Lewis Hamilton, poster boy of the Mercedes team, is strolling through driver’s paddock in Melbourne, dressed head to toe in white. There’s a two kilo gold chain hung around his neck which carries a diamond encrusted likeness of Jesus Christ.
His right arm stretched out in front of him, he is shooting a selfie video for his millions of followers across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.
“They didn’t used to like him doing that,” says Williams Martini CIO Graeme Hackland as Hamilton and his entourage pass by the Williams’ hospitality booth. “That’s changing.”
Formula One’s former chief Bernie Ecclestone – who told Campaign Pacific-Asia that social media “nonsense”, used by kids who “haven’t got any money” to buy sponsor’s products – was ousted in January. The sport’s new owners, Liberty Media, relaxed Ecclestone’s strict social media regulations soon after.
F1’s new chief executive, Chase Carey is making a clean break from Ecclestone’s long tenure, ushering in a new era of fan engagement. “We’re not marketing the sport, we’re not enabling fans to connect with it on the platforms that are available today, our sponsorship relations are one-dimensional,” he told The Telegraph in January.
The focus must be on “what is going to keep engaging the fans that we have watching our sport and engage a future generation of fans,” Williams Martini deputy team principal Claire Williams said last year.
Formula One is close to crisis point. It is hemorrhaging regular viewers. Fan apathy is rising. The ‘Dad’ sport desperately needs to expand its demographic.
The solution, the Williams Martini Racing team believes, is technology. They are exploring a number of innovations to rekindle fan passion.
“F1 has to give a good show for the fans,” says Hackland. “The race is not just on the track it’s everything else that we do.”
Take the weather with you
Engagement starts with spectators who come to track-days, Hackland explains. Williams and its technical partner Avanade are beginning to explore apps that will help fans directly contribute to the team’s success.
The team is considering using spectators situated around a track as mini weather stations.
“We’re all reliant on one weather data supplier at the moment, though this year we’ve got our own little weather station,” Hackland says. “But what if we could say to anyone who’s a Williams fan here in Albert Park this weekend – ‘download this app for us and if you’re sitting in a stand on the other side of the track, tell us’.
“Then if the rain happens to be coming from that direction, or the temperature drops over there, we’ve got fans all over the place running this app to us which is directly feeding into our strategy system. I think that would be amazing,” Hackland adds. “We could look at bringing fans in – you want to be part of the team? You could help Williams. You could be part of Williams’ strategy.”
The idea was born out of an innovation competition run internally with Williams’ technical partner, technology and management consultancy Avanade.
Williams’ relationship with Avanade goes back to 2014 when they signed a long term deal that began with an overhaul of the Williams website in time for the 2015 race season.
Avanade have considerable experience of boosting sport fan engagement working with the likes of Cricket Australia.
The website will continue to be a key element in getting fans more involved. Avanade brought its control from an outside vendor, back into the Williams team, deploying a dynamic and video focused new site on Sitecore on Microsoft Azure.
“We built an entirely new online presence to engage race fans with the kind of up-to-the minute communications that makes fan experience real and authentic,” explains Avanade chief growth officer, Ashish Kumar. “With a slick new online presence to match its cars, it has since optimised its site to integrate crucial components that engage fans: including a social media wall, videos, a partner section and more.”
In the driving seat
Another concept being explored is sharing more of the data that flows between the drivers and engineering team with fans, though in what form is to be decided. A perennial criticism aimed at Formula One is that is it has become too much about the technology, and less about driver skill.
“Fans tend to say they think the engineers are doing too much,” Hackland says. “In reality I’m not sure that they are. I think the drivers are still driving those very complex cars and making the decisions.”
“If you can prove that you’ve given more of that data to the driver and the driver made the choice to change the setting. I think the fans would like it,” Hackland says.
Innovations that put the fan in the car and in the pit stop are also being explored. An app – Reaction Race which tests reflexes and precision in a series of challenges – was a first foray into this space. But virtual reality could make the experience far more immersive, Hackland says.
“We started to experiment with Oculus Rift – for the fans it’s all about VR. The fans want that immersive experience. We’ve done our first look at that, where you’re sitting in the car driving it, then you’re a pit crew member and you’re changing the tyre. I think the technology is maturing. And there’s interest from the fans,” says Hackland.
Now is the time for bold ideas in the sport.
“I came into it as a fan,” says Hackland, who has been in Formula One for ten years. “The reason I stayed is Formula One is always pushing the boundaries of technology. Vehicle technology and IT and everything else.
“Sometimes we’ve been a little conservative. But right now we are looking at all of the trends that other people are tracking, we’re tracking, to either help make the car quicker or commercialise an advantage. We’ve got to make sure that it remains compelling for the fans.”
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