Latest posts by Charlie Widdicombe (see all)
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It is exactly 18 months since Liberty Media finally wrestled ownership of Formula One off entrepreneur Bernie Ecclestone after 30 years at the helm of the sport. The new owners were met with excitement and scepticism in equal measure; would the sport with a bedrock of European heritage lose its traditional values under American leadership, or would they invigorate the sport with exciting racing and attract a wider audience? Here’s an insight into what Liberty have changed so far, on and off track, and what steps might need to be taken to ensure a successful future for the sport.
Off Track- Modernisation, Marketing and Maintaining Heritage
It’s clear that Formula One has two main priorities in terms of its target audience; prevent the traditional fanbase from becoming disenfranchised, whilst engaging with a fresh audience, particularly those of a more youthful disposition.
Over the past year, the latter of these targets seems to have been addressed in a number of ways. Formula One unveiled a new logo for 2018 for the first time since 1993, and it was immediately clear in pre-season that YouTube videos had undergone a similar transition. The choice of music, fonts and visual transitions suggested that the sport’s marketing had been immediately modernised. The official Formula 1 YouTube channel has regularly produced videos reviewing past races since 2015 and Liberty have continued this with a modern twist, intelligently engaging new fans in the history of the sport whilst showing that the sport maintains its core values of excitement and drama in racing.
A new, custom-made theme was written by Brian Tyler, composer of the music for The Avengers, Fast and Furious and many other films, with a music video that brilliantly shows off the most historic, emotional and dramatic moments of the sport. The sheer excitement of Mansell’s tyre blowout, drama of crashes such as Alonso in Australia 2016, and the emotional reactions to Senna’s death contrasted with his pure elation of winning his first world title in 1988 are effective with or without context- appealing to both f1 enthusiasts and newbies.
“Fan zones” have been recent additions to many circuits on the F1 calendar, providing an interactive experience in the hope of engaging a younger crowd and providing value for money on tickets which can cost around £150 for the cheapest areas.
On Track-Entertainment and Extreme Costs
It’s fair to say that making fundamental on-track changes is naturally proving harder than some of the above, off-track alterations.
In terms of the tracks themselves, a 21-race season is the largest in history, but tracks such as Silverstone and Monza are struggling to secure deals for future races because the price is too high. Bernie Ecclestone was a ferocious negotiator and his prices for hosting a race meant that the Nürburgring and Hockenheim are only able to host a race every other year. It remains to be seen if Liberty can broker deals that secure the most prestigious races on the calendar.
The 2018 season has had juxtaposing races- add an unexpected variable, such as a virtual or full safety car, and varying strategies make the remainder of the race fascinating (such as in China, Azerbaijan and Silverstone). However, without this, races such as Monaco and Spain have been drab and lacking in overtaking. The lack of overtaking in the sport has remained a serious issue for years, and if Liberty are able to somehow solve this then they could be onto a winner.
The entertainment factor of this season has also been heightened by Ferrari and to an extent, Red Bull, producing competitive cars that have won multiple races on merit and threatened to dominate Mercedes’ 4 year dominance of the sport. The 21st century has been dominated by a particular car and driver romping to championship after championship (Schumacher and Ferrari 2000-04, Vettel and Red Bull 2010-13, and Hamilton/Rosberg and Mercedes 2014-17), and so any year in which there has been serious competition between teams has naturally proved the most enthralling.
The closeness of the top 3 constructors this season is not down to Liberty- but how could they maintain this and bring other teams closer to the pace of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull? There are two fairly clear actions that can be taken here. First, there’s no need to go through a major rule change; it inevitably mixes up the pack for a year, but there’s almost always one team that has interpreted the regulations far better than the others, leaving other teams scrambling to catch up- and this can take years.
Secondly, a cut on costs would make a large degree of sense. It’s no surprise that two committed manufactures and a very wealthy team in Red Bull (who have enough for their own F1 “B” team in Toro Rosso) are at the front, whilst teams such as Williams are literal miles away come the end of a race. With more races than ever before and the complicated hybrid engines costing extortionate amounts, a cost cap will bunch the field together and prevent team lacking resources to reach the podium, never mind a win or a world championship.
So far, Liberty have made some effective quick-fixes in order to engage and expose F1 to as many consumers as possible. However, the next 18 months are likely to define their longer-term plans and are absolutely critical for the future of the sport. Above all else, they must focus on the overall costs of the sport, or risk losing fans, teams and circuits.