Every year under Liberty Media’s ownership has seen Formula One implement changes in a bid to shed the skin of Bernie Ecclestone’s stalled operation and buck the downward trend of declining interest and viewership.
Not every new idea has been an immediate success, with frustrations like the flawed launch of the F1 TV over-the-top (OTT) streaming service and a failed bid to stage a proposed Grand Prix in Miami perhaps the biggest blots on Liberty’s copybook. Yet the global racing series has also achieved significant gains. New digital initiatives, including the acclaimed Drive To Survive series on Netflix, appear to be paying off, with the Formula One Group having last year turned a profit for the first time since 2016.
When Ellie Norman (right) took up the role of director of marketing at Formula One in 2017, she knew she was walking into a sport without a commercial operation to match its huge global following and years of history. It was, in a sense, a standing start, but Liberty’s vision for Formula One is nevertheless beginning to take shape as the series prepares for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne this coming weekend.
A street race in Vietnam, the first new Grand Prix of the Liberty era, has been added to this year’s 21-race calendar, with April’s event set to serve as a first showcase for Formula One’s future under its new owners - provided, of course, the race goes ahead amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak which has already forced the postponement of the Chinese Grand Prix later in April.
Elsewhere, the Dutch circuit of Zandvoort returns to the schedule in early May, giving Formula One an opportunity to capitalise on the fervent interest that surrounds Max Verstappen, the rising star of Red Bull Racing who has become one of the sport’s biggest draws and a hero in his native Netherlands.
Another major step in transforming Formula One involves the introduction of a raft of new sporting, technical and financial regulations from 2021 onwards. Those regulations, which include the first-ever cost cap of US$175 million per team per season, are designed to bring about more exciting racing, greater competitive balance and improved financial sustainability in the sport.
Ahead of the new season, the BlackBook caught up with Norman at the end of January to get her thoughts on Formula One’s progress under Liberty and to discuss some of the many commercial plot lines permeating the sport heading into Australia.
This season sees one new and one returning race added to the calendar. What can we expect from Vietnam?
What’s really great is to be going to a new country, and I think from the work that we’ve been doing with the local promoter, over that period of time we’ve learnt very much about how they work as an organisation, what’s culturally important for the Vietnamese, and vice versa they’ve been learning about Formula One. That feels like we’re on a good journey, we’re excited for the first race there.
I think it’s one that will grow in popularity and I think it will become a destination event, particularly because of the combination of it being a street race and very close to the city centre of Hanoi. When you look at the increase in Vietnam as a tourist destination, the food, culture, all of its history makes it one of those places I think is making its way to the top of peoples’ lists for countries to visit. I think being able to have an event spectacle like Formula One there is going to work really well together.
Take a tour of the Hanoi Circuit! Stunning drone footage, shot earlier this week, will take you on flying tour of Vietnam’s first ever #F1 racetrack: the recently completed Hanoi Circuit. See you in Hanoi on April 3rd - 5th 2020! #VietnamGP #F1VietnamGP pic.twitter.com/vpAJ4Gy4tG— F1 Vietnam Grand Prix (@F1VietnamGP) March 3, 2020
Is the approach for the Dutch Grand Prix slightly different given that you’re returning to a well-known venue in a market with a strong fanbase and a recognisable star?
The Dutch Grand Prix will definitely have an awful lot of the orange army there, I’m sure. Where we see that interest has clearly been in the ticket sales in the lead in, where essentially the Grand Prix has sold out, and they’ve actually got waiting lists that take it through the next two to three years. So it will be a very different event to somewhere like Hanoi, where we’re in a new marketplace, and actually attracting a very different audience.
What’s been fascinating is when you look at the people buying tickets to go to Vietnam, it is very much people who want to be part of an event spectacle, so it’s being associated with these kind of big one-off events, the appeal of a destination city, the appeal of going somewhere new. That is quite different to Zandvoort, which I would describe as a race where there is a strong history of Formula One having been there, we have a strong competitive driver, and an avid fanbase.
