Will Gray

Gray Matter: Why Hamilton’s had it with PR

Will Gray

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Lewis Hamilton spoke out about his over-use as a PR tool before this year's British Grand Prix - so he right that F1's commercial pressures are starting to damage drivers' ability to race?

In the days between the European and British Grands Prix, Hamilton says he travelled from Valencia to Portugal then to Switzerland for a couple of hours and on to the UK, working all the way. After arriving in Britain, he spent "pretty much the whole time" doing appearances, with little time to concentrate on racing preparations.

The intense PR schedule led Hamilton to alert McLaren to some strong demands for his upcoming contract negotiations, stating: "When I re-sign the contract with McLaren they are going to be shocked at how many days they are not going to be able to make me do. I will be doing a lot less work... I will have at least five days to prepare [for a race]."

McLaren's main sponsors Santander and Vodafone have both adopted some significant activation strategies in recent years, particularly in terms of online viral video development and some event activities - but all top drivers have to work hard to meet their team sponsors' demands.

But it's fair to say that when Hamilton was growing up with aspirations of becoming an F1 driver, he was focused on the racing not on the kind of sponsor activities that have seen him and Jenson Button turning on their comedy routine on a fashion shoot, setting up camp at a frozen music festival site and driving a VW van to Silverstone.

Sure, it's fun - and they do seem to look like they enjoy it - but there is an important balancing point.

Seeing Fernando Alonso's logo-filled race suit sitting in Froilan Gonzalez's 1951 Ferrari at Silverstone showed the stark contrast to those real racing days, when the likes of Gonzalez, Juan Manuel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss would race in oil-stained overalls and would never have dreamed of doing such levels of off-track PR, if any at all.

Hamilton suggested at Silverstone that other top drivers were not under the same pressure to carry out PR work - although Sebastian Vettel's sheep-shearing activities in Australia water down that claim a little! But it's true that the sponsorship model F1 has adopted is to provide value through engaging activation rather than a simple brand-building exercise - and activation requirements seem to be growing every year.

That means access to drivers, either for corporate events or for the kind of content opportunities that McLaren is embracing, is in high demand - and teams are desperate to sell that time to all comers.

It's a stretch to suggest Hamilton's recent off-form racing is down to the demands on him away from the track, but it won't have helped.

These days the level of detail required to be successful on the track is high. Racing requires huge commitment and every extra minute with an engineer looking over data, every extra minute in the gym, even every extra minute of relaxation massage, can make a difference to a driver's performance out on the circuit.

At the end of the day, however, it is the sponsors' dollars that allow the high salaries top-level F1 drivers now earn and as Hamilton said: "What's important is that the sponsors are happy..."

The question is, what does make sponsors happy - winning a race or having a whole load of content and plenty of personal appearances?

There is certainly a place for good content and engaging sponsor events, as shown by the high video viewing figures and large event attendances produced by some of these activation ideas - but Hamilton is right, the increasing demands for this cannot be allowed to get in the way of the primary job.

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