, is the notable silence from the Formula E community. As I wrote in a similar article last week, 2017 promises to be a baptism of fire not just for Formula E, but for motorsport in general. With Formula 1 in the process of a re-think at the exact moment Formula E is trying to work out who exactly the next generation of motorsport fans will be, or what motorsport is actually for on the assumption not many of us will be driving in ten years time, here are a few suggestions as to where motorsport needs to be going.

Motorsport Needs To Become Spectator Friendly

Fans watch a Virgin Racing car in Hong Kong from the only place that wasn’t cordoned off – the Apple store… Credit: South China Morning Post

Wingsuit flying is spectacularly awesome. As is skydiving, and bungee jumping, and helicopter skiing. However, whilst all of these firmly social-media-gen, GoPro user footage-enabled sports are incredible, they’re not actually spectator friendly. People don’t turn up to these events and physically watch them. So, there’s not a scope to buy tickets, and it’s harder to build a cult following.

This is partly geographical – extreme sports often take place in visually stunning, but inconvenient locations. Further, once you’re there, what’s there to actually see? The sporting component of the event is often so quick, the arena so restricted that those who turn up see very little of the action.

Motorsport needs to address this. Formula E is trying, with many of its tracks located as pop-ups in city centres – but many of these tracks are blockaded and cordoned off for safety reasons. You may live one block away, but you won’t see it unless you pay for a ticket.

If Formula E is going to capitalise on city centres, some forethought on pricing, or how to better play up the inclusion of the local population, is needed.

European motorsport could take a lot of cues from Nascar. Totally misunderstood by anyone outside of the US, Nascar’s fan experience – merchandising, media, the fan interaction and the stadium set up of the track has built the series a viable cult following. It’s the closest motorsport gets to a match day. The sport needs this.

There needs to be more discussion on what cars are actually for

Marrakech: Home of one of the world’s most famous race tracks, and increasingly sparse traffic in the new town..Credit: Pino Saurez

To paraphrase the famous adage about Middle East Oil:

My grandfather owned four cars. My father has two. I call an Uber. My son will have zero concept of car ownership.

Let’s not be shy about the fact that up until now motorsport has existed to sell production cars. Lewis Hamilton risks his life performing, modifying the design of his beard and crashing and burning with Rihanna so your uncle opts for the Merc E-Class over the BMW. We simply won’t be buying cars in the near future, so what exactly are we racing them for now? Why are we talking about tyre pressures? About rubber usage, and the slow, creeping realisation Eddie Jordan isn’t very bright? Motorsport stands on the cutting edge of tech and human reaction speeds. It invites debate on humans vs autonomous driving, on efficiency, design and machine aesthetics. But we need to re-purpose what the core aspect of motorsport is. In fact-

Motorsport needs a new, human cause:

Credit: Bongarts / GettyImages

Rugby has blazed a trail for inclusion in a traditionally ultra-macho sport. Female teams are heavily promoted, female pundits are involved in commentary. Gay players talk openly about being accepted. There’s an emphasis on everyone on the pitch being treated as equals.

It’s an ongoing campaign, but football has had a number of initiatives to stamp our racism, and has a highly proactive approach to including schools and local charities in its player academy programs.

The UFC has championed underdogs, new fighters and given female stars equal respect and status as their male counterparts. Motorsport needs a human cause. Given manufacturers are moving to electric motors, given much of the world’s population is affected by poor infrastructure, long distance journeys to find work, and pollution, the space is there for motorsport to develop solutions to some fundamental social problems, and build excitement around that too.

Motorsport needs to work out who its audience is.

Credit: James Allen F1

Bernie Ecclestone famously referred to F1’s key demographic as ‘Rolex Wearers‘. That isn’t exactly an inclusive approach. Various sports suffer from elitism and barriers to entry, but none so much as motorsport. When there’s no hope of affording a grandstand ticket, or of ever being involved in the sport personally (there are no casual Sunday leagues for single seater racing…), fans quickly get bored. Formula 1’s audience is an older, more affluent generation. To appeal to social media (regarded by other sports as central to their coverage, and by Bernie as ‘What Max got caught on‘) motorsport needs to find a new target demographic, and engage with them meaningfully.

Is this time to have a conversation about sports broadcasting?

Formula 1’s in hindsight bizarre success was from its positioning itself as a singular brand, that insisted on being shown wholesale, race by race, live. With TV viewing figures not just of formula 1 but across the entire spectrum down, with people talking ever less about prime time TV, and ever more about platforms, streaming and app views, the world of sport will inevitably, eventually change. Will there be a Sportflix? A cheap, subscription model purely for sports? More importantly, could motorsport – a previously ultra wealthy area that now badly needs a re-look on how it engages with the public, drive this?

Formula 1 is shifting gear. It comes at a time with the automotive industry as a whole is undergoing a massive, seismic and permanent shift. More car-related start ups have appeared in the last 18 months than the last three decades combined. The way we think about transport is changing. If motorsport can tap into that, they could run their fastest lap yet.