After a decade broadcasting to fans in the States, Will Buxton is well placed to judge F1’s challenge in cracking the US market. Rob Watts caught up with Will to discuss Liberty Media’s future plans, Ferrari’s special deals, and why F1 needs a different approach to crack America.
With Liberty Media now eighteen months into its tenure, we’ve already begun to see some changes from the F1 we knew under Bernie Ecclestone’s reign. But has Liberty Media taken the right approach by concentrating on the marketing and promotion side of things, or should it be looking to prioritise the bigger issues that appear to be holding F1 back?
“What they’ve changed in the short term were things that needed changing,” says Will. “They were mainly around the marketing, the utilisation of passes and opening the paddock up.
“I think people were worried that they’d come in and start changing things without a full appreciation of what F1 was, but that came from a misunderstanding of Liberty Media as a group and the people that they’ve got on board.
“They’ve spent an awful lot of money getting hold of F1, and if they’re going to do that, then they’re not the kind of operation who are going to come in and ruin something that they’ve spent a lot of time and money in acquiring.”
With Liberty’s experience in sports marketing already paying dividends, their immediate focus will now be on F1’s technical direction, and getting everyone to agree on that is proving difficult.
“What’s important now is that Liberty Media and the FIA are working hand in hand and the goals that are set are clear,” says Buxton. “The problem with the latest raft of technical regulations is that the goal was faster lap times, so now we have cars that are running faster and lap times are plummeting, but do we have better racing?
“Now, Jean Todt is in favour of louder engines, but that’s the wrong target too. Volume is not the issue with the sound that these engines produce, the problem is pitch; it always has been.
“By putting Ross Brawn in position and pulling in the right people to look at where we go from a sporting perspective, they’re trying to figure out what the target needs to be and to ensure that it’s a proper target that will bring us better racing.”
With F1 facing an important crossroads regarding its future, the headache that comes with keeping Ferrari happy appears to have surfaced once again, with the Italian marque threatening to walk if its demands aren’t met.
“The issue of Ferrari falls hand in hand with the financial question. That’s something they’ve been quite clear on; these special deals that had always been on the table would no longer be there under their reign,” says Will. “It was clear from the first race [of 2017] that Ferrari was unhappy with the new bosses’ take on their privileged position. That’s why I believe Ferrari’s media access was shut down.
“Will Ferrari still be a part of F1 in the future? It’s a big unknown, but that doesn’t come down to the decision of just one man, it comes down to the decision of the board. I cannot fathom for a moment that the board would pull Ferrari out of F1.”
That ‘one man’ is Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne, who has been quoted as saying he’d feel “like a million dollars” if he were to be the one to lead Ferrari’s exit from F1, but would Ferrari really attract the same exposure in another series?.
“The belief that F1 needs Ferrari more than Ferrari needs F1 is massively erroneous; they both benefit from each other, but I don’t believe they could just go to another racing championship and get what they get from F1. The vast majority of Ferrari road cars are F1 influenced – they’re simply not going to get the same gravitas from pulling out and racing elsewhere.
“The problem for Ferrari as well is that for such a long time they’ve been able to race without putting their hands in their pockets, but if Liberty Media wants everyone to be afforded a relatively level platform, then those special deals have to end.”
While there are still some ‘special deals’ left from the Ecclestone-era, Liberty Media is pressing ahead with new deals of their own, and their next one may be to add a second race in the United States; a market that’s still proving tough for F1 to crack.
“It’s a really difficult market to break,” says Will. “If you look at other championships such as NASCAR and IndyCar, an international championship that dips into the American market once a year cannot hope to have the same brand awareness and emotional pull as one that operates week in week out in the States.
“Fernando Alonso doing IndyCar this year did untold positives for the way F1 was viewed; people thought it was really cool, and it reflected well on F1 that he fared so well, but in terms of F1’s future in America, there’s still a lot of potential for development.
“[Liberty] talk about new races [in the US], and the majority of those suggested are street races, but the diehard fans would rather we go somewhere like Watkins Glen, Road America, Sonoma, etc. rather than a street circuit.
“Formula E has shown that if you are a racing championship that doesn’t necessarily have a fanbase yet, then what you need to do is put the racing in front of people. The whole thing of ‘if you build it, they will come’ doesn’t really work.”
As Will explains, part of the problem F1 has in the States is that it has very little American involvement for fans to get behind, and Haas’ reluctance to give opportunities to American drivers isn’t helping.
“It was wrong for Guenther [Steiner] to say that there aren’t any American drivers in the States that are ready to race in F1,” says Will. “I actually don’t think there are any American drivers racing in IndyCar who would be prepared to walk away from a championship potential car, like Josef Newgarden’s got in the Penske, to go and race for Haas. If Mercedes, Red Bull, or Ferrari called, then I’m sure he would in a heartbeat. But for a Haas? No.
“There are many American drivers who could step into an F1 seat and be competitive, but you’re not just going to pluck Josef Newgarden, even as IndyCar champion, and put him up against Sebastian Vettel and expect him to be competitive.
“You need to give him the time, give him the testing, to allow him to fight, but I don’t see any reason why someone like Newgarden or Alex Rossi couldn’t come into a top team and be competitive.”