Expert opinion and analysis
If you build it they will come. And if you stage a Formula 1 street display amid some of London’s most recognisable landmarks, then they will certainly turn up – in their tens of thousands.
The F1 Live London event, held around Trafalgar Square and Whitehall just before the British GP, proved a truth that’s easy to take for granted: Formula 1 remains a hugely popular sport, still very capable of capturing hearts, minds and wallets. The London street demo was free, of course, which helped suck 100,000 rev-heads into central London to press noses against barriers, but still, a fan-draw on that scale, for an event unpublicised on account of security concerns, was impressive.
By way of context, the British Grand Prix that followed drew 345,000 spectators: 24,500 (Thursday); 80,000 (Friday); 103,000 (Saturday) and 137,500 (Sunday).
“It was an unqualied success,” says Sean Bratches, F1’s commercial chief, speaking exclusively to F1
Racing.“The reaction from fans on the day and subsequently through social media has been hugely positive.”
Of greater signicance is what the event heralds for Formula 1 and its devoted followers. F1 Live London, Bratches reveals, was merely a taste of what’s to come as Liberty Media seek to make the most of a sport that has suffered for decades from a lack of active promotion:
“We’re going to polish F1 every day so that it shines as brightly as it can possibly shine,” he tells F1R. “London Live was demonstrative of our vision as to where this sport should be and how it should be represented and promoted. I started in Formula 1 ve weeks before the beginning of the season, and one of the things that struck me was that the Australian GP just kind of ‘appeared’. There was no excitement or anticipation of the start of the season so, going forward, I see an F1 Live London-type event happening prior to the start of the year.”
A key aspiration for Bratches is that F1 will have a 12-month media prole, rather than the 20 or so ‘spikes’ from each race.“We need to keep the news cycle alive,” he says, “and there’s an opportunity to create events that some or all of the teams can participate in, to do that. We want to create content that lives outside a GP weekend and celebrates F1.”
Liberty’s stated ambition for F1 is bold: “To create the greatest racing spectacle on the planet,” and this, via a ve-point plan that’s resulted from a freshly commissioned brand study, is how they plan to do it:
REVEL IN THE RACING
F1’s sporting MD Ross Brawn and team are charged with improving the on-track offering by considering thorny issues such as how to let F1 cars overtake each other more easily and what aspects of track design promote exciting racing. New hires ex-Williams sporting director Steve Nielsen, Jason Somerville (head of aero) and Craig Wilson (head of vehicle performance), will work with the FIA’s own staff and team engineers to devise regulations that guarantee close, exciting racing.
“We need a much more competitive grid,” says Bratches. “We have a team of 25 spotters around the tracks looking at where racing and overtaking is happening at individual circuits.”
MAKE THE SPECTACLE SPECTACULAR
‘Fan engagement’ is a buzz-phrase for F1’s new owners: it means making the fun-and-games around a race weekend far more attractive to those fans who are considering
spending their hard-earned cash on a costly race ticket.
London Live has so far been the banner event for this philosophy, but at the Spanish GP earlier this year, the ‘F1 Fan Zone’ boasted a behind-the-grandstands zipwire, Heineken bars, T-shirt guns ring into grandstands, interactive ‘robots’ mingling with fans, and a broadband cloud to allow real-time sharing of social media moments.
“We have to make our fans believe that their investment in the sport is worthwhile,” says Bratches.
Part of Formula 1’s allure over the decades has been its exclusivity. From the tinsel of Monaco, to the studied inscrutability of Kimi Räikkönen, through to the cloistered impenetrability of the F1 paddock: Formula 1 has never been a place for everyman – and less so in the latter years of Bernie Ecclestone’s reign than ever.
Liberty want to open up the sport in degrees and let the public look backstage. “We want seams in that exclusivity where people can touch the sport in different ways,” says Bratches. “We want them to have their viscera moved by the sounds and smells of this amazing sport.”
Evidence of that ambition can be seen with the re-imagined F1 two-seater programme running at most grands prix this year. And there are plans to open up F1 garage tours, while offering lunches with senior F1 personnel for ‘golden ticket’ winners.
Taking races closer to fans is also key to the Liberty vision. The location for F1 Live London was no accident: evocative city-centre locations are rmly on the agenda for future calendar expansion – though not at the expense of traditional venues. Bratches says: “For 2018, we’ve lost Malaysia, but gained France and Germany. Going forward we want to appeal to cosmopolitan audiences, by promoting the tech-rst essence of the sport.”
“TASTE THE OIL”
This pungent phrase is how Bratches describes F1’s need to tell its own technical story far better. “We are the most sophisticated sport on the planet and what engineers achieve is absolutely amazing, extraordinary,” he says.
But the story of those achievements, such as the stunning thermal efciency gures achieved by hybrid V6 power units is undersold, or veiled in complexity. “We need to be doing a much better job of explaining and broadcasting our technical excellence,” says Bratches.
