There have been times during the past few years when Formula 1 seemed determined to bring about its own decline.
While its competitors were embracing the 21st century, F1 remained largely static for the best part of a decade.
It shunned social media and TV innovations while rejecting efforts to expand its following. Instead, F1 focussed on tried and tested methods, short-term financial wins and an ageing fan-base with dependably deep pockets.
There are signs that this is changing. Following Liberty Media’s takeover in January 2017 the sport appears to be making efforts to modernise, breaking with how long-time F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone did business.
That a former second-hand car dealer from Bexleyheath would run the sport differently to an American mass media corporation is hardly a surprise. While Bernie’s approach worked during the boom times – when F1 had few global rivals and money was pouring in from tobacco sponsorship – it looked increasingly ill-suited to a world of mass-communication and wall-to-wall entertainment.
Ecclestone was famously dismissive of younger fans – younger, in Bernie’s lexicon, meaning anyone not yet old enough to draw their pension – stating in 2014 that he’d rather reach “the 70-year-old guy who's got plenty of cash”.
That works if your only interest is making money over the next five years – and, for former owners CVC Capital Partners, it probably was.
But it completely ignores the fact that the wealthy men and women of tomorrow need to be hooked on a sport today, while they are young, to ensure long-term loyalty. Many routes F1 took towards the end of Bernie’s reign flew in the face of this logic.
Liberty have taken a different approach and are plainly seeking to attract a new generation of followers – though whether they’re going about it the right way remains to be seen.
THE GRID GIRLS FURORE
The change that has attracted most attention, while making zero difference to F1 as a sporting spectacle, is the decision to stop using grid girls in 2018.
This was a front-page story when it was announced in early February; the subsequent news that “grid kids” will take their place, similar to mascots in football, received considerably fewer column inches.
It became a minor PR disaster for F1. The word “ban” was used across the board when, in reality, the sport has simply stopped hiring a group of freelancers. This is absolutely par for the course, but it reached farcical levels when some began asking whether F1 should compensate the women for lost earnings.
But for all the hand-wringing about the sport being governed by political correctness, this was a decision based on what does and does not sell.
In the official announcement, F1 commercial chief Sean Bratches said that grid girls do not “resonate with our brand values”, which is marketing speak for “they were bad for business”.
Evidently, there is a belief – based, you would presume, on research – that the continuing use of grid girls would do more harm than good in attracting fans and sponsors to F1. Had Liberty concluded that grid girls were good for business, they would surely still be around.
There was perhaps a middle ground to be reached here, but ultimately the anger at this decision is largely limited to a demographic that F1 already has nailed down. Introducing grid kids is an easy win, because it takes a special kind of cynic to feel angry at children being given VIP access to a sport they love.
Still, the process was badly managed. Why the week-long gap between announcing the withdrawal of grid girls and the arrival of grid kids? Delivering this as one piece of news would have been an easy way to alleviate negative publicity. To put that in marketing speak, it seems like a no-brainer.
In another significant break with the Ecclestone era, 2017 saw F1 launch its own virtual championship. Suffice to say, Bernie was not an avid gamer.
At the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, 20 competitors fought to be crowned the inaugural F1 eSports Champion, with 18-year-old Brendon Leigh emerging as the winner.
While not everyone agrees that a sport of F1’s stature should give gaming such importance, it is a clear attempt by Liberty to engage new fans. It’s also nothing new: Formula E held its own virtual event at the start of 2017.
Let’s return to Ecclestone’s belief that F1 should focus on the wealthy 70-year-old. The person in question probably fell in love with motorsport as a teenager, when there was a culture of young people – predominantly men – travelling to race circuits at weekends to watch whatever was on.
That no longer happens to anything like the same degree. Fashions have changed and there are a wealth of alternatives that make standing on a rain-sodden bank at Silverstone seem rather less appealing.
If you see a teenager at a race circuit in 2018, chances are they’re with their dad (who might even have his father in tow as well). On the plus side, female interest has increased in recent years.
