Asteroid on its way

Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – Hungarian Grand Prix – Qualifying Day – Budapest, Hungary

We’ve reached the point where a significant number of racing drivers will be looking at their bank balances and realising that they’re not going to get through to the end of the season. The coffers are empty! In most cases, this is likely to be the result of poor cost-estimating and planning at the start of the campaign or simply insufficient sponsorship to cover the season. It’s not only in the junior categories that this happens; you can be pretty sure that a couple of F1 teams will be looking nervously at their financial standing for the remainder of the year. The big difference with F1 is that a no-show at subsequent races just won’t be an option for them.

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The reason I know what’s happening is that there’s been a marked increase in the number of emails and phone calls I’m receiving from drivers, managers and parents, asking for my help to secure more sponsorship before the end of the season. It happens every year around this time. A couple of young race drivers have recently introduced me to their “managers”. Somewhat amazed that they need them at the level at which they are competing, I asked whether these “managers” had the ability to secure meaningful commercial sponsorship. Oh no, I was told, that’s not a part of their remit. Then I discover that their fathers are paying the manager a whopping great fee to manage their sons without any serious expectation of sponsorship coming in.

It’s my opinion that all a young driver needs in his early days is the help of someone who can find the money. Ideally, lots of it, because sad as it may seem, it’s money that will pay for the best team, for the most practice, for the most simulator time, for the right fitness expert and so on. Experience has shown me that it’s only as the young driver seriously rises up through the ranks that a professional manager needs to become an essential part of their entourage.

I’ve worked closely with Ford Motor Company over the past twelve months in respect of providing sponsorship acquisition training for their Formula Ford Championship drivers. On the same day, Louise Goodman has been providing excellent training in media presentation skills, another essential area of a driver’s commercial performance. Many of these young drivers are fortunate to be funded, directly or indirectly, by their parents. They also benefit from Ford Motor Company’s forward-thinking in providing professional skill training at this early stage of their racing careers. I wish I’d been given access to high-calibre professional sponsorship and media skills training when I was their age. I know one thing for sure; I’d have grabbed it with both hands! You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I saw that although Ford go to a lot of trouble and expense organising this free service to their championship participants, there are still some drivers who find it irrelevant, inconvenient or just so low on their list of priorities that they don’t bother to turn up.

Not enough pressure is being exerted by competition licence holders to do something about the crisis that the sport is facing.

It really is beyond me! Yet these same drivers tell me that they would never think of missing their fitness training, simulator practice, driver training sessions or even dietician meetings. So why is that when they’re presented with the chance to learn skills, which will stand them in good stead throughout their career and help them move up the ranks, they don’t seize it? Maybe its complacency or perhaps apathy or is it just laziness, I’m not sure. What I do know is that drivers like Dino Zamparelli, who currently races in GP3 with the backing of a major sponsor, Bristol Sport, didn’t waste the chance to learn the business of sponsorship acquisition when professional training was presented to him by the BRDC. It’s what is called determination. I hear so many drivers talking about “total focus” being important. It’s easy to talk about it, but in practice that’s often all it is, empty words.

You’re probably thinking I’m being too hard on young people trying to build a career. I don’t think so. No-one forced them to consider racing as a career. When they sign up to it, they should realise that like acting, it can be a perilous career financially. It can also provide rewards of immense proportions to a small minority, but there is a price to pay. Young racers don’t have a God-given right to expect the business sector to support their dreams. They must be prepared to work in every aspect of their career and like it or not, sponsorship is a massively important part of it. So when the chance comes to learn at somebody else’s expense, why shoot yourself in the foot and miss out?

Having made that point, I must then say that I don’t think it’s all the fault of the drivers. It goes far beyond that. I believe that we are facing a major crisis in motorsport, a situation that just seems to be accepted by so many people. It’s not just a lack of widespread interest from the business world, it goes much deeper than that, but I want to look specifically at the absence of corporate funding in motorsport, whilst other sports are revelling in sponsorship. Too many in our sport will tell you that “it’s always been like this” as if that makes it right. The symptoms of the crisis to which I refer include fewer sponsored drivers, shrinking grids in many series and falling attendances.

Sadly, well-funded programmes like Red Bull’s, for young drivers, are few and far between. The stark reality is that for many talented drivers, single-seater racing effectively ends after Formula Ford, which is, without doubt, one of the best supported and most realistically budgeted categories available to young drivers. The step to GP3 suddenly ups the ante considerably, with estimated budgets in excess of half a million pounds. Then with GP2 at around £1.5 million, it doesn’t get any better! These are levels of funding that scare all but the really wealthy parents. At this stage, talk in the household invariably starts focusing on that old adage of it being “time to consider getting a real job”.

Some parents might explain to their youngsters that it’s not so much a case of giving up the F1 dream, but rather looking at other opportunities to develop a career in motorsport. After all, they might argue, wouldn’t it be a more practical idea to seriously consider racing touring cars or sports cars? Who knows, if you’re good enough maybe DTM will beckon.

Good an alternative as it might be, touring car racing at a serious level is not inexpensive, so the same old funding problems still exist. Although budgets to progress in saloon and sports car racing are considerably lower than taking the F1 route, we’re talking about sums of money that are still way out of the reach of most ordinary families.

Three things worry me about this: firstly, at a time when perception is so important to businesses, more companies are becoming seriously concerned that motorsport is increasingly perceived as an elitist sport, the preserve of “rich” kids. It’s difficult to argue against this and it flies in the face of their increasingly important corporate social responsibility criteria. As a result, sponsorship is becoming more and more difficult to secure at all levels, up to and including F1.

Secondly, I fear that motorsport is in danger of becoming a dinosaur and we all know what happened to them. Smaller grids, less entertainment, lower attendance figures, risings costs. The signs are there. An asteroid is surely on its way!

Finally, I believe that the governing body of the sport, the FIA, through its national motorsport associations are continuing to miss a huge opportunity to promote and sell motorsport as a powerful, measurable, relevant and sustainable business marketing tool.

That’s easy to say but how could this be done? I know exactly how I’d go about it and have plenty of innovative ideas that I’m sure would help. The problem is, however, that I’ve been told before, on several occasions in fact, that the FIA doesn’t see it as being its responsibility. Until that attitude changes, the status quo remains. I personally feel that governing bodies do have a responsibility to make it easier for corporate sponsorship to flow into the sport and that they are better equipped to do this than most organisations in motorsport. In some other sports, it has been shown to work well, so it can be done.

It’s not about expecting them to find funding for individual drivers or teams. It is about promoting the business development capabilities of the sport in a generic way to the business sector through a structured, professionally designed campaign. It’s about demonstrating how the sport can still deliver innovative entitlements that are relevant to the needs of businesses in this rapidly changing world. It’s about convincing companies that motorsport can offer programmes that include large elements of corporate social responsibility. It’s not rocket science for goodness sake!!

Help is needed at virtually every level of motorsport, so you’re entitled to ask the question of why this hasn’t been done before. That’s simple to answer; it’s because not enough pressure is being exerted by competition licence holders to do something about the crisis that the sport is facing. Everyone moans about rising costs, lack of sponsorship and a fall in popularity, but does anyone do anything constructive to change the situation?

You may think that I’m a doom and gloom monger, let me stress that I’m not. I consider myself to be one of the most positive and enthusiastic practitioners in motorsport marketing and see a tremendous future for motorsport, but unless the “product” that companies are being asked to buy into as a marketing tool relates to what companies seek to achieve in this ever-changing world, there won’t be a future for our sport.

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