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Interview: How F1 sponsorship reflects the changing face of the audience

Growth in younger and more female audiences is driving new brands to enter Formula 1 as sponsor total reaches a new benchmark.

Growth in younger and more female audiences is driving new brands to enter F1 as sponsor total reaches a new benchmark

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Max Verstappen wasn’t the only one setting records in F1 this season.

The series went through an important milestone in 2023 as it surpassed 300 corporate sponsors for this first time in its history. These were spread across the 10 F1 teams and the series itself. And significantly, over half of them are American companies.

McLaren alone has over 50 sponsors, while Red Bull Racing now has five Fortune 500 companies in its sponsor roster. As team boss Christian Horner says: “They would not have been there previously. We brought in companies such as ExxonMobil, Oracle and Ford was reintroduced to F1 (as a partner from 2026). It's only because of the popularity of F1 that brands like these are choosing to get involved.”

One of the agencies at the heart of this growth story is Right Formula, based in London. The CEO is Robin Fenwick, once an account manager at McLaren who started his own agency in 2009 at the age of 28.

The company now boasts 112 staff worldwide, an increase of 50 in the last 12 months, partly due to staffing up a new office in the US, from where so many new F1 sponsors are coming. Right Formula is a sponsorship broker as well as one of the largest agencies for managing sponsor activations throughout the year. Their clients include Exxon Mobile, SAP, Qatar Airways, Hilton, Pirelli and Oracle, among others.

“We look after more brands in Formula 1 than any other agency,” says Fenwick in his office overlooking the River Thames in Battersea Power Station. “We are completely team agnostic; we always choose the team that the brand will be the best fit at.”

Sports sponsorship is becoming increasingly sophisticated; it’s a far cry from a sponsor placing a sticker on a car and measuring the resulting TV viewership. Agencies like Right Formula manage data and analytics departments, measuring the return on investment and directing sponsorship strategy, especially when it comes to driving a hard bargain with teams on rights packages.

This has been a bumper year for Right Formula, “helped by the general groundswell of Formula 1,” says Fenwick. “I think we've gone beyond the excitement and growth in America and now businesses in America are truly embracing F1 and motorsport in general. There seems to be a growing desire and need for businesses to be able to justify their relationships. And whereas perhaps historically, the heart ruled the head, that is starting to turn as more businesses are demanding more data, more justification in sponsorships. We're fortunate to be in a good position to provide that.”

So what makes a good F1 sponsorship?

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

“My personal opinion is that there are so many angles and benefits of sponsorship, you can get quite distracted,” says Fenwick. “As a result, you can do a lot of things poorly. I think businesses that have a very clearly defined strategy, have very good understanding of how that ties back to their overarching business objectives and how that influences their customer profiles, these are the ones that typically succeed and do well.

“We see too many businesses out there receiving proposals from rights holders, with a list of marketing rights and a cost attached. There is not a lot of colour around how to actually bring that to life to achieve your business objectives. So it's very tempting for a CEO or a CMO who could be interested in the sport. But if people are buying a list of rights against a cost, often it is set up for failure. However, if you look at it from the basis of what you're trying to achieve as a business, what an activation plan could look like, what rights are required to fit into the activation plan and then the cost of those rights in that order, you're likely to have a much more successful partnership. But we're still probably only seeing about 20% to 30% of businesses invested in motorsport, taking that approach.”

Many of the companies that have come into F1 since Liberty Media took over in 2017 are B2B companies, or businesses that sell to other businesses rather than to the general consumer (B2C).

Many tech firms find F1 a great fit with their brand because the sport is all about technology. However Fenwick, whose agency also works in football and golf, observes that the guest experience at a F1 event is far richer than other sports in terms of how close guests can get to the action. And this is a huge part of F1’s success in pulling in sponsors.

“With other sports there is less opportunity to really go behind the scenes, whether you are listening on a team headset to the drivers talking to their engineers during a race, or going on the grid, rubbing shoulders with drivers, ten minutes before they race, going under the podium, being sprayed with champagne at the end of a race,” he says. “These experiences, whether you are a billionaire or a competition winner, are quite exceptional.“

However F1 still doesn’t have many consumer brands beyond the obvious drinks brands like Red Bull and Heineken, watch brands and airlines. Fenwick believes there is an obvious reason for this and that things are changing.

“I think the B2C piece has been perhaps a little slow comparatively. Part of that, and I'm going back a few years now, is because there's been not as much first party data as other sports. The social media presence has not been as strong as it is today. But we are starting to see consumer brands like Jack Daniels come into the sport, providing a little bit more confidence for their competitors as well as for the wider consumer sector,” says Fenwick.

One of the drivers of the coming wave of consumer brands is the changing profile of the audience. F1 quotes a figure of 500 million fans around the world, of whom 41% are female and 44% are under 35. This is a massive change from the pre-Liberty Media era.

“It's really important that we take a very broad view on not just the audience, but sentiment, you know, how we really look at who is the audience, you know, there are a greater level of females involved in the sport and they've ever been before. There's a younger audience than has ever been before. If we look at the US audience that was less than 5%, probably five years ago. Now we're talking 15 to 20% and there's still a way to go there.

“I'd be surprised if we don't have five to six (US) races in the next three to five years. I think it's there's room for it and interest for it.”

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