Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2018

How Liberty can put the spectacle back into F1’s launch season

RacingLines

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The idea of having a single launch event for F1 before testing begins has been dismissed on several grounds. But @DieterRencken argues it’s an idea the sport should take seriously.

In 2008/9, at the height of Formula One Teams Association unity, the concept of a composite launch festival was considered. The plan was to gather all teams at a single venue – Portimao on the Algarve topped the list at the time – and literally pull the wraps off the incoming season, team by team.

Discussions got no further than the rudimentary stage after the vast majority of teams refused to play ball despite them regularly trotting out the party line about being aligned with FOTA’s objectives which included, among other things, grand plans to bring to F1 to the fans.

Haas, Circuit de Catalunya, 2018
Even pit lane launches are becoming rare
At the time F1 was populated by motor manufacturers – Mercedes (McLaren), Fiat (Ferrari), BMW (Sauber), Renault, Toyota, and (until 2008) Honda. These considered launches prime opportunities to strut their sporting stuff to dealers, fleets owners, suppliers, partners and employees, rather than playing to fans. That was left to the media.

Hence extravaganzas in far-off places were held at weird and (not so) wonderful times, often accessible only by convoluted (and expensive) means. But who cared: eye-watering budgets covered the costs, the bottom line justified by extensive global television coverage. Holding a joint launch presented the threat of Honda’s guests falling prey to Toyota suits, or Mercedes punters falling into BMW’s clutches. Thus the concept was stillborn, killed by paranoia.

Extravagant launches were not, though, pioneered by car companies: step forward the nicotine merchants who, as tobacco advertising bans loomed, increasingly sought creative avenues to expose global audiences to their brands. What better of means of persuading addicts to switch to Marlboro than the sight of a blood red Ferrari on prime-time TV? As a bonus, some kid somewhere may buy into the fantasy of smoke and speed…

Hence Jordan staged Cirque de Soleil specials sponsored by Benson and Hedges. Marlboro’s affairs were as hospitable as Maranello permits in January – the launches preceded by fondly recalled Vrooom Ferrari/Ducati ski camps in Madonna di Campiglia. And Rothmans hosted lifestyle media members, including some who’d never held steering wheels, from across the globe to oooh and aaah as Williams unveiled its latest ‘FW’.

Until the end of the decade most test session were held in private, away from prying eyes. In place, then as now, were clauses in the Concorde Agreement – the tripartite covenant that outlined the sporting, technical and commercial obligations of teams, governing body and commercial rights holder – that the latter held the rights to moving car footage whenever more than one team was present.

Therefore teams booked circuits for weeks on end for private sessions, with a day or two being allocated for marketing activities and the rest to testing. During the height of the launch season, all of Spain’s licensed venues – Barcelona, Jerez and Valencia – echoed to the scream of F1 F10s, as did Portimao, Fiorano, Mugello, Imola and Monza, plus Paul Ricard in France. Even icy Silverstone got a regular look-in.

As the noughties ended, so came disruption on various fronts. Car companies departed F1 as they grasped that, with half a dozen brands on the grid, one of their number would shell out billions to come, at best, sixth. The global economic crisis had already sapped their petty cash reserves, and this provided the cover to exit cleanly.

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As cost saving programmes hit F1, so testing was restricted to a maximum of eight pre-season days, with only two promotional events, “filming days” in F1-speak, being permitted per year, limited to a maximum running distance of 100 kilometers each. Thus the “dynamic” launches of old are no longer, having been complicated by the presence of other teams, with filming days becoming shakedowns.

However the biggest disruptor has been the web. Who needs scores of ravenous journalists quaffing fine food and putting their own spins on stories when teams could communicate directly with fans? Thus teams embraced web launches, with the presence of (selected) journalists working to their advantages: pictures and quotes are Wi-Fi’d to fans before a scribe’s own outlet brings the latest from launches.

Self-preening VIPs get to sit in the front rows for the world to see on internet streams, while boom cameramen are instructed to religiously avoid sensitive areas of the car while focussing on sponsor decals.

Journalists in turn regard themselves as intruders and those present seldom pose even the simplest questions fearing the competition, sitting back at base, will readily nick these and publish the answers on the internet as ‘breaking’ stories. Bland events, frankly, deserve bland reportage, and what could be blander than a ‘virtual’ launch?

Red Bull RB14, 2018
Red Bull RB14: Technical analysis
One team – Red Bull, we’re staring at you – was accused of airbrushing details out of the launch photographs it issued of its RB14. Another, Renault, urged fans to view “a stunning hologram projection of the car and spin it through 360 degrees to see its brand-new lines and new black and yellow livery”. They later admitted the pictures in question were a livery preview and not the true RS18.

