Formula 1 has been going through something of a transition over the last few years. In many ways, that has always been the case, but an ownership change and the departure of Bernie Ecclestone have made the past 18 months feel like a new beginning.
So far, there has been plenty of talk, some action, but little in the way of major changes. Talks with the teams continue over future bilateral agreements – including the distribution of revenues – and 2021 regulations, and planned new race venues such as Miami and Vietnam have yet to have final approval.
While there have been many new partnerships and collaborations announced, the last major brand to become a global sponsor of the sport itself was Heineken, a deal that officially started just four months before the Ecclestone era came to an end.
Having invested so much money into a seven-year deal with F1, the beer manufacturer provides a unique perspective on the changes that have been seen so far and the direction the sport is heading in.
“I must say we must praise Bernie because he has created a fantastic sport and the way he has created it I think that was the only way to do it,” Heineken’s director of global sponsorships Hans Erik Tuijt told RACER. “He welcomed Heineken extremely well into the sport and taught us a lot of the do’s and don’ts on how to approach it.
“So, I’ll always be thankful how he did that, how he did the deal, he was very transparent with me, was very honest and explained where the pitfalls were. From our point of view, I think Bernie was close to perfection on leading Formula 1, but his marketing skills might have been a little bit less and I think Liberty comes in and they’re more marketing oriented.
“We are a marketing company and if you see the things like what we’ve done in Mexico, what we’ve done in China, we’re working together on fan festivals in the city to recruit new consumers, and the digital presence of Formula 1 has improved dramatically.”
Heineken branding is predominant at the majority of circuits, but even extends to title sponsorship at certain rounds including Canada, Italy and Brazil. But traditional advertising methods in F1 – specifically, appealing to eyeballs on television – are having to be re-thought under the sport’s new ownership.
“We all know that hard liners, television is going to go down around the world, youngsters don’t watch two hours of racing or even a full football match. They snack, so you need to provide them with snacks. That will create a new energy into Formula 1 and I’m convinced that will improve the footprint and if you look at the press releases of Liberty buying Formula 1, and what we were saying, we said both the same things.
“We’re looking for new consumers and new fans to have a fresh look at Formula 1 and we’re doing that, Liberty is doing that, so we find our way in quite a lot of ways together. For me the transformation was a very natural one, blessed that Bernie got us in and taught us the way and now with the model we have we can do some good marketing moving forward.
“This sport is top-notch in technology, and if we do a few things with it I think it’s good for Heineken and it’s good for Formula 1. I think more people are talking about Formula 1, and social media is the way to get that.”
For a sponsor having to deal with moving goalposts, Tuijt is remarkably positive about so many aspects of what F1 offers. But, of course, it’s not all champagne and roses, with any multi-million dollar investor wanting the best return possible.
“I think that the sport needs to be still premium but more inclusive. I do think that the fan engagement, for me, I think they should give F1 Vision (a handheld device) for free if you buy the ticket. If you’ve paid a few hundred dollars and you sit there and you can’t even see what’s going on, it’s not okay.
“That tells you how passionate people are, but I do believe that if you look at the circuit experience, I think that can grow up. But they’re working hard in that area as well because so many interesting facts are happening here.
“And the other thing is, I still find it’s too complicated. It needs to be simpler. We had Christian Horner recently and somebody asked something about rules and he said, ‘I don’t even know all the rules, I have to ask people’. That’s not good. It needs to be simplified a bit because it’s too complicated.”
While the sport itself can be tricky to follow, Heineken’s use of it seemed bold from the outset. An alcohol brand sponsoring a racing series could send out the wrong message, so the beer company went in a different direction with its ‘When You Drive, Never Drink’ campaign, for which it leans heavily on brand ambassador Nico Rosberg. (Sir Jackie Stewart and David Coulthard are also aligned with the company).
Despite all the positives, the reality remains that no other corporation has invested in the sport in the same way since Heineken came on board, and that means no uptake on a global scale since the end of the Ecclestone era. But far from being concerned by the lack of commitment from elsewhere, Tuijt believes his company is increasing interest among potential partners.
“I think people are now realizing ‘Hey there’s much more in Formula 1 that can be done than we thought of’,” he says. “So I do think that people are watching us and saying, ‘that’s a territory that we didn’t think we could get this kind of coverage’.”
So, knowing what he knows now, would Tuijt still look to enter into a seven-year deal as a global partner despite the change of ownership?
“Yes, and I would be even more convincing, because I explained the risk to everybody at Heineken,” he says. “You need to make sure that this is a calculated risk, but this can happen, or that can happen. We do believe in it and how it has worked out.
“We had a lot of skeptics, and when I presented for the first time to Heineken I showed a beautiful film of Formula 1 and then I came up and said ‘You all think I’ve lost my mind, don’t you? So it’s my task now to explain to you why this is a good idea.’
“So we had a lot of skeptics, but I would say 90 percent [of the skepticism] has gone by now. People see what you do, and I’m proud of it.”