How to Fix Formula One (by an Experience Designer)

Like a lot of people, I’ve become largely dissatisfied with Formula One as of late and I don’t think it’s because I’m jaded, I think it’s because it’s shit. The races nowadays are as boring as the drivers are dull, the cars look awful and sound even worse and nobody understands the rules any more. As a fan of the sport for over 20 years and an ex-racer myself, I still have a lot of love and nostalgia for Formula One and that’s why I’m going to talk about how my discipline of experience design can save a dying sport.

Know Your Audience

Before we can assess the quality of any experience or product, we need to understand from who’s perspective we’re talking. Saying “the customer” or “the fan” isn’t enough, we need to get under the skin of who this is.

Formula One chiefs seem to be not only disinterested in the opinion of the fans, they seem to spurn it. Formula One’s social presence, or lack thereof, is a fine demonstration of this hostility. What better way is there to discover what your audience want than organic conversation on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube and the like, yet Formula One rights holders aggressively issue take down requests to any form of social sharing from Formula One events and accordingly stifle that conversation. Even the exorbitantly priced tickets are printed with a warning on the back that customers are not permitted to share any photos or videos from the event online.

If those in charge are truly dedicated to fixing Formula One, they should be looking to the fans and asking for help.

Of course there is the argument about the exclusivity license etc. but it’s 2016 — this exclusivity should be access and other added value that benefit the customer, not hostile exclusivity at the expense of brand advocacy and evangelism in it’s purest and most powerful form. If it works for concerts, UFC and American Football, I’m sure it can work for Formula One.

In fact, the only fan outreach of late has been by third parties — most notably a survey of 200,000 fans by the GPDA- the body run by and representing the drivers. If those in charge are truly dedicated to fixing Formula One, they should be looking to the fans and asking for help.

Have a Clear Concept

If you watch Formula One and pay even the slightest attention to the off-track politics then you probably know the sport is experiencing an identity crisis amidst falling viewer numbers and ticket sales. Every season some arbitrary new regulations are introduced. The rationale is usually one of two PR lines: to “increase excitement” or “increase the appeal to manufacturers”.

The former is usually about increasing overtaking and unpredictability, which sounds great, but the reality is that they’re invariably changes dealing only with the minutiae of the sport and made in isolation of the people that design and race the cars. The teams invest millions developing in accordance to these new regulations only to replicate the lackluster year before which produces an outcry from the engineers and drivers of “we told you so”.

It’s obvious those in charge are no longer clear on what Formula One is and nothing short of a complete redefinition of the sport will repair it

The manufacturer-focused changes are usually green-themed and are often noble, such as catalysing energy recovery technology to be repurposed in road cars but the reality is that too many of these changes have meant the sport has become too focused on fluffing manufacturers at the expense of the sporting side and to the detriment of the fans enjoyment.

This dichotomy has grown so vast over the last decade that small tactical tweaks to rules and regulations each year are beyond repairing the conceptual shift the sport has inadvertently taken and that’s why fans are falling out of love with it. It’s obvious those in charge are no longer clear on what Formula One is and nothing short of a complete redefinition of the sport will repair it. After all, how can you sell an experience when you aren’t even clear on what that experience is yourself.

Marry Audience Needs with that Concept

Formula One has become a mobile showroom for manufacturing prowess and the reality is that fans want to see a sport and all the things that come with it: excitement, unpredictability, clashing personalities, chaos, drama, adrenaline and fear. These things are intrinsic to a sport and this is the one line answer to the question of why Formula One is shit — it has little to no visceral appeal any more. If we’re going to make Formula One lovable again, we need to understand the psychology of what makes a sport appealing.

Let’s look back to the 90s and early 00s — the era fans regard as Formula One’s zenith according to the GPDA survey. Most of the ingredients of a viscerally appealing sport apply; I used to get goosebumps watching drivers duel at 200mph on a Sunday afternoon, I remember my palms sweating the first time I saw a Formula One car stationary and I cowered in fear (with a huge smile across my face) the first time I heard one in person at Silverstone in ‘97. Watching drivers like Mansell, Senna and Montoya perform such spectacular things in the face of so much danger made them heroes to me and so many others; whilst drivers like Schumacher and Prost were fantastic villains we loved to hate. Formula One was awesome- it truly was as inspiring as it was daunting and as exciting as it was frightening.

