Drivers are no longer ‘the nut holding the steering wheel’; they have become the greatest marketing asset at their team’s disposal – a clotheshorse for the latest fashions, the mouthpiece for sponsors, and highest profile car sales people on the planet. But are these obligations responsible for muting the heroes of the track?
Former F1 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi recently claimed that drivers were being turned into ‘robots’ because teams and sponsors try to stop them being themselves. The two-time Brazilian champion stated “The PR guys should allow drivers to say more. In my time, I had a 20-year commercial relationship with Philip Morris, and I knew exactly what to say, but I could say anything. It still allowed my personality to come through. I had freedom of speech, and that means everything.”
This matter was also highlighted as a key issue for fans, with the recent GPDA Fan Survey reporting that 86% of fans agreed that drivers needed to be more open and honest with fans.
This issue has also been exacerbated with IndyCar imposing new rules on drivers to ensure they don’t speak out of turn, criticising the series, its officials, its sponsors or anything that the denigrates the series.
It is clear that PR is responsible for this issue, but might it also hold the key to increasing the accessibility of motorsport by enabling drivers to be more vocal?
Unlocking motorsport’s personality
Many of the greatest drivers have lived as long in the memory for their infamous rants and actions as they have for stunning drivers.
Schumacher’s scuffle with Coulthard in Spa (in the same season DC flipped the bird at the German), Niki Lauda and James Hunt’s career-long jibe fest, Matt Neal, Anthony Reid and Jason Plato’s eternal war of words and fist fights, and Carl Fogarty’s verbal duel with Neil Hodgson to name but a few.
Showing one’s character, one’s vulnerability, and one’s human side makes drivers infinitely more likeable. Moreover, they reinforce their rightful status as racing gods by fighting the system and one another, embodying rebellion and danger for every youth or repressed adult that still wishes to embrace their unruly inner self.
It is for this very reason that Niki Lauda is interviewed more often than Nigel Mansell. The Austrian wears his heart on his sleeve, speaks his mind and, more often than TV producers would like, shows off his passion with a swearing outburst. And we love him for this. He is a man who has been to the limits and beyond, but still fits the mould of a perfect driver even in his 60s.
Why brands kill big mouths
Today’s drivers are contrary to this approach – a pristinely primped package that always tows the party line and rarely offers comment that excites viewers.
Kimi Räikkönen is the exception to this rule, and we love him for it. Fans wear t-shirts sporting his quips and outbursts. So why don’t the teams and their PRs listen?
Let’s take Kimi’s current team, Ferrari, as an example of why drivers across the world have been turned into robots. The squad receives in excess of $200 million annually from just three of its sponsors. These sponsors pay to make their brand look good and have clauses in their contracts to ensure that their reputations are enhanced, not hurt, by their presence in motorsport.
The situation is the same with manufacturers. No constructor wants their latest product to be criticised for fear that this will harm sales of their cars, bikes, suspension, computers, whatever they are making. Motorsport is a global sales opportunity and without this platform to promote products, the vast majority manufacturers simply wouldn’t be involved.
It is the job of PR people to ensure that a brand is well represented to showcase its benefits and sale its products. Most often this means rigorously reviewing every piece of content produced about the brand to ensure it is as positive as possible and that all the key messages are conveyed – but this is the very source of the problem in motorsport.
Electing another way
People are not press releases – they have character and we know what human beings sound like. For example, press releases rarely sound human; far too many quotes start with “I am delighted…” when few of us in life have ever used that expression. They are pristinely produced to avoid the very flaws that make us human.
This is a lesson we learnt with the 2015 General Election. Overly media trained politicians who use their opponents’ names far too often do not come across as likeable human beings. But those that lost instantly gained a glow of humanity and geniality in defeat that would have likely led to a different result had it been there in the first place.
The key to all this is passion.
The hero shots of bikers popping wheelies or drivers punching the air as they celebrate victory are the moments when we admire them most. These are the moments that we recreate in our heads from childhood and in our heroes we live out our own dreams.
Teams and their PRs should learn to embrace these moments and distil them for every time a driver is in front of a camera. Forget phrases like ‘for sure’ or ‘I’d like to thank…’ – we want to hear more ‘Felipe baby be cool’ and ‘leave me alone, I know what I’m doing’.
These are the lines that PRs have feared but these are the ones that make us love a driver and their team. They are also responsible for shifting considerable amounts of merchandise, as well as generating vast quantities of positive sentiment and conversation on social media – the very outcomes that PRs are seeking.
Thinking of the fans
They are also overlooking the fact that the current approach is not only generating considerable negative media coverage for their brands, but also vastly more negative conversation amongst fans.
In this sense, PR in motorsport has not kept up with the rest of the world. Where once a few fans may have debated the issue in the local pub or written in to the likes of Autosport, today motorsport supports are able to vocalise their grievances. If their voices aren’t listened to, their vote with their feet, as F1’s decline TV and event attendance figures clearly show.
Failing to engage and embrace fans is a cardinal sin, and utilising drivers and ambassadors for free speech is necessary to give fans the access and impression of the sport that they deserve. Fans want the drivers to speak about the key issues in the sport they love. Footballers are vocal about issues such as racism or poor refereeing decisions – so why shouldn’t motorsport follow suit?
There is an old adage in business: ‘people buy people’. Let us learn from the legends of motorsport and trust the current generation to know what to say and when to say it, but let us also embrace their personality and their passion.
Give us gods and not robots.