Business leaders say Formula 1 should be doing more to embrace the internet and new media platforms rather than trying to focus on protecting its more traditional media channels, which now includes television. That was one of the messages from senior industry figures on the opening day of the Motor Sport Business Forum in Monaco on Wednesday, as discussions began about where the sport should be heading in its post-manufacturer era.
With a wave of new faces set to enter grand prix racing in 2010, following the withdrawal of BMW, Toyota and perhaps Renault, it is clear that the fresh blood believes F1 should be doing more to prepare itself better for the changing modern media. There was an almost universal belief that F1 was not moving with the times in engaging with the fans – and should be following the example of the music industry, which changed its business structures to embrace the internet and revitalize itself.
Gerard Lopez, the Luxembourg-based businessman who is looking at buying the Renault team, has long championed new media ideas – he was an initial investor in Skype internet telephone service – and he thinks F1 has to wake up to what is going on.
"The teams can bring the sport closer to the audience," he said. "The sport and its environment is going to be forced to change.
"Most of the broadcast contracts are based on a way of looking at things from 15, 20, 25 years ago. The fact is that, in three or fours years' time, most people in a lot of countries will be watching it not on TV as we know it today, but over the internet. And that completely redefines how you negotiate contracts and how you distribute content.
"You can't control the internet audience in the same way as you can control the television audience. It's a similar process to what the music industry has gone through in terms of digitizing itself. You have to figure out new ways of making money out of it, because at the end of the day that's what keeps the sport alive."
Lotus team principal Tony Fernandes, who worked in the music industry before setting up Air Asia, is equally eager for fresh ideas to move the sport forward. "I look at the future of where F1 could go if managed correctly," he said. "It is a massive sport that is as yet untapped. We haven't touched the whole world yet, through online.
"I left the music business because it didn't want to embrace the internet. I was at Time Warner and I said to the people there, 'If you do not embrace the internet, then the music industry will be destroyed.' They were more concerned about IBITA – that's earnings before everything you don't like! I left, I quit that day and flew back from New York to London, saw Stelios [of Easyjet] on TV talking about a low cost carrier...
"Everyone thinks I am nuts to go into F1, but there is a massive opportunity there – working with the online properties, and reaching audiences that have never been reached before. There is an opportunity to make it a truly global sport like football. It can be done, and I think that is why we are interested in it."
Neville Wheeler, director of the Cisco Media Solutions Group, thinks that it is important F1 does not just move forward, but does not run the risk of losing out to other sports. He believes that attempts by Formula One Management to protect F1 race rights, and prevent distribution through numerous channels beyond just television, could actually prove to be counter-beneficial for the long-term health of the sport.
"The pace of change in social media, and the internet in general, is so fast that unless you're prepared to break away from the shackles of the old way of doing things, you're rapidly left behind," he explained. "You will very quickly find that the people who are passionate fans will seek out and access the content in one way or another.
"The smart organizations are trying to find a way of monetizing those rights, rather than trying to create a walled garden to protect them as long as possible. We have to get to a point where the audience immersion, social media and associated technologies are a key component of the way motorsports – and sport in general – is delivered to the global audience."
Lopez actually thinks that the pace of change is now so fast that it will take a new influx of businessmen and media analysts to capitalize on it.
"To most people, the so-called MTV generation is the modern generation," he said. "To us it's not – it's old-fashioned. People don't buy music any more. Kids don't watch television as much as they used to. People consume media in a different way. Even some video game platforms are being forced out of the market by online gaming. Rights holders have to reach their audiences differently.
"It doesn't make sense to try to charge people for something that they will figure out how to get for free. F1 will be available on the internet and you need to be prepared for that. The challenge is not in deciding what you give away for free but in deciding what sort of value you're going to provide on top of that – elements that people are actually willing to pay for."
Peter Harris, the CEO of the Iris Sponsorship agency, believes that F1's desire to hold onto its assets is hurting the ability of sponsors to get more fans engaged.
"There are whole new demographic groups out there, digital junkies, and they want to engage with us – using content, building new platforms with their customers and target audiences, but that is something that is quite hard to do with F1," he said.
"There is fantastic content and fantastic stories, but there is not a lot coming out that is accessible for a lot of the brands that are involved. It makes it harder for them to engage with the audiences. But there is a huge appetite – especially with the younger audiences."