As Formula 1 moves onto the most iconic and beloved circuits on the calendar with the Monaco Grand Prix shaping the sporting weekend ahead, we spoke to the Tony Fernandes, Team Principal of the new Lotus Racing team, who gives a fascinating insight into the team’s modern approach to Formula 1. In an exclusive chat with the UK Sports Network, Tony discusses the Lotus heritage, the impact of social media on the team’s communications strategy, why F1 is still has a lot to offer international brands and how Lotus Racing aims to put the sport’s legion of fans first.
As a new F1 team with an iconic name, how difficult is it to satisfy the F1 purists and concurrently appeal to new audiences?
“Some would see this as a potential problem, but since day one we’ve seen it as a major opportunity. The key to satisfying both parties has been honesty – we have never pretended to be, nor do we want to be, a rebirth of Colin Chapman’s Lotus, but we are very aware of the responsibility we have to uphold his legacy, and that of his cars, his drivers and his employees. We embrace a number of his philosophies in the way we go about racing – innovation, passion and dedication all being key watchwords for us, and those are as relevant to the purists as they are to the younger fans. We also chose our cars’ livery specifically because it is a contemporary nod to the classic green and yellow colours, and have been delighted to see that both new and old fans have unanimously come out in favour of our choice, many already saying it is by far the best looking car on the grid.
So that’s the philosophy and the way we look on track – we’ve also embraced the new audience by being open, honest and very interactive in all forms of media. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube all afford us the opportunity to talk directly to individual fans, to build a relationship with them that gives them unprecedented access to team information and to give us their feedback on what we do. F1 teams are notoriously secretive about what goes on behind the garage or factory doors, and we want to challenge that, so Mike Gascoyne will tweet from the pit wall the lap before Jarno pits, telling his 15,000 followers what’s about to happen on track, or I will share a picture of me embracing Heikki as he climbs out of his car having broken into Q2 for the first time – this is how the fans talk to each other and share in each others’ lives, and we do the same.”
What are the objectives of the team in 2010 not only from a performance point of view, but also in terms of fan attraction?
“The performance goals are clear – we initially want to be the best of the new teams, then challenge the established runners in the midfield, and the top, as quickly as we can. After the first four races we have achieved our initial goals – we are comfortably the best of the new teams and in China we took on and beat Nico Hulkenberg’s Williams in a straight fight on track. We had a major upgrade package in Barcelona, with a new front wing, front and rear brake ducts, new turning vanes and a number of mechanical updates, so we now want to push on from a solid base and take on the likes of Toro Rosso, Force India and Williams.
From the fan’s perspective it’s also simple – we want to be the number one team that fans follow. Traditionally fans will support drivers, and only one team has really broken that mould, Ferrari. The Ferrari legend is very alluring, but so is Lotus, and we have the opportunity to take on Ferrari and beat them in the fan stakes. We are new, fresh, honest and inclusive, but with the added magic ingredients of heritage and credibility. For fans this is a very cool mix, and gives us the chance to become, in a reasonable timeframe, the fans’ favourite worldwide.”
How do you view Formula 1’s global perception? What needs to be done to increase F1’s international appeal?
“In recent years F1 has started breaking out of its traditional European based model, and has expanded into the Middle and Far East. Next year there will be a race in India, and with the launch of the South Korean race this year, and the success of the Singapore night race, there will be more races in the sub-continent and Asia in future. This is critically important for F1 as this is where the developing nations are – as the countries’ economies strengthen so do the buying power of their people, and there will be huge competition for their attention from every area of the sports and entertainment industries. F1 needs to be seen and heard in their countries, and needs to be accessible 24 / 7 via their mobiles, laptops and TVs with content that is truly innovative, engaging and creative, and that’s the challenge for F1 – embrace the digital world and see the fan numbers swell, hold it at arm’s length and football, the Olympics, music, film and games, to name but a few, will push F1 further and further down the fans’ list of priorities.
As an Anglo- Malaysian team we have a unique opportunity to open up the sport to fans across China, Asia and India, and to give the brightest talent from those areas the chance to work with us, both at our factory in the UK, and at our base in Sepang, where we will have an R&D and production facility, a museum and other visitor attractions, all aimed at creating employment opportunities in a global sport, and at giving fans access to Lotus Racing, its stories and its experiences.
The other aspect of the sport that needs looking at is the on track action. For too long now the rules have favoured the teams at the top and have not encouraged enough on track action. Great efforts have been made to spice up the action on track, but when conditions are variable and the teams are pushed to the limit, strategically and tactically, the fans see amazing action, on track and in the pits. Australia and China this year have produced two of the best races seen in years and that’s because of variable conditions. We can’t artificially reproduce those conditions, but we can decrease the artificial conditions that lead to processional races – one immediate way to do this is to get rid of blue flags. Every one of the guys on track is a racing driver, and yet we have to wave a flag to make them let fast cars through, further slowing down the guys in the midfield and down, and widening the gap between front and back even more. Do away with these flags and suddenly everyone has to concentrate throughout the whole race – the guys at the back come into play in the action, wherever they are in the race positions, the element of risk when overtaking is introduced throughout the pack and the metronomic nature of the latter stages of races will soon become battles all over the track – we’re here to race, and overtaking is racing, so let’s get rid of the flags and show the fans what the drivers can do.
