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F1 gets social | The social media verdict on the Australian Grand Prix

  • Liberty Media removes social media shackles for F1 teams
  • Mercedes posts video of pit crew working through the night
  • Race sets records on sports property’s social media platforms with 230 million impressions

“Imagine Coachella meets Moomba meets Melbourne food and wine festival,” gushed Motoring.com the Friday before the race. “It’s social media nirvana as Australia’s social royalty hit ludicrous-mode at the Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix.”

The article was supported by pictures of brand ambassador (and model) Brooke Hogan posing in the pit lane, paddock and hospitality area at the Albert Park track. Sun-drenched and stylish with elegant features and cascading blonde hair, she belonged to the pages of Hello much more than Autocar. Her three tips for the event started, thankfully, with the race itself, but the street festival and fashion followed quickly behind in the slipstream. This was F1 suddenly telling a different story about itself in a different way – partly via pretty people (also known as influencers) on Instagram.

Of course, Grand Prix weekends have always been happenings as much as races. But the sense of unshackling surrounding the season-opener in Melbourne seemed obvious. Not that I really knew, given I was the on the other side of the world. But my perception (and therefore my impression) was framed by an almost spotless story of renewal via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

After acquiring F1 in January, Liberty Media swiftly removed most of the infamous restrictions on social media content, specifically those pertaining to the paddock area. Previously the only cameras allowed in the inner sanctum belonged to TV rights-holders or F1 themselves, and the rules were rigorously enforced. One broadcaster celebrated the change by bitterly remembering his fear of “jackboots marching in to close the place down” if they transgressed and, even if certain access was granted, the atmosphere being akin to a “getting a surprise visit from the tax inspector.”

Bernie Ecclestone, the championship’s former chief executive, had been famously sceptical of social media; his world had been dominated by TV companies and their broadcast revenue. Let’s not re-write history, it worked well for a long time. However, the pervasive feeling was that times had changed while F1 had not. Couple that disengagement with three years of Mercedes dominance on the track and it was little wonder viewing figures had declined.

Jean Todt, president of the FIA, summed it up well when he said: “Entertainment has always been a priority. What has changed is the way we entertain.”

In the background, there was the up-and-coming Formula E series, in which Liberty had a sizeable stake. It used electric cars, raced around city centre tracks and had pioneered FanBoost, a social media innovation whereby the three drivers with the most votes would get an extra 100Kj of energy at certain times in the race. The incentive for competitors to engage with their audience was obvious.

In contrast, F1 drivers who flouted social media restrictions saw their content taken down. So they sometimes expressed their opinion… publicly… via the method most Millennials use these days. Social media. But in Melbourne, the gloves were finally off and so the thumbs got to work.

For the first time, Mercedes could present a video of its pit crew working through the night to prepare Lewis Hamilton’s car. Told in fast-forward with the driver even making an appearance, the celebratory denouement was a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs. The petrolheads had gained a little more insight about their sport while casual fans might be pulled in through the storytelling. The same team lightened the mood during the race itself with GIFs (looping mini-videos of Drake, Kermit the Frog and The Office to support their rollercoaster of emotions.)

VIDEO: One of the behind-the-scenes films uploaded by Mercedes over the Australian Grand Prix weekend

Imagery and celebrity were well used. Nicole Kidman and pop band Rudimental visited the paddock and, for once, we got the pictures to prove it. The F1 Twitter account was stacked full of emojis.

Devotees could drink their fill of the new content while drivers like the social media-savvy Hamilton appeared to revel in their new-found freedom.

“All very nice,” I hear you say, but in an echo of the recently deposed Ecclestone you might also ask: “What’s the point? Where’s the money?”

Well, here’s the short answer, in Twitter-style batches of 140 characters.

“Media consumption fragmented like never before. Young gens aren’t watching trad sports as much or in same way. Long-term success = capturing their scattergun attention”

“Today, consistent/relevant/engaging storytelling, espec via social media = crucial method of gaining casual fans & moving fervents down monetisation funnel”

“@F1 playing catch-up, espec with Millennials & Gen Z, who went elsewhere while F1 concentrated on TV. But 1st race saw a new start”

“Relaxing restrictions allowed F1 to set records on its soc media platforms in 1st race. 230m impressions, 6m engagements, 27m video views.”

In short, the world’s premier motorsport competition may be still some way behind in social media terms. But now it is certainly back in the race.

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