LET THE BLOOD BOIL
“Gladiators and pilots – what are their back-stories?” The human aspects of F1, the epic contests between the Hamiltons, Vettels, Alonsos and Ricciardos are recognised as the vital life-blood of the sport by its new owners. And it will come as no surprise to readers of
F1R that the human interest stories offered by the gifted individuals who work in F1 are what make it such an endlessly compelling discipline. But it’s refreshing to hear those sentiments articulated from on high: “Let’s unleash
WE’RE GOING TO POLISH F1 EVERY DAY SO IT SHINES AS BRIGHTLY AS IT CAN POSSIBLY SHINE. F1 LIVE LONDON WAS DEMONSTRATIVE OF OUR VISION AS TO WHERE THIS SPORT SHOULD BE AND HOW IT SHOULD BE “REPRESENTED
those human stories. Fans are clamouring for all of this.”
Make no mistake, Liberty need to make money from their $8bn investment – and plenty of it. The difference is that they are set on doing so by boosting the sport’s global appeal, rather than by squeezing huge race-hosting sums out of states keen to improve their public image.
“There are so many untapped opportunities that we need to exploit,” says Bratches, “like our popularity with women and fans under 35. We’re being transparent, we’re communicating, and we have a vision the F1 community
SAY HALO, WAVE GOODBYE?
02 So far, so positive, but another aspect of F1’s future is proving altogether more controversial: the halo headprotection system. Since it was rst trialled in public, by Kimi Räikkönen at a March 2016 Barcelona test, its aesthetics have been panned, with some commentators claiming its introduction will herald the demise of F1.
The trouble is, for those in the ‘anti-’ camp, the halo (and future variants thereof) is here to stay.
During a technical brieng at the Hungarian GP weekend, Laurent Mekies, FIA deputy race director and safety director, said that the 8kg titanium component, compulsory for 2018, has been in development since 2011 and is the only device yet devised that is capable of meeting prescribed protection targets. These are that a wheel/tyre assembly weighing 20kg, impacting the halo at 140mph, should be deected with no driver contact.
Alternative shields and screens have been tested but found wanting, so the halo it will be, built by a single supplier to be appointed through a tender process.
Three types of accident were assessed in halo testing: car-to-car; car-to-environment; and small-object impacts.
Car-to-car accidents such as the Alex Wurz-David Coulthard collision at Melbourne 2007 and the Romain Grosjean-Fernando Alonso tangle at the Belgian GP in 2012 were analysed to establish what effect the halo would have had. Similar studies were made of Luciano Burti’s high-speed barrier impact at the 2001 Belgian GP, Heikki Kovalainen’s Barcelona 2008 accident and Carlos Sainz’s 46G practice shunt at Sochi 2015.
In all cases, said Mekies, a halo would have had an “overwhelmingly positive” effect on driver safety.
Nonetheless, and despite universal approval by the F1 Strategy Group for the halo to be introduced, it remains a divisive topic among drivers. Leading lights including Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso
THE HALO IS THE ONLY DEVICE YET DEVISED THAT IS CAPABLE OF MEETING THE PRESCRIBED PROTECTION TARGET THAT A WHEEL/TYRE ASSEMBLY WEIGHING 20KG, IMPACTING THE HALO “AT 140MPH, SHOULD BE DEFLECTED WITH NO DRIVER CONTACT
I UNDERSTAND THAT THE HALO IS NOT GOOD-LOOKING, BUT IT WILL BE DEVELOPED. AND AT THE END OF THE DAY IT’S THERE TO SAVE “DRIVERS’ LIVES PADDY LOWE
have all backed the halo, although the likes of Romain Grosjean, Jolyon Palmer and Max Verstappen have all questioned its necessity.
Their opposition – and that of any commentator or fan – is moot, for the halo has now been blessed by both the FIA and the Formula 1 Group, so whatever the aesthetic reservations, they’ll simply have to be put aside or overcome.
Williams chief technical ofcer Paddy Lowe offers this view: “It became clear that there had been a number of near-misses around the drivers’ heads occurring at the rate of around one per year and that this was a hazard we needed to close off. I understand that it’s not good-looking, but it will be developed. And at the end of the day it’s there to save drivers’ lives.”
The only pertinent question, then, is surely this: is any driver’s life worth sacricing for the sake of a prettier car?
03 As F1 Racing went to press, Robert Kubica was due to take a further, signicant step towards what seems increasingly likely to be a full-time F1 comeback. If he does so, whether this season or 2018, it would rank as one of the greatest sporting – make that human – recoveries ever.
You’ll read on p36 of this issue about the struggles he’s endured over the six years since his near-fatal rally accident. Perhaps you’ll be struck, as others have been, by his reserves of courage, and his new perspectives on life and racing as he fought to x his broken body. Or maybe you’ll be sceptical that he will ever be able to tame a beefy 2017 F1 car sufciently well to extract its maximum performance. Whatever your view, Kubica and the admirable Renault Sport team understand that the only relevant judgement is the impartial authority of the timing screen.
Cynics be damned. He’s back. It’s real.
Aesthetic criticisms of the halo device continue to come thick and fast, but if it saves lives does it matter what it looks like?
Sean Bratches plans to open up F1 to the fans and add value, giving them the confidence that their investment in the sport is worthwhile
F1 Live London drew 100,000 fans to the UK capital to see their heroes in action – and the social media response was huge
Kubica impresses in Hungary during a Renault test set up to give him his first taste of a 2017 F1 car
Studies proved the halo would have had a positive effect in Sainz’s 46G shunt at Sochi in 2015