Nevertheless, F1 needs a new pool from which to draw fans and it stands to reason that the world of online gaming is a very good one. This group is predominantly male and in their mid-twenties, so effectively the same people who would have stood on a bank at Silverstone in decades past.
But they’re not necessarily F1 fanatics yet – many will play the game without fully following the sport. By officially sanctioning its own e-racing championship, F1 is making a play for a community full of potential fans.
Among the smaller changes that Liberty have overseen, a new F1 logo was launched at the back end of last year.
It is not an especially inspiring piece of work and bears a close resemblance to another brand’s own design, albeit in a completely different industry. Above all, this is about Liberty putting their own mark on the sport and breaking with the past.
New race start times will also be introduced this year in an effort to arrest F1’s recent decline in TV audiences.
2018 will see the sport break a long-standing tradition of starting races on the hour, with every grand prix now scheduled to get underway at 10 past the hour. Several races will also start an hour later than in previous years.
The reasoning is simple enough. In some countries broadcasters go live on the hour, so effectively they join the action moments before the lights go out. This change will give them 10 minutes in which to build up to the action.
Liberty also believe that a greater TV audience is achievable later in the afternoon, hence moving some races back an hour.
This seems like a marginal gain at best. Perhaps moving races back two or even three hours would have made a greater impact, but no one would wish that kind of suffering on those who work within the F1 paddock.
If moving races back an hour is a marginal gain when it comes to viewers, F1’s current TV situation can be seen as having caused significant losses.
In particular, the move to pay TV has cost the sport several million viewers in its key European markets.
In the UK, F1’s heartland, 2018 is the final season in which half of the races will be shown on free-to-air TV; from 2019 onwards every race apart from the British Grand Prix will be shown exclusively on Sky Sports.
This is not dissimilar to the situation in Italy, home of F1’s most famous team and the iconic Monza circuit, where just four races will be shown on free-to-air TV this year. In Spain, where fans have national hero Fernando Alonso and the emerging Carlos Sainz Jr. to cheer for, there is no free-to-air coverage.
France will show four races on free-to-air TV – four more than in 2017 – while Germany has the best situation as national broadcaster RTL will show all races live.
The future is unclear. F1 plans to launch its own streaming service in the U.S., but its lucrative European deals will make this much trickier.
The real problem with pay TV – even more so with pay-per-view streaming – is that it only appeals to existing fans. Neither is any use when it comes to attracting new followers.
In the past it was possible to stumble upon F1 on free-to-air TV, get hooked and become an ardent fan. Many people who came to the sport this way are likely to have followed it over to pay TV. But with the sport behind a paywall that can no longer happen.
Cricket has suffered from a similar problem. After coverage switched exclusively to pay TV in 2005 participation levels declined dramatically.
They are different beasts – many cricket fans also play the sport, whereas few F1 fans are amateur racers – but they suffered from the same problem. If people can’t get hooked on free-to-air TV, chances are they’re never going to pay for it.
PLENTY OF WORK STILL TO DO
Liberty are evidently looking to change F1 and appeal to a more modern audience.
Not every move has been a hit, but it takes time to turn around a supertanker. It is comparatively easy for a new series like Formula E to make quick and visible adjustments.
Ultimately, however, what Liberty has overseen so far consists largely of superficial changes. To thrive, F1 still needs to improve its on-track product.
After all, this is a sport in which, if we’re being generous, perhaps half of the races are exciting. Another quarter will be average and the remainder are, to be frank, not worth watching.
In 2018 that is not a sustainable situation, but creating a genuinely competitive world championship is not easy. The only sure-fire way to do so is via drastic measures, such as extreme cost caps, putting everyone in the same cars, or introducing reserve grids.
Just as with the grid girls furore, this leaves F1 caught between tradition and the realities of the 21st century. There is the way things have always been done, and the way that makes most sense today.
Liberty’s approach to marketing suggests they favour modernisation. But will they have the courage to shake the sporting side up quite so dramatically?