Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Catching 'em whilst they're young // Snaring the next generation of F1 fans, with marketing tricks and toys

Published by Daniel Shires

Tooned logo on McLaren's rear wing
Credit: VMM

I’ll freely admit that at times I can be a bit of a man-child. I’m 29, probably play more videogames than I should, my DVD collection includes Transformers, Ninja Turtles and Thundercats, plus I have a Mr T bobblehead sat next to my computer. Tame by some standards, but my girlfriend would probably disagree as she sighs when I get overly excited reading about a new comic book movie adaptation, whilst she watches a serious drama or documentary.

The point is last Saturday, as I casually meandered through the toys aisle in Tesco whilst doing my mum’s shopping (pretending I was looking for some imaginary child relative, rather than myself), I noticed a distinct lack of Formula 1 related toys, games, curios, paraphernalia, knickknacks, trifles or trinkets with which to grab youngsters by their mum’s purse and indoctrinate interest them in the ways of our beloved sport.

Batman Lego? Check. Spiderman Lego? Check. Moshi Monsters? Loads. WWE Wrestling figures? How many would you like me to pack for you sir? Non copyright violating open wheel based remote control cars? Of course, what did you expect?

Try as I did, I could see nothing with the trademark F1 logo on it. This got me thinking, if you want anyone to become a lifelong fan of a sport, hobby, tv show or brand, the generally held belief is you’ve got to hook em’ whilst they’re young… so why isn’t F1 doing this?

Making lemonade

Personally, I got into F1 because aged 10 I was sat down next to my Dad and made to watch the sport, because dammit we weren’t going out on a Sunday afternoon till the race finished. I could either enjoy it, or sit bored senseless until 3:15pm came around and the BBC broadcast finished. Luckily that was Nigel Mansell’s world championship season, so I enjoyed it and became a lifelong obsessive.

Now, readers of Joe Saward’s blog and listeners to the superb Aside With Joe podcasts produced by the purveyors of this fine website will know Mr Saward vehemently believes the sport as a whole needs to do more to attract younger demographics to the sport.

On the face of it, FOM doesn’t seem to care. Bernie and his cronies' crack marketing team have their focus on the older, wealthier end of society and that does them nicely thank you very much. Of the teams, they’re only slightly less bad; Mclaren made the impressive ‘Tooned’ shorts, but aside from kid-sized branded caps and some cheap and nasty branded teddy bears, merch and swag for kids is like walking through a barren wasteland.

Compare that to a top football club’s shop, Manchester United for example. A cursory glance at their website reveals you can buy any piece of junk or tat you can think of for all ages with a ‘Man Yoo’ logo on; one of the probable reasons big football clubs find it so easy to attract young supporters who then become lifelong fans – hook em’ whilst they’re young.

A racing star is born

Alonso the F1 Race Star
Credit: Reliance

As I’ve mentioned my own proclivities stretch very much into the realm of videogames. In 1992 I was presented with my first Nintendo and am planning on having my Xbox 360 controller surgically grafted to my left hand for convenience at some point in the future. So of course, I play a lot of racing games... from in depth simulations like rFactor and Project CARS, to the new F1 2012 game.

This year however, the one that will definitely be appearing in my Christmas list is the charming and whimsical F1 Race Stars; a game that puts caricatures of your favourite drivers and Pastor Maldonado in Super Mario Kart style vehicles and tracks. The result looks like a whole heap of fun, and a game I can’t wait to play with friends.

The art design of the drivers in F1 Race Stars got me thinking, why hasn’t this been done before? Why didn’t I grow up playing with fully poseable F1 driver action figures that can sit and drive their own cars? Why didn’t I have a replica BMX helmet in Senna or Hill’s colours? Why didn’t I watch a cartoon based in the world of F1?

All basic things most sports would see as ‘no brainers’ to encourage children to get invested, yet F1 seems to shy away, preferring to let the teams do their own things when it comes to merchandising. I’m not naïve enough to think the behemoth that is licencing deals doesn’t play a major part for collective projects, but if it’s such a problem how have games like F1 Race Stars come about in the first place? Bernie is the man who can and he does when the mood takes him; I get the feeling however he may see making F1 kid friendly as a bit lowbrow for his little world.

The fact is if I watched WrestleMania, my Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior action figures would be battling in the ring on my mum’s living room floor minutes afterwards. The same goes for football, donning my Wales shirt, picking up a ball and heading out despite their latest defeat. Looking back though, I’d watch a Grand Prix then go and do something else; I had nothing physical, tangible, with which to emulate my heroes except my BMX or a just-knock-off-non-copyright-violating Forreri Marbedes RC car driven by Nigel Monswell or Mike Shoecarver, exactly like the ones in Tesco to this day.

Inspire a generation

For children, emulating the positive actions of their sporting role models is an important step, and one we’ve all heard so much about following the Olympics and it’s tagline ‘inspire a generation’. So when you think F1 as a sport is completely marketing driven, it makes it all the more bizarre that such a small amount of it is done to attract the next generation of drivers, team members or simply fans from the earliest possible age. Football clubs want your baby in their colours from the moment they leave the womb for goodness sake!

They need to take these child friendly designs and go wild!

F1 Race Stars presents FOM with a massive opportunity for F1; they need to take these child friendly designs and go wild! Create action figures of the drivers based on their stylised counterparts in the game, create cars they can sit in that carry the real race liveries that can deliberately break in places to create ‘crash damage’, then release mechanics, support vehicles and more. Then in 2013 and 2014 do the same again as drivers swap teams and colour schemes change, because neither the kids buying the toys or the adults who collect them for posterity will want gaps in their collection. Hell, create a cartoon based on them, plaster their cute little faces on pencil cases, pyjamas, bed linen... the list is endless.

You only have to look at how a well designed and executed the recent ‘Skylanders’ craze has been to see how it can be done. Create a series of action figures, some on limited edition to create demand, give them the hook that your figures will connect with a videogame and voila - in May it was on track to make $100 million dollars, and that’s only from the first wave.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Bernie Ecclestone NEEDS to look to Vince McMahon, owner of World Wrestling Entertainment on how to better market his product. Vince completely understands that children are his target market, because after they’re all grown up, having once slept in their John Cena bedding, played with their massive selection of toys and spent hours playing WWE games, they have kids of their own and sit down and watch the product with their own offspring and so the cycle continues.

I never thought I’d say it, but on this I’d like Bernie to make some more money. Why? Because there’s an enormous gap in his own market and it drives me mad he’s not exploiting it. Plus I’d like a cool Kimi Räikkönen action figure to stand next to Mr T.