CEO Stefano Domenicali on F1’s China triumph

    Stefano Domenicali, President and CEO of Formula 1, talks with Jing Daily about reigniting enthusiasm among Chinese fans after a 5-year hiatus and tapping the market’s vast potential.
    Stefano Domenicali, CEO of the Formula One Group, talks with Zhou Guanyu of China and Alfa Romeo F1 on the grid during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 5, 2023 in Bahrain. Image: Getty Images
      Published   in Macro

    Featuring the homecoming of Zhou Guanyu, China’s first and only driver to compete in a World Championship Formula One race, Formula 1’s triumphant return to Shanghai in April was the competition’s first appearance in the mainland since the pandemic. Representing Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber, Zhou's participation captivated China’s burgeoning motorsport fan base and underscored the nation's growing passion for the sport.

    Jing Daily sat down with F1 President and CEO Stefano Domenicali to discuss how Formula 1 reignited enthusiasm among Chinese fans, and delved into this exciting chapter in Formula 1 history.

    Jing Daily: How has F1 capitalized on the Chinese market's potential and reignited enthusiasm among fans?

    Stefano Domenicali: Firstly, we were excited to return to China this year, and celebrate our 20th anniversary of racing in Shanghai. There were two big differences that set this year apart from any other that we’ve raced here. The first is that we have a trailblazer and local champion in Zhou. The weekend marked not only a momentous and proud occasion for Zhou and his family, but it’s also a significant milestone in Chinese motorsport history.

    For the fans, this was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to be a part of the story and say they were there when the first ever Chinese F1 driver raced on a home track. I think we all saw what it meant to him and the fans once he got out of the car at the end of the race, having made history and successfully completed the China Grand Prix, 20 years after sitting in the stands watching as a young boy. It’s what dreams are made of.

    The second is that we introduced our Sprint Race format on Saturday for the first time ever in China. It was also our first Sprint Race of the 2024 calendar, so it was exciting to see how the teams and drivers set up and performed.

    Zhou Guanyu’s first competition in his hometown was a significant milestone in Chinese motorsport history. Image: F1
    Zhou Guanyu’s first competition in his hometown was a significant milestone in Chinese motorsport history. Image: F1

    JD: China has seen a surge in interest in motorsports, especially among younger demographics. How does Formula 1 plan to engage this fanbase and grow its presence in the market?

    SD: We believe the 2024 China Grand Prix weekend marks the start of the next evolution of our sport here in China. Our data shows F1 is reaching new levels and new audiences in China – we have over 100 million fans in the country, half of whom started following the sport in the last five years and over a third of our fans are female.

    In the last few years, we’ve also seen the emergence of local hero, Zhou who has become a role model for many young people as they see how he is succeeding in his incredible career and this will encourage others to consider a role in motorsport, be that as a driver, engineer, mechanic or beyond. We want to see more drivers come up through the pyramid and we certainly hope to see more Chinese drivers in the future.

    JD: The pandemic reshaped sports events worldwide. How has Formula 1 adapted to these challenges?

    SD: We’re back to racing and this year, for the first time ever, we’ll deliver 24 races across the course of the season. It’s fair to say we’re back.

    The pandemic accelerated our move to remote operations and we now run the majority of our production from the UK, reducing the number of people and amount of equipment traveling. We also fine-tuned the logistics that go into delivering our calendar, working with partners such as DHL and our promoters to deliver on time and on schedule.

    Our next generation operations will see investment in new technologies that reduce the reliance on physical infrastructure, change the mode of freight transport to less carbon intensive options, such as sea freight, and reduce the amount of equipment that is required. Currently 75 percent of our promoters powered aspects of their events using renewable energy, up from 50 percent in 2022 and a low-carbon energy generation trial in Austria reduced emissions in the pit, paddock and broadcast compound by 90 percent vs the 2022 Grand Prix.

    This year’s F1 Shanghai race sold out at an unprecedented speed. Image: F1
    This year’s F1 Shanghai race sold out at an unprecedented speed. Image: F1

    JD: China's growing middle class presents a significant opportunity for Formula 1 for fan engagement and partnerships. What are F1’s plans to leverage this demography to forge meaningful collaborations?

    SD: China is a sophisticated and diverse market with enormous brand awareness and loyalty, so global sports need to really consider what they can bring to that audience and how to engage meaningfully with them. We want our fans to have a 365-day relationship with Formula 1, and that means creating opportunities for them to engage with us not just at our 24 events, but online, in popular culture, and in their cities as well. This year, our sponsor Aramco and the Chinese Basketball Association collaborated to create a basketball court within the paddock in Shanghai.

    Each year, we’ve seen increasing interest from local celebrities to attend our races and this year we hosted Yao Ming, Eileen Gu, JJ Lin, Daniel Wu, Jimmy Lin, as well as international stars such as Tommy Hilfiger and Martin Garrix, which helps to drive more interest in Formula 1.

    We have seen strong success in recent years, but there are still areas to target and develop, such as continued revenue growth in hosting fees thanks to demand, media rights deals as broadcasters are keen to be involved, and new hospitality initiatives such as F1 Garage, which will feature at 10 events this year offering a luxury insight into our world. There’s also room for growth through dynamic advertising, regional partnerships and licensed products and merchandise, such as bespoke Puma ranges, which can offer us additional revenue streams. We also have a successful partnership with Lenovo, which is one of our Global Partners and was the lead sponsor of the Chinese Grand Prix.

    JD: How is Formula 1 adapting its content strategy to resonate with Chinese audiences and maximize engagement on social media?

    SD: We’re always looking at how and where we can grow. We have worked hard to understand our new fans and what they want to see from Formula 1.. On social media, we have started to create more content for our fans who are more light touch, or don’t have time to watch a whole Grand Prix, such as beginner guides or highlight clips. Since launching our Weibo and WeChat channels in China in 2018, we’ve grown our following on social media by 3.4 million and this year we’ve just launched our presence on Bilibili, Kuaishou and Douyin platforms.

    In recent years, we’ve hosted a number of local influencers at our races to provide their fans with even more access and behind the scenes experiences, such as pit lane walks, tours of the track, or even the chance to listen to team radios within the team garage as the strategy teams relay information to the drivers in real time.

    The Shanghai Paddock Club offers exclusive viewing points from atop the F1 garages. Photo: F1
    The Shanghai Paddock Club offers exclusive viewing points from atop the F1 garages. Photo: F1

    JD: What are your objectives and aspirations for F1’s development, globally and in China?

    SD: In Formula 1, we put on race weekends of the size, scale, and spectacle of the Super Bowl, 24 times a year. To make this a success you must have a strong team around you committed to delivering against a single mission.

    Globally, 40 percent of F1 fans are now female, and two in three social media followers are under 35. Now, we’re working with Reese Witherspoon’s production company on a behind-the-scenes series on our all-female F1 Academy series. Meanwhile, we are working with Apple Studio to create a Formula 1 movie starring Brad Pitt that will premiere in 2025, and we have commissioned an original content series as well.

    Our F1 Academy venture is also creating female athlete pathways never seen before in our sport. This year we have an incredible roster of female drivers from hugely diverse backgrounds including North America, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

    With 20 years’ history of racing in China, we consider F1 to be relatively well established in China. We’ve seen huge growth in recent times and we anticipate that the fan base will continue to grow, especially among women and the younger demographic, which is where we’re seeing new audiences emerge.

    Someone called it Formula 1 mania. I won't hide that we are very happy about this.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

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