I have just had a simply fabulous long weekend in Bahrain for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, extravagant financially and from a climate change perspective but if you are a regular reader here you will know that it was both needed and justified. The race was good, flights all perfect, hotel was excellent and the F1 organisers from the Bahrain International Circuit covered all angles including free courtesy buses to/from the circuit right from the popular hotel areas some 30km away. I was there on my own and intent on being a motor racing geek for the weekend so my perspective was perhaps rather different to the rest of the crowd on some aspects which gave me things to think about and reflect on, so I did my writing thing to try to make some sense of things.
There was a lot of off-track entertainment laid on by the organisers, clearly intent on creating a festival feel to the event which was really nice to see and was particularly good on Friday and Saturday while the track action is somewhat reduced. There seemed to be a lot of people present on both days creating a genuine and friendly atmosphere in the public areas. There is however still a very strong corporate focus about F1 with huge areas simply off-limits to the general public who clearly cannot pay the Paddock Club prices and therefore cannot get close to the behind the scenes areas we see on TV. There is a demand for this access and the Thursday evening pit lane walk demonstrated this, the only hour in the whole weekend where the general public could cross into the centre of the circuit and glimpse behind the scenes was very busy. This lack of access creates a wanna-be atmosphere and was pretty annoying really. I’m not stupid and I know many of the areas would always be out of bounds, motor racing is a serious business and safety/security would always need to be considered first, but it feels like the balance isn’t right these days. If you have the money, you can gain access, but those with the money or business contacts to enter the gilded environment of the Paddock Club seem enchanted not by the sport of motor racing but just by the exclusivity of access itself. Sipping champagne away from the ugly masses while posting it all over Insta-twit-tok-book or whatever.
But does the appeal of such access and the perceived glamour of the icons of sport impact way beyond those with the ability to access the inner sanctum? I spent time on Saturday watching the first race in the calendar for the weekend, an excellent F3 sprint race showing of the talents of the future, but 90% of the crowd of supposed petrol heads were standing in a big queue behind the stands for an organised autograph session with the F1 drivers. While I commend F1 for insisting on the drivers and teams giving this access as a step forwards, surely there has to be a better and more genuine way to bring the hidden world of F1 closer to those supporting and paying for its existence? On Sunday however I began to realise that maybe the masses were there just because the circus was in town, they really didn’t give a stuff about what was going on in the ring, just as long as they were in the big top tent. I watched another F3 race and an excellent F2 race on Sunday in almost empty grandstands within a supposedly sold out event, clearly the party tricks going on outside were more appealing to these “F1 fans” than motor racing when the drivers are not famous names. What does this say about the appeal of the sport?
This was the first of the newer generation of F1 races I had attended, a new track built in the middle of a desert in a place with no history of F1. When you watch on TV this global reach seems to make sense but when you compare the crowds and overall spectacle at the event to a race at Silverstone or Monza then you realise there is a huge difference, mainly in the audience. Although I haven’t been for a few years and this may have changed I guess, my usual approach to an F1 weekend would include a walk around the outside of the track to stand and observe the cars from a different corner for each practice session, some of the best angles to see just how incredible these cars are can be found this way. Sadly a combination of no public access to 75% of the track, no access into the centre of the circuit, no visibility of the circuit from anywhere other than the grandstands and an over officious stewarding policy preventing access to otherwise empty grandstands without a specific ticket for that section meant there was only one place to watch all the sessions over the weekend, my seat. I tried to reason with the stewards but they had been programmed with simple instructions and discretion had been banned even on the particularly empty Friday. It was embarrassing during the driver parade when for 75% of the ‘parade’ they are in areas of the track where there is literally no access for fans, so who the fuck are they being paraded for? When Lewis commented about the lack of fans and made statements about giving tickets away for free to boost numbers, I get the social conscience nature of his comment but by being so isolated from the crowd itself he cant see that it is not a lack of money making the stands empty, it is apathy for the actual sporting product as opposed to the perceived “be there” glamour of F1 as a brand.
Now then, brands, where do I start on that topic? Maybe that is for another post another day but suffice to say that I used to think that marketing and brands were something that was done to differentiate a product from others and raise its profile. Start with a product and then use marketing to build a brand around it. Now it seems the product doesn’t actually matter and you can just create a brand and the whole world falls for this bullshit, me included I am sure. Maybe think about this if your personal aspirations are pushing you towards owning some vacuous shite just because it has a brand name attached. I think it was the Mercedes merchandise stall that actually set me off on this distraction, a white shirt adorned with a load of sponsor names, no attempt at design, fine for the team to wear but who the fuck would pay £70+ for such crap?