Speak up race fans

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.

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.

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. Team’s 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. 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’s forums, but for very limited numbers of privileged people, we have social media, albeit only scratching the surface of its 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.

Marc Priestley

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