Everybody agrees that Formula 1 needs a revolution to stop decreasing fan numbers and shrinking global television audiences. But in an effort to cure the sport, Formula 1’s doctors pull out prescriptions for pills from the past. Is the 1000bhp-racing car the answer to F1’s problems?
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Formula 1’s top decision-makers, Jean Todt, Bernie Ecclestone and the leaders of the remaining nine teams met last month in Paris to discuss 2017 rule changes and solutions to the sport’s shrinking fanbase, including more powerful engines, “harder-to-drive” cars and monster tyres. Behind these “revolutionary” measures for 2017 is a simple idea: to recreate a success formula that hit the nerves of fans thirty years back. When asked what their favourite period in F1 was, core enthusiasts and drivers alike fondly speak of the spectacular turbo era, flame-spitting cars with screaming V10 engines, heart-stopping wheel-to-wheel action and a lot of acoustic drama. So key players conclude from such (rather randomly collected) feedback that the solution to the many problems the sport is facing lies in the adaptation of mere car characteristics: suggested changes (that could be implemented as early as next season) includes removing the fuel-flow-rate limit, making cars wider, adding more downforce and better-performing tyres. But while I, as a Formula 1 fan, welcome every proactive measure that would help increase audience shares and attract new target groups at a time when F1’s future doesn’t look entirely sustainable, such suggestions do make me wonder whether the decision-makers will ever come to terms with the fact that, in order to reinvent F1, it is them who need to push the throttle harder, not the drivers.
Just how revolutionary is the insistence of an old system?
Historically speaking, revolutions are seldom initiated by the current rulers of society. But Formula 1’s hesitance to renew itself mostly stems from a resistance to renew its leadership and systematic blocking of anything that could be seen as a putsch attempt. Fittingly, the pro-retro lobby consists mainly of veterans of the 1980s era and some who have experienced the height of their careers during that time. But let’s just assume the solution does lie in turning back the wheels of time. If F1’s popularity in the 1980s is to be regarded as any sort of benchmark for F1’s future vision, we will need to look at matters a little more closely. 1980s Formula 1 was a different racing series altogether, and not just in terms of the technical regulations for the cars.
Popularity is hardly the drive for revolution or innovation.
Was F1 dramatic, thrilling and exciting because of the pure bhp output or the wider rear tyres? Or was it more exciting because it was the very first time that spectators had seen such powerful racing machines? Was F1’s popularity at the time due to the fact that there were fewer alternative activities available on weekends and less variety on TV? Or were F1 tickets more affordable back then and track access easier? Are the expectations of today’s generation that has been growing up with an incomparably more diverse media landscape and virtual experiences different from the expectations of fans in the 1980s? Was there another socioeconomic climate and political spirit that may have had an influence on the popularity of motor racing and, big engines? Has the F1 calendar changed between 1985 and 2015 and do fans in Asia have a different knowledge and mindset from F1 fans in Europe? Has the world changed?
These questions sound self-evident but they need to be addressed before measures are proposed and put into place that may look proactive, but are in reality just a way of doing things for the sake of doing things. Looking at issues from a business angle, what F1 is experiencing is no different from any other organisation that sees sales numbers decline, target groups wander off, and brand reputation plummeting. Frustrating as they are, these issues are common and there are measures against them provided you work with a little method. Usually, this is the point where the strategy and marketing departments come in and kick off with comprehensive global market research and detailed analysis of the problem including the good ol’ SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. Going on, they then try to answer two questions: what is our product about and how can we sell our USPs to our customers?
What is Formula 1 about?
Formula 1 spans a delicate bridge between heritage and innovation, between history and past. Its most powerful stories and memories will forever build the foundation of our admiration for this sport. This is why traditional teams and tracks are so important for the brand image. On the other side, Formula 1 has always been about renewal, too, albeit in a different way than the recent years under Ecclestone’s ruling have suggested. At the heart of F1’s constant renewal was always technical innovation. And at the heart of innovation is the will to progress, understand the challenges of the current environment and react to it with responses that are forward-thinking, radical and never before seen. Popularity is hardly the drive for revolution or innovation. But even the most radical ideas have the potential to inspire us because they show us something that we couldn’t have imagined, but that we find compelling and admirable. Of course, this depends – and here comes the crux – largely on the skills of people selling that innovation to us. But Formula 1 has neither marketing nor a sales department.
Recently, I spoke to a car designer who said something very interesting about innovation: “Asking customers about what they want is no reference for a designer because they can only ever refer to what they have already seen. If you follow their advice, you inevitably create things that have already been there. This is designing from the rearview mirror.” Isn’t this precisely the problem when you ask F1 fans and former drivers about what they are missing? They have no other reference but the things that they have already seen. But true innovation comes from a different mindset. It is looking beyond the things that are already on the market and showing possibilities that are relevant but not available yet. Formula 1 used to be like that.
When the 1980s 1400bhp monsters rocked the arena of Hockenheim with Niki Lauda and Alain Prost behind the wheels, turbocharging became a huge trend in the automotive industry because it dramatically increased power output and outperformed regular Otto engines. Back then, the performance was the decisive factor, not, like today, efficiency. With that in mind, new regulations and development investments for 2017 should primarily have the global need for innovative powertrain solutions in mind, not the cure to a sentimental problem.
But it is precisely this sentimental problem that lies at the heart of F1’s crisis. Technical regulations nowadays are no longer just a matter of finding answers to issues of safety, budget control or global technological standards, but also the overall entertainment side of things. The current discussion around 2017 regulations is one that evolves around marketing and sales issues. A commendable attempt in principle, but, like so often in Formula 1 (and other motor racing series for that matter), this discussion is overshadowed by various hidden agendas concerning revenues, control, power and lobbyism. Most of these suggestions make you wonder whether the sole purpose of the discussion is to create a little ground noise so that nobody can later claim that nothing was done to counteract. But before individual measures are communicated to the outside world, the overall vision should be clear.
Insecurity amongst the decision-makers creates uncertainty amongst the fans
The key players seem a little lost in their efforts to save the sport, not least because they allow the public to become witnesses of their insecurities, maybe willingly, in a desperate effort to provoke feedback and confirmation. But the public debate does not help Formula 1. Like in every other organisation, a struggling leadership fails to motivate and attract followers. On the same token, the habit of communicating contradictory rule changes irritates fans and is perfectly suited to turn off even the most fanatic of F1 enthusiasts: efficient engines, kinetic energy recovery systems and downsizing one day, the return of V10 engines and 1000bhp monsters the other. And overall, we are left with the feeling that most of these decisions have little to do with the health of the sport, and a lot to do with the wealth of certain individuals. Speaking of which, and coming back to the point I made earlier on about revolution, we need to accept that certain features in Formula 1 are outdated and merely a beautiful memory from the past. And maybe this applies to certain individuals also.
In order to solve F1’s problems, I recommend what I’d recommend to every struggling company that suffers from both structural and functional problems in a variety of areas: Firstly, work with an independent, external and objective team of consultants, market researchers, finance and marketing experts who dig a little deeper to uncover the real issues and provide comprehensive solutions to reach targets, taking into consideration all stakeholders and their requirements, but also the target groups and their expectations. In parallel, establish an internal marketing team that is solely responsible to develop and sell the product and work on a sustainable entertainment platform, together with the hosting countries and tracks. And thirdly, establish clear guidelines for communication that protects the brand identity and prevents negative messages from harming the product. That way the teams would be able to concentrate on the competition and the show and the rights holders would be able to provide a basis for measurable results and a clear vision for F1’s future. Luckily, no one’s asked me.