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F1: Sport or a Marketing Exercise

Tim Goodchild On June 14, 2015

Many column inches have been written and opinions viewed on websites about what should be done with Formula One. Regardless of what is done, the best driver in the best car normally wins. Over the last twenty years the title has been split across nine drivers - having had four years of Sebastian Vettel domination we seem set for a period of Lewis Hamilton domination. In decades to come they will be looked back upon as legends of the sport although we may sit here right now and criticise the processional nature of what Formula One racing is.

There is no easy fix. The sport is governed by technical regulations which try to keep some form of parity between constructors who enter the sport. The problem is that with such small differences in technical and mechanical advancement, it costs many hundreds of million pounds to find that extra half-a-second of performance. This immediately creates a divide amongst the entrants. So an easy solution would be to put a budget cap on the teams. But how is that governed? Do they include driver salaries? Hospitality? Team personnel? Or maybe exclude those but limit the amount spent on making the car - so how should that be governed? Is every team going to have an independent auditor reporting to the FIA to make sure they aren’t spending more than they should. Then there is the question of how much the budget cap should be…

The budget for Ferrari this year is around $350m. Three hundred and fifty million dollars. To put two cars on a grid to go racing. It is obscene and ridiculous. Granted they have the infrastructure to afford it and receive more income through their commercial agreement with FOM (that’s Bernie Ecclestone to you and I) than any other team, but it makes it increasingly difficult for any new team to enter the sport and be competitive.

I started watching F1 in the early nineties. It was a time of driver aids, qualifying engines, and cars designed to last 200 miles with outright pace and performance key. There were at least 13 teams in any season and when there were more, pre-qualifying was needed. The races? Well, it was still the best guy in the fastest car winning but the “showbiz” element was perhaps greater and why we look back on this era with great fondness. Engines exploded, a greater variety of driver experience, the cars were harder to drive, less technology and purer mechanical cars were the norm. The minnows of the sport had a much greater chance of scoring points due to the fragility of the front runners.

F1 was perhaps less political also. There were many personalities within the sport who were more open to speaking their minds. Senna, Prost, Piquet, Schumacher, Hill, Villeneuve and Irvine all had their own persona and weren’t just an employee of a wider organisation. Today, you get the same soundbite out of every driver on the grid: “I’d like to thank my team.” Yes, we know that you are thankful to your fellow employees back at the factory - but please, save that for the Christmas Party. I want to know how you feel Lewis, Fernando and Seb. But today F1 appears to be more a marketing exercise for the key participants.

Take Mercedes for example. They came into F1 in 2010 and decided early on when the 2014 F1 regulations were confirmed they would start the design of the engine and car in 2011 - about a year earlier than other teams. Their investment is paying off in the greatest way - they are so dominant  now that we are already expecting them to win this years title and next. Their success on track has a direct relevance to how they are perceived as a road car manufacturer. Hamilton has just signed a £100m 3-year contract to take him through to the 2018 season. It takes Mercedes about 3 hours worth of worldwide sales to pay for his annual salary - in terms of marketing spend this is a cheap option. This marketing strategy is fully interactive, lives the values of the company and away from a Grand Prix weekend, he is known as Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 driver.

But what happens when it goes sour? Red Bull Racing came into the sport in 2005 having bought the Jaguar F1 team. Through many millions of pounds of investment and key technical hires (namely Adrian Newey) they have won four drivers and constructors titles through 2010 to 2013 inclusive. Now Mercedes are taking charge, Red Bull’s excitement for the sport is waning. Their engine partner Renault who they have won all their races with are being spoken of with great distaste and are openly slated for their poor performance.  Current talk is of Audi buying the team and Red Bull taking their “marketing budget” elsewhere as they look at the prospect of at least another 18 months of F1 misery.

Ferrari's vision of the future of F1So is there an answer? One of my biggest issues with the decision makers of F1 is their overarching desire to attract the non-fan to the sport. I understand why: more people watching = more sponsors = more money. The problem however is the current decisions being made are starting to turn off the core fans of the sport - if they go, then the sport simply goes with it. Take other sports such as football, cricket or tennis. I don’t hear of their governing bodies changing the rules of the sport to attract the non-fan. F1 needs to go back to the basics. We all want louder engines, simplified cars, and technical regulations that encourage all out racing. Those that watch the racing aren’t bothered about hybrid engines, fuel saving and fly-by wire technology. All we want to see is the best drivers racing against each other. Sure the best will always win, but how they get there is the entertainment. Get that right and you won’t need gizmos and fads (double-points, medals instead of points etc) - the excitement of the sport will attract a new audience. Whether we need the dramatic new look cars as proposed by the concept from Ferrari (right), we will see.

The sad thing is, I cannot see that happening under its current management. I hear there is an annual event this weekend where the race last 24 hours. That must be exciting…

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