Lotus is one of a few teams to really embrace social media (Facebook, Twitter) – was that a conscious decision?
“Very much so. As I’ve said earlier, our fans use social media to give each other total access to their lives, and why should we be any different? F1 precedent dictates that we should keep the doors shut and not give away any secrets, but why? What does that solve? Nothing. All too often a team has spent millions designing and building something that may or may not give them an extra tenth of a second on track, and when they finally unveil it everyone else rushes off and copies it, spending millions on something that has no relevance to fans and doesn’t improve the show at all. We must move away from this, and instead be thinking how we can use that money, or in fact much less money than is wasted on the latest gizmo, to embrace fans – let them experience what it’s like to be a mechanic in sweaty overall in 40° heat in Malaysia as Heikki’s about to pit, or what an Engineer is going through as the heat sensors on his car are rising to dangerous levels with three laps to go and he has to decided whether or not to bring his driver into the pit. That will increase our fan base, and that will ensure we have fans for life. Until we can all do that, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube are our best conduits to the fans, and we love the fact they respond to us every day.”
Does the team have a social media strategy as such?
“The strategy is simple. Embrace all the relevant social media platforms with content that is relevant, timely and innovative. We can over complicate it, but that’s what it boils down to in strategic terms. Tactically, the challenge is obviously immense, and requires a different but complimentary plan for each outlet, but we have embraced social media, we think, like no other team and are breaking new ground in our use of all its platforms.
Heikki is an active Tweeter, as are Mike and yourself, does this help break down the barriers between the teams and the fans?
“When used effectively Twitter is a fantastic tool for breaking down barriers – but it’s the same as having a conversation with your friends – say something interesting and relevant and you will get complimentary responses. Say something bland or banal and people will very quickly turn away and listen to someone else. That’s the challenge – to make it interesting. We’re lucky that we have a number of Tweeters in the team who are all interesting personalities, and that’s what fuels our Twitter strategy:
@h_kovalainen gives insights every day into what the life of an F1 driver is really like. He seems to play a bit too much golf, but at least I know what he’s eating every day is healthy……..
@mikegascoyne definitely leads the way in F1 technical people, giving such detailed information about the team, on and off track, that some members of the media have already given us the title of Twitter Team of the Year
@mylotusracing is a source of general news from the team, again on and off track. There are a few people in the team who have access to that account, and they use it really well to give updates about what’s going on at the factory, show inside, for example, our new race trailers, and give timing updates throughout each on track session
@tonyfernandes is mine, and I’ve been an avid user now since late 2008. I love the fact I can tell a load of people what I’m doing and where I am in one message, and even more important to me is the fact people can respond to me directly and tell me what’s going on with them in their lives, what they think about AirAsia or Lotus Racing, ask my advice or tell me something amazing – it’s such a democratic tool, with no geographical, social or religious boundaries, it’s honestly one of my great loves.
Your website is very interactive, what was the thinking behind this concept and are there any developments in the pipeline?
“Thank you! The site was pulled together very quickly by a very talented team who worked extremely hard to get us online at the same time as we were putting the whole team together. The site is the gateway to everything we do as a team, it’s the door to all the content we produce, the conversations we have with our fans, it’s where our partners can create communities with our fans and it’s where we tell the world what we’re up to. It is being developed further now and we will very shortly be unveiling version 2 – keep clicking to find out what we’re up to next!
What can F1 learn from other sports…as a keen West Ham supporter do you have any football related experiences that can be transferred to F1?
“I’ve already said above what F1 needs to do to increase fan numbers and stay ahead of the other entertainment choices consumers have. The relatively recent explosion in interest in football is both down to the fantastic, interactive coverage it has around the world, and the way the brands involved in it use it as a platform for globally relevant, innovative marketing activities. Nike, Adidas, Coca Cola, Sony, Microsoft and all the other brands involved at club and international levels keep driving up awareness and fan loyalty, through amazing campaigns and great products. F1 must do the same, and the very nature of the sport, cool cars, amazing athletes and jaw dropping locations, give our sport the perfect platform to promote ourselves. This will see us replicate the success football has had in attracting new fans, particularly in Asia and India, and that’s the key lesson we can learn.”
What does Formula 1 in 2010 stand for and what benefits can brands derive from an association with F1?
“F1 still stands for what it always has – speed, passion, glamour, risk, excitement, innovation, excellence and international cool! Any brand that counts these words amongst their own brand values can derive huge value from association with our sport, but the key is to embrace the sport and support the naming rights they purchase with fully integrated activation plans. There are too many brands in the sport who see the benefits of awareness, but, perhaps because their expectations were not fully managed, are somewhat blinded by the range of other opportunities that their investment can provide. We have a number of partners with Lotus Racing who are already showing what can be done with a well thought out strategic plan – Maxis, the leading Malaysian telco, have already created and launched an iphone application that within a week was the top application in Malaysia. This creates a dialogue with a new fanbase who will keep coming back to Maxis for more content, more access to the team, and this is a great use of their sponsorship. I think that shows what can be done, and what should be done by brands who come into the sport for the right business reasons.”