How is technology broadening the appeal of Formula One?

Otmar Szafnauer (r), COO of Sahara Force India, poses with Julian Leighton (l), CEO of official digital partner, Orange Bus

Otmar Szafnauer, COO of the Sahara Force India Formula One Team, recently talked to Business Leader about the changes happening in the sport, thanks to the introduction of new technologies.

Sahara Force India’s official digital partner, Orange Bus, an interaction design agency, is assisting the team with outreach to a wider network of fans by assessing how best to use advancements in the digital space.

Can you please tell us about Sahara Force India’s partnership with Orange Bus?

Orange Bus designs solutions to complex problems for partners, helping them to create digital strategies that solve business challenges for its customers. For Sahara Force India, the challenge was – and remains – how best to adapt to the ongoing advancements in the digital space and how to use these to our advantage. A lot of Orange Bus’ work is in building better means of a customer accessing a specific product and for SFI, this is the fans getting the content and info they want from the team. So Orange Bus is helping us better use to technology to communicate with our fans and help them feel more engaged in what has traditionally been quite an inaccessible sport.

How is this breaking down the barriers between sports teams and the fans?

The biggest change is the flow of information that’s now allowed between the teams and the fans and social media is a large driver of this. Under the Liberty ownership, we’re able to engage our fans through social media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and we offer content services via the internet. In fact, TV will become an old technology before you know it; everyone will be watching F1 either on their tablet or their smartphone. But what that means is the potential for audience growth – there is now a cumulative F1 audience of 1.76 billion.

Orange Bus has also helped us redesign the experience for fans visiting our website, giving them a smoother transition through the pages and a better flow of content to keep them interested and engaged and coming back for more.

What technology is being used in F1 to make the sport more accessible for the fans?

As well as the social media push, advancements in personal technology, like smartphones and tables, have enabled Sahara Force India as a team – and F1 as a group – to bring the fans closer to the sport. In the mid ‘90s we had good audience numbers – 4-5 million people applied for 120,000 tickets to go to the Suzuka Grand Prix – but they didn’t have that fan engagement because the technology didn’t exist.

Back then you had to wait around to see the drivers or get autographs and that was the only glimpse you’d get. Now, though, there’s an F1 scoring and timing app which gives the fans the ability to see all the data that the engineers receive on the pit wall in the palms of their hands. Drivers also tweet and take videos of themselves going to, and on and around the track. The fans love that because they feel like they have an insight into the drivers’ regimes and the workings of the teams in general.

I mention the flow of information and that’s also key. Technology allows us to push more extensive and detailed information to the fans so that they better understand the racing and become more knowledgeable about the sport. Using information and data to drive understanding is allowing us to educate the fans, who in turn enjoy the sport even more, and that can help us continue to grow our audience.

Does F1 need to change its approach to fan interaction to grow?

I think that work is ongoing and we have made a lot of changes in the last decade and come a long way, mainly because the hardware and software has advanced, but we must continue to embrace the technologies available to us as a group. The channels now exist to get the information out there and get closer to the fans but we can go further.

What does the future hold for F1?

The future is happening already! New owners, Liberty Media, are allowing us the freedom to get closer to the fans through multiple channels. As a result, the teams are putting out far more inclusive and informative content and the drivers are posting personal videos in and around race days.

Liberty is also embracing the concept of trying to better educate the fans in the finer details of the sport and they’re exploring increasingly innovative ways of gaining new fans. For example, next year Netflix is doing a documentary on F1 that will focus on everything off-track, looking behind the scenes at the personalities and workings of the sport. That is likely to engage new fans, with those watching the programme finding it interesting and then being drawn into watching the sport itself.

And as I mentioned the flow of information is key, particularly educating our audiences. F1 is a highly technical sport, so the more you understand it, the more you enjoy it. The changes in technology allow us to explain the intricacies of the sport to the fans in a much easier way; what we do and how we do it, how competitive it is and how difficult it is to win, how talented the drivers are, all those details. If you can communicate that to people effectively, they’ll be drawn in by the spectacle that it is.

How can this be applied to other businesses with potential for increased revenue streams?

People are increasingly time poor so we are competing with a lot of sports and other activities for people’s time. You can have the most exciting sport imaginable but if it’s not communicated and not understood then the fans will be turned off. So our challenge is to make sure that the sport is understood and is interesting for the fans and growing its audience is of huge benefit because it makes us more financially stable.

As for other businesses, if we can develop the technology to communicate with our fans, other businesses can do it with their customers. That’s part of our official digital partner Orange Bus’ business; understanding how to do it and maximising it. They’re doing it in F1 and they’re doing it in other sectors.

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