“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston Churchill
Over the weekend as I was watching three distinctly different motorsport events it got me thinking about the change that the sport is going through and what the future holds for it. My conclusion may buck the trend of pessimistic thought out there, but we are at a fascinating crossroad that I believe will lead to more opportunity and more engagement with fans, drivers and businesses in general.
Change is necessary
Change is inevitable and it is necessary. Without it the sport will atrophy. While we have seen tremendous technical strides over the history of the sport, we have never seen anything that promises to be quite so radical as the change that faces us today. Even the way we watch the sport has changed. When I started watching racing in the early eighties in Canada, I could not be quite sure which races would be live aside from the Canadian Grand Prix and the Indy 500. And racing films? Not that many out there and what there was might (but probably was not) shown at your local cinema.
My how times have changed. As the decade rolled on F1 races were shown live and I would tape them on my VCR to re-watch and review later. This weekend I watched everything through a modern flat screen TV streamed over the Internet through my Apple TV box. Racing films? Amazon Prime and Netflix feature a virtual cornucopia of racing-oriented films to watch today, so much so that I am having a hard time watching them all! And while the technology has changed how I watch racing, the reason I watch has not. This mirrors motorsport as a whole. While the technology that drivers’ race has changed, the reason they race remains the same.
Change is inevitable. Society and industry are changing. How we react to this change is key to how we progress (or not). Change for the sake of change is not necessarily good as we have seen from some of the sports’ knee jerk reactions in the past but overall it is a necessary part of the sports evolution. The debate over the role of the internal combustion engine in society as a whole and in racing specifically is one that is forcing us to ask some difficult questions. Do we go with lithium ion batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, hybrid engines running on bio-engineered fuels? All of the above or use some other technology cooking in the labs? There are some incredibly exciting technical developments to look forward to and motorsport serves as the ideal test bed to bring these technologies to the masses, something motorsport should be at the forefront of and encourage in the boardrooms and laboratories of the world.
Rules change, technology evolves and changes, but the driver is always interested in one thing. Beating other drivers on the track. As long as there are two cars in existence, somebody will want to race them and more often than not somebody will want to watch which brings me to my next point.
Racing is about people
The three events this weekend were as different as can possibly be but represent the past, present and possible future of motorsport with each giving some kind of indication of a path forward and a reason for optimism.
Motorsport TV is a great streaming service that I can highly recommend and one of the reasons is its great collection of historical documentaries, especially their 24 Hours of Le Mans: The Great History series. As I watched the episode on the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, tradition is alive and well as man is pitted against machine and the elements in a 24-hour test of endurance. Yes, the cars are fascinating. Who cannot be in awe of the Maserati Birdcage and the duel between the 3.0 litre Ferraris and the 2.0 litre Porches which was indeed a fascinating story-line. But again it was the battle between drivers that holds our attention. With the horrific death toll at the previous week’s Belgian Grand Prix resulting in the absence of Stirling Moss, attention shifts to a young Jim Clark, superstars like Graham Hill, Richie Ginther and Jo Schlesser and the struggle of the independents like local boy Fernand Tavano, Major Ian Baillie and Giorgio Ubezzi. We all may be Porsche or Ferrari fans at heart, but it is the drivers piloting those machines that really pulls us in and captivates us.
The World Superbike Championship kicked off the 2020 season with the Australian Grand Prix from Phillip Island with an exciting weekend of wheel to wheel racing. The main attraction of motorcycle racing is that the average person watching is literally in awe of the sheer guts required to ride these things at full throttle. The bikes shimmy and shake, visually you can see that the drivers are racing at the limit with a chance that they can be thrown off their mounts at any moment and passing is not the exception but the rule. Yes, technology is of interest to the fans (more so in Moto GP than in WSBK) but when you watch bikes race it is the riders that capture your attention, more gladiator than race car driver.
The final event for me over the weekend was the Formula E race from Marrakech. Formula E for me is a series where the technology is indeed fascinating as they break new ground in electrified motorsport but at the end of the day it is a motor powering a vehicle with wheels and it takes a driver to make it all work. While Formula E is definitely forward thinking with its fan boost and attack mode (hey somebody has to try something different!) I was still drawn to seeing how Mitch Evans would make up for a catastrophic qualifying, how Jean-Eric Vergne would overcome his illness and how Sam Bird, one of my favourite drivers would fare. The racing was exciting, the venue exotic and the winner deserved of his victory.
I use these examples of what I watched over the weekend to demonstrate one simple fact, that racing is ultimately about people and not about technology. Yes, the technical developments are fascinating but ultimately people want to watch drivers race and drivers want to beat their fellow drivers on the track. Racing is all about people and the dynamic of them interacting on and even off the track. We come to see human drama, who will defy the odds, who will crack under pressure and who will succumb to the red mist. Computers may be infallible, but it is the very fact that they do not make mistakes that detracts and removes the sporting element from something like RoboRace. We want to see the best driver win but we also want to see whether anything or anyone can pierce their armor and bring them down a notch. Racing is about sport and sport is about people competing against each other.
The goal of motorsport remains the same. Drivers want to race and win. The technology has evolved but the drivers’ goal remains the same. Look at the number of drivers taking place in this week’s Formula E Rookie Test. They are adapting to the technology but ultimate they are there not because this could be the potential future of motorsport. They are there because they just want to race and if it is in an electric car, so be it.