I would describe the Dutch fans as your Formula One fans, but incredibly passionate, and with them will come a lot of energy and celebration.
W Series support races will also feature this year at the US and Mexican Grands Prix. Is that indicative of Formula One’s broader efforts to build a more diverse audience?
I think what W series have achieved in one year from launch has been phenomenal. I think in their year one launch they struck the balance of who they were and what they were very well. Certainly from an outsider’s perspective, they were fantastic at raising awareness and interest into who these very talented women race drivers were.
I think this year, with W Series drivers being able to collect points as part of their championship that goes towards the racing drivers license is phenomenal, and for us to have W Series as a support event just goes to show that as part of Formula One, it’s a great opportunity to really start to align talent and where those future opportunities are.
You will have read, whether it’s Lewis [Hamilton] saying that one day he would love to see a talented woman race driver within Formula One, that will be the dream for many of the talented women race drivers in W Series.
I think W Series being a support race on the F1 calendar at Austin and Mexico City is just another step on that journey to continue to raise the profile of the talent that already exists, and secondly to encourage younger women to follow their dreams and their passions.
Norman expects the orange army to be out in force for F1's return to the Netherlands
What are some of the things you’ve learned about your fanbase from all the new data you must have collected?
The truth of it is, pre-2017 we didn’t have any data. So having a talented group of people who have experience outside of the industry and within the sports industry itself meant that there were a number of things put in place very quickly, and one of those first things was a fan survey.
There was a big piece of research done in April 2017 that started to understand who the fans were – that was on a global level working with a research agency called Flamingo – which allowed us to understand the perceptions and the associations within Formula One, and we did that across Europe, Asia, North America and South America. To have that start base, to know what’s important, what’s hidden, what’s obvious, what the aspects are that we need to change in terms of the perception of the brand, from the very beginning allowed us to set a clear vision and mission statement to unleash the greatest racing spectacle on the planet, and importantly what our shining light or our guiding stars and those principles are.
For us to have W Series as a support event just goes to show that as part of Formula One, it’s a great opportunity to really start to align talent and where those future opportunities are.
From that there’s a guy called Matt Roberts, who’s our research director. Matt and his team, from that initial piece of research that we did, have created and put in place everything that you would expect, from fan surveys through to brand trackers, through to how we start to use much more innovative research techniques to start to really understand who our fans are and what motivates them.
That’s everything from working with a research agency called Mesh, where we can understand fans’ movements at each event so that we can improve that fan experience, and that’s anything from which gates do people come through, where shall we put food and beverages, where shall we put merchandise and retail stores, where shall we put big screens? Then right the way through to a lot of the biometric research that the team are now doing to see which of the elements within a race fans respond to when they’re watching a broadcast.
There is so much data, the key for me…is who are our data translators and the analysts that can really understand what the research is telling us to draw out the insights that allow us to continue to hone the direction that we’re all working towards - whether that’s at a product perspective, user experience perspective or marketing.
As Formula One has continued to make changes in a bid to win new fans, would you say that your traditional fanbase has been receptive to what you’re trying to do, or has there been resistance?
The truth is there is always going to be a percentage of your audience that aren’t happy with changes, and those changes get implemented, and with time people become more comfortable with that change. I think what’s been very, very important is that we don’t want to alienate our existing fanbase; we want to make the experience and what they get from Formula One even better than it’s been before, and to continue to build and deliver an engaged experience for them.
One example with those existing fans is really understanding what’s important to them, so the Live Timing App, being able to share much more of the data analysis, the strategies that teams are implementing, is really valuable to that engaged fanbase. And actually, they all give us feedback to say, ‘that layout on the Live Timing screen, I want to see all 20 cars on one screen at once.’ So that’s really valuable for us, because we can then start to iteratively change the product and continue to evolve it so that actually it’s delivering exactly what they want. So the changes are happening, we get feedback, and we respond to it quickly.
With the planned new regulations geared towards creating greater competitive balance, is levelling the playing field something you’ve already started trying to do off the track too?
