Since the early ‘90s a heavy question mark has hung over the fastest sport in the world. The age-old question is ‘man or machine’. The toughest of criticism to even the most talented of drivers has been levied since the introduction of the numerous electronic systems intended to aid the drivers and the technological development of the sport.

2010 saw the return of Michael Schumacher to Formula One amidst a swell of emotion and excitement, however the anticipation placed upon the 41 year old’s shoulders seemed to have dented the German’s assurance. The most decorated Formula One driver in history has returned to the track in an attempt to add to his 7 World Championships, 91 victories and 154 podiums with the sport in a very different position to the way he left it in 2006.

Not content with changing the rules of the sport in an attempt to prise the world titles from him, the authorities have since made a conscious decision to remove the majority of driver aids that so helped the legendary elder statesman of the sport win his 5 titles in a row. With such a meagre return of points in his first 4 races people have asked the inevitable question: “Was it simply the car that drove him to those titles?”

Ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, Mercedes GP has altered the weight distribution of their cars. Reports suggest that both Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher have been involved in the discussions about this and have even gone as far as to say that the redesign has been in place for two months – its publicity only hindered by the fly-away schedule of the first 4 races. Alternatively we are led to believe that this is the first sign of Schumacher asserting his garage dominance in an attempt to gain parity with his flying team-mate. Either way, Schumacher has out-qualified Rosberg for the first time this season by claiming 6th spot on the grid and has cut a notably happier figure around the paddock in doing so. His conversations before Saturday’s session painted a picture of a relieved man who could finally start to enjoy his time behind the wheel of his Formula One car again. “It now points where I want the car to point and it takes less time to get there!”, proclaimed Schumacher after finishing third in both Friday practice sessions.

Irrespective of the result on Sunday, we find ourselves asking the same question once again: “Does this mean it’s only the machine that makes him fast?”. I disagree.

It is a rare sight when man and machine work in such perfect unison that it’s hard to tell where the abilities of the driver stop and the technology of the car takes over. With Michael Schumacher and a good car, this is what you have. Throw in the magic of Ross Brawn and you have a rare mix that really can compete at the highest levels of motorsport time and time again.

The Formula One world has, in fact, seen it since Schumacher first retired with Jenson Button in 2009. Ross Brawn has already commented on the similarities of Jenson and Michael and many people drew the same technology-related questions when Button was powering his way to 6 victories in 7 races as when Michael was racing to 5 titles in a row.

In these two drivers we have men who can perform as one with their machinery. Their performances can be enhanced by mechanical and electronic devices and without the symbiosis that exists between them and their machines their abilities would be merely human.

So what, then, is the answer to the 15-year-old question of ‘man or machine’? The answer is still both – as it always has been. With the correct blend of natural ability, mechanical support and managerial guidance, however, cyborg-like performances can be found. Michael Schumacher, with the right car under him, has shown this, time and time again, turning out phenomenal performances that defied human logic or understanding. Jenson Button’s metronomic success in the first half of last season proved just that.

Just as The Terminator proved in the two (original) films, some cyborgs are more successful than others (defeating the T1000 in Terminator 2). In the films, Arnie stuck to his promise by returning to save the world. Whilst we may not have heard Schumacher utter “I’ll be back” in 2006, most people in the paddock are still confident that Formula One’s Terminator can return to save our memories of his first 15-year career in the sport.

Richard Soddy

The importance of the business of F1 has grown in the previous few years and has reached a certain level of fever pitch since 2008, where every conversation seems to be about income generation and value for money. Despite the disintegration of Super Aguri and the credit crunch in 2008, the total spend on on-car sponsorship peaked at almost US$837m, a rise of US$5m on 2007 (source: Formula Money 2008). Although not significant, it shows that sponsors were willing to justify the astronomical spend in F1.

Now that the credit crunch has set in and a number of high profile sponsors have pulled away from the sport – RBS and ING to name a couple – it will be interesting to see the eventual level of investment in F1 in 2009. One question that has risen in prominence is the level of activation around F1 and its associated success, especially focusing on brand loyalty and resultant income generation – a way of justifying sponsorship spend to stakeholders.

