Over the past few years, motorsport has been forced to reinvent the way it engages with its fans. The sport has been sent in numerous directions, with each series or manufacturer taking a different approach on how it brings fans closer to the action. Through new strategies such as eSports to more traditional fan-focussed tactics, motorsport, as a whole, is truly evolving.

In 2020, championships have been postponed, cancelled and rescheduled. Now, the likes of Formula 1 is trying to salvage a season with multiple triple-headers that push the teams and drivers to the limit. But, before on-track activities were given the green light, we saw a vast growth of online racing to entertain race fans from around the world.

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THE ASTRONOMICAL RISE OF ESPORTS

eSports burst onto the motorsport scene in 2019, combining gamers and racing fans to create an exciting mix of sports and video games.

One of its key stars is former Ford Formula 4 driver and current McLaren Formula 1 driver Lando Norris, who is a self-proclaimed avid gamer. The role the Formula 1 driver has played in the increase in fan engagement is instrumental.

“It is something that I love participating in first and foremost - my love for games, racing online and everything that’s a part of eSports,” Norris tells Eurosport. “It is like what Formula 1 is to me - something I love doing. At the same time you are racing and trying to beat other people. I just love the competition.”

Playing from his home, the Brit has made streaming on the platform Twitch for hours on end popular and has accumulated some 650,000+ subscribers. However, people were not just tuning in to watch him race, but rather to listen to him crack jokes and chat about his life away from racing. It seems fan engagement and Norris are a match made in heaven.

“When I am streaming and playing games, it is good that people can come and watch and the fans get to see something different,” Norris says. He, along with several other F1 drivers and A-list celebrities raced in F1’s Virtual Grand Prix championship earlier this year.

It is competitive and you are trying to beat people. It is adding something extra to it and that is why I love it so much.

During April, other championships also decided to run online racing events with their drivers and external talent to bring in the crowds. FIA Formula E ran its own Race From Home programme, where all of its athletes competed in the event from - unsurprisingly - home.

“It was a big success,” Formula E’s founder Alejandro Agag tells Eurosport. “The key from Race From Home was that all of the drivers were participating - the real drivers. Other series have also done online races, but they were not the real drivers driving in the competition. That is why we had so many streamers on Twitch and people watching online.”

As mentioned, Formula E was not alone in its effort. Formula 1, W Series and IndyCar and even single-seater series like the British Formula 4 Championship - certified by Ford - all got together in the hour of need to provide some much needed entertainment for fans.

Ford has also crafted the international outfit called Team Fordzilla as a completely independent entity to compete in a range of eSports events.

“We have not been trying to convert racing fans to eSports,” says Emmanuel Lubrani who is Head of Communications at Team Fordzilla. “We are creating this fanbase from scratch. We believe gaming is all about communities and tribes and there is incredible passion there.”

In October 2019, Team Fordzilla was launched - featuring a mixture of professional sim racers and those who are keen to learn. To date, they have 40 team members spread across several European nations.

“We have moved from the real track to the digital track,” he says. “We are trying to build a brand within the gaming community and we are using racing for that as it is where we have credibility. We had an online competition on Forza Motorsport with the prize of joining the team. That was a great success and we attracted some of the best sim racers. The final was raced on the Le Mans track at the wheel of a Ford GT. It was nail-biting.”

It is evident that eSports is gaining significant traction within the realms of motorsport, yet this is not the only effort that motorsport is making to enhance the fan experience.

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BIG GAME PLAYERS BRING NEW IDEAS

Formula E has been pushing to have fans at the very heart of its DNA since its creation.

Before Covid-19, through engaging social media campaigns and website stories, the all-electric championship enhanced the fan experience during a race weekend and, for the first time ever, the race itself.

Fanboost allowed its audience to vote for their favourite driver - via their app, website or on Twitter - which gave the five most popular racers a five-second boost of power during the second-half of the race.

“Fanboost and Attack Mode want to engage the fans by participating in the race,” Agag says.

They wanted to create something that is halfway between racing and a video game. That really is Attack Mode.

Attack Mode was brought in for the 2019-20 season which saw drivers head through an activation zone that then gave them an extra 35 kW of power. It may sound unusual but this element brought a real life video game element to real world electric racing. Something very fitting with the very ethos of Formula E.

Despite the huge success in online racing and the plans Formula E has already executed, championships know that this is not a straight fix to entirely better the fans’ experience.

“The only way for us is to keep innovating,” Agag says. “We need to figure out new ways during the race and make it more interactive with the fans. It’s an ongoing process. We haven’t changed at all. It’s always continuing. We have to continue the racing. We will continue to innovate because this is the DNA of Formula E - innovation.”

Also reinventing the way it enhances fan experience is Ford. Traditionally, fan engagement is something that motorsport has found tricky; the complex web of rules and regulations means that it can be hard for the ordinary fan to access the very core of the sport. However, Ford has been working hard to change that.

“In the past we have live streamed exclusive on-board footage directly to fans and allowed them to select which angle to watch from, specifically for the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” says Will May the European Marketing Manager at Ford Performance.

We also gave fans the opportunity to influence the WRC car and that specifically engaged our WRC fans - they were able to design the car livery and roof art.

“Right now we are developing a brain-scanning racing helmet that can pair with biometric data to show the viewer how the driver is feeling and thinking when racing at high speed,” he says. “One day, this helmet could even be used in a live broadcast to provide a unique insight into the race.”

There is no doubt that amongst all the jeopardy and chaos of Covid-19, a sliver of hope that arose was the increase in social media and online activity from motorsport teams and championships.

Along with the increased prevalence of eSports and the continued innovation from the likes of Formula E and Ford, the fan experience in motorsport has improved two-fold to bring those who adore the sport much closer to the action.

Image credit: McKlein

Image credit: FORD

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