The Spaniard, the American and the end of motorsport as we know it?
Posted by Tim Angus on 30/05/2017

The Spaniard, the American and the end of motorsport as we know it?

Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 bid grabbed world headlines in the last few days and the last weekend in May was a big weekend for global motorsport more widely. Many global motorsport events took place that weekend including the Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500, Nurburgring 24hrs, World Rallycross at Lydden Hill, World Superbikes at Donington Park and the beginning of the TT fortnight in the Isle of Man. On weekends like this it seems difficult to see global motorsport as anything other than a roaring success, at home in key marketplaces and watched by millions....

And yet.....TV viewing figures are falling in some series like F1 and NASCAR, spectator attendances declining in some key motorsport properties (NASCAR again). ....

Motorsport is well known and regarded for its absolute focus on success and the skills and determination of those who work within it, from the drivers to the technician, via the many other skills and individuals needed to reach and maintain success for a team.

Sometimes, however, that focus can become tunnel visioned and somewhat hierarchical or even autocratic in nature. Think here of Bernie Ecclestone’s long reign in F1, or Ron Dennis’s hold on McLaren. Would Fernando Alonso have been allowed by either Ecclestone or Dennis to compete in this year’s Indy 500 if they were still in their previous positions of authority?

As Riccardo outlined in a recent blog the recent change in management style within the Ferrari F1 team towards a less hierarchical ‘no blame’ culture’. The on track outcome of this change is clear for all to see. 

In management terms I think of this change of style in the same way engineers tend to discuss ‘horizontal innovation’ across sectors of technology. Horizontal innovation in engineering terms is when a firm applies a key technological competence (let’s say, for example, in composites, or electronics) into another sector of the marketplace, other than the one it currently works. For motorsport firms this can be in applying a key firm competence like composites or electronics into aerospace, medical, or for example the paper industry, an area which Riccardo is currently helping facilitate for a client.

In management terms the same horizontal, non hierarchical thinking can be used to leverage firm assets into new marketplaces, freed from the ties of vertical integration of previous management styles. 

Alonso’s Indy campaign was a roaring success. For a cost to McLaren of around $3m (Source: Dieter Rencken of Autosport) it is difficult to see any negative outcomes to his involvement in this year’s race. From the increased media profile of both Indycar and the Indy 500, to the benefit to both McLaren and its F1 sponsors (who were provided with free coverage on Alonso’s Andretti Autosport car), and the increasing profile to F1’s coverage in the USA itself, Alonso’s involvement in this year’s ‘Great Race’; was a resounding success for all partners.

The key figure in facilitating Alonso’s Indy opportunity was the new McLaren Technology Group CEO Zak Brown, who accepted the post after Ron Dennis was ousted. Zak Brown is a long standing motorsport marketing expert of some repute, having founded Just Marketing, a specialist motorsport marketing consultancy, United Autosports, a Le Mans, GT and historic racing team, as well as being Chairman of the burgeoning Motorsport Network (including, Autosport, F1 Racing, the Autosport Show and Motorsport News).

Zak Brown’s facilitation of Alonso’s Indy 500 involvement exemplifies our thoughts around horizontal innovation in motorsport management. Namely the ability to think outside the old vertical hierarchies of motorsport inherited from the original pioneers of motorsport management like Ecclestone and Dennis. Those management styles may have been needed for the pioneering era of motorsport, but a change was needed if motorsport is to maintain, or even regain its status as a key player in the new era of corporate sports properties.

There are other signs that this new style of management approach is working in motorsport. Liberty Media is demonstrating how a less hierarchical approach may benefit both F1 and global motorsport more widely. The news that Liberty is in talks with Dorna (the owner of MotoGP) to avoid both date clashes and to share organisational learning between the two parties can be nothing but of benefit to motorsport more widely, as well as to the two parties themselves. Similarly the news that Australia’s leading motorsport property, the V8 Supercar series, can now count their Australian F1 GP supporting races as full championship rounds, rather than being non-championship as they were forced to be in the Ecclestone era, demonstrates the less hierarchical more inclusive style of management which will be of benefit to the whole of motorsport, as well as to the individual motorsport properties.

So the Spaniard (Alonso), the American (Zak Brown) and the end of motorsport as we know it? Maybe this sounds a little overblown, but this may just be the beginning of a new era of horizontal innovation in motorsport management more widely. And given the competition from other opportunities for a consumer’s hard earned cash, this is not before time.......

If horizontal innovation is something that your firm could be interested in to help your firm grow, from either a technological or a management point of view then please do get in touch with us to see how we could help you.