Formula E’s Russell Puts Fans At Home In The Driver’s Seat

The media and business director of the electric racing series is planning to emulate Formula 1 by bringing the same mindset of innovation into electric vehicles.

Formula E’s Russell Puts Fans At Home In The Driver’s Seat

by Michael Nutley

Posted on 08-21-2017

Formula E’s 2016-17 third season came to a climax at the end of July with two days of racing in Montreal.

The electric racing championship also saw races on city-centre street circuits in Hong Kong, Marrakesh, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Monaco, Paris, Berlin, and New York. Ten teams battled it out, including such famous names as Virgin Racing, Jaguar, and Audi, with Renault e.dams taking the team title, and Lucas di Grassi winning the drivers’ championship. met Formula E media and new business director Ali Russell just before the Montreal races, and we started by asking him to explain the thinking behind Formula E.

Ali Russell: Our vision was to create a short-form version of motor sports. With traditional motor sports, it’s three or four days, based around circuits. We’re one day, based in city centres. The race itself is under an hour, and it’s high intensity, with, on average, 74 overtakes per race.

It’s also a sport for social change. It’s about talking the next generation into adopting electric vehicles through how we present the sport on TV, but it’s also how we break down some of the barriers to performance, and how we give manufacturers a platform to invest in R&D and technology in electric cars.

Formula 1 has been responsible for numerous innovations. We want to bring the same mindset into the electric vehicle and accelerate that change. What does the organisation look like?

Russell: The company Formula E is essentially owned by the FIA, which is the equivalent in motor sport of FIFA. We, as the promoter, Formula E Holdings, have a licence to organise and run the Formula E series for the next 25 years.

We’re responsible for securing the venues, securing the teams, and proposing them to the FIA, and building the media product and commercialising the sport. We run the events, and we either employ a local team to help us, or we work with a promoter who takes the risk and reward of putting on the event. And your role within that?

Russell: I’m the media and new business director. My role touches just about everything we do, from teams, manufacturers’ involvement, negotiating with support races, the format of the racing schedules, and how we build the media product both through traditional linear channels—78 broadcasters around the world broadcasting to 198 countries—but also through digital channels. Then I’m responsible for all new business initiatives. In the past, I’ve also been involved in sales and partnerships, marketing strategy, and design. Formula E talks a lot about appealing to a new kind of fan. What does that mean?

Russell: Traditional motor sport tends to be getting older in terms of demographics, and we wanted to make it more relevant and serve it in such a way that it connected with the Snapchat generation. We defined a much younger audience—15-25 year-olds, very focused on a more balanced male/female ratio. In traditional motor sports, it’s about 90/10; we’re about 60/40.

What that means is that linear media and TV have a role, because it’s about broadening reach, but then it’s about how we use digital channels to help us to deliver a multitude of different messages which help to build this as more than just a racing series. What’s your strategy been?

Russell: We try to give far more content and context to the consumer. One of the things that surprised me in motor sport is that you put the helmet on the driver, and you suddenly lose the emotional aspect that you have in other sports. So we’ve done a huge amount of work to give much more transparency about who these drivers are, what motivates them, where are their rivalries, how much this means to them, and to allow fans to get to know them as people as well as sports stars.

We innovated in the beginning by having a product called FanBoost. Fans can vote for their favourite drivers, and the top three drivers get extra energy, which allows them to overtake or make a defensive manoeuvre. And that voting takes place in the live transmission.

Formula E is the only sport that has allowed the person at home to have an influence on the outcome, and we thought that was really important. We see the way music has been transformed through things like X Factor and Pop Idol, and we felt that, as this was a new format, we could introduce something which incentivised the drivers to do more to connect with their fan base. We felt that was a really important step to take to ensure that the ecosystem was focused on social media.

We do a huge amount of social media. We do Grabyo near-live clips, so, in-race, we will clip moments—like an overtake, a crash, or a celebration—and, within a minute, they’re online and shareable. It’s not only on our own channels, but we incentivise people to share it as far and wide as possible. The benefit for us is more people hear about Formula E, hopefully trial it, and then become fans.

We spend a significant amount of money on short-form content and original content distribution. We’re probably filming and serving over 500 short-form clips a year across different channels. When we started, our channel of choice was YouTube, but we’re now having a huge amount of success with Facebook with content and on the Live product. It’s very relevant to our consumers, and it’s able to build that affinity we want. What’s interesting about innovation and the brand is that it faces both ways. It faces towards the manufacturers but also faces outwards, like your recent announcement about using VR.

Russell: We try to complement our broadcast product with innovations that aren’t just vanity projects, but that help you understand and experience the product and enhance your viewing experience. We see VR at the front end of that. It allows consumers to immerse themselves, get far closer than they could ever before, and it’s the first time that the in-app, home-viewing experience can give you a much closer view of what’s going on than even people at the event.

The utopia for us is real live racing, where you’re able to play in real time against real cars. We’d release the track at the same time that we’d release it to the drivers. You can do free practice yourself, you can qualify on the grid based on your time, and then you can race in real time against real cars. That is the direction that we’re moving in.

We’ve done a huge amount in e-sports because it’s a such a disruptor. It’s an incredible way to connect with the younger audience. Real Racing, for example, is a game on 380 million handsets worldwide. We gave people the opportunity to compete in that and then come to New York, where we’d exported the product into a rig and they were able to race against our drivers. That accessibility is the secret of Formula E. How does the relationship work with the individual teams?

Russell: The teams are essentially franchises. Some are manufacturers themselves, and some are partnered with manufacturers. What they both try to do is to develop the IP and develop the innovation. Then we pay the teams based on results. There’s prize money that goes to the top teams and the top drivers who are able to finish on podiums and deliver results consistently. How much do you listen to what they say about their goals and ambitions?

Russell: We are absolutely joined at the hip. I’ve been involved in a huge number of sports—either running a team or being part of a governing body—and I’ve never seen closeness like I’ve seen in Formula E. It means you have far more cooperation, and it can be incredibly powerful in terms of consistency of message and helping to grow the championship. We also rely on the teams for the most important constituent part, because they hire the drivers. What do we see next?

Russell: When we started, a goal of ours was to get great performance out of the cars, but the Achilles’ heel was the battery. So we launched the series with a two-car approach—each driver has two cars, they change in the middle of the race and finish on their second car. One of the proudest moments we’ll have will be in season five, because we’ve been able to develop the battery chemistry and management to such a level that we’ll be able to move to one car. That innovation, demonstrating how far the car industry has come in such a short time, is essential to us.

Then it’s how we innovate the product and continue to build the fan base, because it’s slowly building momentum. It’s ensuring we keep that momentum and grow to our potential over the next five to 10 years.

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