F1’s position at the pinnacle of motorsports has long been established, enjoying a large and loyal fan base. While it has historically struggled to make the transition into the cultural zeitgeist, the impact of Drive to Survive on Netflix has seen the sport finally make the leap to becoming endemic in this space.
So, what do those involved with the sport need to do to ensure it stays that way?
F1 is riding a global wave of success. Record race attendance—check. Huge growth in the U.S.— check. Massive commercial investment—check. New, more diverse, and younger audiences engaged—check. The list goes on and on, and the sport is being widely lauded for these successes—and rightly so. However, it’s important that the industry recognises the opportunity that remains ahead of it, rather than resting on its laurels for a job well done.
As we look long-term, the key for Formula 1 to really drive and maintain this growth is to embed itself more completely and consistently in mainstream culture, not just around race weekends.
We’re seeing it happen in pockets at present: Formula 1 is the focus of Brad Pitt’s latest movie venture alongside Apple; the sport features prominently in Stormzy’s latest music video; “More than Equal”’ has launched as a global, independent, and not-for-profit initiative aiming to find and develop F1’s first female world champion.
But how do we ensure that the momentum continues to drive a more wholesale shift?
The opportunities for F1 to penetrate society more deeply on a global level are as vast as they are necessary. Brands and fans are becoming more demanding, with purpose taking pole position alongside profit, and rights holders in turn need to be on the front foot. Looking at how other sports, more established in global culture are using creativity as a tool, is a useful source of inspiration.
Taking the recent Cannes Lions entries for example—it was a year in which the awards were flooded with brands leveraging the power of sport to stand out and, in turn, help those sports find more relevance in culture at large. Kotex’s “LEA” stood out for bringing female referees to the centre of the World Cup conversations; MLB invested in uncovering Latin-American off-the-field baseball stories through ‘Las Diablillas’; Budweiser captured global audiences with its “Bring Home the Bud” pivot. However, F1 was conspicuous in its absence this year, and agencies and rights holders alike need to play a part in turning this around for the sport to truly thrive long term.
Creativity will also help brands stand out in what is becoming a highly congested sponsorship landscape. With F1 rights deals having a historic focus around commercial objectives, the opportunity for brands to differentiate themselves by being brave and stepping away from the status quo in activating their partnership is significant.
For example, Smartsheet has successfully broken the mould in their approach to F1 via their Sponsor X activation. By swapping their logo with a number of non-profits on the McLaren F1 car, they've not only been able to elevate awareness of the non-profits, but in turn have raised awareness of their wider partnership with McLaren, allowing them to stand out in a crowded space and tell their brand and product stories in a new and positive way.
Seeking ways to use partnership rights in a more creative and purposeful way, Octagon has also helped the likes of Standard Chartered break through into culture-changing conversations with their Liverpool FC partnership, by shining a light on the barriers faced by young girls in pursuing participation in sport via their “Play On” campaign (picked up by the likes of This Morning and Sky News last month).
So, what does the industry need to do to ensure that we're actively driving change and not sticking to the status quo?
In order for this to be authentic and long-lasting, time needs to be taken by all involved in F1 to effect this change: Time to understand the newly engaged global audience better (More than Equal is helping here with their latest research), to uncover new stories, to start new conversations, to be more inclusive, to find new roles for brands to play, to find ways to leverage the sport to effect positive change, and finally, to think differently and more creatively about F1.
If F1 is to continue on this positive trajectory, converting their newly engaged audiences into lasting fans, it needs to build on the work of the last few years, and develop into a cultural juggernaut as well as a commercial one. In a sport famous for its innovative approach to technology, it’s time for brands, agencies, and rights holders to be brave and apply that approach to activating their partnerships.
Olly Mitchell is vice president for Motorsports Octagon UK.