Formula 1 Owners Are Stuck Marketing A Sport After They Sold Us Entertainment

A fan holds a sign hoping for Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing to stop winning during the F1 Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo Nazionale Monza on September 03, 2023 in Monza, Italy
A fan holds a sign hoping for Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing to stop winning during the F1 Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo Nazionale Monza on September 03, 2023 in Monza, Italy

At the 2023 Italian Grand Prix, Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing became the Formula 1 driver with the most consecutive wins in history. Of the 14 races run so far this year, Verstappen has won 12 of them; his teammate Sergio Perez has won the remaining two. If you’ve started getting a little bored, we can’t blame you — but Liberty Media, the owners of F1, are starting to panic. Liberty sold a lot of new fans on a compelling racing product and contentious narrative; it doesn’t know what to do now that it has to market the realities of a sport often punctuated by periods of dominance.

At an event hosted by Goldman Sachs, reports, Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei told the crowd, “The challenge obviously is Max Verstappen is having an unbelievable year, or record-setting year. [F1 CEO] Stefano Domenicali is rightly trying to pivot and say, ‘Come watch this historic event, you’ve never seen success like this, you don’t want to miss it.’ We’ll see if that works.”

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As a new era of tech cemented Red Bull and Verstappen as a cut above the rest, though, F1 discovered a problem. It had sold a lot of new viewers the promise of entertainment more than it had prepared them for the realities of modern motorsport. Now, fans are losing interest.

If you’ve watched F1 for a while, you know the past few decades have often been primarily a one-man show. Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, and Lewis Hamilton have all turned off audiences desperate to see literally anybody else win a race. That is the reality of racing in an era of incredible reliability; plenty of the drama of retro F1 came from the fact that a great driver’s car just couldn’t last a full race. We’ve improved reliability — but F1 marketed a rare kind of unpredictability.

And that comes paired with some other questionable endeavors by F1. With the popularity of the sport growing in America, F1 decided to introduce two additional races in the country — two races that became so rapidly coveted and star-studded that hordes of fans were priced out of participating in the sport. The races became less of a motorsport event and more of a place for people of influence to be seen. As a result, these races really could have taken place anywhere in the world, since they’re not really events for Americans. The kitschy marketing (Vegas’ emphasis on cheap glitz, Miami’s on the neon-everything Miami Vice vibe) hasn’t helped.

I’ve found a surprising metric for tracking F1's popularity: Content creators. In 2020 and 2021, countless people started podcasts or social media accounts dedicated to exploring Formula 1. It was fresh and fascinating, with every race guaranteed to bring you plenty to talk about. Many of those F1-specific creators have slowly begun to branch out. The Red Flags Podcast has found compelling niches in IndyCar. Creator Toni Cowan-Brown has become a strong advocate for Formula E through her content. Obviously other series have realized the value of creators in ways that F1 never can — but many people are just realizing that F1 isn’t the high-adrenaline spectacle they were promised, and they’re finding their thrills elsewhere.

Now, I’m not suggesting that F1 change tack. I don’t want a series filled with gimmicks that serve as band-aids slapped onto major wounds of systemic issues. I don’t think anyone really wants to see F1 regulated into being competitive; other series have proved that that just doesn’t work.

Instead, I think F1 needs to actually get involved with its fanbase’s wants. It needs to get creative. It needs to realize that its current plan of attack is not working. It needs to change its approach.

I’m proposing the first series of Drive to Survive as an example. That first year, major teams declined to participate, which meant Netflix was forced to find compelling narratives that weren’t focused on the battle for a World Championship. It had to ask itself what truly makes this sport fascinating, and it found some incredible stories to tell. For those of us who witnessed Bernie Ecclestone’s total clampdown on all things interesting, it was a breath of fresh air to see what Netflix was able to do.

But as those big-name teams have become more involved, it feels like Netflix has catered more to the whims of F1's marketing team than anything else. The most recent season left a bad taste in my mouth; of course DTS was always designed to sell F1 as a product, but now it feels less like storytelling and more like propaganda designed to sell me F1's vision of itself. Newer fans can’t be blamed for buying into the presentation of racing that F1 sold them.

If F1 wants to pull itself out of this dominance-derived slump, it needs to readopt that DTS S1 mindset. It has already tried selling us repackaged versions of praise for Verstappen’s dominance, and fans aren’t responding. It’s time to find better angles, ones that can portray motorsport as being compelling even in the face of one-man show — before F1 loses all of its hard-earned momentum.

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