Having looked into studies carried out over a period of 14 years, it can be seen that 72% of NASCAR fans reported that they would ‘almost always’ or ‘frequently’ choose the brand/product associated with their team/sport (Performance Research). At the RAC British Grand Prix in 2000, it was the opposite, where almost 40% of fans insisted that they would ‘almost never’ choose the sponsor’s product ahead of a competitor (Performance Research).

As an example, the RAC British Grand Prix in 1999 was Damon Hill’s last and as such the crowds flocked to see the retiring driver in his last appearance before quitting F1. Benson and Hedges was a major F1 sponsor at the time and took to the Grand Prix stands, handing out a huge number of free goodies, offering Grand Prix simulators and temporary tattoos! The free recall of F1 sponsors onsite resulted in 83% of fans recalling Benson and Hedges (advertising at the time as “Buzzin’ Hornets”), with Marlboro and West at least 35% below.

Performance Research reported a dramatic decrease the following year, back down to 39% of fans able to name B&H as a F1 sponsor. So why did the onsite activation work for B&H and can this be translated to other sponsors?

The onsite fan engagement was honest and open –a simple brand awareness programme that transparently made F1 fans aware of the company’s presence in F1. There were no figures on whether this then increased brand loyalty or boosted sales, but we can deduce (from 29% of F1 fans saying they would be more likely to select the brand associated with their sport) that there would have been a short-term increase in revenue.

I believe that fans are still open to onsite sponsor activation, but are more receptive to non-cynical communications where they are encouraged to learn more at their own pace. For companies that are trying to promote their brand messages through their sponsorship of F1 the task is harder as fan engagement is necessary to allow empathy and understanding of the brand.

We can see from this example that onsite activation can work and would probably have greater merit if the campaign was extended to include a number of races, different markets and continuous campaign theme.

F1 Paddock Insights

June 17, 2009

As we approach the British Grand Prix, a teary, reminiscent mood has fallen over the Formula One paddock. The circuit that launched the very first World Championship race is now hosting its last. At least for a while. As the memories of Silverstone’s high speed corners, redesigned complex and old school charm makes its way further north to Donington Park, the future of the original home of British racing hangs in the balance. Yet again the back pages have been dominated by the civil war that has broken out between the FIA and FOTA. It seems like FOTA are once again making a nuisance of themselves and could, indeed end up as FOCA did – as a distant memory and a reminder of Bernie’s authority. Here’s what’s happening in the paddock this weekend:

Jenson Button returns to Silverstone as a man on top of the world. He is currently 26 points ahead of his nearest rival – the perennial 2nd placed man, Rubens Barrichello – and with 6 wins under his belt he almost has the title within his sights. All this after Bernie Ecclestone pushed so hard for the former Honda Racing F1 Team to avoid collapsing even before the pre-season testing sessions. I don’t think he could have foreseen the dramatic turn of events this season and for the first time in his professional career he must be glad he was wrong. Had the pocket-sized powerhouse of Formula One got his way, Jenson would currently be developing neck muscles not from the cornering speeds of the BGP001, but from the weight of gold medals hanging from his neck. Having taken 6 victories so far in 2009, another win at Silverstone and one more at Hungary would signal the end of the Championship, with no other driver able to match his haul of 8 wins. It would have given the Briton a good long summer holiday and the chance for Brawn to start developing their car for 2010, whatever that may yet look like.

What a twelve months it has been for the man from Stevenage. Lewis Hamilton’s meteoric rise through the ranks of McLaren and Formula One was nothing short of mesmeric. The youngest ever Formula One World Champion had the world at his feet 12 months ago and as he feathered the throttle through the final corners of a rain-soaked Silverstone he must have thought it would never end. Compare, though 2009 to 2008 for the young star and it is strikingly obvious how different his life may now be. Last year Hamilton had stepped onto the podium and qualified on the front two rows of the grid in each of the three like-for-like races prior to the British Grand Prix. This year, however, he has only finished once inside the top ten and not qualified higher than 12th. No surprise then that, when recently speaking to F1 Insiders, he remarked: “It’s a perfect place for the race, so let’s hope it’s not the last time we race at this track”. Lewis Hamilton is clearly searching for the glory days of his youth to propel his car back to the front of the grid.

