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

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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.