When 20 mechanical monsters are unleashed on Sunday in Melbourne at the start of the new Formula One season, the only thing that will match their speed is the digital transformation the sport is currently experiencing.
For a sport rooted in technology – most of it being guided and assisted by cutting-edge computers – it’s fair to say F1’s digital race suffered a difficult start.
Logically F1 should have been one of the first sports to embrace digital transformation given its obsession with tech, but it wasn’t adopted as a central part of its communication strategy as quickly as other sports entities such as the Premier League, the NFL and the NBA.
Certain teams were relatively early adopters - including the ones I worked for as Digital Marketing Officer (Brawn GP/Mercedes AMG F1) earlier in my career - but the official F1 social media channels were created much later, as an “act of presence”, and were rarely used to engage with fans.
Under then-CEO of the Formula One Group Bernie Ecclestone, teams were forbidden to post videos from the pits, film the track action or record drivers’ interviews in the paddock complex.
In late 2016, a new era emerged when the FIA (F1’s governing body) sold its commercial rights to American media organisation Liberty Media. The reported £6.4bn takeover was completed in time for the start of the 2017 F1 season.
The new owners knew this would be one of their biggest challenges. As Sean Bratche, F1’s new Managing Director of Commercial Operations, said: “There was no digital group, there was no communications team, there was no sponsorship group, media rights, marketing, nothing.”
From the 2017 pre-season winter testing, the social media rules were relaxed by Liberty Media and more content could be posted by the teams. The official F1 channels also saw a rapid transformation, during and away from Grand Prix weeks.
The official YouTube channel, mocked by fans in the past for posting a couple of pre-race videos in the lead-up to a Grand Prix and a highlights video a couple of weeks after, suddenly started to be populated with short and long-form videos, interviews, analysis and debriefs.
Here at Seven League we believe world-class social media channels are built from the bottom up. You ensure the basics are covered first, develop best practice then aim for brilliance. F1’s rapid transformation from missing most of the basics to hitting brilliance relatively often in their content was a breathtakingly quick one.
Which means the 2019 could be F1’s biggest season yet. The rivalries on the track between Mercedes and Ferrari, Vettel and Hamilton, the new drivers and returning ones, is matched behind the scenes. The sport just released a 10-episode series on Netflix, a new theme song written by The Chemical Brothers and also a new sonic branding - a 3-second sound which is the theme song sped up to 15,000 BPM to match the 15,000 rpm of a F1 engine.
What cost does this come at? Twitter reactions following the release of the new theme song and accompanying video shows a clear separation between new and long-time fans.
Same with the growing focus on crashes - understandable as they can be spectacular but also frustrating for long-term fans who know that despite improved safety, Formula One remains a dangerous sport.
It’s a story we have seen unfold in other sports. Digital transformation is hard work.
For example, the troubled inception of F1’s OTT platform (many official broadcasters objected to it in certain territories which limited the release of the full service to a handful of markets). There is some way still to go and digital transformation is never actually finished.
Liberty Media has enjoyed a fantastic couple of years digitally and should be applauded for it but F1 must be careful not to think the race is won yet!
NB: It would be wrong to blog about F1 today without acknowledging the sad loss of FIA Formula One Race Director Charlie Whiting. Our sympathies and thoughts are with his family and friends. Sunday won’t be the same without the iconic shot of Charlie making sure everything’s fine on the starting grid before pressing the start sequence button...