If Lewis Hamilton’s career has been in reverse, Jenson Button has seemingly applied the KERS button to his. As the man who has forever been a back-marker, Jenson Button’s career has shot up the starting grid. As a result one would think that everyone at Brawn would be jealous. Everyone, that is, including their sponsors, Virgin. Richard Branson, the enigmatic billionaire who has everything he has ever wanted is seemingly high on the list of jealous team members. Surprising, you’d think, until you take a look at the object of his desire. The sleek lines and curves of a champion, Jenson’s girlfriend has been the victim of his affection recently – to the extent that at a recent BrawnGP party, Branson decided to try his luck with the young model. This, obviously didn’t go down to well with his world-beating compatriot and when asked what Jenson thought about Richard Branson, he calmly stated that: “I get on very well with the Virgin Group!”

Many of the drivers have been reminiscing about the history of Silverstone this week. Vijay Mallya, team principal of Force India (based across the road from the Silverstone’s main gates) has possibly the most legitimate reason to call this his home Grand Prix simply told insiders, when asked his thoughts on the venue: “Because it is home to us and Silverstone is a special place” . Ferrari has even more reason to look at the past – their future in the sport is as blurred as everyone’s right now – as it was at Silverstone that José Froilan Gonzalez took victory in 1951 to record the Prancing Horse’s first ever Formula One victory. Fernando Alonso’s view of the circuit seems to be similar to that of his fellow drivers, telling insiders (with a hint of anti-establishment frustration) at the Renault headquarters that: “In terms of the track, it’s a great place to drive a Formula One car and as this is probably the last time we will race at Silverstone, I will make sure I enjoy the experience”.

Whatever memories Silverstone may hold for you, enjoy the racing from the fast and furious ex-air force base.

April 29, 2009

Decision Day Looms at Donington

Bernie Ecclestone, the man at the heart of the FIA’s crown jewel, has (yet again) thrown the British Grand Prix of 2010 in serious doubt this week. In fairness to the pint-sized powerhouse of Formula One, the troubles at the East Midlands circuit started long before Bernie got involved.

Simon Gillett, the impressive CEO of DVLL, has agreed a 150 year loan for the use of the Donington circuit from Tom Wheatcroft, the Park’s owner. However, following a string of financial complications (including the small matter of a recession) the rent bills have been lying unpaid, and most likely unopened, on Gillett’s desk since September 2008.

It clearly all got a bit too much for Wheatcroft and his son, as they reached the final straw with DVLL and commenced court proceedings for the outstanding £2.47m. So the big question is now, where does that leave the British Grand Prix? Industry insiders are mulling over a number of different options – quite which one will prove correct, only time will tell.

First, there is the (slim) option that Gillett and co. will find financial support from a third party investor – someone with a lot of money who believes in Ecclestone’s rhetoric on how the economy will benefit and companies, local and national, associated with the race will enjoy unprecedented exposure.

There is also the chance that the £2.47m won’t be paid back to Wheatcroft and Sons, leaving the Donington Park circuit a half-built, empty sand-pit languishing in the hopes and dreams of what could have been. Does Wheatcroft seriously believe this will be the most sensible option for him and his circuit? What repercussions would an empty track over Grand Prix weekend be for the future of Donington Park?

The final and most cynical option comes from the anti-Bernie camp. For years, Bernie has been forcing Formula One into the Far East or the oil-rich states of the Middle East and has long made the British Grand Prix the pariah of the Formula One calendar (much like he did with the French Grand Prix – where not enough razzmatazz caused the Magny Cours circuit’s downfall). The view from the most hard-nosed of paddock folk is that Bernie knew Donington couldn’t live up to its original pitch. If that is the case, it certainly was a timely ruse to drag the British GP away from a dilapidated, tired Silverstone only fit for club days and the odd BRDC meeting and towards a sparkling new venue on the calendar.

Bernie Ecclestone is calling for national investment in the project at Donington, as a return for the amount of income motorsport generates for the government. The House of Commons has spoken to say that motorsport is an independent entity and the government cannot be drawn into bailing out a racetrack in addition to the already nationalised banks.

So where from here for the pinnacle of British motorsport? Only time will really tell, but one thing is for sure – Tom Wheatcroft, with his crafty business nouse, his unrelenting desire to be in charge and his unwillingness to shirk away from a fight is unlikely to back down in the ensuing legal battle with Simon Gillett.