The View From the Board | 2020 in review

The BlackBook’s Advisory Board are some of the top thinkers in motorsport and provide regular insight to the industry as part of this exclusive series. Here, we get their takes on a challenging year in motorsport.

The View From the Board | 2020 in review

For this edition, we asked members of the BlackBook Advisory Board to reflect on the challenges and lessons of 2020, as well to look forward to 2021.  

Below are answers from:

• Yan Lefort, Alfa Romeo F1 commercial director

• James Geidel, RGMMC president

• Ellie Norman, Formula One director of marketing

• Michael Resl, DTM director of competition

• Richard Millener, M-Sport (WRC) team principal 

• Andrea Ferrero, Kaspersky Lab, Ferrari sponsorship manager 

• Alberto Longo, Formula E's chief championship officer 

• Hugh Chambers, Motorsport UK chief executive

• Paul Bellamy, MG/FIA World Rallycross' senior vice president of Motorsport

• Stuart Pringle, Silverstone managing director

• Michael Lock, American Flat Track chief executive

• David Tsurusaki,  Exxon Mobil's global motorsport technology manager

• Tommaso Volpe, Nissan's global motorsport director

How challenging was this year to adapt to a new world given the severe restrictions in place?

Yan Lefort: The main challenge was to react in a short period of time in order to keep our fans engaged and provide relevant activation opportunities to our partners. The situation provided the organisation some opportunities to develop new tools and “virtual” experiences, which will be kept in the roster of services in the future.

James Geidel: The hard part was the constant changes with local authorities and the constant uncertainty of whether or not the events will take place.

Michael Resl: Pretty challenging especially as we made our own Covid pandemic concept, which I should point out was very effective as we were one of the only race series that had zero breakouts.

The biggest challenge was the severity of the financial impact as we could not bring fans to the races – not only did this change the entire experience and increased expenses on TV operations but obviously if you can't sell tickets you can’t make money.

Richard Millener: There’s no denying that 2020 has been a very challenging year for M-Sport. The company depends on competition, and when world motorsport came to a halt in March we had to make some incredibly tough decisions to safeguard the future of the business. The government’s furlough scheme allowed us to keep many employed, but we still had to make a number of redundancies – a decision no employer wants to make.

As competition started to return in the summer there were a lot of new restrictions to adhere to, but the whole community really pulled together to ensure we could get back rallying safely and responsibly.

It was a very different way of working, but all credit to the organisers who ensured the safe and responsible return of rallying.

Alberto Longo:  No one could’ve predicted a global pandemic, but we were very proactive in suspending our season and from there, working on numerous ways for us to finish it. From looking at permanent facilities, multiple races at one location and closed-door events.

We worked with the City of Berlin and the FIA on creating a protocol that made sure the health and wellbeing of our team was the number one priority, and the event exceeded all expectations and was a thrilling way to end the season.

Hugh Chambers: Given that motorsport is all about innovation and adaptation - remarkably easy. Although the solutions required super human efforts by everyone we knew that there was a solution to the challenges. Once we had clear dialogue with government we then knew the parameters of the playing field and could respond accordingly.

Paul Bellamy: As with every rights holder very challenging, the most challenging year I have known without doubt. We managed to run two world championships consisting of 17 events in a small calendar window and crown two world champions.

Stuart Pringle: We lost 80 per cent of our revenue, laid off 33 per cent of our staff.  The only positive was that nobody died from Covid, but below that it has been very difficult. 

Michael Lock: There have been several challenges. The most immediate and significant has been to manage the financial implications of having to stage events with a restricted in-person audience. The business model we have within our sport relies on revenue from ticket sales, at-event hospitality and sponsorship from local partners. This has been and continues to be heavily impacted.

A secondary issue has been the anxiety felt by some competitors and our own staff about the risks associated with travel and exposure to those outside our immediate circle.

David Tsurusaki: It wasn’t difficult to adapt from a technical and development perspective as we continued our testing and communications as normal but obviously there were no direct face to face meetings. The difficulties were related to our embedded Formula One team members as they were in one case stranded and unable able to return to his home base even nine months later.

What have you learned from 2020 that you can take into next year?

Ellie Norman: Nothing is certain, however it’s important to provide clarity to all stakeholders, and be prepared to flex and adapt.

RM: It’s in the toughest times that we see some of the most proactive ideas, and that’s what the rallying community had to do this year.

Our managing director also decided to push on with the build of the M-Sport Evaluation Centre which is due for completion this year. We will have to diversify if we are to quickly recover from the effects of 2020, and this new facility gives us the best chance of doing that.

