The much-maligned Formula 1 Strategy Group meets today at Biggin Hill and there is a sense among the leading players that this is a meeting of much importance if F1 is to sort itself out a bit for 2017. Is there any real chance that some sensible decisions could emerge from it? Everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with F1 and few point out that fundamentally it remains sound. That needs to be said. F1, for all its faults, remains the leviathan of motor racing. It’s not going to die overnight. The primary problem at the moment, at face value, is that the races are too predictable. This does not make it a crap product. You cannot blame Mercedes for doing a better job than its opposition. You have to blame the opposition for their failure. The good news is that Nico Rosberg is fighting back against Lewis Hamilton so there is still a battle for the title.
For some – myself included – the solution to the problem lies not in change, but in allowing the formula to mature. Trying to come up with stunts to make F1 more viewer-friendly could backfire massively and changing the formula in an unwise way could not only add to the advantage of the best team, but also add to the costs involved. Thankfully wiser heads than those who proposed refuelling and customer cars seem to have prevailed and those ideas have been rightly binned. It is a good illustration of why people with no understanding of F1 should not be given a voice… (even if they happen to be in powerful positions). The wheel does not need to be reinvented.
Yes, there are some financial issues as well, but they could easily be solved if the FIA got up and fixed the mistake it made by not putting a cap on engine supply deals. That was dumb. The manufacturers are not making more money now because half the teams are not paying their bills… so arguments that this cannot change ahould not be accepted. The sport needs the smaller teams because it cannot ever trust manufacturers and sponsors. They do what they want to do and do not care if the sport suffers. This to give them power was a very unwise thing to do. It was also unwise to give the big teams more money, beyond what they can win. If they think they should be rewarded for long service to the sport that’s fine but they can earn extra money selling teeshirts and sunglasses rather than being given unfair advantages. F1 will only ever solve its problems by getting rid of the unfair advantage and getting everyone to sing from the same song sheet. The problem, of course, is that some people don’t want unity of purpose because they are only interested in power. This holds the sport back. There is plenty of money generated, and plenty more that could be made, but trying to come up with strategies when the structure needs fixing is wallpapering over cracks on the wall. The problems will not go away until the cause goes away.
When faced with predictability, the sport needs to be more engaging with the fans. It is, for example, absolutely the wrong time to be switching the good stuff on the official Formula 1 website behind a pay-wall. The sport is charging fans too much, both for tickets and for pay-TV. Numbers are falling as a result. This is because the owners want ever more cash out of the sport. They have had plenty and, from where I am sitting, the faster we get rid of the current lot, the better the sport will be. Any new owner would have the nous to understand that it is time to invest because the sponge has been squeezed too much.
The other structural problem is that the FIA has abdicated its role as the governor and protector of the sport, while losing focus of what is important to the federation. F1 defines what the FIA is. There are plenty of other organizations to introduce zebra crossings in Zululand. If that is what the management wants to do that is fine and merit-worthy, but they should concentrate on one job or the other. If that means resigning one role or the other, so be it. The sport needs people who care, not people with agendas.
The key point that many people seem to miss is that Formula 1 is exciting by its very nature – even for kids who fight virtual dog fights in outer space. The key thing is to get them to actually look at what F1 is doing and stop selling the sport to rich old men. A few extra mph is not going to make a great difference. A little more noise may get some people all a-twitter, but there is also evidence to suggest that it drives other spectators away. How many people are going to take their treasured toddlers to a place where they will get their ears blasted out?
Six years ago I wrote the following and I think it largely holds true:
I believe that all anyone wants is a more wholesome sport. Wholesome is a good word and F1 people often forget that out there in the real world most people live fairly wholesome lives. Yes, it is nice to watch TV soap operas and see people dealing with messed up lives, but that is only make-believe. F1 is real and so the soap opera element of the sport is not a good thing. If you want the big money from the corporate world these days you need to be wholesome. That is why NASCAR has sponsorships from the likes of Burger King, McDonalds and M&Ms in addition to the more muscular beer and home improvement brands.
Two years ago at the Motorsport Business Forum in Monaco Disney executive Lawrence Aldridge got up and spoke about why F1 marketing people were not achieving as much as they could be doing because they were not paying enough attention to the audience. He argued that 80% of all consumer decisions are made by Mums, more often than not with the kids in mind. Yes, Dad has his say and if he is a mad racing fan then Mum will agree to go to a Grand Prix to keep him happy, or at least let him go by himself or with a mate. But to a large extent Mums are being overlooked by F1 and that is just not sensible given their spending power. The success of the Roary the Racing Car TV show and the F1 in Schools programme are elements which are good for the sport and very Mum-friendly, but both of them are largely independent initiatives.
I think it is fair to say that for a number of different reasons F1 is underperforming in the entertainment market place. It needs to clean up its act, focus on the charisma of drivers like exciting Lewis Hamilton, the chirpy Felipe Massa, Jenson Button the playboy, the goofy Sebastian Vettel and the very popular square-jawed Mr Webber (a big hit with Mums everywhere). It has got nothing to do with morality. It’s just good business…