The View From the Board | Motorsport’s post-coronavirus recovery

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 the challenges presented by the global health crisis.

For this edition, we put a series of questions about the coronavirus pandemic to four members of the BlackBook Advisory Board, drawing from their experience as motorsport series organisers.  

Below are answers from Alejandro Agag, Extreme E chief executive; Georg Fuchs, European Truck Racing Championship (ETRC) managing director; Oliver Ciesla, the outgoing chief executive of WRC Promoter; and Pau Serracanta, managing director of MotoGP commercial rights holder Dorna Sports.  

How can motorsport rebuild in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic?

Alejandro Agag: Motorsport is going to have to transform itself. It’s going to have to reduce costs and make things more sensible. I think costs were getting to levels that were not sustainable or right. More than that, the industry is going to have to find a purpose. After Covid-19 passes, we’re going to find ourselves in a world that is much more focused on the future and on what’s to come. If you don’t have a purpose, I think survival in that climate will be very difficult. Motorsport can be very relevant and it can play a role in fighting climate change. The sport drives technology which feeds into the improvement of different areas like electric cars and sustainable technologies. Motorsport will need a purpose and I believe it will be related to climate change.

Oliver Ciesla: Just like society will have to for the near future prepare for a ‘new normal’. Life has recently been extremely challenging for all: on social, economic and heath levels.

Motorsport will need to find a new relevance and purpose, but so indeed will the whole automotive sector. It is very likely that in the short to medium term methods of mass transport that we have become completely accustomed to and perhaps taken for granted will need to be modified into more singular and personal methods: be it short – for convenience – or long – the more endurance – distance.

It is up to motorsport to find its place in this new movement to push the boundaries for speed, technology, efficiency and development of new personal and mass-transit options.

Georg Fuchs: There is no general answer to it as each motorsport business model is different. For sure we will see less engagement from OEMs and therefore the business model suffering based around factory racing. There might be one exception and this is electric-sustainability efforts.

Pau Serracanta: It is a matter to reduce the cost of racing for the next two years, by freezing the evolution.

What will be the impact for partners if events are closed to fans?

OC: Sponsorship has long since moved on from traditional ‘bridge and board’ style in motorsport. This is an opportunity for both sponsors and rights holders to continue to write new stories, be that with esports, virtual branding, or even new product lines. Immersive technology could come to the fore so fans can enjoy from home, and that is a great opportunity for tech, data and experiential companies to exploit – and for rights holders to ensure they have a platform that allows this.

AA: The effect will be very serious for any sport. The partners will have to activate in different ways, they will look to associations with sports that have the right purpose and the right values. The approach from partners to sports in general will have to change and will have to link much more closely with common shared values with the properties they sponsor and not so much on the activation side – at least for a few years.

PS: We have to offer them a way to engage with the fans through the digital world.

GF: For ETRC, which has a very strong number of on-site visitors to each event, this will have a massive impact on our business model with partners and industry. 

How can rights holders go about hosting events safely?

GF: Be aligned with national regulations. For us, only events with spectators make sense anyway.

AA: There will be different protocols. I don’t think it will be impossible to hold events but it will be more complicated. Testing and social distancing measures will have to be applied and we’re working on those measures right now to make sure all involved are kept safe. As time goes by, the situation will improve as people develop immunity or a vaccine emerges. We will all have to take different combinations of measures to keep people safe.

OC: This will be a complex mix of alignment between rights holders, federations, and even more importantly event organisers, to approach the situation rationally. The demand for sport has not disappeared, and indeed the complete halt to sport has further illuminated its central place in society – be it for morale, entertainment or direct participation.

In the early stages a very high cost, but the audience – predominantly at home from now on – will ensure that there is value returned for that investment.

The risk to competitors will be higher, but that can be carefully managed through testing, isolations and quarantines, and scientific management of all processes of interaction.

Single, small-field venues like football stadiums will likely have less challenges than say a WRC rally, or even a circuit race. But WRC, for example, can benefit from being a ‘long-form style’ of event in which social distancing, which will become far more second nature to people, can be best practised. There is also much more limited interaction between our competitors and their team than many other motorsports, let alone sports.

Eddie Jordan says coronavirus is shifting perceptions and manufacturers could leave elite motorsport. What is your take on this?

PS: Not in motorcycle racing, all of them are committed to continuing. Maybe other specialities will suffer more.

AA: Manufacturers that aren’t positioned in championships with the right purpose may leave. We have seen manufacturers leave other motorsport series and all join Formula E. I think this trend will continue and even accelerate after Covid-19. Extreme E represents the other great alternative for manufacturers. Traditional motorsport will become even more marginalised and irrelevant for manufacturers.

OC: Motorsport has over many years moved from being ‘flavour of the day’ with manufacturers, some to do with outside factors, and some without.

It is natural that any economic downturn will affect their participation, but the automotive industry will remain relevant to society, and they will still want to market their products and brands.

GF: I totally agree with Eddie, as in pre-Covid times there have been already a big pressure on OEMs and now post-Covid this will increase.

Does the success of the various esports series that have been prompted by coronavirus mean we'll see virtual racing more closely aligned with the on-track series?

OC: Esports took advantage of being a bit more in the focus than in times when it has to compete against daily sports news and live sports content. However, it was also necessary to see and take the chance when it was possible to do so and we believe that this has led to the growth of the esports community and followers which partly will remain. In particular in series where drivers can be seen doing both, both worlds might enjoy a closer ‘alignment’.

AA: This is a short-term fix and I don’t think it will replace the physical sport – they are parallel experiences. There will be fast and strong growth but independently from real motorsport. The on-track product has to embrace esports now but we will go back to the circuit. It will stay strong, but it will exist alongside real racing.

Who will emerge stronger from this crisis and who could suffer the most?

GF: In general, all the ‘weak’ business concepts will be suffering the most and maybe it clears the market with the strongest to survive. This doesn’t only apply to motorsport but to business in general. Covid was basically an accelerator for business concepts that have been already struggling to survive.

PS: The stronger ones will be the ones which take advantage of digital transformation, in all aspects. The ones which will suffer in the future will be those who aren't using technology.

AA: Electric motorsport will emerge in a stronger position and everything else will be in a weaker position.

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