Motor Sport: the changing role of fan engagement

As any motorsport fan will know, the roar of the crowd on the finish line can match any roar from an engine on race day. Following the Telegraph Business of Sport motor sport panel on the changing role of fan engagement, Mike Trice, motor racing fanatic and head of Populous’ motorsport projects, gives us his thoughts on the trials and tribulations of engaging fans in the world of fast cars and big bucks.

Back in 2008, a fantastic Formula 1 (F1) season saw Lewis Hamilton become the youngest world champion the sport had ever seen, finally wrapping up the title on the last lap of the last race. At the conclusion of a great season-long battle, Hamilton, the sport’s new golden boy, edged out the powerful and experienced Ferraris of Kimi Räikkönen and Felipe Massa. That year over 600 million fans tuned in to watch F1 racing on television around the world, and fans packed the stands willing their teams and drivers on to the win.

2008 was also the year that future world champion Sebastian Vettel won at Monza, Italy, becoming the youngest driver to win an F1 race at just 21 years of age. Wind the clock forward to today and Vettel, now a four-time world champion, has no home Grand Prix; it is simply no longer viable for Germany, a country which lies second only to Britain on the list of all time World Championship wins, to host such an event. Television viewing figures have reportedly decreased by around 175 million in the six years since Hamilton’s win – still a huge figure, but a worrying downward trend for one of the most expensive sports on the planet.

With so much rich content available, it seems almost implausible that the sport is struggling to engage. F1 has, on the face of it, something for everyone: celebrity interest, danger, innovation, driver’s stories, and all the mechanical tales for the petrolheads. All of this makes for fantastic currency in creating interest and satisfying fans’ desire to get closer to the action. However, there is still a disconnect between the sport and its fans, which in turn is affecting sponsorship opportunities.

The days of a single sponsor paying hundreds of millions of pounds for exposure on a car are long gone. It seems that both the established sport of F1 and its infant sibling in Formula E are wrestling with the same concerns in this regard. However, while F1 feels the restrictions of its long history and heritage, the new electric-car championship known as Formula E is able to take risks, and experiment with the new technologies and digital opportunities.

In the absence of any obvious collective answer, many F1 drivers have taken the initiative by arranging to meet with fans to explore how they want the sport to evolve. The aforementioned Lewis Hamilton keeps his 2.7million Twitter followers engaged with regular updates from around the world. Formula E also seems to have more freedom to experiment; Alejandro Agog, CEO of FIA Formula E told The Telegraph Business of Sport conference of their trials in using ‘fan boost’, where fans can affect the performance of their favourite team and driver through an online poll that is translated into additional power delivered to the vote-winning car. Is this the answer? It’s an interesting idea, but isn’t it better for the passion and the roar of an engaged crowd to drive our favourite drivers?

To my mind, the strategy for the sport needs to focus on increasing the enthusiasm of the crowd, in order to attract sponsors seeking exposure. The truth is that empty grandstands switch viewers and sponsors off. Any sport looks more exhilarating with images of uproarious crowds, and motorsport is probably top of this list. Ticket pricing isn’t the answer; too many simply fans feel underwhelmed by the live spectacle. We have to look more carefully at the offering of the sport on the ground, of the experience of being part of the crowd, and the effect of sharing the experience of watching your heroes win their home Grand Prix.

Last year’s 50th Grand Prix at the Silverstone Circuit prompted former F1 World Champion Nigel Mansell to remind us that Silverstone “is still one of the most exhilarating circuits in the world, but it’s the fans and their passion that make the British Grand Prix so special.” The benefits that a live crowd brings to the sport are huge, but it is no longer enough for them to catch an occasional view of the cars at a track as they lap.

Trackside audiences need to be able to have access to more information than viewers get at home, channelling information and having experiences that can only be fully appreciated at trackside. Keeping the crowd engaged ensures that race fans at home feel the desire to be up-close-and-personal with this fantastic sport.

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