What lessons can Formula One learn from Formula E?

Formula One, the motorsport giant. Formula E, the new series taking the world by storm. Can this newbie teach an old dog some new tricks?

Formula E Beijing Friday
FIA Formula E Championship 2015/16. Beijing ePrix, Beijing, China. Daniel Abt (GER), ABT Audi Sport FE01 Free Practice Beijing, China, Asia. Friday 23 October 2015 Photo: Sam Bloxham / LAT / FE

The 2015 Formula One season has certainly had its ups, and more than its fair share of downs. There have been far too many races of the Brazilian GP’s calibre this year, with the exceptions of Hungary and the US providing us, the fans, with an entertaining show. This is the year of the Grand Prix Drivers Association’s global fan survey, of numerous ‘crisis talks’ on the state of the sport, and of half-thought-out-and-quickly-abandoned plans for 2017. It is certainly a season of frustration, and not just for Red Bull and McLaren. The lack of close racing, the inconsistency of the stewards in handing out penalties, and the proposed plans for the future of the sport being completely wide of the mark in terms what fans want to see has been incredibly frustrating. Who can then blame us for thinking the fans are not being listened to when the powers-that-be have discussed the state and future of the sport?

F1 is also facing an uphill battle to find a following in the US. This year’s race at the Circuit of the Americas was a washout, and whilst we waited for a decision on the running of qualifying on the Saturday, our TV screens were filled with images of the poor, dedicated fans who stuck it out in the hope of seeing some action. The race itself was well worth the wait, however two worrying nuggets have come to light since: the race is in jeopardy as state government funding for the track is reduced; and Formula E’s Putrajaya ePrix gained a larger audience in the States than any F1 race has been able to this year.

Formula E has a rapidly growing fan base, incredibly impressive given that we are only two rounds in to the second season. The season-ending round at Battersea Park in June was watched by 1.2 million people on ITV, far better figures than anyone had anticipated. Most importantly of all, Formula E has a huge online fan presence and has really nailed its fan engagement on the head, whilst still continuing to improve.

This should have been a wake-up call to all forms of motorsport, and not just Formula One: here is a new competitor in its infancy, and its managing to provide its fans with exactly what they want: close, unpredictable racing; interesting new concepts; and true fan engagement – fans are the heart of Formula E.

Sadly, rather than studying the strengths of FE, and reflecting on what lessons F1 could take from them or how F1 could evolve to emulate such success, the pinnacle of motorsport appears to have tried to dismiss the new series as irrelevant, and poses no threat to F1. Christian Horner, Team Principle of Red Bull Racing, said that Formula E was more of a competitor to GP3, however described the FanBoost element to the series as ‘something productive’, and praised the level of engagement with the fans. His Mercedes F1 counterpart, Toto Wolff, was annoyed that Formula E was being compared to Formula One. Rightly or wrongly, they both felt that it was wrong to pit the two against each other. However in the same interview, Wolff said that Formula One had a duty to promote the sport rather than criticise it. There are many things Formula E is doing right, especially in terms of promoting itself, and Formula One should be sitting up and taking note for the future.

So, if they aren’t going to do it, we certainly are: here are the things we think F1 could learn from FE.

Online Fan Engagement

Formula E, particularly this season, is doing incredible things for the fans, especially with its social networking platforms.

The official FIA Formula E twitter page has of late been incredibly well done – there is no fear of being tongue-in-cheek, has a love of humorous gifs, and retweets its fans who engage with them.

For season two they have launched new local social media fan sites run by the fans in that country. So far, they have Facebook and Twitter sites up and running in over 27 different countries.
It’s not just them that’s storming the social media platforms – the teams themselves have a great online presence, particularly on Twitter. They have a great awareness of what their fans enjoy and show us a different side to racing than perhaps is presented in Formula One.

