Where Niki Lauda Is Right (and Wrong) on F1 and Social Media

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistJuly 24, 2014

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 20:  Niki Lauda, non-executive chairman of Mercedes GP look on i nthe garage during practice ahead of the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix at Red Bull Ring on June 20, 2014 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Dom Romney/Getty Images)
Dom Romney/Getty Images

Formula One's reluctance to embrace social media is among the most concerning and bizarre topics currently bubbling away from the on-track action.

Although unlikely to create as many headlines as the recent front-to-rear interconnected suspension systems ban, the sport's unwavering obliviousness to new digital platforms is arguably more damaging to itself, its associates and its protagonists.

Recognising this, Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion, has been speaking—as Lauda often does—of the seemingly taboo subject, warning F1 that it runs the risk of self-destructing.

Lauda, one of the most iconic and influential figures in the sport's history, was quoted by F1 journalist James Allen as telling German publication Die Welt:

Formula One is seeing a serious cultural change. The audience wants to watch sport in a different way than before, due to the rapid growth of the new means of communication.

It is logical that the young people of today have other priorities. Everything in the world is changing, but only Formula 1 is staying where it was.

Young people do not want to stay at home on Sunday when the sun is shining to sit in the lounge with their father for two hours. The problem is that today, there is no alternative. You can’t just sit on the beach and watch the race highlights on your smartphone.

We have a generation of drivers that, if they were not wearing their racing overalls, you would simply walk past some of them and not notice. The 'Formula One system' is to supervise, monitor, regulate. But we must again have the drivers, not the bureaucrats, in the foreground.

If we continue like this, no one will be bothered about Formula One anymore. It’s five minutes to 12.

Despite F1's need to change, the sweeping assumption that the "young people of today" are in constant need of stimulation, excitement and activity is severely wide of the mark—and it is arguably the root of its shortcomings in sporting and social media arenas.

The introduction in recent years of technologies such as drag reduction systems and fragile Pirelli tyres were direct consequences of Formula One's desire to create excitement—no matter how artificial—and appeal to a so-called younger audience, with controversial rules such as double points and standing restarts following a similar route.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JUNE 30:  Detail view of Pirelli tyres following the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit on June 30, 2013 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Many of these gimmicks have only served to alienate long-term followers of the sport, while having little effect in terms of attracting a new, youthful following.

And that is the mistake F1 should avoid repeating if and when it considers a social media strategy: it is, first and foremost, about convenience, providing a service and rewarding its existing followers, not extending the brand in the hope of gathering new ones.

If F1 does the basics right in terms of social media, as well as providing compelling and competitive sporting action, it will find its audience growing regardless, with people of all ages snubbing a highlights package on the beach, as Lauda put it, for a Sunday afternoon sat in front of the telly.

To create truly compelling and competitive sporting action, however, F1 needs a wide range of characters and personalities, and it is currently blessed in this regard.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 16:  Daniel Ricciardo (C) of Australia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing attends the drivers parade before the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 16, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Get
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The elite drivers on the 2014 grid—Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Daniel Ricciardo—are all men with different backgrounds, varying styles and at contrasting stages of their respective careers.

Despite two of those stars, Vettel and Raikkonen, having little or no presence on social media, spectators know their character traits and career paths like the back of their hands, providing a connection on race day.

But at the opposite end of the grid, and the midfield, it is, as Lauda suggests, the race of the anonymous.

The drivers of Marussia, Sauber and Caterham in particular—the bottom three teams in the constructors' standings—have little chance of making an impact on the circuit and pay for it away from the track.

Caterham's Marcus Ericsson, for example, effectively talks to himself every time he takes to Twitter, with less than 27,000 followers to his name.

Contrast that figure to Hamilton, the sport's most wide-reaching figure in cyberspace, who reaches over two million people every time he hits the "Tweet" button.

Eric Boullier, McLaren's racing director and presumably one of the bureaucrats referred to by Lauda, has over 6,000 more followers than Ericsson, with Paddy Lowe, who holds a similar position at Mercedes, not far behind the Swedish driver's tally.

Perhaps it is just a reflection of F1's identity crisis, its constant to-ing and fro-ing between a worldwide sport and a glorified political debate.

Or perhaps it has always been this way, the senior officials more important than the supposed stars of the show, but has never been quite so stark. 

F1 prides itself as the pinnacle of motorsport and at the forefront of modern technology.

The message is loud and clear: Whatever Vettel, Alonso or Hamilton drive to victory on Sunday, it will be on your road car come Monday.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 16:  The drivers of the 2014 Formula One season pose for a group photograph before the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 16, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

But despite F1 leading one aspect of the technological revolution, it is lagging pitifully behind in another.

While other sports such as football—a game that can be played with jumpers for goalposts, no energy recovery systems in sight—have extracted the most from social media, F1 remains introverted, unwilling and wary of the brave new world.

It is inconceivable that a community which has perfected the art of front-to-rear interconnected suspension systems cannot master platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

F1 has to change its stance on social media. Its relevance depends on it.

The clock, as Lauda says, is ticking.