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Speak Up Race Fans

January 22, 2013

Former Williams chairman, Adam Parr, made comments at the recent Autosport show in the UK, about Formula One not being open enough to its fans and said the sport’s now just become ‘too exclusive’. Is he right?

Since Bernie Ecclestone began taking control of the sport in the late seventies, things have changed at a rapid and continual pace but whatever one thinks of him and his ways, he’s transformed it into a worldwide multi million dollar industry.

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In basic terms, Bernie came along, wrestled ownership and in some cases not even that, but still managed to pop up in charge somewhere, kindly asked everyone to leave, put up enormous fences and then demanded people pay a fortune to get back in. Both literally, in terms of the circuit itself, and figuratively speaking with the likes of branding and broadcasting rights. Somehow his strategy’s not only worked, but worked continuously for almost a quarter of a century, despite occasional attempts by teams and other groups to seize at least some of that control back.
He’s unsurprisingly become wealthy beyond comprehension, he’s been clever in lining the pockets of selected influential others along the way and created an empire and legacy, loved and loathed in varying proportions across the globe.
If you’ve ever been to a modern Grand Prix you’ll know just how seriously Mr Ecclestone takes the exclusivity of his Formula One.
In the week preceding a race, his crew of ‘hi vis’ clad guys arrive at the track to put up the ‘iron curtain’ around the circuit. Eight foot green fences and electronic security gates placed with precision and without even the slightest gap, allow the circuit to be viewed only from the designated, and of course ticketed, viewing areas. Even competitors and guests of the GP2 and support paddocks are deliberately fenced off from seeing the track from any position.
The F1 paddock itself, the inner sanctum of the sport, is a closely guarded, secure compound at the back of the pit garages at each Grand Prix and it’s a place which serves more than one purpose for Formula One.
On one hand, and perhaps most obviously, the paddock gives the drivers, teams and others working in the arena a space to move around freely. A space where they aren’t hounded by thousands of fans and autograph hunters and a space where they have a degree of control over their own portion of the environment there. Teams have, as well as their garages, a designated area inside the paddock in which they construct their own temporary buildings to relax and entertain guests. ‘Motorhomes’, as they used to be, are now million dollar glass walled pieces of architectural art, adorned with five star luxury and staffed by glamorous hosts and the finest chefs. They’re a private space which the teams control. Anyone with the correct pass can roam around freely inside the electronic turnstiles of the paddock, but only the teams themselves decide who’s invited into their impressive hospitality palaces at each race. In today’s world where drivers, VIP guests and even team management can be global superstars, a place of sanctity, where they can eat, relax, socialise and work in relative normality is a necessity.
The other major purpose of the tight security surrounding the Formula One paddock, is that it creates an incredibly intriguing sense of mystery, a super exclusivity and therefore gives tremendous value to the commodity that is the F1 paddock pass.

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As someone who’s been lucky enough to wear the sacred ticket around my neck for many years, or ‘Bernie’s Party Pass’, or ‘the Key To The City’, as we used to call it because it’d gain access to almost any gig in town, I know it’s easy to take it for granted. I also know that, having been to Grand Prix without one, it’s something that everyone wants, but only a select few ever get to have. The unprecedented levels of exclusivity mean that teams, sponsors and Bernie himself, have a trump card up their sleeves when it comes to entertaining VIP’s, wooing potential investors and even selling privileged access to the inner world of the sport.
Because access has been so tightly controlled and restricted by Mr Ecclestone and, as a knock on effect, by the teams themselves, the enigma surrounding Formula One’s something that’s created an unparalleled excitement and fever about knowing more. Fans of the teams and drivers always want to know, and see, more and more of them and by allowing just controlled, carefully measured snippets of insight here and there, they’ve kept that intrigue alive.
There’s a long since held opinion from within, that F1 needs to retain it’s exclusivity to retain it’s value and marketability as an event of the highest echelon. A truly glamorous world, awash with A list celebrities, Champagne and the very finest hospitality money can provide… but it’s not a world where the real fans of those teams and drivers are ever allowed anywhere near.
The world’s changing daily on so many levels and it’s true to say that Formula One as a sport and business has been a little slow to keep up in some areas. Bernie’s lengthy dictatorship of the industry has done great things and provided it with an incredible platform to leap forward from, but we must surely leap, or risk getting left behind.

