One story has dominated the headlines this week. Not just within the Formula One community – but across the wider worlds of sport, entertainment and business. Following the top management changes at Formula One announced on Monday evening, a new era for motorsport’s showcase Championship has begun.
“First of all, we must pay tribute to Bernie,” said Toto Wolff. “It’s quite amazing, being 40 years at the helm of a sport. He spotted the opportunity that Formula One had the potential to become what it is today. He had the vision and he built an empire. He has a great ability of-deal making: he just executes.
“In terms of my personal experience, I wouldn’t be in Formula One without Bernie. He supported me back in the day at Williams and, even if we had some ups and downs with Mercedes, it always stayed very amicable. We had a good relationship – although we disagreed on the business side. But that’s how it should be.
“When you stay at the top of an organisation as long as Bernie did, it is clear that it will be shaped in your image. He had the great ability of always being present. When there was a fire somewhere, even one that he might have ignited, he put it out quickly. With the change of ownership, it will now take a new direction. It’s going to be different than it was in the past. Now, we have to make the most out of it and grasp the opportunity.”
Where Mr. E’s vision launched Formula One into the global spotlight, the sport is now set to be moulded in the image of a new leadership structure – one with all the necessary credentials to lead Grand Prix racing into a new and exciting age.
“If you look at the track record of Chase (Carey) and his colleagues, it says everything,” Toto continues. “They are experts in TV rights, experts in US sports and they have hired experts in Formula One to cover that blank spot. They have done just the right thing, hiring experts in their respective fields. Ross (Brawn) has been in Formula One forever and has seen the sport from the team side. He is going to give them the right guidance, together with the teams and the FIA, to develop the sport in the right direction – staying true to its values but, equally, assessing the areas that function well and the areas which we should be developing together in order to grow the sport even bigger.”
So, what are the initial challenges facing those at the helm? With a long-established and loyal fan base to satisfy, a potentially vast untapped audience to be lured in and the interests of numerous key stakeholders to account for, there is a fine balance to achieve.
“I think we need to acknowledge that Formula One is a technical sport, so it will always polarise,” admits Toto. “There are people who will say that they hate it and others will say that they love it. That is okay. But one thing is for sure – we shouldn’t make it a beta test. We shouldn’t mess with our loyal fans and our audiences by implementing rules and regulations that we haven’t assessed properly. We should use data in a scientific approach and see what works in other sports and other entertainment platforms, then combine that with the great strengths and assets of Formula One.
“Considering that we as a team have been doing pretty well during the last seasons, audiences have developed in a very positive way. The last couple of races we had record-breaking audiences in some markets in terms of TV spectators. There has been a lot of talk about F1 not doing well. Actually, we have been doing pretty well considering that the market has changed tremendously. I doubt that younger generations switch on a traditional TV at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. They expect to watch it on a mobile device or via social media. Nevertheless, our audiences are pretty strong.
“We mustn’t talk the sport down, as it is not broken. There are ways to optimise it and there are areas which are blind spots in which we haven’t done a lot of work – for example the digital environment and social media. But we need to understand them.
“Social media is very important as a marketing tool to involve our audiences – both current fans and future fans. But we have loyal partners in the TV stations that have been broadcasting our sport for a long time and have helped contribute to the team’s revenues. You can’t offer it for free in the digital world. You can see it as a marketing tool but not as the silver bullet that will solve all the problems.”
Clearly, much work lies ahead. But, in a sport never shy of hard graft, the future looks bright for Formula One.
“The Ecclestone era ending is a pretty big thing,” Toto concludes. “I’m very curious and optimistic as to what the future holds. But one thing is for sure – the wheels turn very fast and yesterday’s news doesn’t interest anybody any more. We need to embrace the future and we shouldn’t be too nostalgic about the past. This sport has a huge opportunity for growing bigger and bigger and we could all benefit from this. We need to push in that direction.”