Andrea Ferrero: Flexibility is key, both internally and externally with media/creative agencies. The communication chain (and decision making) must be short and effective in order to be able to quickly react to any new scenario.  

Tommaso Volpe: 2020 has given us a big lesson, and I believe I can talk on behalf of everyone in our team saying that this was first of all a personal lesson, more than a professional one. We had to value and focus on what really matters, the wellbeing and safety of the people around us and our families.

YL: On a broader scale, I have learned to accept that our sport is fragile and needs to be carefully managed if we want to continue racing in the future. Secondly, we need to be extremely flexible and maximise the use of digital in all our commercial packages.

AL: This year won’t be an anomaly in terms of the disruption of live events and the short-term changes made to allow for events to go ahead will need to be considered for the foreseeable future.

I personally consider my team as experts in protocol, and this experience has helped us implement various new workstreams to ensure everything we do is efficient, effective and flexible. We don’t just have a ‘Plan B’, we have a Plan C, D, E, F and G! 

HC: Broadly, that we can streamline a lot of processes in national and international motorsport, and that these will reduce cost, make the user experience more enjoyable and in some cases make us more accountable.

JG: In a word: efficiency. Having the massive amount of additional workload which naturally takes time out of other areas, as a company we had to become more efficient with our time and work flow.

PB: How to adapt at very short notice and the ability to pivot and move very quickly while taking all stakeholders with you. If we didn’t know before, we know now, the key is communication and strong leadership. With belief, buy in and determination you can make things happen.

SP: That there are opportunities if you move quickly. We have created an event called LAP LAND – a Covid compliant dive through Christmas lights show where families drive around the circuit to view the lights. It is one of the few Christmas offerings that can run and has been hugely popular. It will be a very welcome positive end to the year and we will certainly repeat it and grow it. Indeed, it may well be what we have been looking for in terms of something to fill the long, empty winter months. So the big lesson is don’t give up, keep searching for the gap in the market and when you spot it move like a greased weasel to exploit it.

What long-term impact, good or bad, will 2020 have on the motorsport industry?

AF: Definitely more virtual events, but physical events won’t disappear as they are still a key selling point for motorsport fans and audience. Series have understood that they can do more to involve their audience. In some cases this 2020 has been sort of a wake up call to some dormant entities, so from this perspective I see this as a positive impact. Of course I see a negative impact on motorsport in the short term - hopefully - until this pandemic situation will be over. Once we’ll be back to normality, I would consider 2020/21 just as a black hole for the whole industry.

HC: Like any crisis, one of the unfortunate dynamics at play are the Darwinian processes that will see the fittest adapt and survive. For the long-term health of the sport the crisis will result in some enforced changes and re-invention, so build back better is the motto. But there is no doubt that at the same time there will be casualties, personal and corporate, that are tragic and regrettable.

PB: Motorsport was at a crossroads before Covid-19 as it contends with the ‘new world’ beyond petrol and atomic. I think the pandemic has just accelerated that.

YL: The cost cap is the most significant game changer the sport ever had to operate. This will change the culture of the sport and how teams will operate in the near future. I believe there will be a massive shift from a performance-led sport to an efficiency-led sport

EN: Project Pitlane and the launch of WeRaceAsOne will have a positive long term impact on the sport, as it’s enabled the sport to come together to benefit society with breathing aid and ventilators, as well as a focus around sustainability, D&I and community.

MR: Cost-saving requirements will hang around and stay, sustainability became a focus, organisations that are not healthy will need to be restructured or will disappear.

SP: There will be a cost-cutting, travel reducing green/sustainability focus that will come out of this experience. That will be Covid’s legacy.

ML: I have a concern regarding the long-term effect upon the population of learning to function and consume from home. We already have a number of challenges with younger demographic audiences in motivating them to attend events in-person. The pandemic has, to a degree, enshrined this. Furthermore, the Baby Boomer core demographic for our sport are the most at-risk from crowds and the public anxiety over infection has inhibited them from event participation. We are investigating ways to enhance the show in order to differentiate the attendee experience from the broadcast one.

DT: The good was that motorsports can quickly adjust and change to meet the challenges to still race regardless of situation. Teams quickly learned that they can operate with less people at the track and that you might not need such a long weekend to get the same results. 

It forced the need to find cost effective solutions to brining engagement to fans with virtual and interactive experiences. 

Marketing dollars are now reduced due to the reduced business revenues/profits and all remaining marketing dollars are now highly scrutinised for real ROI. 

TV: There will be more pressure on the return on the investment that motorsport can generate for all the parties involved  - OEMs, sponsors, suppliers, media companies, etc.  This is a good thing because motorsport does generate a lot of value and can be leveraged from so many different point of views, so ultimately there will be more awareness of this value.