One of the biggest developments in terms of sport and business is the advent, and subsequent contagion, of social media across the world. F1’s beginning to take notice of the new platform and use it more productively and it’s undoubtedly been a wonderful thing for fans. Whilst face to face contact with their heroes does still remain almost impossible, they at least now have a ‘direct line’ via the world of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram etc, to get their fix. Or do they?
Some are better than others in the way they interact with the people who put them up on the pedestals on which they stand. Some share whatever they like and really engage with their fans, some are tightly controlled by their employers in what they’re allowed to share and some don’t even do it themselves, but have a third party operate the account on their behalf. Some, of course, still don’t do it at all.
Access to news and information, through written journalism, photo and video, has all become instant and delivered directly to the pockets of race fans, but not everyone’s yet making use of this remarkable technological breakthrough in a world which sells itself on being at the very forefront of such advances.

When Adam Parr says fans should demand more from Formula One, he is right, they should. The sport as a whole needs to change it’s attitude and move with the times, but unless someone stands up and demands it, it could take forever.
We’re traditionally a sport, very much stuck in it’s ways. We’re stuck in a now distant era where people clambered over each other to pay obscene amounts of money to have their tobacco brands on cars. Teams had so much budget, they literally couldn’t dream up enough outrageous ways to spend it, they certainly didn’t have to work so hard to make ends meet. The money was there, there was loads of it, loads of people willing to pay it and that was the basis for the business strategy, fans didn’t really come in to it.
Today, things are different, teams do have to work hard for their money and they have to find different ways of earning it. With fan bases stretching across the entire planet, it’s an area that needs to be nurtured and exploited to the benefit of both parties.
The exclusivity needs to be there undoubtedly, F1 needs to stay at the high end of the market for corporate hospitality and investment, they demand a lot of money from their partners and have to be able to give them something special in return aside from a sticker on the car. The intrigue and privileged confines of the paddock is something wonderful for all parties, frustrating though it may be for those on the outside, but there needs to be more ways for fans to play a part in how the sport’s run.
In football, although I completely accept there are many things wrong with the way that industry’s run too, fans have a voice.

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If they’re not happy with something at their club, they say so and when enough of them shout loudly enough, the club can’t help but listen. When clubs and their fans have something to say to the governing body, they can shout together and be heard. Official supporter groups use their numbers and their collective passion to effect change, or at the very least, discussion.
We now have fan forums, but for very limited numbers of privileged people, we have social media, albeit only scratching the surface of it’s potential and we have the odd event where teams send a car or driver along for an appearance, generally paid for and for the benefit of, one of it’s sponsors. Beyond that there’s very little.
Aside from the clear advantage of engaging with fans, things like ‘in house’ TV channels, fan based events, more team merchandising, driver interaction in person or through video chats etc, can all produce revenue streams directly or indirectly.
F1 fans, the people who spend fortunes on tickets, travel and replica shirts, need a bit of organising. At the moment they’re spread across the world, some may belong to fanclubs, but nothing large enough, noisy enough or official enough to be taken too seriously. They need pulling together, both in their separate team forms, but also as fans of the sport as a whole. The idea’s been tried already, but never really gathered enough momentum and it needs the traditional major players, The FIA, FOM and the teams to acknowledge that the fans, in the form of recognised associations, should be a major player too.
More opportunity for supporter groups to get together and lobby teams and Formula One Management on things they want to see happen in ‘their’ sport, could boost audiences at races and in TV land and generally can work for the benefit of both sides.

A sport like ours will always be ultimately dependent on the action on track generating enough interest to sustain viewers and fan bases, but right now there’s never been a better time for that. 2012 was one of the most exciting and open seasons ever and we need to capitalise on it’s success and popularity.
The fans want more than ever, the teams and the sport needs them more than ever and we have more outlets than ever to be able to give them what they want. Race fans just need to shout together and shout loudly enough, and they need to do it now.

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Marc Priestley
@f1elvis

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From → Formula One

10 Comments
  1. Ian McLeod permalink

    As usual Marc, a well-thought-out & thought-provoking article. Sadly for those of us outside the barriers, there doesn’t seem to be any realistic means of making our voice(s) heard to those in power. Ecclestone has always considered race fans to be mere rabble, has always ignored them & in fact none of his lucrative income streams depend upon them; only the poor struggling race organisers profit (?) from ticket sales.
    Flavio Briatore used to expound egalitarian theories about F1 improving its non-existant relationship
    with its fan base, but no one listened.
    It seems that only McLaren has made any serious effort to reach out to fans, via its Team McLaren membership programme & through its excellent website. But the prices of all team paraphernalia underline just how elitist this sport sees itself.
    Perhaps the internet remains the best alternative, as the official FOM site (F1.com) is superb,
    offering great technical info as well as news, rule changes & other relevant data. But there’s no way to send Mr E a message on that site, nor any way to contact Monsieur Todt on the FIA site.
    I’m no fan of NASCAR but their entire ethos has always been close contact with the race fans, as opposed to F1’s isolationist exclusivity. F1 is the private club, NASCAR the corner pub.(Shame about those tanks they race, isn’t it?)
    Marc, if you can come up with some hot ideas for improving access to our beloved sport (without clogging the paddock with our Great Unwashed bodies, that is), we’d all love to hear them.
    Meanwhile, keep your great blog coming!
    Cheers
    Ian

  2. Good article Marc, but the possessive form of
    its has no apostrophe and “teams” is a plural, so likewise no apostrophe. Please get this right because it MAKES
    MY BLOOD BOIL!

