Analysis: Is the digital age a threat or opportunity for motorsport?

The FIA's 2016 Sport Conference confronted some threats and discussed various opportunities for motorsport going forwards. Charles Bradley took part.

Analysis: Is the digital age a threat or opportunity for motorsport?
Overview of the first day of FIA Sport Conference
Lucas di Grassi at the FIA Sport Conference
Overview of the FIA Sport Conference
RoboRace NVIDIA livery
Roborace
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing race drones
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing race drones
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing races a drone
simulator zone
Sébastien Buemi, Renault e.Dams and Jean-Eric Vergne, DS Virgin Racing Formula E Team play simulator
A young fan in the simulator
Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team play video games
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet with Halo 5 video game characters
Emma B., Bjorn Wirdheim and Christian Klien in front of the Jaguar R5 to promote the new PlayStation 2 game Formula One 04
A fan tries the iRacing Simulator
Hyundai simulator
Young fans at a simulator
Fans enjoying the racing simulator at scrutineering
iRacing Simulator

Recently I got to share the stage at the FIA’s Sport Conference in Turin with ex-F1 racer Lucas di Grassi, where he was brave enough to point out a real and present danger to our sport in the future – the potential for the rise of autonomous cars on our roads.

As we earlier reported, the Audi WEC and Formula E star – a thinking man’s racer who expresses himself eloquently – believes that the less people drive, the more motorsport risks losing its mass appeal among the next generation.

You might wish to write off driverless cars as a gimmick, but we should consider them becoming far more prevalent in years to come.

Di Grassi makes a valuable point, and also shares my view of the upcoming RoboRace initiative. In my eyes the world’s first autonomous racing series – that is planned to support Formula E in future – cannot be classed as a 'pure motorsport' event due to the lack of a human involved.

Don’t get me wrong – it promises to be a fascinating technology showcase, and the mind can only boggle about what level it might achieve on a closed course, especially with no requirement for marshals. Stand a long way back and let them loose, I say, capture the action on remote cameras – it could be amazing.

As an aside, at the end of last year I also attended the demonstration event for remote-controlled airborne Drone Racing League. I could see a great appeal in this taking off (no pun intended) as a TV or streaming sport – especially with the advent of Twitch, etc.

Again, when I spoke with the media strategists behind it, they agreed that their human pilots were the true storylines that they planned to develop.

And the same must remain true of motorsport. Racing cars are cool and play a huge part but we need humans to be in the loop and, ultimately, play a high percentage of the deciding factor of who wins. 

Embracing the digital era

Let’s not be too gloomy about the future; on the contrary, the digital age promises massive benefits too.

Also on the stage to answer the question of ‘what does the future of motorsports look like?’ was Sean Charles, head of E-sports giants ESL. Gaming is massive for both young and old, and racing video games are an important first point of contact for many.

“We know right now that there’s an audience out there that idolises the pinnacles of motorsport,” said Charles. “Whether it’s playing electronically or consuming content on social media, they’re being introduced to the wonderful world of motorsport and hopefully that ignites a passion within them – then they can make that next step, go deeper down the rabbit hole.

“How do I get out on a kart track? How do I take part in the real world?

“And you want to throw that net as wide as possible. We want people to fall in love with motorsport, and whatever mechanics you use – the more the merrier.” 

I see video games playing an increasingly important role. If people are going to be driving less on roads in the real world, then simulations of racing cars are going to be paramount.

Then the step of taking it up a level – to a real-world, closed-course race circuit environment – will be key. Think Nissan’s PlayStation GT Academy; perhaps that needs to become the norm?

Kids can still go karting, but likely only if mum or dad pushes them in that direction – after all, these parents might not be driving their kids to school anymore. Hence the requirement for high visibility of the sport online.

Streaming is a key platform

Another speaker with us at the FIA Sport Conference was YouTube’s Head of UK Sport, Tomos Grace. With his wide view of many sports, he felt what truly makes ours stand out is its blend of man/woman and machine. He felt this USP was ripe for exploitation against the mainstream bat-and-ball sports as we form the next generation of fans.

“Typically, the audience for YouTube is under the age of 35,” he said. “So it’s a very young audience. You have to ask yourself ‘when did I become a fan of this sport?’ Was it when you were taken to the races when you were young, or watched it on TV? TV audiences are dwindling by 25 percent for viewers under the age of 35.

“Fandom is determined at a very early age – roughly at the ages between five and 15. Look at the figures, and you’ll see that age group is watching television less and less. Ask yourself, ‘Are they on the internet, watching YouTube?’ Of course they are.”

But are we getting this important part of the motorsport strategy right? It seems not…

“I would say that other sports are more advanced than motorsports in their engagement with YouTube,” he added. “Other sports are prepared to take more risks, and I think that’s crucial in understanding what works and doesn’t work on the internet.”

Conclusion

So while we should prepare for the autonomous age of road cars in the very long term, and think about how that will affect the scope of participants in motorsport, now is a great time to grasp some rather more immediate opportunities.

The digital age has given the majority a voice, and allows content to be shared between the populous to a greater level than ever before.

Should we be concerned that motorsport has already fallen behind on a platform like YouTube? Definitely. An obsession with TV rights isn’t going to help a generation that isn’t actually watching TV.

Some more risk-taking on that front, and a continued development in the digital space –­ both in social media and gaming – is something that has to be considered at a strategic level.

Going back to Di Grassi, he is very active with his social media accounts. He says that when he pitches to a potential sponsor, the second thing he's asked – after his achievements on track – is how wide his social media reach is.

Times, they are a changin'. We have to move with them.

Like all motorsports, if you stand still you get left behind.

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