Memo: On Formula One and America

Sitting in a New York City living room, I tuned into Netflix’s Drive to Survive for the first time. Three seasons later and I am a super fan. While aware of the mechanics and appeal of racing, I had long resisted an emotional connection to the sport. In an instant that changed. This isn’t the first time storytelling has normalized the appeal of engineering, dare devils, and high-intensity team work.

In F1, brands and performance and driver personality merge as one – on and off the track.

A lot can happen in 30 years. But as they say, the more things change, the more that they stay the same. A playbook written in 1986 was repurposed in 2016. Both of them worked wonders.

In 1986, a moderately-budgeted film called Top Gun bent the rules, broke some, and invented new customs that remain in place to this day. Whenever I asked my father (a military officer at the time) about the impact of the Tony Scott film, he commented on not the movie itself but its psychological impact. Consider this 1986 excerpt from Time Magazine:

The high-flying hardware turns Top Gun into a 110-minute commercial for the Navy — and it was the Navy’s cooperation that put the planes in the picture. The producers paid the military $1.8 million […]. Without such billion-dollar props, the producers would have spent an inordinate amount of time and money searching for substitutes, and might not have been able to make the movie at all. The partnership has been profitable for both Hollywood and the Pentagon. [1]

Decades later and the impact of the Tom Cruise breakout hit has been quantified. The film boosted aviation recruiting efforts by 500% according to ScreenRant. With a $15 million budget and a $350 million dollar box office performance, the film accomplished more than quantitative growth in enlistment – it altered cultural perception. Top Gun improved the American image of the US military at a time when most onlookers felt that was impossible. Gone were the images of the Vietnam War depicted in films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. Maverick, Ice Man, Viper, and Merlin succeeded in making the uniformed services appealing again.

The military needed a more flattering cinematic portrait, and they got it with the success of Top Gun. The image of a charming, daring young pilot serving his country was a powerful antidote to Platoon’s anti-war message.

So why the primer on Top Gun? Formula 1 Racing adopted the Tony Scott playbook to reshape its image in the United States, and it has worked flawlessly. In 2016, a CNN report on the acquisition by John Malone’s Liberty Media encapsulated F1’s advertising limitations:

The sport has long attracted premium advertisers in Europe, but it has failed to find an audience in the US.

Liberty Media then hired media executive Chase Carey as chairman, a position now held by Lamborghini’s Stefano Domenicali. From the start of the new administration, media penetration was at the center of the strategy. The deal was meant to position F1 as more of a content company than a racing body. It worked. In March of 2018, just two years after Malone’s acquisition, the Netflix agreement was announced for 2019. The season would be 10 episodes culminating in the coverage of the 2018 FIA World Championship.

Fast forward and Netflix’s impact has been palpable. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown cited its “huge” impact. He went on to say, “It’s got to be the single most important impact in North America.” “Almost every comment you get out of someone out of the US, they reference Drive to Survive.” Brown added another point in a statement on Netflix’s treatment of F1:

[Look at] Top Gun. You watch it, and I’m sure every fighter pilot went, you can’t do that in a jet. But it was a great movie.

There may not be another sport as intertwined with brands, science, bravado, and retail advertising than Formula 1 racing. Season three had its roots in fashion retail thanks to a major storyline revolving around the team formerly known as Force India Formula 1. The team, renamed “Racing Point,” finished impressively for a mid-season acquisition in its first year. By the 2019 season depicted by Netflix, it was competing for podiums in some races – a major feat given the engineering dominance of Red Bull, Mercedes, and Ferrari. The acquisition by retail executive Lawrence Stroll lined each episode with intrigue and controversy. Stroll’s family brought brands Pierre Cardin and Ralph Lauren to Canada and Europe through distribution and licensing deals. Stroll also invested in brands Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors, helping them to global prevalence.

It was Stroll’s decision to tightly copy the Mercedes engineering and aesthetic that lined the season with intrigue. With his son behind the wheel and nepotism on full display, the combination of engineering and his son’s performance proved naysayers wrong. The “Pink Mercedes” was the ire of competitors who were equally frustrated and enamored by Racing Point’s sudden success. In typical Stroll fashion, the business magnate leveraged that early success into a deal to bring James Bond’s own Aston Martin back to racing for the first time in 60 years. In an agreement for 18.1% of the company, Racing Point Stroll’s F1 team was rebranded as Aston Martin for the most recent season. A nod to the intersection of film, retail, advertising, and racing – the legendary car manufacturer has struggled throughout the pandemic as it awaited a much needed boost from the delayed final addition to the James Bond franchise. Its brand endurance will depend on Stroll’s wit and his team’s performance and notoriety. In F1, brands and performance and driver personality merge as one, on and off the track.

For this reason, brands vie for deals with constructors and their star drivers. Lewis Hamilton, racing’s premier driver and historical leader, is adorned with logos of Monster Energy, Puma, IWC, Sony, Bose, August Motorcycles, Gran Turismo Sport, Bell Helmets, and Tommy Hilfiger. His constructor logo takes center stage: Mercedes Benz. Unlike other popular forms of racing, F1 is purely aspirational in much the same way soccer’s finest leagues are. F1’s courses are located in some of the most enamoring venues on earth with Miami to be added in 2022 thanks to Related Companies Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins and RSE investment partner to Gary and AJ Vaynerchuk.

The emerging interest in America could not come at a better time for the next American city to be added to the international race circuit. Over the pandemic, Miami has risen as a destination for economic migration, wealth-creation, venture investment, and new construction thanks to savvy advocacy marketing by its mayor. In ways, Miami has become the microcosm of the America that Formula 1’s management and its many advertisers hope to captivate.

It’s been nearly 40 years since America’s Mario Andretti dominated Formula 1 racing. In April 2021, just 9% of American 18-24 year olds considered themselves avid fans of the sport. Just 13% of 35-44 year olds said the same. But if trajectory is the same, we will see more of Americas advertisers and partnerships reflected in a sport that is long overdue to capture the attention of a willing country. As with storytelling, it’s more than attention that is at stake, it’s imagination. Maybe with enough, America will find its own version of Sir Lewis Hamilton.

This is an economy of bifurcated consumers and retail excess; it’s an economy of big tech, individualism, red state migration, digital goods, decentralized finance, record-breaking travel, sportsbooks, luxury goods, fast cars, and outspoken heroes. Name a better marketing platform than a land rocket zooming past at 160 miles per hour, with one of the world’s 25 best drivers calmly narrating as he tests his wits.

Netflix is Formula 1’s unsung hero and it may succeed in changing the landscape of America’s niche sports interests.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes

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