Is Tony Fernandes the fourth visionary for global motorsport?

April 29, 2011

John Hogan is a man who has seen it all in Formula 1. As a key part of Phillip Morris’s development of the Marlboro brand in F1 he has been behind the scenes of many of the shifts and changes over the last forty years. Having had the privilege of sharing a platform with him in the past, I know he is also pretty clear as to who the most influential people have been in the history and development of F1. In his view there are three: Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman and Bernie Ecclestone. Each has had a profound effect on the sport/business of F1 well beyond their respective organisations. Ferrari in building the world’s most renowned motorsort business, capturing the blend between mystique, glamour and the power of racing; Chapman in driving new technologies and commercial opportunities, providing the basis for today’s focus on aerodynamics and the use of commercial sponsorship; and Ecclestone by creating a global media product out of a series of fragmented commercial arrangements between race organisers and teams, which is today surpassed only by the Olympics and World-Cup Soccer, and they occur every four years. The big question of course is will anyone approach the contribution and impact that these three gargantua have had on the development of Formula 1? I don’t have a ready answer, but I think Tony Fernandes could be on the right track.

One of the biggest challenges for global motorsport today is not finding new F1 races, but building the grass roots enthusiasm that underpins the development of talent and expertise that are needed for the future. With purpose built F1 circuits in places like Malaysia, China, Korea, India and Abu Dhabi the problem they face is that, unlike those in the UK, Italy, USA and Japan there is virtually no grass roots infrastructure of racing to support them. The next big opportunity is therefore to embed motorsport in these areas, in a sense to build the foundations under the house, because without this there will be no sustainable future for these circuits.

In addition we see many of the world sports car manufacturers fighting to go even further upmarket. In a market segment which is already well populated by powerful brands such as Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes and Aston Martin we now see firms like McLaren and Group Lotus also trying to enter this space. Of course everyone wants high value products which can make massive margins due to their brand strength (just look at the success of Harley Davidson as an example of this), but that’s just the problem everyone wants to be there and so the competition is immense, and this of course puts downward pressure on margins. The big opportunity is not to go for the obvious high value end of the market, but the low value, low price segments which has the potential to grow the market and grow the enthusiasm that is needed to underpin and engage with motorsport in emerging markets. That is exactly where Tony Fernandes seems to be heading by linking his F1 project with the Caterham Car company, I think the opportunities here are immense, and it could be that Fernandes is making a small step on the road to becoming the fourth F1 visionary.


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