Tim Godfrey

Our three year contract with Fox was probably the most important  as it set us up with truly global coverage

FIA Formula E head of media Tim Godfrey discusses the impact of the revolutionary FIA Championship at the conclusion of its launch season.

How’s this for an endorsement?

According to British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, electric powered, open-wheeled car racing in the shape of the FIA Formula E series will overtake Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula 1 in popularity in the next five years.

It’s quite a claim and you have to remember two things. First Branson has skin in this particular game   through Virgin Racing, one of 10 teams soon to start testing ahead of  the series’ second season which starts in Beijing in October. Second, even the great man doesn’t get things right all the time.

Whether he’s got this prediction spot on is something we’ll discover further down the line but, as Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird celebrated after winning the 11th and final round of the inaugural championship in London’s Battersea Park in June, all those involved in the series could breathe a sigh of relief and look to the future with even greater confidence.

There have been numerous attempts to launch new single seat motor racing series over the years. Remember Formula A1GP anyone? That was the one in which teams representing different nations competed in identical cars at circuits around the world where they were generally watched by virtually nobody. They called it the World Cup of motor racing. Whatever it was called, not enough people cared.

Then there have been two different schemes to ally football and motor racing and run a series  contested by cars branded as leading football teams. Neither of them hit the mark. What these efforts do make clear  is the  strength of the desire to develop new businesses by harnessing the appeal  of motorsport to new branding concepts. When Formula E was launched there were those who initially thought this was another play for a small slice of the same cake.  But they were wrong.

Formula E is a championship for cars powered by electricity and that, we are told, is the future. Motor sport has always been driven by technology and motor manufacturers are currently falling over themselves to develop electric models which deliver the motoring experience the public have come to expect.  Formula E captures that technological aspiration,  promotes ecological values and runs on street circuits which showcase cities. What’s not to like?

FIA Formula E isn’t trying to be F1 and in fact it is doing all it can to prove it is not. Technically there can be no comparison.  Its electric cars are fast but nowhere near as quick as those on the F1 grid. Such is the state of the available battery technology that drivers have to swap to fresh cars during each race just to go the distance.

The series is accredited by the International Motorsport Federation (FIA) whose president Jean Todt is an advocate.

In fact Formula E celebrates its difference and that’s the beauty of the series for its teams, broadcasters, sponsors and a growing army of fans.

According to Tim Godfrey, Formula E Head of Media, the championship is a sports and entertainment product targeting the attention of elusive millennials as well hard core motor racing fans.

Godfrey, who joined Formula E from Perform Group some 19 months ago, says it has been fascinating watching the series evolve from race-to-race in its first year.

“The entire season has been a learning process for us all and finishing with a double header in London was a chance to see how far we had come. London is a sophisticated, critical and opinionated city and it was a big success,” he said.

“For the second race (in London) we had a cumulative worldwide audience of 20 million and there were 3.5 million watching in China alone on CCTV5+. I think that shows this is a global sport as we are seeing some very positive numbers in quite diverse markets.”

In the host country itself, ITV1 achieved a  1.2 million audience for the Sunday race.

For a nascent championship with teams and sponsors to support, media coverage is critical to establishing a footprint, identity and audience.   Consequently the relationship between Formula E and its broadcast partners is pivotal to its development.

“Our three year contract with Fox was probably the most important  as it set us up with truly global coverage,” Godfrey said.

“We have multi-year deals with many broadcasters like Canal+ in France and TV Asahi in Japan among others, while some were initially for a single year. We will spend some time this summer extending and renewing deals and building on what has been achieved,” he said.

“I am confident broadcasters will renew and extend. Fox have already extended for another three years in North and South America which is a huge step in the right direction and there is a lot of interest in many big markets.

“One of the most interesting things from the first year has been the number of TV hours. Broadcasters are committing to a huge amount of programming and there were 800 hours worldwide from London which  gives a lot of value to all our stakeholders. We know that the broadcasters are engaged and we have worked hard to build on the relationships with every broadcaster we have.

“Since the very beginning we have been in dialogue with broadcasters almost on a daily basis. Ours has never been a take it or leave it approach.”

“We worked hard to have an open and honest dialogue with every broadcaster to ensure the product was shaped with the broadcasters’ feedback.

“When the team first went to talk to the market at Sportel there were certainly some raised eyebrows and the conversations weren’t the easiest. It took open minds from people like Carlos Martinez at Fox Sports to throw their weight behind it and the traction began to develop.  With the first broadcasters, cities and teams on board it all started to come together. I think it pays off for those broadcasters. TV Asahi in Japan got over 6m viewers for the first race on their terrestrial service” he said.

For Formula E the challenge was always to be fresh and different.

“If you are the Champions League or World Rugby you can go to broadcasters and say; ‘it’s the same as last year but more money.’ But we couldn’t do that and our approach has been to move it almost away from a pure sports proposition and to create something different; which is a mixture of sport, entertainment, technology, youth culture, bought to you from the heart of cool, stylish cities. We are targeting a young audience because they are the ones who, years down the line, will be buying electric cars,” Godfrey explained.

“Among the team here there is an inner belief that is the way to go and this is the only showcase manufacturers have for that technology.

