MEDLAND: Putting money where Liberty's mouth is

Image by Hone/LAT

MEDLAND: Putting money where Liberty's mouth is

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Putting money where Liberty's mouth is

I remember walking out of the press conference room at last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after the new Formula 1 logo was unveiled, and hearing growing murmurs of dissent.

Wary of change, numerous experienced members of the media were critical of the attempts to explain why the logo had been replaced, and more significantly, what else Liberty Media was going to do with F1.

The dissent stemmed from an impatience that is rife within this sport, and not just from a media perspective. By its very nature, F1 is about searching for more lap time, relentlessly trying to go quicker. As the saying goes: If you stand still, you go backwards.

During the press conference, Liberty had explained how the logo was just the first part of a complete rebranding of the sport, but it also provided the media an opportunity to pose questions of commercial boss Sean Bratches about Liberty’s wider plans for F1. There was a lot of jargon, and plenty of items in the pipeline, but with little tangible evidence nearly 12 months after the takeover, the new owners were finding patience was in short supply.

Fast-forward to today, and the overwhelming trend has been of Liberty following through on its promises.

The new logo received a lukewarm reception, but has since been much more widely accepted in its place as part of the wider branding overhaul. It’s a logo that now adorns the main paddock entrance in Barcelona, where guests are immediately greeted by a Heineken bar accompanied by local music.

But bigger changes were predicted, and six months later you can start ticking a number of those items off the list, too.

Liberty promised to bring the sport closer to the fans with an over-the-top (OTT) service and better access at the track, while also increasing revenues courtesy of a central merchandising store. In Spain, so much of that is coming to fruition, with F1 TV launched – admittedly after a delay – alongside F1 Vision, which allows fans to access live race coverage, replays, team radio and data on a handheld device at the track similar to FanVision’s offerings in NASCAR and NHRA.

The Barcelona fan zone features the new Fanatics store full of (expensive) team and sport apparel, while there will even be a new live Twitter show hosted by a name very familiar to RACER.com readers in Will Buxton to provide fans around the world with additional post-race coverage.

“I think in terms of engaging with the consumer and the fans, they absolutely get it,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told RACER. “They absolutely get it.

Christian Horner with Formula One Chairman Chase Carey. Image by Tee/LAT

“I think they started off very well. I thought the London event last year was a huge success. It’s going to be interesting to see how these other festivals are going. But we’re through the honeymoon phase and now into the marriage. I think so much is going to depend on what the regulations and the financial terms are going to be before we can really judge anything.”

While the aforementioned new additions are only at their launch stage and still unproven, it’s not just the lowest hanging fruit that has been picked so far. An expansion of the sport in the United States was made a key priority, but also a tricky one given F1’s past failings there.

The opening of an office in New York was a small step – very small in terms of the commercial team there numbering fewer than ten people at this stage – but an important one in getting closer to that market. The office is expected to expand, and with this week’s news of a Miami Grand Prix being all but confirmed, so too are the number of races in the region.

Asked if he feels F1’s current owners are delivering on their pledges so far, Haas team principal Guenther Steiner told RACER: “Yes, absolutely.

“I think if you get Miami I take my hat off to them, that’s an achievement. There are still things to do, but there are always things to do. Honestly, I’m pretty happy.

“What is very important for us is that the cost cap and budget control is coming to equalize the sport a little bit more. Then when you have got great races in places like Miami, plus a little bit more of a level playing field, there will be no stopping the sport, because it is a great sport.”

F1 team principals being interviewed on the F1 Fan Zone stage in Melbourne. Image by Mauger/LAT Images)

Steiner may see Miami as a tough discussion, but the changes he references to the regulations or the structure of the sport itself are even tougher to push through.

“It’s very difficult,” Steiner insists. “You shouldn’t underestimate what they’re actually doing.

“To say we’re going to make a race happen in Miami, that’s not easy. To organize an F1 race is not easy, and if they get that one done it’s good.

“I think they are delivering. I think it has been taking a little bit longer than they anticipated it would take [to make significant changes] because it’s very complex, but I think Chase [Carey] is clever enough to realize that maybe everything takes a little bit longer. But they are still pushing it through and they are not giving up, which is good.”

One such example of not giving up came with the 2019 regulations, which have been changed in an attempt to improve racing and increase overtaking. Research was done into their expected impact that convinced enough teams to support the changes for them to be forced through. To do that, the FIA and F1 had to be on the same page, which hasn’t always been the case in the past.

But it’s not all back-slapping and praise from within the paddock. Change is always going to rattle a few cages, and when asked if he has any concerns about Liberty’s moves so far, Horner added: “Err… I don’t know.

“I think they’re working hard and doing a good job. I have some frustration with the regulations, I don’t think it’s going to achieve what they want and is going to incur a huge amount of cost, but time will tell.”

Even nearly 18 months since Liberty completed its takeover, Horner has a point. Cost control was a key aspect of Liberty’s future vision for the sport, and even the changes that can be implemented quickly are designed to have a longer-term impact that cannot yet be quantified.

“I think the most fundamental part is growing the business, growing the revenue, tapping new markets, monetizing on digital revenue, signing exciting new tracks and increasing the revenue from sponsors and broadcasters,” Toto Wolff told RACER. “This is too early to say whether that’s going to materialize, but it looks like they’re heading the right way.”

Asked if the focus on trying to improve the offering for fans masks a less rosy outlook between the teams and the commercial rights holder behind closed doors, Wolff said: “No, I think we’re having very productive discussions.

“The environment is much more transparent. It’s very transparent. We are able to discuss things and they listen to our opinion and I think it’s a good environment to grow the business together.

“Feeling a bright future… I’m not into crystal ball stuff. We will see if the future is bright with the real numbers and audiences and then we can judge.”

Not every change will be a success, and it’s inevitable that even those that are will still upset some. But we’re not worrying about a logo anymore, are we?

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