‘There is more interest in Formula 1 now than ever before’: Trackside at the Australian Grand Prix

Teenagers flanked the entry to Albert Park, screaming and waving at tinted windows with the hope that Daniel Riccardo or Max Verstappen might be behind them. Fans of all ages are dressed like race-car drivers, emblazoned with automotive manufacturing corporation logos, to which they ascribe similar tribal aspects seen in football fans. A line of hopefuls waiting to walk through the pit lane snakes for kilometres, and not even the jet-like roar of rear wheels being replaced in under 0.7 of a second every few beats cannot stop the crowds from surging closer, craning for a view of the Ferrari pit crew in full flight.

It’s four days of Formula 1 action at Albert Park in Melbourne, and by Sunday evening, there will have been close to half a million people through the gates, and another 400 million watching the action through various glowing boxes, dotted around the globe.

Billions of dollars have been spent on this weekend alone, and the results speak for themselves.

A lot of the mainstreaming of Formula 1 over the past few years can be attributed to Drive to Survive, the Netflix documentary series that added personalities and plot to the sport, resulting in a whole swathe of new fans coming to the motorsport.

But Ten has aired Formula 1 for 26 years, and — as Paramount’s general manager of ad sales, Nick Bower, is keen to point out — the sport was hardly a slouch prior to the docu-series. When it came to drawing massive on-ground crowds and loyal, obsessed television audiences, F1 was already doing fine, thanks.

But, everything has gone up a gear this year, with 452,055 ticket-holders passing through the gates over the four-day weekend, and 3.2 million motorsport fans tuning into Ten’s coverage – drawing in a whopping 82.7% of Melbourne viewers under 50 during the Sunday race.

Bower points to Ten’s role in elevating the sport’s popularity in Australia. “We are the access point for every single Formula One fan to come into the sport, check it out, experience it, and have a lot of fun,” he explains.

“Our broadcast has been going for over 26 years, and I think that’s really important to know. This is not just something that we just put on every now and then. We’ve done it forever, and we are a huge part of this growth at this moment, and we’re really proud of the work we’ve done.”

Bower credits Frank Smith, executive producer of sports at Network Ten with “refreshing, evolving, changing, and engaging audiences in this country” every year. He also credits the Formula 1 itself for sharpening the offering.

“There is more interest in Formula 1 now than ever before, but crucially, what Formula 1 has done is taken that interest and made sure that when people are coming in, the new audiences are coming in, they are seeing a better product.”

Appealing to this newer fan element while still serving those diehard racing fans with Williams tattoos and RPM heartbeats requires a delicate dance.

According to Travis Auld, CEO of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, this dance begins at the track.

“It’s our job to ensure that those people who have loved this sport for a long time and come along for many years still find their place here,” Auld explains.

“They still get well looked after. We have a large, avid F1 base in Australia, and so they want to sit in the same grandstand every year, and they want to enjoy every lap of the race and practice and qualify. So they’re really important. They’re our base. They’re the foundations of our event. For everyone else, though, they’re looking for something else.”

‘Everyone else’ is catered to with an event that lands somewhere between a music festival, the Royal Easter Show, and the Melbourne Cup.

There’s Pit Stop Park, a mini theme park with a DC-comics theme that doubles as an effective babysitter — “a great product that kids can go on and enjoy while parents are watching it on the screen,” Auld notes — while Paramount has constructed the Paramount+ Zone, a massive dome where kids (and journalists) can walk through a graffiti-strewn sewer tunnel celebrating 40 years of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, walk into a giant helmet and enjoy an immersive Halo experience, gawk at one of the Top Gear Australia cars (which reminded me of when Elvis sent his Cadillac out on tour), and even bump fists with SpongeBob SquarePants or a member of the PAW Patrol.

Opposite this is Legends Lane, where a row of classic racing cars are lined up on display, and there are merchandise tents selling everything from scale model F1 cars to kebabs.

For the adults more into the drinking than the driving (or the kebabing), there is a scale replica of legendary St Kilda rock haunt Esplanade Hotel, complete with Paul Kelly mural painted outside, and real working beer taps inside.

“We’re trying to diversify that range, knowing that we’ll back ourselves in,” Auld explains of the broadening of the on-ground product. “If we can get people to introduce themselves to the event for the first time, if we do a good enough job, they’ll come back. Over a period of time, they’ll start to understand how F1 works.

“Then, they’re the ones sitting in the grandstand. And that’s our job: to provide that cycle.”

Paramount is also tasked with catering to fans at all levels, which Bower is well aware of.

“Formula One fans are amazing because their knowledge is so strong,” he points out. “You have to respect that. You have to make sure that we’re giving them the right information. But equally, there’s a lot of other fans that are coming to it, that are here for the stories, the athletes as the drivers, the characters through the actual paddock itself, whether it be the team principals or others. We want to make sure we’re telling both those stories.”

Helping newer audiences enjoy the broadcast can never be confused with dumbing down.

“Australian sport audiences are incredibly intelligent,” Bower stresses, “some of the best sport audiences in the world. And, when you treat them with absolute respect, they understand it.”

Helping with this understand are two-time world champion Damon Hill, and F1 legend Guenther Steiner, both natural sports broadcasters, and both bringing their popularity to Ten’s broadcast.

“You walk through the paddock, Bower says of Steiner, “and he’s mobbed; that is a great thing for our broadcast.”

Auld likewise credits Ten with helping build the sport. He has only been in the CEO role at the Australian Grand Prix Corporation since last August, coming from the AFL, where he spent two decades, most recently as the chief financial officer. He understands the quickest way to ensure a good relationship between sporting body and broadcaster is by getting fans through the gates.

“My experience in sport, whether it be this sport, or AFL, or any other sport, is that broadcasters like full grandstands,” he said.

“Broadcasters like to shoot events with full grandstands because it shows an interest in it. Frankly, people feel like it must be a good thing to come and watch, and so I better stay and watch it.

“First and foremost, as a partner of Channel 10, I have no doubt that they’ll be the first ones that like the visuals that come with a full circuit. So that’s really, really important. What F1 and what Channel 10 do incredibly well is take you inside the car.

“They take you inside the garage. You feel like you’re a part of this event. If you can’t get to the event, the broadcast product is extraordinary.

“The way that they explain it — whether they’re an avid fan or seeing it for the first time — they talk you through it. I think it’s been part of the secret of the growth of this sport.”



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