By Luke Smith
Follow @LukeSmithF1 on Twitter
There is a definite sense of excitement surrounding Formula 1 in 2017, and not just because of the new-style cars and the battle for another world championship. Following Liberty Media's takeover of the sport in January, there is a genuine feeling that things are about to change in F1 - and fast.
In recent years, there was a feeling that F1 was failing to capitalise on its full potential and reach the lofty heights that other sports have in the digital age. Amid declining audiences on both television and at tracks, the exclusive sheen that F1 has proudly boasted and upheld began to lose its appeal. Fans no longer wanted to watch the sport because it was aspirational; they wanted to be a part of it, much as they are in other sports through greater accessibility on a number of levels.
Recently-appointed McLaren executive director Zak Brown spoke about the need to keep fans interested and appeal to new audiences during a speech at Autosport International in January. “I've spent a lot of time with Liberty, big fans of theirs,” Brown said. “I think they're going to lead with 'what does the fan want?'. I think Formula 1 is a little guilty of 'what do we want?'.
“We need to realise our audience are the fans. If we get hundreds of millions of them and continue to feed them with the sport that we all love, then everything starts to take care of itself: the sponsors, the tickets, the governments that want the races. We need to have a real focus on the fans and I have no doubt that Liberty is going to do that.”
So if Liberty is going to puts fans first in F1, what steps should it take? Here are some ideas…
HAVE YOUR SAY: Vote for the key changes Liberty Media must make to F1
The cost of being an F1 fan is one of the biggest challenges that Liberty must deal with. Ticket prices to attend races have always been reasonably high - depending on the event, naturally - as part of F1's exclusive appeal. But it has gotten to a point now where tracks are experiencing falling attendances, making it harder for them to justify hosting a grand prix.
The strongest example comes with Silverstone. Despite selling out year after year and charging a premium price for tickets, it still struggles to cover its costs and is considering its options for F1 beyond 2019. Hockenheim has fallen off the calendar twice in the past three years as the financial burden is too great to host a grand prix annually, and other tracks that cannot rely on government handouts to cover costs will also be looking for fresh ways to get fans into the grandstands.
Reducing ticket prices is not something that can happen overnight given the nature of existing contracts for race fees. But if Liberty can address race fees appropriately, then in the long run it could prove very profitable. Be it subsidising ticket prices, placing a cap on the amount thatch be charge or committing to help with race fees to keep grands prix afloat, then there is no reason why the stands can't be packed again. Bringing F1 to the masses is no bad thing, and when a race takes place in each country just once per year, there should be enough interest in each country to make it a sell-out.
Increased fan access
F1 has always focused on the exclusive nature of the paddock as strengthening its image, and it has certainly worked. The paddock is a place for the privileged.
But what if the paddock were to be opened up to fans, or perhaps part of it? What if an array of show cars were set out that fans could pose for pictures with and get close to? Simple steps such as these would do well to help create a more inclusive feel to F1.
What if there were 'fan Thursdays' in the evening where they were given an hour or two as part of a premium ticket price to be in the paddock? There could be events following where drivers were allocated set times to appear at events, culminating in a fan forum that can be televised instead of the press conference. For races in locations like Austin, Montreal or Melbourne, this could even take place in the city centre, acting as a big event for the local community to attend. It creates a real vibe that F1 has taken over the city for a race weekend, much as the Super Bowl does. You step off the plane and you know that there's an event on; F1 needs to have this same kind of impact.
A totally open paddock like in the FIA World Endurance Championship may not work for F1. The exclusive nature of the realm behind the gates must be retained to some extent - but to break this down partly and give fans a chance to get a taste of life in F1 and get up close and personal with some of the cars would go a long way to attracting more in the long run and giving them long-lasting memories of their grand prix experience.
Return to free-to-air TV
This may be the biggest - and yet the most unlikely - way Liberty can take F1 to the masses in the shortest amount of time. The decline of free-to-air coverage of F1 across the world has had a dramatic impact on its viewing figures, falling by around a third in the past 10 years. Naturally part of this must be attributed to the increase in access to pirated streams online, but the majority of access to F1 on TV now only comes through a subscription service.
