roger mitchell
23 April 2023

F1. The diluting brand.

roger mitchell
23 April 2023

Flowers are in full bloom in San Remo, and of course across all of the Côte dAzur. So I am reminded of my mate Grant’s comment on the Monte Carlo GP.

It’s one that maybe we could do without; it is so difficult to even see any overtaking, and a bit uninteresting.”

He is a traditionalist and I am not, really. But I don’t think I can agree.

F1 is more than sport: it’s an entrance ticket into an exclusive world of glamour and jet-set, of sexiness, thrills and celebrity.

It’s motorsport, yes, but at the same time, we don’t call a Ferrari a mere coupe.  The Ferrari and F1 value is in that brand, which, frankly, has always been dominated by utterly charismatic men. The stories of heroes we, mere mortals, can only admire.

Montecarlo is the pinnacle of that vibe and can never really be removed.

The brand of F1 is however changing, in its attempt to move away from a niche and dying demographic of old white guys.

That’s probably correct, but brand is delicate. When you try to expand it, you risk taking away its very essence.

The big debate now for sport is the Plutarch philosophy conundrum.
What comes first, the sport or the audience? 

I know this is attacking the very poster child of sport’s successful adaptation in recent years, namely the Liberty Media restyling of all Bernie (Ecclestone) built. People roll it out as our playbook for sport; our hope that we can transition as an industry.

I see no-one taking the other side of the trade. So… let’s have a go! Just for a laugh. My mentors always told me that you never have a firm grasp of your brief unless you can, at the drop of a hat, argue either side of the argument with credibility.

So I want to explore an alternative thesis on F1. That, maybe, the brand extension/stretching isn’t the ideal strategy, and could lose its “competitive advantage”.

In his (now classic) book, Competitive Advantage, Michael Porter lays out a number of what he calls “Generic Strategies” for obtaining a competitive advantage. These are:

Cost leadership strategy

Differentiation strategy

Focus strategy

I truly, truly believe that all this will become very common after-conference bar talk in the sports industry in the next 12 months. Are we going mass market to compete on cost, or are we staying niche? Sadly, I think most of the industry suffers from the wishful thinking of “differentiation” and that is gonna lose them their jobs.

A niche market strategy is where a business wins its competitive advantage by meeting the unique needs of a specific, small market segment.

Today, the easiest thing on which to attack F1 is the product weakness of driver and car dominance, making for procession-like tedium. That may be true right now, but it’s too transient an argument to be winning a debate.

Here is what I would use.

I taste F1 “brand dilution”, which so far hasn’t been seen, but it’s very much there.

To quote my AYNE buddy again, sport’s biggest danger is that it changes its product so much, that it loses that X-factor of why we love it. F1 in the old days was much purer, and more glamorous than now, without safety cars, strategies, and screen-hungry team principals. It was just the glorious drivers, flaws and all. F1 today is all very sanitised, seemingly overly “nanny”, with its yellow flags, and safety cars (virtual or not), the polar opposite of thrills and spills, which gave us the brand of

..sideburns, 20 second pit stops, grid girls, James Hunt lad-ism, and the personality of Newman and McQueen cool.

Call me cold, but, in the old days, there was also the whiff of testosterone uncertainty in the air. Always there. Remember, a F1 driver is a niche type of human, and no-one is forcing these young boys to risk (that favourite word of mine). Loads of activity, sport or not, proactively provokes an adrenaline rush that these humans need. Jeez, Red Bull has built a brand on young men (and women) doing intensely crazy things. Boxing, or UFC? The film Point Break depicts this entire culture well.

F1 – with car design, track run offs, fire suits, etc – has massively reduced the chances of death, and we are grateful, but let them race with passion and bravery. That’s the brand you are diluting.
If a certain type of young man wants to live on the edge (vita spericolata), and willingly embraces the full risk of that, then who are we to sanitise it?  Sort out the current confusion and nonsense of incessant safety cars.

F1 the ultimate aspirational sport for men. Nothing cooler, nothing sexier.

