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How online communication saved Formula One

Posted by Charlie Apsey on 13th April 2021

Once the “pinnacle of motorsport”, Formula One saw a fall from grace in the 2010s. TV figures plummeted as competition stagnated — the gap between the top, wealthy teams and the rest of the pack increasing. The Constructors’ Championship became a forgone conclusion, annually being a two-way race between Mercedes and Red Bull, leading fans and pundits alike to label the competition as boring.

With only 14% of fans under the age of 25 and TV viewership falling year on year, it became increasingly obvious that a change of strategy was needed to ensure a future for the sport.

Step forward, Liberty Media.

Cementing the future

In 2017, Liberty Media took the reins of the Formula One Group after a £3.3 billion takeover. Focusing on ensuring success and longevity, it aimed to future proof the sport­­ — increasing its appeal to younger audiences and instigating a drive in popularity.

The social media strategy of Formula One was almost non-existent during the 2010s. In 2014, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone labelled social media as ‘short lived’, casting doubts over its longevity. The feeling inside the organisation was that if social media platforms weren’t paying them directly, the Formula One Group wouldn’t bother using them.

This approach radically changed immediately after the takeover. Liberty Media ousted Ecclestone and instilled a focus on online platforms and communications ­— building a following for the drivers, teams and organisation as a whole. The roster of drivers boasted several young, likeable personalities who had grown up using social media and playing video games­ — the perfect candidates to front F1’s online campaign. Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts were updated constantly, giving fans old and new an insight into the dramatic world of F1. However, the two biggest components of Liberty Media’s F1 social rebranding were its esports series and Netflix documentary.

The Formula One Esports Series launched in 2017, but really took off during the pandemic. With real races cancelled, F1’s young stars turned to competing online. Over 33 million people tuned in to watch the likes of George Russell and Lando Norris battling against other drivers and celebrities. Many of these drivers still stream regularly on Twitch, continuing to build upon the huge following they generated from the Esports Series.

Netflix’s documentary, ‘Drive to Survive’, was another huge success. Closely following the most likeable drivers and team principles, the documentary showed the drama and politics unfolding behind the scenes in F1. The series was an instant hit, giving people an insight into the personalities that make up the competition, and garnering cult followings for lesser-known individuals such as Hass team principal Gunther Steiner. Now in its third season the documentary sits at the top of Netflix’s charts and continues to bring the sport to new audiences.

A plan comes together

The results of Liberty Media’s future proofing campaign are clear to see, with F1 now having the greatest proportion of followers under 25 of all global sports leagues (except the NBA). The social media drive, esports league and documentary have seen teams and individuals alike amass huge followings. People who previously had no interest in motorsport have found themselves drawn in by the personalities and stories generated by Liberty Media’s campaign, becoming a part of the F1 world.

With over 2.5 million new supporters a month and over a billion fans expected by 2022, F1 is generating unpresented levels of interest — a clear demonstration of the power of online communication.

Charlie Apsey