“News Corp is a £20 billion or whatever turnover news corporation, so I am sure they will remain a big player – but I don't think that F1 needs to rush into their arms. I think we should be open-minded looking at what is in the best interests of the sport in the long-term. There will always be controversies in and outside our sport, so we have to be balanced and look at how we can promote, develop and sustain it.”
One of the key aspects in that promotion, Whitmarsh contends, is learning how to better exploit the increasing digital proliferation of the media, with the traditionally dominant TV coverage now complemented by more recent phenomena such as smartphones and tablet devices. F1 is at a crossroads, he opines, and rather than regarding these new technologies as a 'threat', it must come to seize them as 'opportunities'. It is time, he argues, for the pinnacle of international motor racing to move with the times.
“The sport has to change,” the Englishman stressed, “because none of us will be here in 20 years' time – or not most of us – so I think we owe it to the sport that we find a positive and good way to move forward. Media is much more complex these days. If you take the young generation, they don't just watch television – they probably have the TV on, then they have probably something different running on their iPad or on their 'phone or laptop.
“We grew up with television and for a moment thought e-mail was cool – but kids don't e-mail anymore. They are definitely on a much more advanced level than that. The power of these new media outlets is enormous, but how do you monetise that? Bernie's great trick has been monetising the media exposure of F1, and we all have to be grateful for how he commercially developed the sport, but today it's a much more complex media environment. The question is, how are you going to control that and how are you going to monetise it?
“We have to work together as there is a real threat to our business model, which is this whole new world of how people use entertainment. You can say it's a threat, but it is also an opportunity. F1 is a world sport and it is data-rich, and in this digital arena we can populate the digital environment with much more data and information than tennis, soccer or any other sport, so I think it is a huge opportunity that we have.
“Sure, there will still be people watching terrestrial television, but for the generation below us that's not good enough anymore. They want more information and they want to interact. They want to have communities going – and that's the challenge, to find ways to monetise this as Bernie has done with television. He made sure that the revenues for the sport were very high. You can't hold new developments back, so we need to bring in expertise that probably doesn't exist in F1 today.”
The other major topic to address, Whitmarsh underlines, is making sure F1 is an attractive and above all relevant
proposition to the wider automotive industry in terms of enticing in global car manufacturers. Over the last few years, Honda, BMW, Toyota and – in large part – Renault have departed the grand prix grid, with only Audi dropping hints that it may be keen to come on-board, and even then subsequently seeming to get cold feet.
Whilst acknowledging that such things are cyclical – and that even if major manufacturers may come and go, the likes of F1 stalwarts such as McLaren and Ferrari will remain steadfast – the Woking-based outfit's team principal insists efforts to improve the sport's general appeal must never slacken. Its very future, he points out, depends on it.
“Firstly, McLaren through FOTA do a lot to try and sustain the sport,” Whitmarsh stated. “Ferrari and ourselves, I am sure, will be here in five years' time – even in 20 years' time – whilst probably other teams won't. Our core business is F1, so we will be here in the long run. Since McLaren started in F1, though, 107 teams have failed, so we are very much aware that the teams have to survive. The sport has to be sustainable, as Ferrari and ourselves can't just race each other – we need all these other teams – so sustainability is an important issue.
“We had the tobacco era, then the automotive era – who were natural investors – and now we don't have enough of them. We have Renault half in, we've got Mercedes and Ferrari, but actually we need to create an environment of governance, of regulations, of stability and entertainment which convinces the Hondas, Toyotas and BMWs that it was wrong to pull out – and I believe that in time we will get them back and probably can add the Volkswagen/Audis, the Hyundais, whatever. We need to create an environment that pulls them in.