Yes, 100 per cent. Certainly, from a fan perspective, what fans want is accessibility. A big thing for us is the role that digital and content plays in providing that accessibility. The landscape is not straightforward, and we often try to simplify it, but the reality is that there will always be a blend of pay, free-to-air, highlights, the role of digital, and so we’ll look to other sports and say, ‘what is that perfect blend, and what should that represent in each marketplace?’
I think examples of that accessibility really starting to showcase the drivers and truly allowing fans to connect with each driver and to understand their personalities and characteristics has gone so far towards starting to level that field, and allowing people to pick a favourite team or pick a favourite driver.
Netflix did that brilliantly in season one, and I think this sort of content series, whether it was the Complex series we did last year with a focus for the US market with a rapper called A$AP Ferg, all the way through to a lot of the podcasts and the digital content that our social and editorial team are creating, is really starting to elevate every single driver and team within the paddock.
Does the global drop off in unique TV viewers concern you at all, or do you think it’s simply demonstrative of that changing landscape you just referred to?
If I had a magic wand for our industry, it would be: how do we have a uniform metric that gives you the true reach across that landscape? At the moment that doesn’t exist. So from a linear TV perspective, that dropped off slightly, but when you look at the growth in digital, the fact our social media is growing at 33 per cent, which puts us as the fastest growing major sport for the third year running, that’s where you start to see that change.
So if as an industry we can start to get to a place that reflects how fans and viewers now behave, that would be a great thing, because you think of anyone under the age of 25, they’re not sitting at home in front of a 60-inch television on their linear schedule - they’ve got a device in their hand, and they are feeling equally as engaged and informed and up to speed with what’s going on as an older viewer will feel in front of their TV screen. But that measurement framework doesn’t exist within the industry to demonstrate the true appeal and reach of the sport – or any sport, for that matter.
F1's unique TV viewership fell 3.9 per cent in 2019
With Formula One making a concerted effort to present a more sustainable image, what role do you play in those environmental initiatives from a marketing and communications perspective?
Essentially I think Formula One is the fastest test lab on the planet, is how I’d describe it. Along with the reach and the platform it has on a global stage, we have an ability to really use our platform to drive and accelerate change.
What we are very focused on is how we can work with our partners in the sport to drive the biggest change. Certainly from the work and the conversations we have with auto manufacturers, fuel technology companies, the FIA, and all these very talented engineer pools, the greatest opportunity is if we can deliver an alternative fuel, an advanced sustainable fuel, that could essentially go into an internal combustion engine, that’s going to make a massive difference to the planet’s CO2 emissions.
If I had a magic wand for our industry, it would be: how do we have a uniform metric that gives you the true reach across that landscape? At the moment that doesn’t exist.
So, for example, you have 1.1 billion cars on the planet, and one billion of those cars have the internal combustion engine. I think that goes to show the scale that as we start to evolve the rules and regulations within Formula One, and how that translates to society, there is a huge opportunity to be part of the solution, because there will not be a single solution to solve this problem.
It’s our role to be able to help educate the changes that are required, to build the credibility through the talent that we have within our sport and within our partners, and to really tell that story - and essentially, make sure that what we deliver is a proof point into how that’s contributing to the overall world and society.
Given the nature of the sport there is always going to be an added spotlight on Formula One. How important is it for the series to be seen as taking environmental concerns seriously?
It’s really important for us to be active, and we have the talent and the lab testbed to really drive forward and accelerate that change, and to also use a lot of that test and learn process that we see show up on the track week in, week out to also look at other areas of our sport, such as logistics, and see how we bring about changes and improvements there, how we use technology from our partners to accelerate those changes, and thirdly how it can then go out to benefit other sectors within society.
I always think a fantastic example is a lot of the work that Williams Advanced Engineering do, with the example of the aerofoil being adopted in major UK supermarket chains like Sainsbury’s and Tesco, and that has increased the efficiency of their refrigeration units, all the way through to a lot of the work that McLaren Applied Technologies will do in the use of sensors and data transfer to bring about accelerated change.
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