Is it any wonder virtual launches are embraced with such vigour by self-centred teams, even if they do little to directly promote the sport or season unless it is in their own interests?

Perhaps it should come as little surprise that teams are bleeding sponsors. The latest exit-eer is Williams’s title partner Martini which, saliently, this year celebrates half a century in motor racing. Is the drinks company simply team-hopping? No: according to sources, F1 is no longer aligned with the parent company’s objective. Its departure comes at a time when traditional advertising channels are increasingly closed to alcohol brands, which should make F1 a prime platform.

When a team such as McLaren unveils with blank sidepods despite having a star driver in the form of double champion Fernando Alonso, Ferrari’s red is broken only by the white lettering of RayBan, and Alfa Romeo’s much-vaunted ‘return’ to F1 is none other than some deft ‘badge engineering’ in exchange for (Ferrari) engine bills, F1 must surely recognise that it is heading for commercial meltdown.

For that blame a distinct lack of sizzle in F1, which is absent from launch, then lingers throughout a 21-race season that ends with a whimper in some desert venue that plays to half empty stands despite ‘sell-out’ proclamations. One look at the lack of imaginative liveries across the grid says it all about F1’s collective approach to (not) keeping sponsors sweet.

F1 – as an entity, from CRH through every team on the grid – should do everything in its collective powers to regain the commercial high ground it once held. Where better than to start than by turning the launch season into a spectacular festival of car unveilings at a central, easily accessible venue ahead of testing, wherever it may occur.

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Whenever this is mooted folk point to FOTA’s failed attempts from a decade ago. Well, times have moved on. Sponsors are baling. When concept was aborted F1’s TV audiences were around 600m viewers; today the sport struggles to hit 350m.

Should F1 revive the festival concept which was mooted almost a decade ago? Some in the media have argued against it, preferring individual virtual launches which largely occur during work hours when fan-run rival sites find it harder to compete: Chasing clicks instead of looking at the bigger picture of what will benefit F1 more in the long-term.

There is also resistance among teams who state their launches, whether virtual affairs or ripping off sheets in the pit lane on opening day of testing, provide their sponsors with much-needed publicity. While that may hold true in certain instances, the global impact of a launch festival could offer even greater impact. Oddly, some of the opposition comes from the ranks of the independent teams, who arguably need every bit of exposure going.

Sean Bratches, 2018
Liberty Media had plans for a pre-season launch event
According to sources last year Liberty Media, the incoming CRH after (thankfully) acquiring control from CVC, investigated the festival concept and planned to launch the 2018 F1 season with much razzmatazz in Barcelona ahead of testing. Last weekend was the target period.

The Full Monty was envisaged: team-by-team launches, music, autograph sessions, interviews, food/drink, sponsor/partner stands, competitions. You name it, it was listed. Which self-respecting F1 fan anywhere in Europe – and even beyond the continent – would not empty his/her kid’s piggy bank to attend such a two-day festival hosted by an iconic Mediterranean city, one that did the Olympics proud? Or by a circuit on the Algarve?

Race promoters could entice fans to their events, sponsors engage directly with targets, partners brag about their technology / products, teams sell their branded memorabilia. What’s not to like?

Guess what? Apparently the very teams who seem unable to raise sidepod stickers or rear wing sponsors bombed it, citing every reason under the sun save the simple truth: they could not be bothered to go to the effort to please fans. “Reasons” given included not having a (single) car available shortly before testing, associated costs, drivers / personnel committed elsewhere, own launches taking precedence, etc… Let’s address the gripes individually, then investigate why it really came to nought.

Teams build their new cars to deadlines; if deadlines are pulled forward a day or week, so be it. This week some teams crowed about beating internal deadlines by a week, proving it’s possible to get ahead through efficiency. The trick is to persuade engineers that ultimately marketing – for which read “fans” – pays for their toys and wages.

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Teams have (at least) two drivers, so even if one is otherwise occupied for whatever (contractual?) reason, the other(s) should be available. It boils down to contracts – where there is a will, there is a way – and the same applies to team personnel. As for costs: these are surely a function of exposure and return on investment – all teams travel to Barcelona in any event, so what cost a day or two extra?

Is it not telling that teams are willing to consider extending tests by a day or two due to inclement weather, but refuse to play to fans who ultimately provide the sport’s lifeblood? Any wonder that the crowd in the stands on the opening day of testing – saliently before the bad weather hit – could be measured in tens, not thousands despite entry only costing €18/day?

Consider: Upon arrival in Barcelona on Sunday both terminals were awash with signs and sponsor hoardings announcing the simultaneous Mobile World Congress in the city’s Fiera halls, yet NOT a single F1 banner told the digital generation about eight days of F1 testing 30kms up the road. The demographic of MWC visitors – all 103,000 expected during the three days – perfectly fits F1’s target audience, whether fan, engineer, sponsor or geek.