The way Formula E appears on TV is critical to creating the difference and underpinning its identity. Aurora Media Worldwide, the London-based company contracted as host broadcaster was hungry for the challenge, drawing on years of experience across many sports to guide them

“They wanted to create something which hadn’t been done before and together we spent a huge amount of time looking at everything from the camera positions to ways of bringing the race and the host city to life using helicopters and drones.”

It didn’t stop there.  Godfrey says the decision to integrate the  on-board cameras  into the initial design of the car – rather than vice versa – has produced equipment described by some veteran sport broadcasters as the best ever, delivering spectacular, never-before-seen shots of nose to tail action.

The introduction of an onsite Formula EJ, mixing a set to the race produces unique audio fed into the gallery for use in the Host Broadcast world feed helps consolidate the youth experience and fulfils the televisual criteria summarised by Godfrey as  ‘ a product which is fast cut to music and aimed at a new audience without alienating traditional sports fans.’

But it is another innovation which has had the most profound impact on the sport itself as well as providing the impetus for individual teams and drivers to develop digital communications initiatives which have helped drive promotion and fan engagement.

Fanboost is claimed to be the first online fan voting product used in sport.  It allows the public to vote for their favourite driver ahead of each race using the Formula E app and website, with the top three drivers receiving power boosts to be used during the race.  It’s the equivalent of voting for Cristiano Ronaldo to suddenly become 1metre taller to head in a corner or turbo-charging Lionel Messi’s legs to take him past defenders even more easily.  Critically, it is about fans having real power to influence the outcome of the contest rather than just cheering and hoping.

“Fanboost completely hits our demographic of teenagers and Twenty Somethings. We want them to be involved and connect with the championship in a tangible way and, because there is a direct relationship to the races themselves, the teams quickly started making efforts to win votes. It drove the teams and drivers to be more open and innovative on social media,” Tim Godfrey explained.

On screen graphics show when a driver is using his/her Fanboost and by next season that could be accompanied by human telemetry data showing the drivers’ heart rate and temperature to demonstrate the ebb and flow of tension at different stages of a race.  This is currently not available on live broadcasts but has been a feature of recorded shows.

Building audience is a key role for Godfrey who drew on his combined production, news agency and communications background to develop a media strategy that achieved the delicate balance of accessibility for all while protecting rights holding broadcasters.

“My first job was to engage with the news agencies,” he said.

“It was imperative to give them news access and access around the paddock and garages. We wanted content to be available to SNTV, Reuters, Bloomberg, EBU, Omnisport and others, ensuring they all engaged with us on a serious level and came to the races to create content. We have had to be selective to a point but that has been based on an underlying desire to be open. “

Looking to the coming season Godfrey says that lessons learned will be acted upon and that ‘we still need to innovate every single day and at every race.’

“We are not going to stand still and I am sure that digital will become even more important in Year Two,

“From Race 2 we streamed to multiple territories in dark markets, offering four on board cameras plus the world feed of all on track sessions on our Formula E app and website.  In addition partnerships with YouTube and Daily Motion have allowed us to stream live, reaching new audiences from other genres that live on those platforms. This has been key and we believe making Formula E races available everywhere is what creates value for our stakeholders and allows fans to consume the races on their preferred platform.

“You have to remember that our target audience is a generation which is living on line and watching less and less TV.”

Although Formula E is positioned as entertainment with racing at its core, fans are responding in the traditional way by picking and supporting their favourite drivers and teams.  The presence of representatives of some of motor racings great dynasties such as Piquet, Prost, Senna and Andretti lends a dose of instant tradition and additional interest to the new kid on the block and the fans are taking it seriously.

“In Monaco I met a couple  who were big NASCAR fans who had flown over from Dallas just to watch Formula E. They were there just for the race then heading back and I think that’s amazing for a sport in its first season to be attracting hard core fans,” Godfrey said.

Monaco has been replaced by Paris  for 2015/16 and  Mexico is a candidate to host a race and Godfrey says  the cities are seeing the benefits of their commitment.

“We are all about street circuits which show the cities off to great effect and for some of lesser known hosts we are helping put the city on the world map.  Places like Punta Del Este in Uruguay and Putrajaya in Malaysia have now had a global audience.

“Formula E ticks a lot of boxes for cities. London Mayor Boris Johnson has been a great supporter because the event is green, sustainable and brings world class entertainment and sport to the heart of the city with minimal disruption.

“We have been very happy with audiences at the circuits. Prices have been kept low and in some cases it has been free. In London we had 56,000 over two days, 33,000 in Miami, and 23,000 in Long Beach where we were encouraged by our ability to fill the grandstand.”

So what’s Godfrey’s end of year assessment?

“I can’t give it marks out of 10 but we have drawn a cumulative global TV audience of more than 190 million and to me that’s one hell of an achievement in year one.

“We have new stakeholders, new sponsors and for us it is now about building on what has been achieved. It is about maintaining the consistency of the production and weaving in innovation.

“Liberty Global and Discovery are now the biggest minority shareholders and this brings  expertise in building businesses like this.  The model is sustainable for the teams and promoters and hopefully builds a lasting legacy in each of the locations we go to.

“The race lasts an hour and what we are producing is high impact, go-to TV. You don’t have to watch for ever. You plug in and plug out. The racing is tight and close and it has worked.”

Round 1 of the 2015/16 Formula e Championships is scheduled for Beijing China on October 17.