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.
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?
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.
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.
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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