Will Gray

F1′s big personality problem – and how it can be solved

Will Gray

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Formula One has formed a new action group to analyse how it can be made more popular – but with so many different ideas and the first meeting already postponed, how can the sport really find a new direction?

Empty grandstands and decreasing TV viewing figures have sent shivers through the paddock this season. Concerns over the new engine sound, Mercedes’ dominance, overly strict punishments for ‘aggressive’ drivers and a few processional races (albeit amidst several spectacular ones) have spiralled into a full-on crisis.

But none of this is really the problem. Formula One became popular because it had entertaining heroes who lived on the edge, famed for creating high-speed drama on track and enjoying lavish ‘playboy’ lifestyles off it.

The early days were all about brave men in open cockpits and open-faced helmets sliding oily smoke-belching cars around hay bale-lined tracks in some of the world’s most evocative locations. Outside the cockpit, drivers were natural characters and the open paddocks allowed the public to meet them face-to-face.

As long as it remains to be seen as the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula One will always appeal to the core group of motorsport enthusiasts – but to remain a mainstream sport it needs to appeal to the masses. Fans follow a sport, a team or a player because they connect with the person or people involved.

Incident, action and drama is what drives pub gossip - or in modern terms, online chat - but that is present in all forms of sport, and only those that shout the loudest cut through.

Formula One, like any sport, is in the entertainment game and this year its core offering has delivered – with many events providing nail-biting racing. What it’s suffering from is a lack of access and a lack of characters.

It’s not only an F1 issue. The money involved in modern professional sport heaps huge pressure on those involved to achieve success, and the level of commitment and concentration required often neutralises the natural personality within its stars.

In motorsport, most drivers hit the karting circuit at a young age and are totally focused on racing from as long ago as they can remember. Spending every weekend at the circuit and much of the rest of the time thinking about racing or playing console racing games, as many do these days, it is little wonder they have limited ‘chat’ outside the cockpit.

And with heavy pressure from team PRs and the governing body not to set a foot out of line once they get to the top of their game, that focus on success and ‘sponsor correctness’ is now to the detriment of the overall show.

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Deep down, all drivers have genuine characters and F1 teams need to allow them to open up and show their real side. It should be part of the job. Valentino Rossi took MotoGP to the masses thanks to a personality that was engaging, fun, entertaining. Open. He would wheelie across the finish line, ride around standing on his bike, and then have plenty to say once back in the paddock. And MotoGP embraced this opportunity.

In contrast, when Sebastian Vettel did victory donuts last year, he was penalised because it wasn’t to protocol. When Mark Webber took his helmet off in the cockpit of his car after his final race, it didn’t go down too well either.

But the governing body doesn’t have to go far to find innovative ways to get the most out of its stars. The owners of reigning champion team Red Bull are renowned for creating superstars in many action and adventure sports around the world.

Their approach has already been translated into F1 with their drivers involved in delivering entertaining content. This year they also delivered as a race organiser, with a sell-out Grand Prix in Austria this year. So perhaps the sport should let them lead the way in the search for solutions to make all of its stars more engaging.

The new working group, which currently consists only of F1 people, is too insular. It needs to bring in, at the very least, the wider world of Red Bull – but even better to engage with young industry leaders in broadcasting, social media, content marketing and experiential event management all around the world to find out how to make more noise.

Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo has called for just that kind of meeting for the week leading up to the Italian GP in September. And if that finally happens, F1 could be taught a few valuable lessons that could shape a brighter future...

- Will Gray

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