Formula One numbers have not been fantastic of late.

Ticket sales this weekend alone at the Sepang International Circuit were reported to have dropped by 50%.  One possible reason quoted is that Malaysians are grieving over the Malaysian Airlines disappearance.  Given the half empty stands around the tarmac however, it may imply that the sport is not doing well retaining and growing its fan base.  

Some team bosses agree, and this was the resounding response when we posed the question at the team principals’ press conference on Friday.  

The question was simple. What must the sport do to attract a younger and broader audience?  The question comes from the fact that Formula One is not attractive as a low cost, family affair.  Research by the Circuit of the Americas say that the average Formula One pundit is a professional male from 25 to 44 years old from Europe and there aren’t obvious moves to change this.  

The answers in the press conference all centred around making the sport more accessible to viewers and participants, as well as sending out the right messages to those watching.  Principals seemed aware of the fact that their demographic was ageing, but not 100% in agreement on how concrete actions could be taken.  Ideas however, were not thin on the ground.  One of the interesting suggestions made was to humanise the sport, and allow the drivers to become more ‘real’ to the audiences.

“The younger audience today is one that have a lot of things thrown at them and have a lot of entertainment options,” said Pirelli motor sport director Paul Hembery.  

“On that level, personally I think we don’t make enough of the drivers. It’s one of the few motorsport areas I think where we could be doing a lot more in promoting the personalities of the drivers and the great talents of the drivers.”

“The youth today also quite look forward to seeing icons. They like having an icon to look forward to,” Pirelli’s motor sport director made the point quite strongly for individual celebration.  Given the fact that their faces are often covered by helmets he said, maybe it is about introducing them to audiences in a different way.

“Maybe we need to see them more in a lifestyle environment, a more approachable environment where people attach to them as individuals.”

Toro Rosso’s principal Franz Tost’s comments echoed Hembery’s argument.

“You can attract the young people if you have a local hero.  I remember when I came to Germany in the ‘80s, no-one was interested in Formula One.”

“(When) Michael came… everybody was interested in Formula One. You could see it on the kart tracks.”

“I think this is decisive. You need a local hero and then the young people are always interested in Formula One.”

Federico Gastaldi, Lotus’s new deputy team principal highlighted the need to use the correct tools to reach young audiences.

“We have access to so much information now that we should pay more attention how to engage with them.”  

However, this is not always as easy as it sounds, as Caterham’s Cyril Abiteboul pointed out.  Abiteboul highlighted the Formula’s conundrum: conflating exclusivity and value.

“I think we need to find the right balance between the accessibility, exclusivity and value. I think that there is a belief right now that more exclusivity creates value. Maybe this was true, maybe it’s less true with new media.”

“There is nothing exclusive in Facebook and I think that the value of the IPO of Facebook is quite historic.”

“Maybe a lack of exclusivity maybe does not mean a lack of value.”

In an age when exclusivity and elitism mean an inability to engage, it is likely that holding onto that mindset means audiences will get older and more out of touch.  It is a shame, particularly for an industry which prides itself on being on the cutting edge of technology. Formula One’s lack of innovation and imagination in the spaces of audience engagement and social media is short sighted and unfortunately, if nothing changes, it may find its grandstands more emptier than they already are.

Image via Ming Ham

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Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Two-time Young Australian of the Year finalist, qualified mechanical engineer, social advocate, author and 'petrol head'

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