Formula One did have a good thing going a few seasons back – the Lotus F1 Twitter feed was rip-roaringly funny – whilst going through a difficult time in the team’s history, the team provided the fans with a self-deprecating, ironic and incredibly humorous account of times both painful and joyous. Other teams then started to follow suit, though Lotus remained untouchable. Recently, there has been a noticeable change – there are far fewer tweets of such calibre, and others are what we like to call, “smirking level of funny” – amusing, but not the comedy gold that we enjoyed of seasons past. The Twitter feeds are well done in terms of marketing and promotion, but do come across more seriously these days.

Formula One’s drivers are often accused of giving bland, PR-friendly answers and having no discernible personality. This issue is partly perpetuated by the demand that the sport not be brought into disrepute – drivers dare not speak out against their team or openly question anything outside of a team briefing. It’s a problem F1 can fix – just because you won’t let the drivers criticise in public (which we’re not actually convinced would give the fans what they want) doesn’t mean you can’t showcase their individual personalities. Many F1 drivers took part in this weekend’s Race of Champions, and have suggested having ROC-esque events at Grand Prixs to liven them up a bit, which might be a logistical nightmare, but investing some time and thought could reap dividends for the sport.

Instead of the traditional Thursday presser and media appearances, why can’t we send our drivers out into the local community, to the local karting track, or get them to partake in local cultural traditions and document it well to show their off-track personas without them feeling as though they have to give the party-line answer or divulge their deepest darkest secret. Show us the drivers having a laugh! The BBC did it well with their recent Rallycross feature with Jenson Button, and Sky did a good feature at Force India with a wacky-races style challenge with Checo and Nico, but slightly wasted the opportunity as the presenters took centre stage and it was a bit of a waste of two drivers.

To summarise: more mickey-taking, please. And we like it when the drivers are having a laugh – we know when the visor goes down, it’s every man for himself. So show us something we don’t know about the drivers.

Fan Interaction with the drivers at tracks

Formula E has an autograph session in the entertainment zone as part of the race day timetable. The drivers use part of their lunch break between qualifying and the race to meet and greet the fans. Yes, Formula One does have autograph sessions, but they are seldom advertised and one has to conduct some serious digging to discover the where-when-who.

During Formula E’s testing at Donington, fans were permitted to do a pit lane walk, and a high number of drivers came out to meet the fans, sign autographs, and of course take selfies. Mahindra raised the bar for all the teams – their drivers were not stood safely behind a rope, and Nick Heidfeld and Bruno Senna were surrounded by crowds of enthusiastic fans.

Formula One drivers have of late called for more time with the fans – I myself have rarely seen a driver in person at a Grand Prix – I have twice happened across David Coulthard, once in the fan zone at Silverstone and as he made his way to the pits in Hockenheim, and caught a glimpse of some drivers at this year’s Thursday pit walk and Silverstone. Could we introduce a dedicated session on a Friday between practice sessions, or even a reduced press schedule on a Thursday, allowing drivers to engage with the fans who have paid so much to see them race?

FanBoost and Super Pole

Now, before you grab your pitchforks, we’re not suggesting that Formula One brings in its own version of FanBoost – we already have enough with ERS and DRS (remember when it was a big deal that a driver was about to use KERS to try a move? Is it my rose-tinted glasses or was that actually quite good? Maybe we could give FanBoost to only a select few of the grid to switch things up a bit…)

FanBoost is now arguably the crowning glory of Formula E – voting is up 800% this year thanks to the new voting methods on Twitter and Instagram. Drivers plead with their fans to vote for them, and they do in their droves. In contrast, the official F1 Twitter site didn’t even acknowledge the viral sensation of #PlaceAlonsoWouldRatherBe, a huge oversight on their part in our opinion. The fans were engaged with the sport in a way they never had before, and rather than be a part of the fun and games, they kept themselves very much separate – we could have a giggle about Jenson and Fernando storming the podium, but then behave yourselves, please.

Neither series is perfect, and it would be wrong to directly compare the two and declare one better than the other. But both series have great strategies that can be applied to and evolved by the other. But it looks as though Formula One is in danger of being left behind if it sticks to its guns and is too slow to recognise the importance of Formula E’s successes. Which would be a sad thing indeed.

What do you think? Does Formula One need to change? How could it be improved for you? Leave a comment below!

 

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