The honeymoon is over - but Liberty and F1 will be a happy marriage
Liberty’s honeymoon, it is clear, is over.
Plenty lately has told us so. The disputes over the future of engines, The drop in prize money for the first time in however long. Certain changes to ‘the show’, such as those involving Michael Buffer, not meeting universal approval.
The honeymoon always was going to end. Honeymoons always do. In this case F1 reality and politics were inevitably going to collide with its best laid plans, and pleasing all of the people all of the time is unattainable.
Bernie Ecclestone, for once, was on the money that perhaps also Liberty didn’t manage expectations. “They shouldn’t have made so many predictions as to what they could do,” he said recently.
Yet Bernie and others are starting to opine beyond that. That they don’t like where Liberty is trying to take F1 either.
“They need to wake up,” Bernie added elsewhere. “It’s almost like giving a dentist a doctor’s job. I’d always treated F1 as if it were a 3-star Michelin restaurant. It isn’t proper to treat F1 like a fast food restaurant. That’s the US standard. It’s far below F1’s. Everyone who has been involved in F1 for the last 40 years expects a higher standard.”
And after the Abu Dhabi race we had the latest manifestation, when a new F1 logo was launched. Now, I’m more historically nerdy than most (and older than a lot of you) but even I couldn’t pinpoint when the previous logo was introduced as it passed at the time with so little comment (the consensus is 1994). Similarly I cannot recall anyone expressing particular attachment to it prior to it entering the ether that Liberty was about to change it.
They need to wake up. I’d always treated F1 as if it were a 3-star Michelin restaurant. It isn’t proper to treat F1 like a fast food restaurant - Bernie Ecclestone
But the change was greeted roundly like the passing of a close family member.
At least one argument against was nonsensical – the well-worn ‘why change x when we haven’t changed y’. Well it’s possible to think about more than one thing at the same time – and all noises Liberty makes suggest it is seeking to improve the fundamental offering also. Changing the logo is by its nature low hanging fruit – easy and quick. Changing matters such as technical regulations and financial distribution is a hornets’ nest so takes longer.
The new logo is more of the emoji-friendly modern sort that many brands are moving towards. I thought it looked pretty good on a dark background such as in its intro film (I admit the red-on-white looks a little tacky). And, bottom line, it’s only a logo.
Yet more to the point, as someone or other noted amid logo-gate it’s hard to recall the last F1 change that didn’t result in a round of derision. The resistance to change is odd, given it’s hardly the case that things in F1 are going swimmingly. The declining interest, lack of competiveness, overtaking and fair financial distribution we know about. As well as the paucity of new younger fans attracted in lately.
Some inside and outside F1 advocate something like a return wholesale to 2004 – high-revving V10s, refuelling, the old logo…
Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be of course; “people always glorify the past,” noted Toto Wolff in this ilk over the Abu Dhabi weekend.
They will point out that TV viewing figures and ticket sales were higher in the early to mid noughties (though also the disappearance of F1's TV coverage behind paywalls hardly helps). But there is another thing going on herein potentially as the GPDA chairman Alex Wurz noted when the first fans’ survey findings were published in 2015.
“We have people who followed F1 for the first time in the 2000s, when there was refuelling, and they hark back to that era as the best – as all of us do for the times we first became interested in a sport.”
In addition Wurz observed that “there are no new fans to counter-balance their views”.
And while the past can offer hints simply aping the past is almost never the whole answer, in F1 as in anything else. The past has the benefit of existing, of tangibility, while the future always will be hypothetical. But the trouble is things always change over time.
We have people who followed F1 for the first time in the 2000s, when there was refuelling, and they hark back to that era as the best – as all of us do for the times we first became interested in a sport. And there are no new fans to counter-balance their views - Alex Wurz
“When sea changes are coming politicians rarely see them,” said Steve Richards discussing the political realm in his recent BBC4 monologues. “They look to the past for guidance rather than the future.
“No one knows what’s going to happen next but we do have a past to guide us – [but] it’s a treacherous guide.”
And there has been a sea change among young people in recent years. Their attachment to the automobile itself is in decline (in most developed markets the purchase of cars and numbers taking driving lessons and tests are falling). The young person’s expectations also have evolved in terms of how to access content and its interactivity.
