Formula 1's sponsors are helping the sport get back into gear

With Formula 1 postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, motor fans around the world are feeling the need for speed.

F1 chief executive Chase Carey hopes to keep them waiting just a few weeks more, as he plans to restart in Austria in July, albeit without a physical crowd. While its drivers and engineers prepare for the season to get back into gear, its sponsors have been heavily involved behind the scenes, helping to engage with fans during the extended hiatus.

While its drivers are parked, Formula 1 has evolved beyond what happens on the track. Like many other sports, F1 has realised that its capacity to entertain goes beyond the physical world. And sponsors are now tapping into off-stage material as well, in order to get more for their money and extend their brand’s reach.

“Covid-19, as it has for many businesses, has encouraged us to look within ourselves as a sport and made us look at our contribution to society as well as entertainment over the last 70 years,” says Ben Pincus, the recently recruited director of commercial partnerships at F1. He joined in March from Heineken, and admits that plans for the sport “might have changed a little bit” in recent months.

Pincus says that plans to celebrate the sport's 70th anniversary had to be adapted significantly, noting "the narrative has changed." Now, he explains F1 will use a ‘slightly different lens’ to focus on how it has impacted society – including its recent plan for making ventilators for the NHS.

Two of its sponsors have helped support that narrative; cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services (AWS) and delivery service DHL, now the longest serving sponsor of the sport since it came on board as a logistics partner in 2014.

AWS, a partner since 2019, is using its tech capabilities to offer data insights into the sport to improve driver performance during downtime, and has been helping to hone the sport's use of data in developing better fan experiences.

Meanwhile DHL has been investing in esports, and worked with F1 to create Virtual Grand Prix in 2017. The platform was quickly retooled before the end of March to replace the Grand Prix stages of the 2020 season with virtual events.

The first race, simulated in the official F1 2019 PC video game, featured both current and former F1 drivers competing head-to-head around Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit. A combined audience of 3.2 million viewers across YouTube, Twitch, Facebook and F1.com tuned in to watch Guanyu Zhou of Renault win.

Christine Schröder-Schönberg, head of global sponsorship for DHL, praises the response of the sport, claiming that it has “moved so fast to create platforms for their sponsors as an alternative to engage with their audience” of over 500 million fans worldwide. She admits to being surprised by the success of Virtual Grand Prix but says she plans to continue to support it moving forward.

“Finding another angle to get engaged with the fan community and meet their appetite for deep dive and long-form contexts, F1 came up with the ‘Rewind Campaign‘ which looks at classic racing. It fits perfectly for DHL as a sponsor, as we have been partnering with F1 for a long time and we celebrated our own 50th anniversary last year. It’s the perfect fit,” she says. Schröder-Schönberg also reveals that the company will work alongside F1 Logistics to tell behind-the-scenes stories about the logistics of restarting the racing season.

“We have a plan in place, but every day is a new day and we want to tell those stories to the fan community,” she adds.

Matt Hurst, head of global AWS Sports Marketing and Communications, explains that the business has been working with F1 to lead its digital transformation drive.

AWS has created a new platform, Deep Racer, a virtual racing league that launched this month. It allows developers to compete on the asphalt, using machine learning skills to race against professional F1 drivers such as seven-time champion Daniel Ricciardo, F1 test driver Tatiana Calderon and chief technical engineer of F1 Performance, Rob Smedley.

“If you think of ways of to get people involved and engaged with F1, it’s hard to think of better ways than racing head-to-head with Daniel Ricciardo. When else would they get that opportunity?” asks Hurst.

Pincus reveals that the creation of a virtual racing product was not on the cards prior to Covid-19, but it took just three weeks to put the first beta test out as a live product. “I don’t think it’s that surprising an achievement from a business that spends so much time in the technology and innovation business to deliver entertainment,“ he says. The company is naturally disposed to acting quickly.” With the help of DHL, F1’s virtual edition has become almost ‘a linear TV product’. “We must remember what we have learned and take forward the best bits of it to reframe how we move forward.

“We’re way more digitally active than we would have been under normal circumstances. A lot of our own barriers have dropped in terms of access to content and we are having much more dynamic relationships with out partners. We’ve created an incredible volume of activity to feed our content-starved fan base right now,” Pincus adds.

Watch the three discuss their experiences of the last two months and share the lessons they have learned from planning the return and future of Formula 1 in The Drum’s exclusive interview.

Further exclusive video interviews will feature as part of The Drum's Can-Do Festival, which will run for a fortnight at the end of June. To find out more or register your interest to be involved, check the online portal.

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