The experience design challenge is defining an identity for Formula One that resonates with the audience whilst offering a package that is commercially viable for manufacturers.

Now, in 2016 a lot of that visceral appeal has gone. My palms don’t sweat any more when I see a Formula One car, instead I fixate on how ugly they are. I still reel when I hear one but not in fear, I reel at how awful they sound and I don’t really care who wins the drivers championship either — maybe it’s because I’ve grown up, or maybe it’s because the sport is just so safe nowadays and overtaking such a rarity that the drivers’ unique skills are hidden behind a plethora of gizmos and gimmicks. Or maybe it’s because the drivers are barely allowed a personality — instead encouraged to present themselves merely as anonymous pilots of machines produced by Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren et al and the GPDA survey highlights this consensus amongst fans. Formula One Supremo (yes, that’s a thing) Bernie Ecclestone recently commented “drivers shouldn’t be allowed to talk” in response to them expressing discontent at the state of the sport.

The experience design challenge is defining an identity for Formula One that resonates with the audience whilst offering a package that is commercially viable for manufacturers.

And Formula One knows it has this problem — hence the endless rule and regulation changes to increase overtaking and force the drivers to rely less on data and more on intuition. Yet these changes haven’t worked because they neglect to differentiate between visceral and reflective forms of appeal.

Giving the cars overtake buttons neglects to differentiate between visceral and reflective appeal and this is why fans scorn them as superficial “gimmicks”

Overtaking is dangerous and therefore impressive, it’s one driver outwitting another and therefore viscerally rewarding to watch and champion one driver’s talents over another but you could argue it isn’t overtaking as much as it is duelling that matters. Case and point, Monaco ’92 is regarded as one of the most exciting races of all time in no small part thanks to a 3 lap battle between the aggressively dominant Mansell and the emotionally driven and divinely talented Senna in which zero overtakes were made. The two drivers battled through the narrow Monté Carlo streets inches apart at 150mph plus in cars that looked and sounded demonically scary, risking their lives and testing their bodies and minds. I had a picture from this battle on my bedroom wall for most of my child-hood, because this is what breeds fanaticism. Giving the cars overtake buttons neglects to differentiate between visceral and reflective appeal and this is why fans scorn them as superficial “gimmicks” that compromise the authenticity and identity of the sport according to the GPDA survey.

Innovations such as the EERS (electrical energy recovery system ) may be exciting from a product development point of view, but fans don’t care when the race starts. These technologies are not intrinsic to the appeal of the sport because they appeal on the reflective level— things that fans can reflect on as a good thing about the sport, but crucially not things that will cultivate appetite or galvanise fanaticism. Watching two men battle in the face of death to the point of physical exhaustion in lust-worthy machinery is very different.

Learn from Failure

Part of successful experience design is continually prototyping and testing to identify and embrace failings as invaluable data and Formula One has a trove of this data. If we look at the process by which the majority of these unsuccessful decisions are made we can see two clear errors. On one hand, the right people were not consulted, decisions were made in isolation and a degree of separation away from the best positioned people to inform them and on the other hand, the process was too democratic. These points may appear at-odds but the reality is that Formula One faces somewhat of a schism between the strategic and sporting sides.

We can expect no more overtaking in 2017 than we have now, and no less predictability followed by the usual “we told you so”.

The strategic level is dictated largely by Formula One Supremo Bernie Ecclestone (who handles the commercial side) and the FIA (the governing body of Formula One). These two tend to operate independently of the teams and as a result we get new regulations that fail or exacerbate an issue and provoke the “we told you so” response. A timely example of this seems to the be 2017 regulations which are being worked on right now to try and reverse Formula One’s trajectory. Teams and drivers are calling out for an increase in mechanical grip (tyres, suspension, chassis) and less reliance on aerodynamic grip (bodywork, wings, flaps etc). Why? Because reliance on aerodynamic grip means cars cannot race closely together due to turbulent air. As a result, close racing is exceptionally difficult and often restricted to straight line drag-races — it results in a total contradiction to that must-have customer requirement of close competition and fierce duels.

