F1 exec Bratches aims for more U.S. races, American outreach

Formula One’s new American owners realize the United States remains the biggest unconquered frontier for the sleekest motorsports enterprise on the planet.

Liberty Media, an Atlanta-based company that completed its purchase of F1 in January, outlined its plan to make inroads into the crowded U.S. sports landscape during an exclusive interview with the American-Statesman on Thursday. The new owner’s plans include:

• More races in the United States, particularly East Coast street races that could complement the U.S. Grand Prix and its F1 purpose-built Circuit of the Americas.

• Super Bowl-like festival atmospheres for races, playing off what COTA does, such as bringing in major musical acts like Taylor Swift last year and Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder this fall.

• Closer competition on the track so there is more overtaking and less squawking about Mercedes and Ferrari winning everything while the other teams scramble for the crumbs.

• Using social media and digital offerings to attract millennials and create the next generation of F1 fans.

“We want the festival atmospheres that (COTA chairman) Bobby Epstein has started here,” said Sean Bratches, managing director of Formula One. “He’s lured mega-music acts, set up all kinds of other entertainment, built a go-kart track. We’ve even got a (mechanical) bucking bronco here you can ride.”

Bratches, a former ESPN executive who played a major role in creating the Longhorn Network, said his sport is uniquely positioned to put on a major show.

“If you go see a UT football game or go see the Rockets in Houston, it’s a two- or three-hour event, then you drive home,” he said. “When you come to a Grand Prix, it’s a three- or four-day event, six to eight hours a day, and you need to have plenty of entertainment options.

“We’re putting more racing on the grid — F4, F3, GP2, F2, F1, Porsche Cup, Ferrari Cup, the Australian series. To broaden the net and engage people, we need more energy off the grid at the circuit.”

Next year F1 will stage four to six fan festivals in the city centers of Grand Prix sites, similar to the one Austin had for a few years before everything migrated to the track.

“We’ll have things like concerts, techno, fashion at night and things like interactive gaming, foosball tables, pingpong, even robots on display all day long,” Bratches said. “We’re definitely ratcheting up our digital game for younger fans.”

Clearly, Bratches, a former lacrosse player who helped the Rochester Institute of Technology to its first NCAA Tournament in 1983, wants more races in America. He knows where he wants to put them, too.

“We’re probably better served to bring them to East Coast markets rather than West Coast because that puts them into Europe at a more favorable time,” he said, mentioning Miami and New York as obvious candidates.

“I’d like to go to major Eastern cities and set up street races where you can activate large fan bases and have great television optics. Then you’d have a group of purpose-built tracks like COTA, the historic tracks of Europe, which will always be at the core of what we do, and street courses like Monaco and what we could add in the States.”

Bratches realizes that overnight or early morning race times are a problem in America. Right now only the events in Austin, Mexico City, Montreal and Brazil take place during a desirable Sunday afternoon window.

“The NFL is finding out about this challenge by putting games in London,” he said. “They come on at 5 or 6 in the morning on the West Coast. TV ratings suffer.

“Since we’re global, you’re never going to get a unilateral hard-shot win on this, but there are tweaks we can make. Currently we pingpong all over the world. If we consecutively string together all our Americas races, then the ones from Europe and then Asia, that wouldn’t make fans bounce around so much on start times. Plus it would help manage our logistical costs.”

Liberty Media’s surveys show close-quarters racing, passing and less predictability at the top of F1 fans’ wish lists.

“We learned our fans like speed, but what they love is wheel-to-wheel racing and overtaking,” Bratches said.

The twofold plan to accomplish that calls for: 1) F1 working with every circuit to increase the number of overtaking areas; and 2) F1, together with FIA, working to create an economic model that allows for a more competitive grid.

“We all know the teams who spend significantly more money are winning and finishing on the podium. Those that aren’t are at the back of the pack,” Bratches said. “We’re trying to bring the back of the grid up closer to the front. It’s not easy in F1, but we’ve got to reach compromises.”

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