Thursday, 3 April 2014

Where's the PR?

Something has been troubling me just lately. Something that I struggle to get. We know that the F1 paddock is rather dripping with money. Or rather dripping with people who've made a lot of money in their lives. The sport always has attracted the self-made rather like moths to a bright light, as well as for the most part enticed in plenty of lucre-laden manufacturers and sponsors.

And yet, judging by the behaviour of those in it, F1 at its broadest level doesn't seem to have ever learned some of the most fundamental rules of capital accumulation. Those of Public Relations.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, as how often have we bemoaned that the sport is PR-obsessed; that drivers no longer are charismatic and expressive like was once the case. But even with this it seems that the tendency to trash, to be charmless, and in so doing denigrate F1 as a whole, has refused to die with it.

Sebastian Vettel has had some things to say recently...
Photo: Octane Photography
We had a recent example of this on the eve of last week's Malaysian round from Sebastian Vettel - our world champion. When talking to the press he was less than flattering about the noise of the new spec 2014 cars (which he judged as 'shit') as well as was scathing of the power units more broadly ('batteries should be where they belong, in a mobile phone' he was quoted in German publications as saying). Sergio Perez has since added to this by describing the Malaysian race as 'boring'. And these of course follow on from a certain Bernard Charles Ecclestone - whose job it is more than anyone's to promote the sport - having set forth many-a barb about F1 2014-style over of period of many months and years.

It's also not my intention to single out these three especially - such grumbles are far from uncommon either in this era of F1 or in plenty of previous ones (least of all from Bernie).

It seems such a pity too that in a sport that these days so often keeps comment on a tight leash that on the rare occasions that drivers do vary from their tepid non-committal script it's to moan about something. It feels rather like we're getting the worst of both worlds. Though it's probably not a coincidence either, given that moaning usually comes with an agenda...

I can hear a few shouting at this point that all of the people I listed are entitled to their opinions; indeed that everyone is, which is true. And of course no one wants to suppress healthy constructive debate to the end of helping the sport improve.

But surely whatever is the case all drivers and others associated with the sport at some level have responsibilities to promote it positively and to present it in a good light? After all, they do very well by the sport, and its health - including that it looks good to as many fans, sponsors (current and potential) and the like as possible - is in their interest as much as anyone's. To borrow from Spiderman, with their great power (in their case, the power of pulpit) comes great responsibility.

And while as outlined people are entitled to their views, surely the contributions should be constructive? That's why it wasn't so much Seb's expletive that I didn't like, more it was his 'batteries are for phones' comment. That didn't seem at all helpful; after all the possibility of F1 abandoning energy recovery seems about as likely as it abandoning the steering wheel.

F1 would do well to learn something from
US-based series, such as NASCAR
We shouldn't think of such expectations as abnormal either. It's incumbent on all of us in professional roles to have some boundaries; to think about what behaviour and public utterances are appropriate to the obligations of the position. As Max Mosley has noted, to simply do and say whatever you feel like regardless of the consequences instead is the action of an amateur.

I heard Joe Saward talk recently on Sidepodcast about the F1's strange naivety on communication matters more generally, and that the paddock is possessed with very few qualified communication professionals. Instead those in the PR roles tend to be non-specialist, who got involved in the sport on the grounds of being an F1 fan, and at some point stumbled their way into that particular function. Often it shows.

And whenever I watch US-based motorsport the contrast with F1 in such matters always strikes me as stark. Perhaps it's no surprise that America's got this sort of thing licked, and as an example when watching the drivers and others attached to Indycars interviewed for the TV coverage of their season opener last weekend just about all were smiling and engaging; clearly keen to place the category in the most glowing light. While comments of the like of Seb's, Perez's and Bernie's said in NASCAR would be close to unthinkable, and those who said them would likely be knocked on the head very quickly.

As mentioned, healthy debate is not to be suppressed, neither is expression more generally. But as is usually the case in such matters a balance must be struck also, with in this case the overall good of the sport being placed on the scales too. It's seems that now, and for a while, in F1 things are weighted too much in favour of talking the sport down.

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