Mercedes W09 launch, Silverstone, 2018
Mercedes did a full launch event for its W09
True, F1 had a presence at MWC – where Liberty’s new digital and OTT streaming strategies were announced – via a stand and show cars, plus Alonso spoke of the sport as a high-speed technical laboratory. However in total MWC boasts 2,300 exhibitors, 900 of which can be classed as “major”, and as such one can not help feel that F1 may have got lost amongst the noise.

Finally, the question of bespoke (virtual) launches versus the festival approach: There is absolutely no reason why teams cannot do their own thing for sponsors and the media, then benefit from properly structured and professionally promoted group launch festivities at a central venue. It does not need to be a binary choice; after all, the more exposure, the better – yet F1 team marketing folk obviously fail to grasp that simple fact.

The obvious question is why does Liberty not insist on the teams playing ball? The answer is because the CRH has no legal hold over the teams despite annually disbursing a collective billion dollars to ten teams. They are under no obligation to provide cars or drivers for promotional purposes, and neither Liberty nor race promoters can force them do so until current contracts expire at the end of 2020.

Hence plans for this year’s extravaganza were aborted. Instead the Australian Grand Prix has scheduled a low-key season launch at the Melbourne circuit, with Liberty planning to host four fan fests during the year – but, again, there is no obligation for teams to attend.

However, all that is likely to change once new contracts are in place – these could be introduced ahead of expiration if all teams agree – with launch festivals and further promotional activities likely to feature strongly as Liberty grows the sport through providing enhanced fan experiences.

Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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  • 23 comments on “How Liberty can put the spectacle back into F1’s launch season”

    1. It was 20 euros a day for a ticket. They charge you 2 euros per ticket as “service charge”, even if they didn’t sell tickets on the first day because their internet connection wasn’t working… So you still had to do it on your phone if you had a good enough connection. I thankfully did but it took a long while to receive the email

      1. At least way cheaper than the Stones.. cheapest ticket is 152 pound.

    2. a 21-race season that ends with a whimper in some desert venue that plays to half empty stands despite ‘sell-out’ proclamations

      Beee-yooooo-tiful!

      1. @phylyp Every team need the exposure to ‘fans’ that could gain a commercial advantage to them. That’s why I’m afraid that this beautiful launch festivals proposal will gain traction among teams and finally held up in exactly that desert venue!

        1. @ruliemaulana – yes, that would have been a risk in the Bernie-era. Liberty seem more attuned to fans needs, so one can hope they don’t do the same. I’m not saying they’re running a charity, but they’ve shown (with the launch of F1 TV) that there’s a smarter way of monetizing F1 while keeping fans happy.

    3. I like the premise of this idea. As the article points out, recent car launches by individual teams have felt “gimmicky”, and the test is when we can truly see the cars, and enjoy them running in anger.

      To elevate the first test to a launch + test makes a lot of sense – it could be a bit of a carnival beyond just the racetrack, similar to what was done in London last year.

    4. Fantastic piece that, really great read. Sums up pretty well what a thankless task it is being an F1 nut at times. A single, all team launch event would be a fantastic thing for fans and would no doubt draw crowds (and TV/streaming eyeballs) from all over the world. It would be great if it became something in which the teams had to participate in future.

      Alfa Romeo’s much-vaunted ‘return’ to F1 is none other than some deft ‘badge engineering’ in exchange for (Ferrari) engine bills

      Can this please be the sign off line to every single article written about F1 for the duration of this deal? It’s amazing how few people seem to understand what this deal really is.

    5. Surely if the teams want to complain that they can’t have a car ready and shipped two days early, then just have the joint launch event the weekend before the 2nd test?

    6. One of the points I’ve heard previously is that not all teams get the same media attention from a joint launch. Why would anyone click what the new Sauber looks like when Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull unveil their cars on the same day?

      But I’m all for a proper launch session, would be something worth trying at least.

      1. The timing can be scheduled to accommodate all teams equitably. At motorshows they have many launches on the same day and everybody gets a look in. Having the full F1 media contingent at a single venue will provide more coverage for all teams. At the moment a Sauber launch still gets nowhere the coverage a Ferrari launch gets, so where is the difference.

        I have heard that excuse – but strangely more from the media than from teams…

        1. Stagger the launches at 1 hour intervals? Also cars to be positioned in same positions and angles for each launch so fans get really good comparison shots.

    7. Live streaming the testing would be a great start.

      1. @emu55 That’s a hard case to make given there was a combined total of 17 laps’ running by the teams today!

