Making F1 Marvel(lous)?


Readers are increasingly noticing that when, F1 CEO, Stefano Domenicali, and, particularly, Liberty Media CEO, Greg Maffei, talk about the future of the sport, the one thing they rarely mention is the key product, the racing.

Be it more events, the lack of a need of new teams, the sport's ever-changing demography and various projects in the pipeline, it always centres around money. Indeed, talking about the forthcoming movie - of which more later - even Charles Leclerc used the word "lucrative".

We have long been of the opinion that when Liberty bought F1 in 2017 it did so - understandably - as a means of making a strong return on its investment, without fully understanding what is was actually buying.

Of course, for the most part, the fan-base was delighted to see the back of the old management, feeling that he, in partnership with the former owners, had sought to wring every penny out of their beloved sport whilst putting nothing back.

Talk of greater competition by means of a levelling of the playing field with such things as a budget cap, only convinced the existing fan-base that their sport had been liberated.

The initial mistake of appointing Chase Carey, a man with no clear knowledge or love of the sport, as CEO was eventually rectified, with the ever-popular Stefano Domenicali giving fans a face they knew, a face they trusted a face who knew and loved the sport as much as they.

Meanwhile, everyone's favourite, cuddly know-it-all uncle, Ross Brawn was brought in to reshape the sport technically, along with his team of fellow poachers turned gamekeepers the sport was in good hands.

While the pandemic initially threatened everything the sport was working towards it eventually proved to have had a silver lining, for the decision to commission a Netflix series based around the inner-workings of F1 had a captive audience.

The success of Drive to Survive, not to mention the determination of the sport to put a global championship together in 2020, and again in 2021, was a move envied by almost all other sports.

Though the sport's powers that be do their best to play down the significance of Drive to Survive the fact is that it was key to the its phoenix-like rise, even if it did take liberties with the truth and make dramatic mountains out of non-existent molehills.

However, while Maffei talks of Drive to Survive winning over a whole new audience of youngsters, especially females, the Americans who suddenly discovered the series weren't kids, they were adults flicking through the schedule during lockdown. However, they watched the show with their kids and those kids are the future audience F1 is banking on.

So, we have the popular TV series, the movie, fan-interaction on social media involving both teams and drivers and even providing the soundtrack.

But where next?

Readers of a certain age, like the author of this piece, will have grown up with comics, either the DC variety of Marvel.

Starting out as Timely Comics in the late 30s, Marvel first really made an impression in the 1960s, and by the 70s its main characters, Spiderman, Thor, Captain America and the rest were giving Superman and Batman a run for their money.

However, bad business decisions, coupled with the loss of some of its most talented writers, including the legendary Stan Lee, saw the company file for bankruptcy in the late 90s.

Seemingly finished, Marvel fell into the hands of Toy Biz, a company that had been making action figures of the comics' various characters, and was now its biggest creditor.

So, here was Toy Biz, a Montreal-based company, holding the keys to a company that created comics, that had lost its most significant writers at a time the traditional audience was moving away from the whole genre.

What to do?

Well, forget action figures, someone had the bright idea of turning Marvel's characters into movies.

Spider-Man went to Sony in perpetuity, the X-Men and Fantastic Four went to Fox and The Hulk went to Universal. Marvel retained the film rights to the Avengers (Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man and more) and set up its own movie studio internally.

The studio was funded with a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch secured on the rights to ten of its biggest characters, including Ant-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Captain America. Shortly after the deal, Marvel retrieved the rights to Iron Man from New Line Cinema and decided to make him the subject of their first movie.

If it had bombed Marvel would have faced the prospect of losing the rights to those ten characters and that would have put paid to its film ambitions.

However, the Iron Man movie was a massive success thanks to quality actors and characters which were grounded in reality. That led to sequels and put the company on the radar of Disney, which subsequently bought Marvel for $4 billion in 2009.

In other words, it was the movies which made Marvel a success, not the comics that the business was originally built on.

With this in mind, one has to wonder if Liberty Media - the clue is in the name - has similar in mind for F1, after all in signing so many licensing deals they seem to be treating F1 as an Intellectual Property business rather than a sport.

