Reverse Engineering The Grid: Why Spicing Things Up Can Reignite Our Passion For Formula 1

Where’s the love gone?

There are two races in motorsport: the on-track battle and the off-track, commercial battle.

Growing up as a fan, I never really understood the latter. Why would I when so absorbed by the action and allure of a sport that I could only dream of being involved with? McLaren Honda, Williams Renault, Benetton Ford, Senna, Mansell, Schumacher; all iconic teams full of memorable brands, characters, action and international adventure – it was an escape that made me look forward to Sunday’s for more than just the Rosewell family roast dinner.

Monza 2020 was a watershed moment for me in the modern era of the sport, because for the first time in as long as I can remember, I fell in love with Formula One again…

Alpha Tauri team personnel celebrate their famous win

They’re just too good, aren’t they?

Now let’s be clear, Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Formula One Team are simply incredible. It’s one thing to win a World Championship, it’s a whole other thing to win six on the bounce and potentially seven by the end of the season!

Imagine the moving parts, processes, people, and leadership it takes to steer a ship of that size, scale and complexity. Over a thousand staff operating between the engine plant (Brixworth) and HQ (Brackley), not to mention the supporting parent organizations, partners and suppliers, all combining to deliver two incredible machines on the world stage that very rarely breakdown. It’s a feat of technical and organisational engineering excellence that is unmatched in the modern era. The problem is that, well it’s all a bit boring for the fans isn’t it?

Images taken from BBC Sport article (2013) and Sport Illustrated (2013).

The viewer statistics would certainly suggest so!

Data compiled from official F1 reports and media sources, including Forbes and Reuters

So, while we respect their incredible achievements and how these are both modestly and professionally communicated, today’s storytelling in Formula One has become somewhat stagnant and stale because of them.

“..the off-track battle has overshadowed the on-track battle for too long now”.

Week-in, week-out, commentators try to create new and interesting angles on the Mercedes trophy-munching dominance, how everyone else is trying to play catch up, as well as the behind-the-scenes political gesturing of other manufacturers – all generally dissatisfied with the state of affairs. In other words, the off-track battle has overshadowed the on-track battle for too long now.

So how do we instigate change?

F1 has already made BIG changes!

Before we look at the reverse grid sprint race, a little context…. Let’s remember that the current qualifying structure was not always as it is now and, in recent months, major structural changes to the sport have been agreed in order to level the playing field. Among them:

Prize Money

Adjusting the prize money format to reduce reward inequality issues and give the smaller teams a fairer share of the cake.

Spending Cap

Introducing a spending cap from 2021 onwards. This is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sport and dramatically level the playing field. Consider that Mercedes’ budget was around the $500m mark in 2019! 2021 will see budgets capped at $145m with further year-on-year reductions after that. An independent regulator will then oversee the adoption of these rules.

Technical & Operational Regulations

Changing the technical and operational regulations to promote ‘better, closer and more sustainable racing’ is another huge evolution for the sport and we’ll see the implications of these in 2022. Among many others, these include:

  • Design specs that reduce trailing car downforce by just 10% vs over 50% currently.
  • Teams being permitted fewer upgrades.
  • The use of some standardized parts simplified structures e.g. suspension.
  • It will be mandatory to use rookie drivers across several race weekends to ensure the next generation receives ample track time.
  • A condensed race weekend will reduce costs and allow for more events.

ENGINEERED INSANITY Global Marketing Campaign

Punctuating a stark change in the way F1 engages with fans since the arrival of Liberty Media in 2017, ENGINEERED INSANITY was a global marketing campaign designed to shake up fan’s perceptions of the sport. With falling audience numbers and little to no engagement across social media, F1 was suffering from a rather passive approach to marketing and promotion and quickly slipping behind rival sporting competitions and events.

F1 launched the ENGINEERED INSANITY campaign in 2018. This, together with other marketing communications projects, has supported excellent social media growth.

Fortunately, the campaign (amid a sea of other changes to the way the sport promotes itself, including free YouTube highlights) has put fans at the heart of the discussion.

“F1’s event frequency has always been and will continue

to be one of its greatest strengths”.

With 70% growth on Instagram alone in 2019, in addition to 3.1 billion cumulative video views and 62% of new fans being under the age of 35, F1 is now one of the fastest growing sports online. Comparatively, other global sports such as the Summer Olympics or Cricket World Cup might achieve higher numbers, but do not occur year on year. F1’s event frequency has always been and will continue to be one of its greatest strengths.

The moral of the story here is that YES, F1 is home to some of the most incredible engineering on the planet and it is and should continue to be regarded as unique and special, but it cannot take its fans for granted. Research and development into the off-track commercial race are just as fundamental in today’s much more interconnected and digitally savvy world.

Reverse Grid Sprint Race

So, initially proposed for circuits where two races were set to occur back-to-back in 2020, teams would take to the grid in reverse championship order for a 30 minute ‘sprint’ race after the first Grand Prix. The finishing positions would then be used to start the second Grand Prix, thus (in theory) making things interesting for the fans.

The concept was blocked by a couple of teams voicing that the format makes somewhat of a mockery of the sport, however Monza has now put the subject back on the table.

It is true that F1 fans consider the sport to have a particularly unique DNA and are generally against gimmicks that could tarnish its rather elegant and elevated perception. As one Team Principal put it, “F1 is not WWE”. While that’s true, the fans need and deserve more…

Happy Fans = Commercially Sustainable Sports Model

The success of a sport is determined (for the most part) by the number of viewers / fans it can draw. Just as advertising effectiveness depends on the number of eyeballs (as well as many other factors of course), so too do televised sporting events. When a large audience is sustained and loyal, the entire business ecosystem of a sport can benefit tremendously.

Take some of the following short and long-term benefits to engaging a wider audience of fans:

· Merchandise sales increases

· TV rights negotiation leverage

· Commercial partnership (sponsorship) sales and renewals

· Commercial partnership activation (spend on guest events, content production, PR etc.)

· Team prize money increases due to more commercial partners and TV rights sales

· Grandstand ticket demand

· Hospitality experiences demand

· Licensing deals leverage

· Tourism investment – the number of people visiting a country off the back of races

It stands to reason then that motorsport should be doing everything it can to maximise the spectacle, but is the reverse grid sprint race the right way forward? In our next piece, we take lessons from racing series around the world (both motorsport and non-motorsport) to open the discussion more broadly and see if we can learn anything from the masters of competitive racing. Whichever way we go, its great to be in love again!

About the author

Gary Rosewell has run Sport 176, a freelance sports marketing business, since 2017. He recently published the Introduction to Partnership Marketing in Formula One bitesize commercial course and is a regularly contributor to Motorsport Engineer’s editorial and promotional work.

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