Toto Wolff and I (dis)agree on Liberty Media’s plans for F1

If I’m honest, I was waiting for this news story and Mercedes have delivered. I have a lot of time for Toto Wolff and think he’s doing a fine job but I’ve also had some fun at his expense over the last couple of years regarding his penchant to have an outspoken opinion on everything including other teams, other driver contracts, other sponsors, F1, his own team, his own drivers and just about anything you can think of—shove a mic in front of him and he’ll offer thoughts on Red Bull’s internal team issues…much to Christian Horner’s dismay.

That’s not entirely fair because, after all, my title here at FBC is Chief Opinion Officer so I am more like Toto than I care to admit. Regardless, Toto is more intelligent, more successful, has more hair and a great job so I reckon I can get away with being a bit of a motor-mouth on a few subjects and no one will really notice or care but as for Toto, well, the whole world is listening my friend.

Wolff pays tribute to newly departed F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone as well as commends Liberty Media for hiring Ross Brawn as he offers praise for the new ownership team. However, Toto has weighed in on the Liberty Media acquisition and their plans to overhaul the sport and he’s got some pointed words for the new owners.

“I think we need to acknowledge that Formula 1 is a technical sport, so it will always polarise,” Wolff said in an interview published on the Mercedes F1 website.

“There are people who will say that they hate it and others will say that they love it. That is OK. But one thing is for sure – we shouldn’t make it a beta test.

“We shouldn’t mess with our loyal fans and our audiences by implementing rules and regulations that we haven’t assessed properly.

“We should use data in a scientific approach and see what works in other sports and other entertainment platforms, then combine that with the great strengths and assets of Formula 1.”

My issue with this position could best be summed by saying, you’ve been at the F1 Strategy Group table for over three years, why haven’t you and the group already done this? Why haven’t you used data in a scientific manner to cure the issues? There didn’t seem to be much scientific method behind HD tires and DRS as well as astronomically expensive hybrid power units so why is it now incumbent upon Liberty Media to cure those issues?

Liberty Media didn’t start the dumpster fire but they are going to put it out and I’m not sure the F1 Strategy Group—with their lighters and petrol cans—have a lot to be critical about over the manner in which they “fix” F1.

What I believe Wolff is dog-whistling here is the technology they are massively leveraged in and he’s most likely read Ross Brawn’s commentary about returning to simple and doing away with knee-jerk reactions, bits, bobbles and constructs. If I’m Toto and I have the Spätzle-laden hot breath of the Mercedes board on my neck, I would also advocate for very little change other than maybe sorting out the social media and some orbital marketing efforts for the series and perhaps a few new races in the US and Europe.

Mercedes, under Brawn’s leadership, crafted regulations that would set the playing field just south of Stuttgart and as the goal posts were moved in their direction of engineering genius, they have stacked the deck in the favor. I’ve no issue with that, good on them, but surely they know change is inevitable. Just ask Ferrari, Red Bull or McLaren.

If Liberty Media change F1 and it moves the goal posts back toward Oxfordshire, will that alienate existing fans and is Wolff suggesting that more fans like Mercedes domination and hybrid engines than don’t?

Speaking of social media—which I abhor as it is really just digital media these days—Wolff speaks on that front as well.

“Social media is very important as a marketing tool to involve our audiences – both current fans and future fans. But we have loyal partners in the TV stations that have been broadcasting our sport for a long time and have helped contribute to the team’s revenues. You can’t offer it for free in the digital world. You can see it as a marketing tool but not as the silver bullet that will solve all the problems.”

Here is where I agree with Wolff. Digital media is not the silver bullet for F1 and if anyone believes all the content should just be for free online, you may be suffering from a severe lack of education on how the free market works. Liberty Media know the traditional broadcast models better than most so they will be very mindful of those packages and will most likely look to other digital platforms as well. The deals they cut will most likely be new models that, perhaps, we hadn’t considered due to our inability to know what local broadcasters are willing to do.

Would NBC Sports pay top dollar for the rights in the US if F1 offered a digital package with more content and better features? Difficult to say because NBC knows better than we do with regards to their viewers and the free-to-air opportunities for advertising dollars. Again, if NBC can profit from the investment, they will do so even if F1 offers American fans a digital streaming package with much more content and features. Just spit-balling here but seems logical to me anyway.

Where I agree with Toto is that digital media isn’t a silver bullet but on the other side of that coin, I’m not sure Liberty Media will simply look at digital strategies as mere marketing tools. I think that horse has run if I’m honest. For example…

Can I be honest here? I saw an interview today from Haas F1 that had a 20-something person interviewing Kevin Magnussen. The camera angle was 20’ back from both, the audio was very poor and the questions were those of a marketing person who most likely had never watched an F1 race until they got the job at Haas. I could be wrong but watch for yourself. This is not “marketing”…it’s white noise on a timeline.

The interview format was woefully errant of the kind of content the average F1 fan can digest, understand, gain interest in and most importantly, get excited about.

Mercedes have similar digital marketing programs/interviews that are better quality productions but again, the content is still missing the target. I watched an interview with Toto and thought, if any of us had 10 minutes with Toto, what would we talk about and ask? It’s as if marketing departments never consider that. You can still manage a brand position and marketing message if you wrap it in contextually relevant questions and provide compelling content to fans.

In Toto’s case, I doubt Liberty Media is going to view digital for only these types of efforts. They will most likely look to digital as a much bigger revenue stream. It will be interesting and as I say, I have a lot of time for Mr. Wolff it’s just that sometime we don’t agree and as he says in the article about his relationship with Mr. E, that’s how it should be. Keep up the great work, Toto, you’re doing a terrific job my friend.

Hat Tip: Mercedes