This week in Munich the FIA staged its second annual Sport Conference, following on from last year’s inaugural gathering of motor sport federations from around the world at Goodwood House.
Much of what occurred there has been overshadowed by the news (and the reaction to it) emerging from Thursday’s World Motor Sport Council meeting, which followed the conference. That is hardly surprising, as Formula One, naturally grabs the lion’s share of the headlines. Also the artificiality of some of the measures proposed by the F1 Strategy Group and F1 commission and adopted by the WMSC has sparked a lot of debate online and on social media channels.
Fans could be forgiven for assuming that the WMSC only deals with F1, when in fact it decides on issues arising in every discipline administered by the FIA, from the WRC and WEC to the soon-to-be-launched Formula E and on to a multitude of categories below the top level including rallycross, cross country events, autocross, historics, karting and dozens of others.
Thus, the changes to the F1 rules, in particular the introduction of standing starts in 2015 and the singular lack of any meaningful action on cost-cutting, have dwarfed what happened at the conference.
That is a shame, as it was a fascinating glimpse into how much effort there is going on to develop and grow motor sport around the world and the WMSC was presented with a plan for growth.
Essentially Munich was representatives of 109 countries discussing and coming up with a development plan to engage young people to become drivers, mechanics or fans, to encourage volunteers for marshalling and other roles and to light the spark of enthusiasm for the sport in as many people as possible.
Predominantly the focus of a conference like this is about the grassroots level. The world championships may be the big ticket items that put bums on seats and, in the case of F1, which pays the bills, but there is of course a whole world of racing and rallying taking place every weekend in a huge number of countries around the world and this year’s conference was centred around how to keep that motorsport healthy and how to attract new fans and competitors when all indications are that motorsport (not just F1 but all kinds) has an ageing demographic and that kids are more interested in consoles and smartphones than karting and touring cars.
There were five main discussion sessions, which were moderated by JA along with Sky Germany’s Sandra Baumgartner. There were also workshops where the delegates worked together in regional groups.
In the opening panel session, designed to sketch out the broad talking points of the weekend for 109 national sporting organisations represented (the ASNs mandated by the FIA to look after motor sport in individual countries) a panel including two-time F1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi, F1 development driver Susie Wolff, Formula E Promoter Alejandro Agag, five-time Le Mans winner and F1 steward Emanuele Pirro and WEC and FE driver Karun Chandhok pointed a number of barriers to the growth of motorsport, including competition from the digital world, the excessive cost of entry and in Chandhok’s view the relative lack of infrastructure in developing nations. Agag said FE had spent much time in researching methods of making the championship appealing to younger generations and said that the controversial ‘fanboost’ system, by which social media users vote for drivers to receive a brief power boost during races, had partly been inspired the Super Mario Kart video game. Each to his own there, perhaps.
Pirro, meanwhile, pointed to the lack of passion or personality that radiates from current major championship racers. “I don’t know who identifies with a driver who is fresh and clean [after a race] and who appears not to be giving everything,” he said.
The follow-up to that overview, the next day, was to hand the baton to the ASNs themselves, with the FIA’s Deputy President for Sport Graham Stoker telling them that the workshops they would undertake to enumerate the major barriers to development would define part of an overall development strategy the FIA will out into place utilizing the additional funds that will be generated for the federation as a result of the renegotiation of the F1 Concorde Agreement.
The results were interesting, with a number of key trends emerging, many of which are in some ways microsmic reflections of the issues facing F1 currently. Cost of entry, the impact of social media, the need to simplify rules, the need for better infrastructure and the need for organisational development within clubs were all highlighted as particular concerns for motorsport at every level, even down to karting, with a number of club representatives saying that karting has become prohibitively expense for youngsters interested in motorsport as a pastime.
The issue of the explosive growth of social media raised its head in a session dealing with the thorny issue of how to reverse motorsport’s ageing demographic and attract young fans to the sport. With the discussion anchored by presentations from Twitter UK Head of Sport Alex Trickett and Darren Cox the Nissan GT Academy, which launched the career of gamer turned racer Jann Mardenborough, who was also present, the overwhelming sentiment expressed by ASN representatives afterwards was one of shock at how far behind the digital curve motorsport is, from grassroots to the very top levels.
The outcome of the two days in Munich was that the clubs’ findings from their workshops were adopted as part of the FIA’s motorsport development plan, with specific reference being made to helping motorsport to build its presence in ‘e-media’, attempting to reduce the cost of competition through the development of affordable categories and to encouraging youth participation by defining a clear competitive pathway in all disciplines and again tackling cost and constructing affordable categories.
They are all laudable ambitions, delivered for the most part by people who are genuinely passionate about motorsport of all forms and it was refreshing to be in an environment where racing is not a ‘show’ or a ‘business’ but where it is still a sport enjoyed by millions and which needs to remain accessible to all, especially the young, the next generation of racers and fans.
The one fly in that ointment is that in the vast majority of cases it is the championship that is frustratingly touted as a ‘show’ and a ‘business’ that is the televisual point of entry for most youngsters and until it remembers it is a sport then we may struggle to find the audience it is so desperately and confusedly chasing.