      2. There is a live stream of sorts on YouTube. No official cameras so use various people around the track with phone cameras and use Autosport live text feed, current times and a live chat section. Called overseer something or other, just type F1 testing 2018 live in. Good actually. Sky once did a whole test day with tv cameras back in their 1st year. Maybe should again, perfect to experiment with camera positions and microphones. A pre season for test for tv people to sharpen up and develop new ideas.

      3. @emu55 @keithcollantine They did consider broadcasting testing for this year but opted against it for the same reason previous plans have not gone ahead, The cost of doing so wouldn’t be worth it.

        Shipping out all the necessary equipment, Setting it up, Staff accommodation, Tearing it down & shipping it away only to ship it all back a week later & repeat (You can’t leave the equipment setup on the off days) just isn’t worth the time or cost given how relatively few people are likely to watch.

        Practice sessions on race weekend’s currently get significantly less viewers than qualifying/races & given the nature of testing it’s probable that the number of viewers would be less than what is currently the norm for practice sessions. You have people complaining already about how boring practice is, Well testing is a lot less interesting to watch than practice.

        In 2013 Sky broadcast all 4 days of the final test live & that was something that they had expected to do again & something that FOM as well as other broadcasters also watched to judge interest. The live coverage of those 4 days didn’t draw them a significant audience, Again they were less people watching than official practice & if memory serves the number of people watching declined each day suggesting that people tuned in the 1st day, Saw what testing was actually about & didn’t come back for the subsequent days.
        Sky had planned to cover testing again in future years but the cost of covering the 2013 test & how little payback they got in terms of people watching put them off doing it again.

        Coverage of Testing, Like practice sessions are great for the most dedicated fans who want to watch everything & pay attention to every little detail. However that is just a small portion of the overall fanbase & most of those who tune in to watch a race don’t bother with practice sessions, A lot of them don’t even watch qualifying so there not going to be bothered about testing.

        @Markp A lot of that gets done anyway. FOM take a few in-car cameras & trackside cameras & use them to run some test’s. They also go out on Thursday before each race & look at camera angles trackside as there setting everything up & they will also look at stuff over the weekend and make notes for the following season.

    8. How many times had it been said that the teams and others inside the sport are too absorbed in themselves to pay any attention to fans? Yes, there is the annual ‘Fan Survey’ with silly questions like ‘Would you prefer more overtaking for the lead’ and such. By now, we all should know that we are going to be ignored again, yet we keep coming back for more, year after year.

      1. +1 @gpfacts

        F1: pinnacle of motorsports for masochists.

      2. This is very true. In my opinion too, F1 as a sport is not accessible enough in terms of content (e.g. live races, what goes on inside the teams, etc.) and is too closed. Also the rules are too complicated/technical for casual fans to follow as well as young viewers (kids are fans too). And the cars are ugly compare to before; 00’s and earlier.

        Still remember back when me I used to draw Hakkinen’s 1999 MP4/14 in school. Was only 8 years and couldn’t wait for the race on the weekend. And there were many kids like that back in the day. Sadly you don’t see it anymore these days.

    9. Jesus! I read everything, finally. I want to make a couple points.

      1.Dieter you must know this, money laudering was a big thing, before the EU and particularly with Tobacco sponsorship, hence some of the extravaganza, you wash the money you lose some, just part of the process.

      Dieter you are a bit grumpy aren’t you, you are essentially fighting f1’s decreased relevance and revere.

      2.Williams did nothing for Martini but they all knew this was an experiment, I think it shows afterall the anouncement came early, as if there was no other way. 10m is a lot for Martini to invest in f1 and without a well known and revered driver even less appealing. Martini was there for the nostalgia and to become a platform to make Williams not look like McLaren, an empty car, don’t know the reason, does not attract sponsors. Finally as you pointed out, tv deals and the fact audiences are forever spoiled means, F1 is relegated to status sponsorship, a type of sponsoring whereby you consolidate your image by being associated with the sport, popular before 08 and in the money laudering days.

      3.Racing teams, even the one’s financed by a parent company, do racing that’s it, if you can’t make this unified launch benefit racing teams they won’t care, as you mentioned their time is precious and deadlines are tight. The fans? Do I give up time and expose my work to rivals or do I earn fans on the track? There’s no upside for teams, this launch idea is just a neat idea, in a scarce winter of sports it might work but f1 needs to hit lower for this to happen. If you force the issue it’s going to be end up with Liberty cannibalizing the rewards.

      1. It all comes back to dollars. Greater fan engagement means better marketing value which means a better product to sell to sponsors.

        It’s an investment into their own existence. Sure many are race teams first and foremost; but without the fans and the sponsor cash that comes with it… well, just look down the grid.

    10. @dieterrencken Thank you Dieter for another great article! I really enjoy your thought-provoking, in depth articles.

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