Likewise, the teams are screaming out for more freedom in the regulations to innovate and empower teams to catch-up mid season if they are uncompetitive at the start. This has also been ignored for various reasons and instead the result is cars that are largely “frozen” developmentally through the year. As a result, we can expect no more overtaking in 2017 than we have now and the failure to address the customer requirement of unpredictability which will undoubtedly be followed by the usual “we told you so” from the unheard experts.

Dictate a Democracy

On the other side of the schism the sport & engineering side is far too democratic and as a result decisions are slow or stalled. Most are made by way of vote where each team has a veto. Collaboration and democracy is critical to successful decision making in experience design but a sole decision maker and owner of that process is as critical to that success. Imagine an architect allowing the interior designer or the facilities team to veto his conceptual decisions — these are people that should be consulted for their expertise so that the strategy and vision can be sympathetic to feasibility but they are not owners of the strategy or vision either individually or collaboratively.

The teams, engineers and drivers absolutely should be considered in the highest regard, but there should be a single figure that is ultimately responsible for owning the vision… in experience design, we call this person the Product Owner

The same applies to Formula One. The teams, engineers and drivers absolutely should be considered and opinions held in the highest regard, but there should be a single figure that is ultimately responsible for owning the vision for a successful Formula One and taking that collaborative pool of expertise and digesting it into a decision consistent with the larger strategy and vision they own.

In experience design, we call this person the Product Owner and they are the end of the responsibility chain. It’s up to them to facilitate productive and creative collaboration and to make the right decisions in a prompt manner in light of the expertise they have at their disposal.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Firstly, we need a complete restructuring of Formula One’s governance. The restructuring should be undertaken with a view to faciliating speedy decision making and an open, continuous dialogue with the experts (engineers, drivers, teams, fans). A redefinition of the concept of Formula One needs to happen — is it a pure sport, is it a showroom for manufacturers, is it in the middle? Is it about adrenaline and raw, visceral entertainment or is it about showcasing automotive technology? If both, where on the spectrum does it lay? A manifesto should be drawn up in line with this new identity that articulates principals, which the new Formula One will leverage, principals such as “drivers to be made heroes” and “we value close competition over technology”. Principals like this will inform tactical executions that can be implemented with confidence.

With a clear concept in place and the principals with which to guide the manifestation of this concept, a Product Owner can be assigned. New sporting regulations can be drawn up in collaboration with the teams, drivers, engineers and fans — but ultimately it will be the Product Owner that steers this process and has final say on everything. Now we have a vision for the sport, principals and regulations in place so the next step is to iterate quickly to hone this into something successful.

Cricket was forced to take similar steps, which is what resulted in the most commercially successful and fan-adored 20/20 short-form format.

A transition period/season would probably be most effective — this would allow the sport to test various race formats, for example 5 rounds in the current format, 5 rounds in 2x sprint races (reduced distance and time), 5 races with reverse grids and 5 races with unlimited tyre choices, compared to the prescribed tyres we have now. We could then evaluate what worked and what didn’t, talk with the fans, look at the numbers and iterate on the best of everything. Cricket was forced to take similar steps, which is what resulted in the most commercially successful and fan-adored 20/20 short-form format. 5 days was too much commitment to expect from fans and similarly 2 hours on a Sunday afternoon is too much to expect from Formula One fans in 2016.

The argument of course is that this would compromise and dilute the sport’s identity further due to the inconsistency whilst also increasing spend for the teams but the counter argument is that Formula One is already perceived largely as a joke and a pseudo-sport so extreme action needs to be taken and this could be a great demonstration of the determination to make it great again as well as a means to the most rapid and robust fix.

2017 might be messy, but 2018 would be fantastic and 2020 might just be the start of a new zenith.

On the cost front, once the regulations are stabilised, as would naturally happen through the iterative process, the costs will reduce dramatically, permitting manufacturers to reallocate that cost to technological innovations rather than the cyclical and whimsical regulation overhauls.

If Formula One could do the above, 2017 might be messy, but 2018 would be fantastic and 2020 might just be the start of a new zenith.