McLaren enjoyed a hot spell on the F1 track this year and in October, Matt Hardy spoke to McLaren about their Americas focus, NFTs and Drive to Survive. Originally published on October 22.
Spanning five continents and 17 time zones, Formula 1 is a truly global sport. But with the expansion of the calendar in recent seasons and the increasing presence in the digital and online space, F1 teams are taking special interest in one market in particular: North America.
McLaren are a case in point. The English F1 team has bought its own IndyCar team, Arrow McLaren, and will next year enter electric off-road series Extreme E as they look to cement their place as one of motorsport’s biggest brands. Crucial to that expansion is activity across the pond, where Austin will host the US Grand Prix this weekend.
“The Americas is a key growth market for us. We recently acquired our IndyCar team so having a solid presence there is really important,” said Nick Martin, director of McLaren Racing partnership development.
“We see it as one of our most important growth markets and we are doubling down on our commercial focus over there by adding talent.”
Prominent among that talent is Eric Kwait, who joined McLaren Racing last month as vice president of the performance development team, focusing on the Americas, after almost a decade with the Golden State Warriors, the most successful National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise of the last 10 years.
Research by Nielsen Sports forecasts that F1 will reach 1bn fans during the 2022 season, largely thanks to a 20 per cent increase in global markets, including the United States. Around 75 per cent of that growth will come from 16-35-year-olds.
Where US sports lead the rest of the industry tends to follow, and Kwait believes he can apply lessons learned at the Warriors to life in F1 with McLaren Racing.
“It becomes a customer focused approach to what enterprises are looking to do to brand and market themselves,” he said.
“Our property growth and its ability to touch a number of different audiences in a unique way is right in line with how we approached partnerships at the Warriors. It’s a bespoke approach in thinking about how we help partners grow together.
“That’s really at the heart of it in the US. The teams that are successful understand that.”
Having the Drive
In early 2017, US corporation Liberty Media completed its F1 acquisition, relieving Bernie Ecclestone of his long-standing ownership of the sport. A swift shift in output has taken place in the following seasons.
During the pandemic, an average of 600,000 viewers in North America watched each race in the 2020 calendar, broadcast on ESPN.
For many fans who couldn’t get to race tracks, their intimate interaction with the sport came through the team’s online presence and popular Netflix series Drive to Survive.
An agreement to produce the docuseries, now filming its fourth season, has helped to add an estimated 50m fans to F1, and Liberty has taken steps to create outward facing personalities in the sport, including in the Virtual GP series targeted at younger audiences.
For McLaren, that has helped make a star out of English driver Lando Norris, who currently occupies fourth place in the drivers’ championship. Together, he and Daniel Ricciardo have put the team on course to finish third in the constructors’ standings for the second season running.
“Liberty Media has done an incredible job of looking to roll the American market, whether that be with the new race in Miami [which begins a 10-year contract next year] or the work they’ve done at the US Grand Prix in Austin,” Martin said.
“With Netflix’s Drive to Survive too and that initiative to grow this new audience, particularly in the US, has been incredible for the sport, and McLaren Racing.
“As a team we are super excited to be participating in season four. Showing a different side to who the teams are, who the personalities are, and giving a bit of an inside perspective into the complexities of the sport has been incredible for the US market.”
On the potential of an Amazon Prime, All or Nothing-style documentary focused solely on McLaren, Martin said: “I think it could be something that we look at in the future.”
This week, AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly announced he was venturing into non-fungible tokens (NFTs) which allow athletes to provide secure, exclusive content via the blockchain. McLaren too have announced a leap into this market, which was popularised in North America, with their first collectibles available on Sunday to coincide with the US Grand Prix.
“We are seeing a move in the States when it comes to NFTs,” Kwait said. “They’re a bit more regulated in terms of what the United States’ markets are doing around that.
“I’m excited about what we’re doing at McLaren but it’s an emerging opportunity and a category in which most teams are looking to find partners. It’s a real opportunity.”
Growth in the coming years will see brands tested on their commitments to the environment and a greener approach to business.
If you were to complete the 2022 F1 calendar as the crow flies, you’d travel 72,131 miles. That’s equivalent to going to space and back 581 times, and excludes any returns home or rest week flights – never mind the fuel used by cars.
“Look, I think we have a good strategy in place to try and deliver on our proposals as we look towards 2030,” Martin said. “McLaren are going to be on the front foot to try and do it at a level where we’re going to be making the biggest commitments and be firm in delivering them.
“I think the expansion into Extreme E is one of those areas where we’re showing what our commitment is, racing in a sport that is there to highlight the impacts of climate change in the areas that are most impacted.”
McLaren aren’t the first brand to try and break North America, but they’re among those taking it most seriously in the motorsport industry and giving them the best chance of future-proofing their model.