Formula 1 needs to lose macho petrolhead culture as well as the grid girls if it wants to appeal globally

Now that the grid girls are gone and Bernie Ecclestone has taken a back seat, Formula 1 at last has a chance to shed its macho, petrolhead culture and reinvent itself as the global media and entertainment brand it longs to be.

Wieden+Kennedy London’s new high-octane ad is a great start. The film perfectly captures what they are calling the “thrilling dance between chaos and control,” a concept that has a lot more appeal to the non-fan than the dreary pack of speeding cars accompanied by that awful high pitched droning sound.

The ad’s images of collisions, pit stops, hero worship and high speed action is far removed from the tiresome shots of champagne popping on podiums that provide the usual entry-level exposure to the sport. And the six “superfans” Wieden+Kennedy have selected are an intriguinly diverse bunch.

But Formula 1 still has a lot of baggage to shake off. The end of the grid girls got a mixed reaction, not from least Bernie Ecclestone (he’s still chairman emeritus at Formula 1), who clearly hadn’t got the #MeToo memo when he complained, “I can’t understand how a good-looking girl standing with a driver and a number in front of a Formula 1 car can be offensive to anybody.”

Lewis Hamilton ought to be a star ambassador, but his habit of spraying grid girls in the face with victory champagne and his penchant for tax avoidance schemes take the shine off his image.

A female marketing director has got to be a major step towards broadening Formula 1’s appeal: Ellie Norman joined from Virgin Media in August last year, and before that she was at Honda (then a W+K client). She seems to understand that Formula 1 can be impenetrable to non-fans, with its inherent complexity and its emphasis on engineering.

Norman says, “We want to create a perceptible shift in how people perceive F1. This campaign switches the focus away from our own echo chamber… and translates F1’s raw, exhilarating thrill into something that will transcend its appeal across the entire spectrum of sports fans.”

Erasing the memory of Formula 1’s disastrous performance at Advertising Week Europe would be another step towards transformation.

Last year, Ecclestone – interviewed on stage by WPP CEO Martin Sorrell – set Formula 1 back a century when he said women can’t drive fast enough to race, Vladimir Putin should be running Europe, and immigrants have contributed nothing to the UK.

Sean Bratches, Formula 1’s managing director, commercial operations is bravely coming back to face the music at next week’s 2018 event, when Oystercatchers’ Suki Thompson interviews him for a session conveniently titled, “The Radical Transformation of F1.”

There’s certainly enough money in the sport to give transformation a good shot, although there’s a long way to go in the lucrative US market, where racing fans prefer a battered stock car to the supreme engineering of a Formula 1 vehicle.

Formula 1’s real fresh start begins in Melbourne on 25th March, when the new season kicks off.

The whole macho culture won’t change overnight, and from an outsider’s point of view, Formula 1’s belief in its own universal appeal still seems misplaced. But at least there will be no grid girls for Hamilton to fire champagne at, and Wieden+Kennedy’s excellent ad has provided a positive start to a potential new chapter for the sport.


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