Is it possible that if the forthcoming Brad Pitt movie were to prove a success, Liberty might launch its own F1 movie studio as Marvel and WWF have done, after all it has already gone into the business of race promoter, first as co-promoter in Miami and sole promoter in Las Vegas.

Fact is however, the odds are stacked high against the movie as Pitt does not represent any driver type in the history of F1. We are told that the plot of the movie sees Pitt come out of retirement to assist a young driver.

Pitt is 59 and in the entire history of the sport, the oldest driver to participate in a world championship grand prix was Louis Chiron, who contested the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix at the age of 55 years 9 months.

While the movie has some impressive people involved, from the outset viewers will have to suspend disbelief at the sight of Brad Pitt in an F1 car rather than the character he is meant to be playing. Pitt has too much of a dominating personality. Furthermore, much like the sport's official website, it is hard to imagine the movie will show any unsavoury or downtrodden aspects of the sport which are usually fundamental to the success of sports films.

The makers already have a fall-back however, for if the movie fails they can say it is 'just' a streaming movie (it will be on Apple's platform). However, if it performs well with pre-release test audiences they can give it a limited release in cinemas which would enable it to be put up for awards.

Interestingly, Disney considered buying F1 before it bought Marvel in 2009, the American giant, under its previous pre-woke management, seeking a new business which would appeal to young boys to complement their traditionally girl-focused line ups of princesses. At the time however, F1 was considered too controversial.

Interestingly, the other F1 movie in the works (a documentary about Ross Brawn's 2009 season narrated by Keanu Reeves) will be shown exclusively on Disney's streaming platform.

However, while the sport ventures into movies and music, there are so many other areas it could move into, especially if it has so little interest in the actual racing, but thus far it has appeared slow on the uptake.

After all, going back to Marvel, it is unbelievable that F1 has no range of action figures, no cartoon, no comic.

While the teams and drivers slavishly use their social media channels to follow the lead of their F1 paymasters, none are actually showing any initiative.

Strangely, even marketing guru Zak Brown has failed to lead by example, which is odd because under Ron Dennis McLaren was the driving force between two initiatives that would surely have been right up Liberty's street.

The first was the excellent Tooned cartoon series, while Dennis's (then) wife, Lisa, penned a series of children's books detailing the adventures of racing cars Mac and Lauren.

The fact that even McLaren is not on the ball goes to show that F1's current popularity isn't down to a strategy from Liberty. If it was, Liberty would have briefed the teams and they would be ahead of the curve, not lagging behind it. The popularity is down to a fluke and that could turn in the other direction at a moment's notice.

Meanwhile, the teams own the rights to the images of their drivers and their cars but they don't want to do promotional deals like toy licenses which pay them a percentage of the sales. Instead, they want to get a big fee from a sponsor because it's easy money. They are still stuck in the past.

Maffei has been boasting about how a third of F1's fans are new (i.e. they have started watching in the past 12 months). However, most credible companies do the exact opposite and boast about loyalty. After all, it doesn't take a genius to work out that there is zero guarantee that new fans will stick around. They could leave as quickly as they joined. On the other hand, fans who have been following the sport for years are far less likely to leave.

In summary, 33% of F1's audience is at risk - just look at the 24% drop in viewing figures for the Miami race recently confirmed by ESPN - and F1 would do well to pay attention.

Music, movies, cartoons and comics, all of which add up to more moola, will all make more sense, and be of more interest, to Liberty than DRS, zero-pods and floor edges.

And while the cancellation of the Imola event gives Liberty just a tiny fraction more hope that the championship might not be decided before Vegas, Maffei, in particular, must be sweating.

He has gone on record, telling investors that Vegas will add $500 million of revenue - an impossibly high target - and one that, if it misses the target, suggest to investors that the game is up.

After all, if Vegas doesn't significantly boost results then what hope by adding a race in Colombia or South Africa? Liberty is taking a huge gamble with Vegas, and as we all know, few walk away having beaten the bank.

Article from Pitpass (

Published: 22/05/2023
Copyright © Pitpass 2002 - 2024. All rights reserved.