It is difficult to judge upon the missing appeal of Formula 1 if you don’t belong to the people whose appeal for the sport has ever gone missing.
But there is a still a lot of talk about the downfall of F1 and the discussion rekindles with every event concerning the sport, most recently the arrival of an underage rookie driver. Yes, Max Verstappen is young and yes, it is probably fair to ask whether he will manage to prove himself at the top. But some comments suggest that a 17-year old in F1 is just another sign of a „Mickey Mouse sport“ with mostly soulless pay drivers who hardly need any talent – just a bit of money and a few hours on the playstation – because ultimately, everything is determined by electronics and obscure rules. According to some fans this is part of why F1 is no longer what it used to be. Add to that the increasing technical complexity of the cars, an ever-changing rule set, political entanglements and the consequences of the money making machine that F1 is today – most fans feel a little detached and excluded from what’s going on and wish it was all as simple as back in 1989. No fuss, just simple, honest racing.
In Marketing and Communications we always refer to the target group that you address as a business, with your services or with your product. A company that doesn’t know their target group or, even worse, misjudges its target group, will undoubtedly fail on the market. In that respect, F1, as a brand, is no exception. And like with any other brand, loyalty and attachment to the product are mainly driven by emotions, not facts. But emotions have gone missing a little bit in recent years when all that fans hear is the tired one line responses from drivers who are overwhelmed with media activities and the same questions at every Grand Prix. Formula 1 has so much more to offer.
Admittedly, F1 is not as easy to follow as other racing series and a lot of its fascination only develops once you dig a little deeper and dare to step away from the visible action on track. I personally caught the bug when I started to speak to the engineers developing the cars and saw the excitement with which every single team member speaks about the elements that make or break the shared dream of a podium finish: the embedded software systems, tyres, aero package, crash structures, engine mapping, battery pack, drag reduction, race strategy etc etc. It doesn’t start or end with the driver. And he is not provided with some magic buttons on his steering wheel that push him onto the podium (and even if he was, these magic buttons would have to be invented by someone in the team!) In fact, there are so many technical and human elements that are decisive and determine whether you succeed or fail in F1, the challenge of all those elements working together perfectly is beyond our imagination. Contrary to common belief, F1 is indeed a team sport, not two guys battling each other in the same car. And maybe this team spirit and phenomenal trust in each other that is required to operate at the absolute edge of modern technology could be a key ingredient to telling meaningful stories and regaining respect and credibility for the sport. An honest shared passion is easier to grasp and identify with than a narcissistic one man show which is nearly as outdated as a screaming V12 engine. This year’s Football World Cup taught us a similar lesson with big named mega stars disappearing in favor of young and ambitious, yet down-to-earth teams.
Communication professionals and the media play an integral part in encouraging such content and delivering it in a way that speaks to the hearts of their audiences. The pinnacle of motorsport has to be innovative on and off track and it has to offer new levels of interaction with its fans, especially in a series spanning across the entire globe where fewer people can afford to be on site. Even in a world as technical as F1, the human angle still offers the most approachable identification platform and it soothes the disconcertment that many may feel over the complex regulations. This can easily be seen with the effect people like Claire Williams and Susie Wolff have had. And not just because they are women and skilled communicators. Interestingly, it has taken F1 some time to accept that females can be an integral part of the success of a team, and not just because of their positive PR effect. Some of the old structures need to be questioned and renewed and it is important to acknowledge that many of the teams are doing just that at the moment, eliminating the traditional strict hierarchies and replacing old with new faces. Max Verstappen might be one of them. But the reactions show that in a sport that innovates at such speed, there seems to be a somewhat slower pace and less acceptance for change on the human level.
The reality is that you cannot stop progress – you can only help direct it. Technology has changed our world and some of its effects have created a need for even more advanced technology and optimized mobility systems. So as much as we miss the golden era, we cannot put the drivers back into a life threatening fuel monster. Our cars have become more complex and the more technology we invent, the more we need to apply levels of control to guide it and to avoid nasty side effects. In F1 as much as everywhere else. Backwards is not a solution, and certainly not on a race track. But it is humans that are shaping this sport and its incredible technology and they are the ones developing and testing 24/7 behind the scenes to create solutions and innovations at an incomparable speed. F1 is not driven by money and politics. It is driven by passionate people and outstanding minds who thrive for victory as much as any of the incredibly skilled drivers in the race seats. None of them ever give up.
Fans are missing honest blood, sweat and tears. Formula 1 still has it all. At every age.
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