Formula 1, more commonly known as F1, has always been an international sport. The first world championship was held in 1950 at Silverstone in the UK in front of 120,000 eager fans—even the reigning monarch, King George VI, was in attendance. And ever since Italian racer Giuseppe Farina screamed across the finish line in his supercharged Alfa Romeo in that first race, the whole of Europe was in love with the institution.
At the same time in America, Ford V8 power and the racing skills acquired outrunning cops on liquor-smuggling runs brought about NASCAR and similar outfits. In stark contrast to the more European and decidedly high-class Formula 1, NASCAR at its birth was made up almost entirely of ex-bootlegger drivers and is perceived to be a much lower-class affair than its European cousin.
Fighting for pole position
In the years since the F1 began, it hasn’t been easy to be an American fan at all. Doing so has usually meant waking in total darkness and venturing to a sports bar to watch the international broadcast. And even then, Americans haven’t had a truly American driver to root for since Mario Andretti who won the Dutch Grand Prix in 1978. That’s a long time for any fan to wait.
However, the long wait just may be over. In 2017, Formula 1 had a change in leadership and was purchased by American company Liberty Media for $8 billion. Formula1’s new CEO, Chase Carey, is bringing his American sensibilities to the league and forecasting some changes that will be favorable for American audiences in years to come. Many of the changes are aimed at making F1 content more easily consumable for fans in the US like more mobile and more behind-the-scenes content. There is also talk of a new Grand Prix street course in Miami for the 2019 season, as well as rumors of a northeastern Grand Prix to come in the near future. All these changes represent a significant effort on the part of the league to tap into the huge American sports fan base in years to come.
Man and Machine
There are also less traditional ways F1 racing is entering American culture—like videogames. The use of simulators in driver training has been around for a while, but that has always been for established professional drivers. We are now seeing the first generation of drivers who grew up racing in videogames enter the professional ranks, and if their performance so far is any indicator, we’re likely to see some fantastic drivers and races in the coming years. Just a few months ago a “sim racer,” Enzo Bonito, beat a professional F1 driver on a real track in a real car and then beat an Indy-500 winner on a different track the next day. It’s clear that esports will have a continued impact on F1 and motorsports in general and it may help to widen viewership in America and beyond.
The electric formula
Similar to the innovative new training regimes being tested by young drivers, auto manufacturers large and small are also using racing as a test bed and proving ground for new technologies. The most exciting innovation in racing, however, is happening specifically in Formula E, the wildly popular and electric-only variant of Formula 1. In the past, innovative materials and mechanics from F1 cars have primarily trickled down into top-end performance street cars, but the industry now stands on the cusp of a new electrified era that’s changing everything. Formula E technology has a much broader set of benefits than those focused solely on speed and aerodynamics. Jaguar, for example, a leader in Formula E, is using the league as a way to reconnect with their racing heritage and market their new I-Pace line of all-electric vehicles.
While they are indeed using the technical insights from the cars, drivetrains and racetracks, it’s clear the largest benefit is the marketing platform Formula E provides them. Formula E has already delivered crucial technical insights that they were able to translate directly into their consumer products, but the unique marketing opportunities seem even more promising. Jaguar immediately took action in 2016 by establishing itself as a leader and becoming the first premium automaker to join the FIA Formula E Championship. Building on their initial success, Jaguar has now launched the first international championship for production-based electric cars following the 2018 season, with 10 races taking place in major luxury markets like New York, Paris and Rome (Jaguar, 2019).
The finish line
Still, with no Americans on the FIA lineup this year, it’ll be a long road to winning over the American audience. But perhaps for brands and marketers it’s a road worth traveling on for a while longer. 325 million Americans is a large audience to pass up, and while many of them are just starting to take notice of Formula 1 and Formula E, American fans still shell out $56 billion a year to attend sporting events (CNBC 2019). If the sport as a whole can continue to be made more palatable and accessible to American audiences, there will be significant opportunity in the space in the coming years. And with the entire world on the cusp of a major shift from a carbon-based fuel economy, perhaps the dawning age of electric vehicles marks the perfect opportunity for motorsports to reinvent itself and connect with new audiences both in the US and elsewhere.
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Image credit: Todd Jiang