Where will the next generation of fans and drivers come from?
Motorsport is a niche. That is something we tend to forget. It will never compete with the stick and ball sports around the world and should not be trying. It should work hard to solidify its base and attract new fans and we are starting to see some attempts at innovation when it comes to fan interaction. F1 was noticeable with its rejection of social media as a viable method of fan outreach but it has come along since being bought by Liberty and its dramatic increase in social media engagement is the result. Formula E has made social media part of its core from its inception and has increased its involvement with innovations like fan boost. Roger Penske has made increasing fan engagement a priority in both Indycar and the Indy 500 itself and we are seeing some interesting new ideas being proposed like the new Pure ETCR series and its rallycross-style racing to the ever growing and competitive e-racing leagues that it seems all major series are getting involved in.
All these initiatives have the goal of attracting new fans and are necessary to grow the sport. The youth of today are inundated with options for the use of their free time and motorsport is finally striking back with programs designed to intrigue, attract and engage new fans while enhancing the opportunities of current fans to get involved. How it will all work out is anybody’s guess but the sport is one of those rare ones that you can replicate to a certain extent at home on your phone, tablet or computer and that connection needs to be encouraged and built on, much like Formula E’s live ghost racing.
Where though will the driver of tomorrow come from? Racing has always been expensive, but it seems more so today than at any time in the history of the sport so how do you convince the new fan from today to put down their phone and get involved? E-racing is one answer. While a racing simulator rig is expensive, it pales in comparison to some budgets in karts and cars. Yet while it will never replace the real thing (and ultimately has no desire to do so), e-racing is perhaps one of the best ways to introduce a young person to the sport. With a proliferation of series both independent and connected to current series, e-racing allows the video game, always connected app-using generation an opportunity to dip their toes in and perhaps go even further. Again e-racing is a niche compared to something like League of Legends or even the FIFA eWorld Cup but series like the FIA-Certified Gran Turismo Championships have had a definite impact on motorsport and drivers like Igor Fraga are using their success online to broker real world motorsport opportunities to create careers.
Another point to consider and something at the very core of what I do at Motorsport Prospects is that never has there been such a wide variety of accessible resources available to drivers, both prospective and current to help them with their motorsport goals. Whether it be driver coaching (both online and at the track), sponsorship acquisition training, mental and physical conditioning resources and programs, media and PR courses and assistance or young driver programs and scholarships, the amount of help available is limited only by a driver’s willingness to engage with them. And while they vary considerably in cost and effectiveness, there is truly something available to suit all budgets.
Change brings opportunity
Like the Churchill quote at the beginning of this piece, change brings opportunity, it is how you look at that change that will make the difference on whether you take advantage of it or not. Sponsorship of racing drivers and teams is an ever-evolving showcase of business innovation and strategy and it is your opportunity to think “outside the box.” A perfect example of this is the approach that Cody McKay used and explained in his recent blog post “Once Bitten, Twice Shy; Why Businesses Turn Away From Sports Sponsorship.”
Far from running away from cleantech as a potential sponsor, he approached a local engineering company that specialised in wind turbines and solar panels and engaged them in discussion and then converted that into an active partnership. From his blog:
Looking at ways to promote a more environmentally friendly way of going racing, we were able to calculate our emissions over the weekend, and carbon offset the whole team, making news as the only Environmental carbon neutral team on the grid, and that was over all categories! We’re still looking if any other team has done that before!
There are hundreds of companies involved in industries like Clean Tech that present a clear opportunity to introduce them to the sport. While you may think that the combination is unsustainable, a look at what Cody McKay did shows what is possible with imagination and perseverance. The slow but steady proliferation of electric motorsport such as the aforementioned Pure ETCR, electric karting, the Jaguar iPace Trophy, Smart e Cup (yes they are racing smart cars. As I said, where more than one car exists people will race!) and the intriguing ERA Championship bring opportunities to engage businesses that may have never considered motorsport, either because its image goes against their “green” mission or simply because nobody has ever asked. You can be an optimist or a pessimist; the choice is yours.
The path ahead
Nobody can rightfully predict where the future of what is termed “mobility” will go but one thing is certain, as long as cars continue to be made and that they are powered by a motor of some sort, people will want to race them and somebody will want to watch. While the future is uncertain, it is far from boring. Who could have predicted the rise of Formula E or the growth of e-racing 10 years ago? Certainly not most of us.
While the future will be bumpy, confusing and frustrating, there still IS a future for motorsport. I am a realist but an optimist. People will always want to experience the adrenaline rush and freedom of driving and watching cars and motorcycles in competition. What form that will take may be a bit cloudy but just as the first drivers took to the roads in 1895 in the first Paris to Bordeaux road race, the need for speed and the desire to beat the other drivers on the track will not go away.
One driver in Marrakesh described Formula E as the worlds “fastest game of chess” and that is why racing in some form or other will be with us for the foreseeable future. It is up to you to contribute and grow the sport instead of sitting back behind your computers and complaining on social media. If you don’t like what you see, do something constructive to effect change. The future of motorsport will be both challenging and exciting. I’m looking forward to what I am sure will prove to be a wild ride.