The recent Spanish Grand Prix marked the start of a whole raft of new ideas that have been pushed by Sean Bratches, the new Commercial Director of F1. His goal is to create a more fun environment for Formula 1 fans, and to give them experiences that will bring them back to the races each year. And, in a way, this is humanising Formula 1 after years of austere rule under Bernie Ecclestone and his cohorts. The circuit was bustling with life & enthusiasm, and the general attitude was positive. F1 is on the move again, and that’s a good thing after too many years of what now feels like Soviet-style control. In F1, the wall has come down!
Ticket prices remain a problem in some places, especially at circuits with considerable seating capacity – such as Hockenheim, which can fit 120,000 people. Many a time, the grandstands are empty – despite offering a good view of the action in the Motodrom section, which underlines the fact that the tickets are overpriced. If the prices are dropped and the events better promoted, revenues could be driven upwards. Liberty Media’s first Fan Festival featured a wide range of activities and spectacles, including racing simulators, a zip-line, pit stop challenges, DJs, robots, artists and even tee-shirt guns that fire merchandise into the public areas. There was also a dedicated fan television channel offering live Formula 1 interviews, expert insights, and exclusive appearances by drivers new and old.
The old Paddock Club has evolved as well with the new F1 Experiences programme, which will include the chance to get into the paddock and have photographs taken with the drivers, as well as the chance to ride in the F1 two-seaters with former F1 drivers Zsolt Baumgartner or Patrick Friesacher. This amounts to an 11th team, which has 39 employees, uses much of the old Manor F1 equipment and is run by former team owner Paul Stoddart and managed by Keith Wiggins, another former F1 team boss. There will also be show cars, tracks laps in fast cars, displays, and even the chance to ride on the truck used for the Drivers’ Parade.
This super VIP package, which will sell for up to $25,000, may also include luxury transportation in F1 Experiences-branded plane. A Boeing 737 has already been painted in F1 Experiences colours, and will be used to transport the 39-person crew that’s running the two-seater programme. This is all being provided by Paul Stoddart, who has a fleet of F1 two-seater cars and also runs a successful aviation business.
“Formula 1 is undergoing a major evolution, and the Spanish Grand Prix is a landmark moment in the brand’s history,” says F1’s Sean Bratches. “From the outset, we have focused on getting fans closer to the action and broadening the appeal of the sport. The launch of this weekend’s Fan Festival marks the beginning of this journey.”
There is expected to be merchandising aimed at different budgets, with luxury products available in a boutique in the Paddock Club and a tented superstore in the public areas, where fans will be able to buy not only F1-branded gear and event collectibles, but also team-specific merchandise. Not all of the ideas will be retained, but the ones that work will be developed.
The change of mentality also flows into the world of broadcasters. These are often owned by large international conglomerates, and thus there are all kinds of potential synergies that can come into play. Canal+ in France, for example, has the pay-TV F1 rights, although it has just agreed to allow there to be a parallel free-to-air deal at a few races each year. The channel is part of the Vivendi-Universal group, one of the world’s largest multinational mass media empires that’s involved in the music, television, film, video game, telecommunication, ticketing and even video hosting businesses. If Liberty Media wants a big music act to play a Grand Prix they can get one very easily and can also build up business between Vivendi and Liberty Media subsidiary Live Nation, which sells tickets and controls venues, while Vivendi can supply the acts.
Germany’s RTL is another example, as part of Bertelsmann, another media giant, which started out as a publishing house, its divisions including Penguin Random House and Gruner + Jahr.
The same opportunities can be found with US broadcaster NBC, a division of NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of cable company Comcast. This owns TV and radio stations, movie studios, including Universal and Dreamworks, plus theme parks and resorts and digital properties such as the Hulu video streaming website. The opportunities for the sport to benefit from its partners and to create win-win situations are immense.
That’s the business side, but winning the hearts of the public is another matter. But, in Spain, we saw that there’s some clever thinking going on. When the television cameras picked up a small boy in the crowd weeping after seeing Kimi Raikkonen colliding with Max Verstappen and retiring at the start of the race, Formula One Management went into action and sent out people to find the young Ferrari fan and take him (and his parents) to meet Raikkonen. And so, later on, they were able to show the same child looking happy watching the race with Kimi. Raikkonen gave him a pair of racing boots as a gesture of goodwill. This was a major talking point during the telecast and portrayed Formula 1 in a completely different way to its previous hyper-exclusive image – wanting to make fans happy, rather than trying to keep them out. There are some downsides to open paddocks and some of the support race teams are worried that there will be free access to their areas at some races, where, in the past, thieving has been a serious problem. However, as an exercise in public relations, this was a work of genius…
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for 29 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.