Get set to embrace a brave new world
What is it about late-summer Monza that makes it always a race to remember? Thick heat oozing in from nearby Milan, pasta, vino rosso, tifosi, every B-list Italian TV celeb F1-touring on race-day morning. All these clichés combine to make the Monza paddock the most Italian place on the planet for three days each September. More than this, things happen there. The intensity of the Autodromo’s atmosphere reduced Mika Häkkinen to tears in 1999; Schumacher announced his (first) F1 retirement at Monza in 2006; Ascari, Rindt… both died at this still fearsomely quick track.
As for the 2016 edition… the departures of Felipe Massa and Jenson Button – one tearful, one full of glee. And hovering above, rumours, since confirmed, that F1 would soon be under new ownership. It suddenly felt as if F1 were about to undergo a shift more profound than the generational passage of Massa and Button; there’s a sense that as profit-hungry major shareholders CVC Capital Partners step back, a bold, digitally savvy future might await F1, with Liberty Media Group at the helm.
Majority ownership and control by a media company, rather than by venture capitalists, offers a chance for F1 to promote itself globally – and to a wider audience. A few highlights from Liberty’s investor presentation offer encouragement. It describes F1 as ‘the world’s leading commercial sport entertainment franchise’ and notes ‘[the] opportunity to develop the sport for the benefit of all stakeholders (fans, teams, partners, shareholders)’.
It’s been a while since we’ve read of ‘fans’ being placed front and centre of the F1 experience and let’s rejoice at their mention, because without fans F1 is nothing. No audience to which Mercedes, Renault, Honda and Ferrari can sell their cars; no buyers for Rolex, Bell and Ross or TAG-Heuer wrist architecture.
Liberty haven’t bought in solely for the good of the sport. They, like any other company, exist to make money from their properties and new F1 chairman Chase Carey has spoken with relish about the strength of the brands and franchises in F1. But that’s not to say that Liberty can’t be benevolent custodians, with an eye to F1’s long-term health and with an inclusive attitude towards its bedrock participants: the teams.
As Bob Fernley, deputy team principal of Force India, observed: “We’ve a unique product in Formula 1, created by Bernie Ecclestone, along with other people who have contributed in the past – the likes of Ron Dennis, Frank Williams, Ken Tyrrell. If you overlay that with the expertise Liberty Media have in sports marketing, you’ve an exciting mix. It’s just a question of putting it together now, but the key message to get across from our side is that it’s exciting times.”
Exciting indeed, though also a steep learning curve for the new rights holders. Which circuits and territories should F1 embrace next? What will be the practicalities of franchise deals for teams? Can a rights-restricted TV offering still exist in the age of social media?
We watch and wait. Optimistically.