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Greenlight to limelight

Motorsport's engineering achievements are, and always will be, at the forefront of technological progress. So why is so little done to celebrate the fruits of this industry's labour? 

by John O'Brien

 

At a time when motorsport is making strides to be seen as more road-car relevant and environmentally conscious, it can be argued that very little is being done to promote the engineering conquests achieved in the past few years.

For example, the 100kg/h limit that was introduced in Formula 1 for the 2014 season marked a 30% reduction in consumption in comparison to 2013. The complex hybrid powertrains that were also adopted in 2014 marked a significant step toward road-car relevance, but beyond a press release from the engine manufacturers in early 2014, very little fuss was made in mainstream media to celebrate these achievements.

“During an FIA press conference, I described it as the Ratner-effect – for those that remember Gerald Ratner,” agrees Pat Symonds, chief technical officer at Williams Martini Racing. “It seems we have a number of people in Formula 1 that seem intent on telling us what a terrible product we have. We don’t – we have a great product. A mid-sized European car, which these days is, say, 140g/km in emissions, would have been around 225g/km 40 years ago. That reduction is similar to what we’ve had in Formula 1 – except we’ve done it in four years.”

It is the rapid progress, and road car relevance, that Symonds feels should be promoted more by championships to aid teams that are struggling to attract sponsorship

“When I was a kid, a race engine was a four valve per cylinder, twin-overhead cam, fuel-injected engine and a road car engine had push-rods, a carburetor and two valves per cylinder. But now every road car has what used to be a racing configuration,” he continues. “In the not-so-distant future we will be looking at the current Formula 1 setup in most road cars.”

But does the younger generation even look at a race car in the same light that Symonds did in his youth? As society has evolved to be more connected, more interactive, has the archaic world of Formula 1 been left behind? One championship that is setting precedents for all others is the newly established FIA Formula E championship.

“We have collected data that shows the average age of our spectators is 29 – which is much younger than in Formula 1,” explains the CEO of Formula E, Alejandro Agag. “We are fans of Formula 1 and motorsport in general, but the younger generation is an age bracket that we all need to work much more on. This generation is still removed from motorsport, and we need to do everything to bring them closer.”

Formula E has attempted to bridge the gap to the younger generation by approaching the race event in a different light. Circuits created in urban environments rather than often sterile circuits miles from civilization, fan interactions through websites, and a strong social media presence has ensured that the championship is at least in the peripheral view of those with a vague interest in motorsport.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the fact that it is city-center racing,” adds Symonds. “If you take a Formula 1 car into a city center to do a demo run, you always get huge crowds. You have to remember that young people these days do not use cars in the same way my generation did when we were younger – they don’t need them and struggle to afford them. So it is much more relevant to put things in the city center for them.”

“Racing in cities does make it easier to watch,” adds Agag. “We have definitely got motorsport fans, as well as new fans such as young families, so a lot of families and children are getting engaged. It’s a more casual event, rather than just pure motorsport.

The social media aspect that Formula E has brought to the fore is something echoed across other youth oriented championships, such as the IMG-promoted World Rallycross Championship.

“We set up a special website portal specifically for the Chinese round, using a very popular Chinese web provider and we had 160 million unique interactions through that portal alone,” explains Agag. “We also set up a Formula E video game online that kids can play for free, and to date around 160 million people have played that. Another example is that over 3.3 million have seen the Heidfield and Prost crash on YouTube. So it is safe to say that social media is an important part of the championship.”

While social media plays a part in Formula 1, the feeds are often left to the individual teams, with varying degrees of success. Not content with sticking with tried and testing formats, Agag explains that his championship is continuing to introduce new ways of interacting with fans, and presenting them with information that isn’t available in other championships.

“Soon you will be able to monitor the heartbeat of the driver on the data stream,” he says. “You will see how fast his heart beats when overtaking, when the race starts and so on. It is just a new form of data, as this younger generation is looking for new data all the time.“

The young average viewer age of Formula E is something that is desired by most other championships. Competing against established championships, as well as established forms of entertainment, Formula E is producing impressive figures.

“I don’t actually know what the demographic of the Formula 1 audience actually is,” counters Symonds. “Bernie [Ecclestone] seems to think that it’s an 18-year-old who wants to buy a Rolex – which should give some indication on the level of research being done. But I suspect it is too old, we aren’t doing enough to get young people interested in motorsport as a whole. It is really beyond the pocket of most fans to go and watch a Formula 1 event – it is so expensive especially compared with the Formula E races, which cost from US$5. And that’s harming the younger audience.”

But where does this leave both championships heading forward? With major changes for the 2017 Formula 1 season already dismissed by the F1 Strategy Group, what is the five-year vision for both Symonds and Agag?

“What I’d like to see in Formula 1 in five years’ time is teams that are able to sustain a viable business,” explains Symonds. “That’s the most important thing. It will survive, but it is in grave danger. We need to arrive at a situation where say, £100m enables you to run a Formula 1 team for a year and have a serious crack at winning the championship. That is a long way from where we are right now.

In the all-electrical Formula E championship, on the other hand, the interest of several major OEMs has been attracted.

“Right now we are working on the manufacturers for next season, and I can say that there will be at least five additional powertrain suppliers on the grid. We were expecting around three! They will all use the same battery, but the motors and investors will be different. There are no new chassis manufacturers – we don’t want this championship to be focused on the chassis. This is an electric championship focusing on electric powertrains, to ultimately develop better batteries, better motors and better charging systems. So we have managed to convince everyone to continue using our chassis – as I’ve already paid for them all!” <

 

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