How Formula 1 plans to digitise fan experience

For a sport built on advanced technology, Formula 1 has lacked a truly digitally enabled fan experience – but that could be about to change

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Formula 1 goes digital

Five years ago, Tata won a contract to provide the networking to support F1 motor racing globally. It has now launched an innovation challenge, looking for ideas where the internet of things (IoT) can be deployed to enhance the trackside experience for fans at each Grand Prix using mobile technologies and embedded connectivity.

Ross Brawn, managing director of motorsports, Formula 1, said the sport had fallen behind in terms of fan interaction. At a briefing before this weekend’s British Grand Prix, he said: “Several years ago was the right time, but it never happened. In the past, the management of F1 was not convinced about the opportunity. We have a lot of catching-up.”

Brawn said Formula 1 was now building a digital team and added: “The business will be so much stronger for fans.”

He said Formula 1 had drawn inspiration from a number of sports that were early adopters of digital technology for fans. “Look at the extra analysis in cricket,” he said. “It is not a tech sport, but it would be difficult to watch a cricket match without that information. And in the America’s Cup, you wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on.”

Some of the changes will be rolled out during the rest of the 2017 F1 season, said Brawn. “But in 2018, the real changes will be coming through,” he added.

The changes are beginning to happen with a new tie-up with ShapChat that enables F1 fans to experience content on Snapchat’s Discover platform. The platform will be used during the British Grand Prix at Silverstone to curate Snaps from the weekend.

Frank Arthofer, head of digital and new business at Formula 1, said: “This is the first step towards expanding our social media strategy. Right from the start, we have said we want to work with partners to bring fans closer to the amazing show that is Formula 1, an incredible mix of technology and individual talent – and Snap fits that bill.

“We need to continue to bring new fans to the sport – by reaching out to them on social media platforms with behind-the-scenes, fun and engaging content. Snap’s platform is one of the most popular among millennials, a sector we are particularly keen on attracting, as it represents the future of our sport.”

Giving fans what they want

Brawn said Formula 1 was trying to understand how to give fans more of the core product. “F1 is a massively data-rich environment and is a sport that is almost unique in the level of technology that exists,” he said. “It is also a sport where, fortuitously, there are masses of historical data and we collect a lot of future data. At the moment, we are trying to understand what makes a good race.”

He said the F1 website was set to become the “go-to” site for the sport. “We will start with the core foundation, then build layers depending on the fans’ interest.”

Brawn said someone interested in following the engineering aspects of F1 would be presented with team-focused content looking at what had changed on the cars.

As an example of how insightful analytics could improve fans’ experience, Brawn said: “In Baku [Azerbaijan], there was a great race between Valtteri Bottas and Lance Stroll, which finished with a final overtake on the last corner. We couldn’t predict that would happen, but we would be able to predict that it would get close.”

Such data could be used to improve a fan’s experience of the race, he said. “You could say to a fan that 20 laps before the end, all the numbers tell us those two cars will be next to each other and show them digitally why that is.”

Virtual racing on the cards

Brawn sees Formula 1 evolving closely with the computer games industry, whose games are not that far removed from the simulators used by real Formula 1 teams. “A lot of Formula 1 teams use software generated by the games industry to give a more realistic environment for their driver simulators,” he said. “As we look to improve racing in the future, there is a huge community of e-racers out there.”

This community could be used to beta test different racing environments, said Brawn. “We could get them to tell us if the racing has improved. Changes to the aerodynamics of the cars can be fed into the e-racing community, and we can ask whether it creates a better race.”

Asked whether Formula 1 would be working more closely with the computer games industry, Brawn said: “We haven’t got a partner yet.” But one of the areas he will be looking at is how e-racing could be connected to live Formula 1 races. “You can imagine how sensational that would be,” he added.

This is particularly relevant, given how the sport will be evolving away from traditional broadcasting of live races to provide an all-encompassing fan experience. Although Formula 1 races take place at 20 venues around the world, most fans experience the sport via television.

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SnapChat and making the Formula 1 site the “go-to” destination for fans is just the start, and it should come as no surprise that the head of Formula 1 wants to expand the sport beyond broadcast. According to market intelligence firm SuperData, the computer games industry is worth $90bn, with e-sports worth $892m. “Despite its relatively small size, e-sports has become the focal point for publishers, TV executives and advertisers,” said SuperData.

Experts believe virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality represent the future of entertainment, so it is not that far-fetched to imagine that one day, F1 fans will be able to experience a driver’s perspective of the race using VR headsets or, as Brawn suggests, even be able to drive in an e-racing game alongside real drivers.

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