In the creative industries, including sport, and especially music, you can’t be a control freak. You need to let it go where it needs to go. This is what F1, and especially the FIA, have to understand very quick. You are not in the business of selling soap to as wide an audience as possible, but commercialising passion and emotion. You can’t create those to order, to formula, the way an impatient “suit” would want. Queen were told to do another “Killer Queen” type song for the radios. They ignored that and recorded the 9-minute long Bohemian Rhapsody.

Sport, and F1 specifically here, trying to adapt its essence to find new audiences is, by definition, dilution away from brand purity. The soul, truth, glory and art of sport, instead, is in finding a way to write “mama, … just killed a man…”.

That doesn’t mean you cant expand the audience. Now, I’m neither a petrolhead, nor an F1 fanatic. However, without it ever entering my blood, I’ve been religiously baptised in the sport, from the font in Modena. I spent three years in Emilia Romagna, the area of Italy that contains Maranello, near Modena. My wife Raffaella toured the world as brand head of Marlboro Ferrari in the Schumacher years. I was surrounded by the myth of fast red cars.

It is difficult to convey the fanaticism for Ferrari in these flatlands around Modena.

When working for Panini, I was often taken for lunch to various eateries where one was greeted on entry by walls covered by full-size chassis of Ferraris, pictures and helmets of drivers. That brand is contagious, for what it is. Shrines, more than trattorie, where once the owner heard that you were Scottish, all they wanted to do was pull up a seat, over the amaro, and talk about Jackie Stewart, or the man himself, Jim Clark. Here they know. Of course they know.

Clark is the mythical legend for all true true motor racing fans. If, for whatever reason, you don’t know about Clark, please take 15 minutes, and watch this Top Gear Tribute.


Kudos to Hammond. This is glorious sports journalism. It’s perfection.

Jim Clark was a humble farmer from Scotland, with film star looks and something you just can’t teach, or train for.

He could drive anything, as if in a film script; bonding with his dragon in Avatar. Except he did it with every dragon.

Clark tragically died at 32 at Hockenheim, never having driven for Ferrari. My reflection, this Sunday, is that this is a part of racing destiny. Maybe the way it needs to be for the chosen ones. Sport can’t be directed; sometimes it just is.

I find it poetic that the mortal coil of the truly greats was never conjoined with the Ferrari red, and they also die young!

Ferrari is the car. Bigger than its drivers. And somewhere in that fact lies the answer as to why, perhaps, my three best drivers ever, didn’t drive for Enzo. Ayrton Senna and Ken Miles, my other two heroes, like Clark, never sat in the cockpit of the Prancing Horse.

The Horse, the Ferrari, must be the protagonist, like Secretariat, like Nijinsky.

All three died very young, at the peak of their powers. Immortal in their legend, having never suffered the indignity of growing old, like a Morrison, Hendrix, Marilyn, Jimmy Dean type of way.

Nothing works for immortality and brand more than a short life. Ask David Geffen.

James Dean, keeping in theme, also died in a fast car, as explained in this astonishing clip with Alec Guinness.

“These aren’t the droids you are looking for..” 🙂 🙂

When you die young, you don’t give the world the time to see you lose your physical, mental, and reputational peak.

Brummie Ken Miles died at 48, the way he would have wanted: testing a car. Miles was an unconscious, carefree genius of a mechanic and driver. Neither diplomatic nor politically astute. Just a fast car man, under an engine, and in a seat.

The Hollywood film Ford v Ferrari, based on real events, tells of him building and racing a car that dominated the Ferraris at Le Mans, despite his employers: the corporate Philistines of Ford, oblivious to all Miles‘s authenticity. Ford had a beef with Enzo Ferrari, whom they envied, and just wanted to humiliate him. Miles wasn’t up for that, but his passion for fast cars drove him to do their bidding.

I am a mechanic. That has been the direction of my entire vocational life. Driving is a hobby, a relaxation for me, like golfing is to others…
…I’d like to drive an F1 machine, not for the grand prize, but just to see what it is like. I think it would be jolly good fun!