The limits on free-to-air coverage means that F1 can only be consumed by its diehard fans; those who consciously choose to make an investment in buying a subscription to Sky Sports, for example. The best way to attract new fans is to give them no obligation to tune in. Those who are simply perusing the channels on their TV on a Sunday may stumble across F1 and decide to watch. If they like it, F1 might have bagged itself a fan for life.
Not all nations with subscription-only TV rights are suffering falling audiences. One example is NBC, which is currently posting the highest figures of F1 in the United States since 1995. However, the decline in British audiences - one of the most passionate and most important to F1 - should speak volumes about the damage that subscription-only access to F1 does. This is a turn-off for companies that may want to sponsor F1 cars or the series itself, as their reach is diminished.
Naturally though, the money that is offered by the TV giants like Sky to get F1 on their subscription channels is very attractive to F1. It keeps the sport's coffers healthy. So don't go expecting Liberty to get F1 only on free-to-air channels anytime soon.
The future of the F1 calendar has been one of the hottest debates following Liberty's takeover, with many expecting an expansion in the number of races, plus more city events. Liberty chief Chase Carey has said he wants to take F1 to all the great cities in the world, which is all fine and good in words, but takes a huge undertaking to pull off in reality.
The priority for Liberty should be ensuring that races are healthy and functioning well. The likes of Silverstone cannot be making a heavy loss year-on-year, otherwise such events will drop off the calendar very quickly indeed. By addressing race fees and protecting some of F1's most historic events, it will keep the calendar full and retain fan interest.
Securing a presence in some new markets will definitely help Liberty attract new fans. Additional rounds in South America and the United States would be great, such is the size of the continents, but this would also place a greater pressure on teams. 20 races per year is really the maximum each team can manage without employing a second race crew, which would drive up costs and stress levels. It's a trade-off that Liberty must be careful in striking.
More back-to-back race weekends would also be good for F1. Many first-time fans who tune in on a Sunday will be eager to watch more as soon as possible, so to wait two or three weeks could kill their interest a bit. More sensible double-headers such as Austria and Hungary or France (when it joins) and either Monaco or Spain would help to sustain interest. NASCAR's schedule is highly-intensive, but works as race-hungry fans are always fed. Going up to 25 races per year would be a big, big ask for teams, yet it would be a surefire way to attract more fans to the sport, open up new markets and boost ratings.
Greater social media freedom
This is something that was trialled through pre-season testing in Barcelona. Previously there has been a strict limit on filming inside the paddock and at circuits due to the rights that broadcasters hold and the concerns that any videos on social media could tread on some toes.
Over testing, teams were given permission to post short videos to social media - a guideline of around 10 seconds or so - in order to give fans more of an insight. The move went down a storm, with fans lapping up the extra coverage from testing, consuming the behind-the-scenes footage on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.
While it is unclear whether this social media freedom will continue into the season, it definitely is a step in the right direction. It gives teams to chance to capture fans more via Twitter and Facebook, two enormous platforms from which new fans could be found.
So long as there were agreements in place so that teams did not overstep the mark and undercut the work that the TV reporters do (i.e. by filming their own post-session interviews etc.), then it would be a great way to attract more fans to the sport and create more interest.
Make F1 more financially viable
This is a big one. With the pleasant exception of Haas, the majority of big news about F1 teams in recent years has been negative: administration, closures, redundancies etc. It hasn't reflected well on F1.
This comes back to the financial and political structure of F1. The sport is split between the 'haves' (usually sitting on the strategy group) and the 'have nots' on the outside. This status quo is set to last until 2020 when the current Concorde Agreement expires, but after that point, Liberty should look to reform the structure of F1 so that prize money is shared out more fairly and teams can get an opportunity to flourish, not survive.
One of the biggest issues has been the awarding of prize money and commercial contracts to only the top 10 teams in the constructors' championship. So long as this lasts, the teams on the fringes will always be fighting for survival. Sure, there needs to be an element of competition and a reason to fight for constructors' championship places, but this can be achieved through the awarding of bonuses and prize money that escalates - but not to leave the backmarkers with nothing.