    Thank you 🙂

  3. GREAT piece Marc. I am working on something along the lines you mentioned, which in Silicon Valley we call in “stealth” mode. What is the best way to get a hold of you? Been meaning to get in touch with you since this is up your alley.

  4. James permalink

    Along with the points you raised, my concern for F1 is how is the series going to nurture and raise it’s next generation of fans? Yes, there is social media which helps but going to a race weekend is extremely expensive for many, it’s harder for a family to afford tickets for Mum, Dad and the kids. TV wise, the F1 season is no longer “free to air” so again one must pay extra for a TV package, great if you can afford it but many can’t or won’t.

    Likewise, arrive at the circuit and you stand little to no chance of seeing the drivers or teams close-up let alone getting a photo with your favourite driver or autograph. Having moved many years ago from the UK to North America, I was immediately surprised at how more “open” some of the NA races are. Admittedly they are not on the same fan or media level as F1 but IndyCar and sportscar racing such as the ALMS/Grand-Am series are so much more fan friendly both on and off-track. You can have access to the paddock, sometimes free depending on the series where you can see the teams and drivers up close and talk with them, have a photo etc. You see many more families and young kids because ticket prices are sensible and not outrageous like F1 and with the fans able to meet the teams and the drivers it helps build-up support of the series, teams and drivers.

    Respected F1 commentator Will Buxton for example took in an IndyCar race last years and was blown away at the fan friendly, laid back atmosphere and agreed that F1 could learn a lot of lessons from the series (see here, http://willthef1journo.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/california-dreamin-indycar-impressions/).

    I grew-up watching F1 on TV and going to the GP’s but have not been in several years by choice although I still watch on (pay) TV. Living in Toronto, my closest GP is Montreal which I have been to many times but the cost (although I can comfortably afford it) is outrageous. My last trip in 2008 cost $1200 for tickets, hotel accommodation (not extravagant), food etc for 3 day’s compared to local IndyCar/Sportscar races I can attend close to Toronto. A 3 day IndyCar weekend for example would cost me $300 tops, less with the ALMS where fans can walk the grid just before the race start and mingle with the teams and drivers.

    F1 is a great sport don’t get me wrong but the business model for teams, circuit promoters and fans
    is starting to look more and more outdated to me. As much as Bernie Ecclestone has done for the sport, and he has done a lot, he has an old school mentality today aligned to the fact that the sport is owned by an investment company (CVC) whose only goal is to wring as much money out of the sport as possible, I really wonder what the longterm future holds for F1?

  5. Hi Marc- your piece here was pointed out to me so I just have to respond! A group of us felt so strongly that Bernie & Co are not interested in what fans want that we formed FOFA (due to Bernie’s rules we can’t call ourselves Formula One Fans’ Association hence the short form) in 2009. Our aim is to be the voice of the fans but knew our path would be stoney and very difficult especially as we are all working folks and funds are totally limited. But we do exist and want to get somewhere……..and I would love to discuss this with you!
    Yes F1 needs to be exclusive and mysterious.but when fans literally have to risk their lives to go on a pitwalk, disabled folks can`t get to a toilet on track then why should fans bother going to races at all? On the other hand as long as Bernie gets his fee from the promoters no-one gives a damn do they?And as for the Abu Dhabi and Bahrain exclusive sheikh only no fans please races- who needs them except Bernie? We fans? Nope- we’d rather have Imola or turkey or whatever………(Being female and having lived in the middle east for many years I won’t go there on principle but that is my problem………or so it seems)……
    So take a look at us and tell us what and how we can do things better!
    http://www.fofassociation.com and would love to hear your views!
    Cheers
    C

  6. Brilliant article, as always. Thank you so much for all the insights and thoughts you share with your readership.

    Carol, I think the Idea is brilliant, but it’s the first time I have actually see your site. I am not sure I am in a positions to give advice, but I still will 🙂

    The problem is that it needs proper marketing. To make people join and engage in building barricades you first need to attract them, to provide some entertainment and to make them stay. This might sound like a minor issue in comparison to the greater aim of bringing fans together, but I believe that the appropriate design is a step that needs to be taken in order achieve it. The website now looks a bit unprofessional, which prevents you from taking the whole thing seriously at the first place. And this is exact opposite from what you need. And then when you have a marketable product to promote it is worth trying to get people involved. (BTW Logo is brilliant!!!)

