Answer – both have made a commitment to both F1 and Formula E. The announcement that Mercedes-Benz Motorsport have signed with Formula E to run an electric car in its fifth season demonstrates how the electric series is becoming the longer term focus for the car manufacturers. The reason is clear. They see the future as electric and this is why Renault, Citroen, Audi, Mahindra, Jaguar, BMW and now Mercedes all have made commitments to FE. Who next? Perhaps we could see Porsche and Toyota also following, only time will tell.
Over the summer I attended a conference in London where Virgin Formula E team principal Alex Tai explained that their brand had a far better fit with Formula E than with Formula 1: clean technology, racing in cities, close to the population, close to the fans and readily embracing social media as part of the experience. This is the very antithesis of the Formula 1 business model.
Well-respected F1 journalist Mark Hughes has recently suggested that F1 needs to break away from the car manufacturers and develop a more rebellious streak. You can read his piece here:
Of course if the car manufacturers leave, as they have before, F1 will continue, but will it become a no-go area for many sponsors – or rather an area of last resort for those products who are limited as to where they can spend their marketing budgets and are becoming less acceptable to society as a whole. It happened with tobacco, and now we have more alcohol sponsors so further down the line we could have fast food and high sugar drinks. Perhaps this is part of the rebelliousness to which Mark Hughes refers? But F1 teams need money and a lot of it to sustain the size of operations they currently enjoy. Of course the teams too have an eye to Formula E. Both McLaren and Williams supply part of the technology used in the cars and Williams will be running the Jaguar Formula E entry. I wonder whether we shall see other F1 teams getting involved?
The problem is that F1’s audience is dropping, albeit still at the 400 million level, which is astronomically higher than Formula E. But we are all being told that TV viewing figures are part of the past and the future will be digital and very different. Formula E is focusing on a new generation who, to their loss, have never heard the scream of a Ferrari 12 cylinder at full revs. But perhaps it’s a bit like the age of steam, if you weren’t there then it really is outside your reality and your reality is digital and electric. That is why both Liberty Media and Mercedes-Benz Motorsport have an eye to the present, but also the future.