And we had from Liberty one example of trying to attract young people as they are, rather than as they were, in the Abu Dhabi weekend with the final of the inaugural F1 eSports Series. For the uninitiated, this is the competition of the F1 video game.
You’re reading the words of someone who hardly can be described as a ‘gamer’. It is pushing a decade since I last played any video game in anger – even then I stuck to motor racing and football ones.
But believe it or not the action was absorbing, and had a thrilling conclusion as Brendon Leigh chased down Fabrizio Donoso and passed on the final lap in a stunning move. Much of the paddock was absorbed too. “Quite a big crowd out to watch the F1 eSports race. Really enjoyable. Genuinely great fun,” noted Will Buxton.
They weren’t the only ones. “The F1 media centre was as excited about the F1 eSports final as it is for some real races. Great final lap,” said Jonathan Noble.
“Big cheer in the media centre for Brendon’s move for the lead!! This is top stuff,” added Luke Smith of this parish.
We may recall also that one of Liberty’s aims when taking over was increasing the amount of F1 content outside of the on track sessions themselves, including between rounds. Well this provided three hours of live TV – three races plus qualifying sessions in a single weekend – and was broadcast also on the F1 Facebook page (at the last look it had 188,000 views). And that was just the final.
The F1 media centre was as excited about the F1 eSports final as it is for some real races. Great final lap - Jonathan Noble
Moreover it gets right to the matter of attracting young fans. An activity young people primarily participate in, interactive and accessible, both in content and participation.
An eSports competition isn’t all of the answer of course, or even a fair chunk of it. But it is a move in the right direction.
And Liberty knows it is a way in with the crucial demographic.
“It’s a massive opportunity for the Formula One brand and our interest in growing the fanbase and keeping a younger fanbase, engaging people in different ways and creating excitement,” said F1 commercial chief Sean Bratches during the eSports final coverage.
“We’re trying to broaden the scope of how fans can interact with Formula One.
“The opportunity to really engage in the pomp and circumstance around eSports being relevant to a much bigger audience and really broaden our fanbase in many many ways is encouraging.”
“We’re trying to activate this brand in as many ways as we can to engage as many people as possible, and this is one demonstrable example of how we can do that.”
As an observing Fernando Alonso noted too this has the great advantage of accessibility. We can only guess how many gazillion gamers there are around the world and this particular competition started with 60,000 entrants. “We all have a gamer inside,” Nando noted. The 60,000 figure only will rise in years to come.
It’s a massive opportunity for the Formula One brand and our interest in growing the fanbase and keeping a younger fanbase, engaging people in different ways and creating excitement - Sean Bratches
It might even provide talent for the real thing. All teams use simulators as a key part of car development and McLaren already has signed an eSport gamer up. Alonso’s now got his own eSports team. Super Formula and Super GT driver Jann Mardenborough started out in gaming.
While in this, and a few other things, things are moving apace.
“There’s more to come,” promised Bratches.
“There’s been so many opportunities I think that lay fallow in this sport, and so many opportunities to exploit they are manifold. We’re relaunching our digital platforms, brand new responsive web, social capabilities, we’re going to launch a live and non-live OTT product, we’re going to foster a greater environment around eSports, we’re going to launch four fan festivals in cities around the world, we’re going to broaden the opportunity for engagement with fans at the circuit.”
And no, before you shout, it’s not just about off the track either.
“We’re very focussed on the racing,” Bratches continued. “We want to make it more competitive than it is, we want to bring the back of the grid up closer to the front of the grid, bring more overtaking. We have Ross Brawn, he is developing a team to make it more exciting.”
Not all of its changes so far have quite worked (see the revolving podium in Mexico). We can debate the detail and the methods. There is a growing impatience in the paddock also for meat on the bones rather than mission statements. Although the goodwill therein remains for now.
But whatever else is the case it hardly can be said that Liberty’s not minded of the right things. It seems at least to get it. Not something that could be said indisputably of its predecessor.
And while of course the existing body of fans should not be ignored it’s also hard to understand what exactly they have to fear from this. More fans? Therefore a healthier and more sustainable sport?
Liberty’s honeymoon is indeed over. But the signs remain that its marriage with F1 will be fruitful.