When the green light shines at the Melbourne Grand Prix this weekend, Formula One’s new owners Liberty Media hope it signals not just the start of the 2017 championship but the beginning of a digital revolution for the sport.
F1’s television audience fell by a third from 600m to 400m in the eight years prior to Liberty’s takeover in January, sponsorship revenue has plummeted and, under Bernie Ecclestone leadership, F1 largely dismissed social media — “whatever this nonsense is,” he said — as irrelevant to its model.
Liberty, by contrast, share a philosophy with another of the sport’s most influential personalities: Lewis Hamilton.
Ahead of the new season, F1’s new commercial chief Sean Bratches consulted with Hamilton over lunch to discuss ways in which the sport can “unleash” the 32-year-old on social media and “give him the ability to use F1 iconography to drive his brand which in turn helps drive our brand”.
The thinking is that not only can a digital push attract new fans to the sport and bring lapsed ones back, but also that embracing it as a new content platform offers prospective sponsors activation opportunities.
“The best form of sponsorship is if somebody grabs a property and innovates around it,” Steve Martin, global chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, told City A.M.
“F1 needs some new sponsors to come on board and take that mantle.”
Liberty have already lifted restrictions on drivers and teams filming from inside the paddock, an issue of contention last year between Hamilton and the sport’s authorities who were looking to protect TV rights holders.
“It’s difficult. Exclusivity is the model,” Dominic Curran, chief executive of Synergy Sponsorship USA told City A.M.
“But the reality is that fans, young fans and millennial fans expect anything, anywhere, at any time. And for free. And they’ll find it most of the time.
“So you can either try and fight the coming tide or you just roll with it. The drivers themselves, being millennial, get that more than anyone else. They want to open it up.”
Hamilton has been a high-profile figure in the sport for a decade yet he is still its most effective missionary in the social media space.
Red Bull’s young duo Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen acquired a respective 84,000 and 50,000 in the same period, while Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas picked up just 31,000.
“If Liberty are looking for people to grow the sport and influence the sport, Hamilton is head and shoulders above everyone else,” Brandtix chief executive Jon Rosenblatt told City A.M.
The Brit’s most popular post in the last month was an Instagram update congratulating his friend Neymar on Barcelona’s epic 6-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
Rosenblatt argues this is emblematic of his success — only a handful of Hamilton’s posts are for the petrolheads.
“If you look at his most engaged posts, they haven’t necessarily got anything to do with racing,” he says.
“Lewis has done a phenomenal job of talking about being back in the car, about ‘the team killing it from day one!’. It can be all about Mercedes and Formula One.
“But a couple of days later it’s a Rolling Stone photoshoot, a couple of days later it’s him and his dog. Lewis Hamilton is just this 360 degree brand.
“In contrast, if you look at Ferrari’s two drivers [Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen] they don’t have any social. Liberty need to find a way to entice or persuade teams and drivers to do more both on race weekends and non-race weekends.”
Yet for Sebastian Vettel selfies and Fernando Alonso on Facebook Live to be truly effective, the product that they are representing still needs to be intriguing.
Hamilton’s colleagues are more likely to catch up with him on social media if they first do so on the track.
According to Brandtix, since finally beating the Briton last year, now-retired world champion Nico Rosberg has been acquiring social media followers at a faster pace.
“It starts with the actual product and the racing itself,” adds Martin.
“Red Bull are very good at marketing but they still need the personalities to shine through and they’re not being able to do that because Mercedes is so far ahead.
“Hamilton is a serious star. But sport needs jeopardy, healthy competition. It needs all the highs and lows that make it interesting.”