New documentary explores why US companies are flocking to F1

As is well documented by now, Liberty Media has driven large worldwide growth of F1, with Netflix series Drive to Survive seen as the catalyst to its international expansion.

The American owners have particularly focused on exploiting their huge, untapped home market, adding races in Miami and this weekend’s returning Las Vegas Grand Prix to tip the balance to three yearly US rounds.

Ahead of Vegas’ landmark extravaganza, American business channel CNBC has documented how F1 is capitalising on its “moment” in the country, and where it can possibly go from here, in the hour-long documentary Inside Track: The Business of Formula 1.

“Ever since the takeover of Liberty Media six years ago of this sport has grown and surged in popularity, especially in the United States,” CNBC business reporter and documentary host Sara Eisen explained in a chat with Motorsport.com.

“Valuations for teams are now reaching billions of dollars, something we had never seen previously. We really follow the money here on CNBC, so I set out on a journey to look at the business story of F1 itself, how they’ve been able to do grow the sport, particularly in America, and on how the teams work.

“They added Miami last year and now Vegas is emblematic of the growth of the sport in this country and what Liberty Media has been able to do for F1. So, that’s why we timed the documentary to come out around the Las Vegas Grand Prix.”

Eisen travelled to various F1 races to speak to the sport’s biggest movers and shakers, including team bosses Toto Wolff, Zak Brown and Christian Horner, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei.

As F1 teams have grown into companies easily employing over 1,000 people, Eisen found them not too dissimilar to the usual enterprises that CNBC covers.

“What surprised me is that in speaking with Zak Brown and Toto Wolf and Christian Horner and Guenther Steiner, all of those team principals, they’re CEOs and they run their companies like global businesses, just like I talked to CEOs of Coca Cola or Bank of America on CNBC,” she said.

Sara Eisen and Red Bull's Christian Horner at the Canadian Grand Prix.

Photo by: CNBC

Sara Eisen and Red Bull’s Christian Horner at the Canadian Grand Prix.

“They’re thinking about their staff and the culture that they’re creating inside their organisation. They’re thinking about excellence and winning on the track. They’re thinking about bringing in sponsors and other revenue streams.

“And they’ve all got great personalities, which we got to pick up on Drive To Survive, but seeing their personalities with how they run their businesses, to me, was truly fascinating.”

F1’s popularity surge has greatly expanded the size and diversity of its fanbase and with that, US-based sponsorship has followed.

Ahead of the 2022 season, Red Bull signed a landmark title sponsorship deal with Oracle reportedly worth over $300m dollars over five years.

This year Haas received a huge boost by signing title partner MoneyGram, while other recent key deals include McLaren’s tie-up with Google and Dell.

Eisen’s documentary found that what has set F1 apart from typical American stick and ball sports is how companies don’t just purchase advertising space, but also leverage their technologies that teams actually deploy.

“What’s really fascinating about the sponsorship relationship that I dive into in this documentary is that it’s not just businesses that cater to consumers and want their brand plastered on the cars during the races,” she says.

“Like, that’s great and it gives them some exposure. But they’re tech businesses as well. Dell, Oracle, Salesforce … they’re not just putting their name out there there.

“It’s the most technologically innovative sport and they are using their technology capability to help make the cars run faster. Palantir works with Ferrari on AI to try and make Ferrari win more and use the data to make the car more aerodynamic.

“They’re testing their own cutting-edge technologies and they’re also helping the Formula 1 teams excel on the track.

“And it’s not just technology. It’s not just consumer companies. It’s banks. Goldman Sachs is on the McLaren car. I asked Zak Brown, how did that happen? He said: ‘Well, I went to CEO David Solomon and I asked him what he was looking for and turns out he’s looking for experiences for his high net worth clients that money can’t buy.’

“And then you have a young, growing, increasingly diverse demographic attracted to the sport, and what company wouldn’t be attracted to that?”

But that growth comes with a caveat, and questions remain on how sustainable it is in the long-term as many new fans soon discovered that not every season of F1 is as exciting as 2021’s last-lap thriller and not every real storyline is as dramatic as portrayed on Netflix.

“It’s a great question and it’s one we really tried to delve into in the documentary,” Eisen replied.

Sara Eisen and Toto Wolff-Canadian-GP-June-2023

Photo by: CNBC

Sara Eisen and Toto Wolff-Canadian-GP-June-2023

“And you’re right, I think one of those questions has been the lack of competitive drama, certainly for first place.

“The feeling I got from interviewing Horner is that the others will catch up. Red Bull has the best car right now. But because of the cost cap that was implemented, there’s a shot for the others to catch up.

“And it’s very competitive outside of the number one spot, just look at the fact that McLaren has had this sort of intra-season comeback.

“We have seen ratings plateau in the US after a huge spike post-COVID and Drive to Survive, so there are questions about that.

“And there are also questions about other avenues of growth. There are already 24 races next season, so it’s not like you can add races.

“There’s an ability to add more teams, but I think it’s a high bar for that where a lot of the other teams don’t want to add other teams because it dilutes their revenue stream.”

But Eisen thinks F1 still has a lot of untapped potential, too, if it can find more ways to capture its more diverse audience.

“If you’re looking for avenues of growth, I think it is events like Vegas that are just bigger and bolder, and attract more companies and more fans to the event. That’s where there’s room to grow.

“We’re not at any kind of mainstream levels like NFL or NBA. And that’s where the Liberty folks think that there’s a lot of white space to capture a new market, to get more women, younger fans, more diverse fans into the sport.”

“If they can do that, then they can get bigger broadcast deals, and then the races can be bigger spectacles themselves. And that’s the avenue for growth.”

Inside Track: The Business of Formula 1 premieres on Thursday, November 16 at 8pm ET on CNBC. Check your local listings for encore presentations of the documentary.

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