    I am not saying it just to say it, but I am really willing to help. (I am not an expert in webdesign, but I have some experience, and if you wish, we can talk about some improvements which can be undertaken.)

  7. I’ve made the point before and these things are always possible, the fans should buy a team the way the Bayern Munich fans have. With 5 million fans in the UK alone, £20 each would buy a team and pay for it for a year’s racing, While Sponsorship, etc would help to sustain it – A Fan’s team could put pressure on the great drivers, Tech Director’s, Designers etc. who have all made a chunk of cash to take up the challenge of designing, building and racing a FANCar (he he!) and making the team successful. Staff get paid, top guys only get paid when the team becomes established.

    The fans then get a voice in the sport, a knowledge of exactly what’s going on, part ownership of a team and a lottery for each race could bring 10 of them to enjoy VIP paddock and pitlane access.

    I know I’d pay £20 a year for that and, let’s face it, Adrian Newey MUST be looking for a new challenge at this stage. I also hear that there’s a man at Mercedes who’s not particularly happy at the mo.

  8. Ian McLeod permalink

    To James: Your comments (& your fears) resonate with me, James, especially your concern with how F1 can encourage a future fan-base, given F1’s abject scorn for its current fan-base. I, too, grew up watching & reading about F1, & going to races once I had the required money & mobility. Like you, from Toronto, I went to (in order) Watkins Glen, Mosport, St Jovite, Montreal plus Long Beach & Detroit, then Spa & Monaco to watch Grand Prix cars race. Then I moved to Europe, & I haven’t attended a Grand Prix since, because the prices are just plain obscene. Can’t blame the organisers, they’re just trying to make a bit of profit, but after paying FOM’s outrageous fees, they have no choice other than over-charging the poor paying public.
    Which leaves TV…back in the Bad Old Days, there was no meaningful TV coverage, but that changed once Ecclestone realised that he could sell GPs to broadcasters & pocket all the money. Now he’s realised that other greedy bastards (stand up Rupert) will pay even more for exclusive rights for their pay-to-view channels, so the free-to-air channels are being squeezed out. In Europe we still get some free F1, thanks to BBC, but I expect that to end as soon as SKY contributes sufficient money to various political pension funds.
    If F1 goes to pay TV, they will lose their core audience, but they really don’t care about that audience anyway. Only the sponsors should care, but they’re strangely silent on all this. How long will they spend all that money to put their names on racing cars watched by a tiny paying audience? Formula One (mis-)Management thinks we’re all (ie public & sponsors) stupid, and thus far they’ve gotten away with it.
    Maybe one day F1 will be run as a proper business, rather than a money-grubbing machine for its owners, but let’s not hold our breaths waiting.
    Meanwhile, the sheer beauty and allure of this glorious sport, with its mind-blowing machinery, magnificent drivers and incredibly talented human infrastructure, continue to attract and hold those of us who grew up with it.
    Despite the corruption and incompetence at the top.

  9. I’d like to thank Daria for the comments! And the good news is we have a team of students making our site their degree project…..we are immensely proud of that and hope to revamp ourselves in the near future. Yes we need to market FOFA but with limited time and resources it is easier said than done. On the other hand we have achieved a few things like getting a fan his money back from a rip-off merchandiser at Silverstone last year, are in contact with Spa as some of the access etc is a disaster especially for disabled people and we had huge fan input to this so we are getting there. All we ask for the moment is that people like us on facebook, follow us on twitter and stay in touch….we need your input to make this work!

  10. Good article, and their are a number of points in relation to this subject, which some have already commented above.

    Teams don’t understand how to capture the passion and enthusiasm to get fans interested in following their team/drivers, they lack creative idea/commercial ideas/ then when they do come up with ideas, they realise they can’t do it because they are bound by rules in the Commercial side of the Concorde Agreement.

    Look at ticket sales for last year in the EU races, they were down, because ticket prices were to high and teams were not creating enough interest to get fans to go and probably because they could watch it at home now.

    Bernie talks about taking F1 to emerging markets but the EU is the largest market to F1 and if he can’t sell it their, then there’s going to be problems in the long run not that he cares anyway to something he said at a race last season about not caring what the fans want.

    If you look at it lately, HRT have folded, rumors been circulating that Force India were in trouble financially and Marussia just got rid of Timo Glock. So by 2016 I believe there will only be about 5 or 6 teams on the grid because these small teams won’t have enough income to sustain themselves over the long period.

    It will get worse over time since F1 has gone to SkySports here in the UK which means people won’t be able to afford the subscription costs, meaning they won’t see any F1.

    Take a look, if CVC are looking at a £6BN flotation and teams are only generating revenues of about £150m then theirs something wrong their.

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