How F1 Will Change Over The Next 2 Years
By Serge Vanbockryck, Media & PR Practice Leader, MSLGroup Brussels
On Sunday, in Melbourne, Australia, the World Formula 1 Championship kicked off for the 63rd year running. F1 is probably the most watched sports discipline on this planet for the last three decades. Now, the winds of change are blowing and the sport may just be headed back to where it began.
A Good Show
F1 has changed from an engineering-driven sport into a gigantic marketing and communications platform. Car manufacturers use it to build or revamp their image, as well as that of their backers. The technical relevance of the sport to the layman, i.e., with the cars you and I drive, has disappeared in favour of ‘a good show’. We have seen it happen as the rules have been constantly tweaked so the cars overtake each other on the track rather than while refueling. Environmental-friendly technologies have been ignored for eyeballs.
More recently, quite a few car manufacturers pulled out of F1. The harsh reality of the sagging global economy had made it increasingly difficult for motorsports directors to defend nine-digit budgets in the boardroom. They had attempted it year after year, without any guarantee of success, and without much relevance to their products, but it was not sustainable.
A quarter of a century ago, F1 was sold as the pinnacle of automotive technology but off late, it has completely missed the latest trends that are revolutionising the automotive industry. High-power diesel engines – like the ones Audi and Peugeot used in order to win the Le Mans 24 Hours at record speeds every year since 2006 – or hybrid engines – like the ones Toyota and (again) Audi will be using in Le Mans this year, have never been allowed in F1. Compare this to the fact that these days more people drive diesel cars than they do petrol cars, while the sales of hybrids are booming.
In fact, not so long ago F1 engines were strictly of a V10 configuration, while none of the manufacturers involved in the sport had such an engine in their entire range of road cars.
From 2014 onwards, the keyword at F1 will be ‘downsizing’. There will be smaller engines – 1.6-litre turbocharged engines, to be precise – similar to the ones in our cars. But don’t worry; they’ll still be as fast and loud as before.
Alongside this introduction of street-relevant technology, cost-capping will also take place. Manufacturers who left F1 have now discovered more product-relevant disciplines in which they can be frontrunners, and that too for a fraction of the money it cost them to be an also-ran in F1. And this, of course, has made the people in the boardroom happy again. The exercise for powers-that-be in F1 now consists of luring these happy boardroom members back to F1.
What Will Change
All that being said and done, the universal laws of marketing and communications will still remain very much in place. Global TV figures will still reign supreme; perception will still be reality, and if you win on Sunday, you sell on Monday. It’s as simple as that.
What will probably change over the next few years are the marketing and communications target groups. With the introduction of product-related technology, one no longer has to be an ‘anorak’ or a ‘petrol head’ to see the relevance of motorsports to your daily mode of transportation.
Manufacturers may even use F1 to market a popular family sedan, rather than an exclusive sports model. This, in turn, could bring the ‘family man’ back to the screens.
With capped budgets, I see the arrival of FMCG sponsors, to take the place of the seriously exclusive brands only available to those who hold a black credit card. In short: F1 could potentially make a U-turn and become the sport that it was in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, while still generating the same amount of business for all involved.
But wait a minute… Isn’t this what racing in America is about? Volume car manufacturers, promoting their road car technology in close racing, backed by products found in a kitchen cabinet rather than in a vault…
In NASCAR, America’s premier motorsports series, more money is allegedly being generated by the teams’ sponsors, through clever marketing, communications, advertisement and merchandising, than by car manufacturers, although they, too, get the fair share of the business. This just might just happen with F1 too!
Serge Vanbockryck is a sports marketing expert with 25 years experience in the communications industry. Currently the Media & PR Practice Leader at MSLGroup Brussels, Serge began as a journalist and then shifted lanes to do marketing, sponsoring and communications. Over the last 12 years, he has been in charge of GM’s international motorsports communications with Cadillac (ALMS, ELMS, APLMS and Le Mans 24 Hours), Corvette (ALMS and Le Mans) and Chevrolet (WTCC). His professional interests revolve around motorsports of all disciplines: Formula 1, World Rally Championship (WRC), World Touring Car Championship (WTCC), American, European and Asian-Pacific Le Mans Series (ALMS, ELMS, APLMS).