Here is the trailer of that great film, which ends with a very classy scene of Enzo Ferrari tipping his hat in defeat to Miles, knowing the greatness in front of him.


And then Ayrton. He died at 34 at Imola.

We all tear up when we think of him. Someone, possibly Schumacher, has allegedly said: “if he had lived, we’d all be racing for second”.

Unlike many drivers, he didn’t come from a rich daddy. He just got there on his ambition and talent. The whole story of Senna is best consumed, letting the film documentary wash over you in all its pathos and angst. It doesn’t come in the gentrified packaging of Drive to Survive. No appalling self-important journos giving us a narration as if we can’t follow it for ourselves. It’s just a home movie and his voice, making for epic sports content, and certainly not for a faint-hearted at the end.

For those from Emilia Romagna, though, this film is matched by Bologna singer Lucio Dalla’s haunting rendition of Ayrton, a song written in the first person.

The lyric goes…”God told me to just close my eyes and rest, as the wall approached…
The line isn’t off tune or crass, as it may seem.

Senna was a spiritual figure, in his charisma, his driving style, with the air of those that have been touched in a different way.

He himself believed that. Who are we to argue? He is the first and, maybe, the only driver to bring God on the track.

It’s very difficult to talk about God, it’s very difficult to hear him. I have had the privilege to have this experience. It’s happened in the Grand Prix of Japan, in the last lap of the race. The lap that would give me finally the championship. I began to thank, thank, and I felt his presence. I saw God, it was a special thing in my life, a huge sensation. It’s a fact that I recorded in my memory and I carry within me. I think it’s a privilege that few have or have had. 

Difficult to make any comment of value after that quote of his. 

It is often in these moments, when I don’t know how to end the article, that I send what I have to Jacopo, our artist. He sees more than I do. He replies:

Una razza di purosangue indomabili. Eroi cavalieri, senza paura, che hanno costruito la leggenda, santificato e sacrificato attraverso il fuoco. Fuoco che é passione, che brucia. Ed il rosso, che é cuore e sangue.

For those who understand Italian, I’ve given you a moment to find a hankie.

This below is my woefully inadequate translation.

A race of unbroken thoroughbreds, knights without fear, who forged their legend in the fire of passion. Fire is what made them, consumed them, and ultimately beatified them. Red is the colour of that fire, that blood and of Ferrari.”

Jacopo gave me my ending. What he writes is the brand of F1, glorious, but niche. Not everyone can understand the soul of these three men. They are not defined by social media followers, or TV audiences, or even F1 rights fees.

The more F1, and other sport, seeks to answer Plutarch, by going audience over sport, the more it risks brand.

That would be how I’d end the debate. Am I just arguing the opposite of what I believe, to prove I have “mastered the brief”? At this point, I don’t even know the answer to that myself.

Shortly before his death, Senna commissioned an oil painting which depicted his ultimate ‘fantasy’ Grand Prix. An impression of the starting grid at Monaco, featuring all of the greatest drivers in Formula One history.

  • Juan Fangio sits talking to mechanics at the wheel of his 1950 Alfa Romeo 158.
  • Alongside the Argentinian, Stirling Moss is seen climbing into the great hump-backed whale that was the Vanwall.
  • Jackie Stewart, all Sixties sideburns, pulls on his helmet in the cockpit of his Matra-Ford.
  • Emerson Fittipaldi, the first of the great Brazilians, is there in an early McLaren.
  • Niki Lauda in the classic Ferrari of ’75.
  • And Senna himself, of course, squeezed into the all-conquering McLaren-Honda, with which he won the 1991 world driver’s Championship.

Senna made only two stipulations:

a) there was to be no trace of Alain Prost, his bitter rival.

b) Escobedo, the artist, could place the drivers in any formation he chose, providing Jim Clark filled pole position.

After all,” said the Brazilian in a rare moment of modesty “he was the best of the best.”

Yes he was.

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