Cost control is another big concern. While a cost cap will never really work in F1 despite the wishes of many further down the grid, progress can be made in other areas. Schemes such as the Resource Restriction Agreement need to be promoted, embraced and enforced strictly, ensuring that teams can cut back where possible. The Ferraris and Mercedes of this world will always outspend their rivals - but even they would like to save some money.
If this can be done properly, it would not only ensure that teams stay healthy and F1 gets a positive, stable look, but it would also create interest from more teams to join the grid. Big manufacturers are currently turned off from entering F1 for a number of reasons, cost arguably being the biggest one. A bigger grid would create more on-track action, give us more great drivers going wheel-to-wheel and be a very good way to attract more fans to F1.
Make the product good - and support it
This is one of the hardest things for Liberty to work on, such is the debate surrounding the current form of F1. The new-spec cars for the 2017 season have been incredibly popular among fans, acting as a step in the right direction. Quite whether they are conducive to more overtaking and on-track battles remains to be seen, but the thrill of F1 is slowly coming back after a few quiet years.
“Quiet" also relates to the engine formula. The V6 turbos have split opinion since their introduction in 2014, with ex-F1 chief Ecclestone being one of their strongest critics. Sure, they lack the thrill of the V8 and V10 monsters that have raced in F1 over the past 15 years, but the sport needs to move with the teams. It must remain vaguely road-relevant if manufacturers are to remain interested and want to race. Proof of this comes in Formula E, which has OEMs queuing up to join the grid because of how aligned the series is to future car technologies.
Instead, F1 needs to sell why the V6 turbos are a good idea more. The fact that the cars are lapping faster than anything in the past 10 years despite using around half the fuel and more hybrid technology should be sung from the rooftops and portrayed as a huge success for the sport - because it is!
The product itself can be tweaked, but needs to be done so with only the interest of F1 at mind, not the individual teams. The appointment of Ross Brawn as F1's new sporting managing director under Liberty is huge, for he has held every role there is in a team. He knows what changes would be best for the sport instead of benefitting individual teams. Case in point: shark fins on the 2017 cars. Brawn knows they are not good for F1, and has already said he plans to address them despite a majority of teams supporting them. If he can put his foot down for the good of the sport, it would be a huge step for F1; proof that the product can be taken in the right, stable direction that is appealing to both new fans and existing ones.
Change the weekend format
Another big point of contention for F1 in recent years: the format of race weekends. The changes made to qualifying last year were disastrous; the existing Q1/Q2/Q3 shootout format is perfect and creates plenty of excitement, so needn't be changed.
The races however can be a bit long for new fans, so it could be that Liberty explores the idea of having a feature race and a sprint race over weekends, the latter perhaps forming the grid. While there is nothing overly wrong with the current format, it has been a bit samey for some time now; there is a need to stir excitement.
One way to do this would be to host some showcase races, similar to the Nürburgring Champions Mercedes-Benz Cup that was held in 1984. Then a relative unknown, Ayrton Senna won a special spec race up against world champions such as Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg and Jack Brabham. Doing something similar on F1 weekends would be of huge interest, placing the likes of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel all in GT cars for a special event. One of these on the support schedule for each race would create huge interest and be a great way to capture the attention of fans.
One of the biggest changes that needs to happen is a greater promotion and fanfare surrounding drivers. Ahead of the Indianapolis 500 each year, every driver is given a rapturous introduction in front of the crowd; they are played up like gladiators. F1 could do the same thing, presenting each driver to the fans ahead of the parade. Building the hype in the countdown to a race start would encourage more fans to tune in before lights out, and definitely make the drivers stand out more as personalities.
Whether the core format of F1 weekends needs to change is up for debate, but there are definitely tweaks that can be put in place to make it easier to consume and more entertaining.
HAVE YOUR SAY: Vote for the key changes Liberty Media must make to F1
It remains to be seen just what the 'land of Liberty' will look like, but if some of these ideas are acted upon and put into action, then it will bode very well for the future of F1 indeed as more and more fans tune in week after week.
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