Mercedes continue to lead Formula 1’s social media landscape

With another championship battle going down to the wire between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, it is no surprise that Mercedes continued to benefit massively on social media during 2016, analysis of the leading three social media websites show.

Hamilton is the second biggest motor sport star currently
Across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Lewis Hamilton is the second biggest motor sport star out there currently. With a combined audience of 11.62 million followers, Hamilton is comfortably ahead of his nearest rival Fernando Alonso, who reaches 5.37 million accounts. In front of both Hamilton and Alonso is the MotoGP superstar Valentino Rossi, who reaches 21.53 million accounts. Rossi dwarfs Hamilton’s and Alonso’s numbers on Facebook, with 13.10 million accounts ‘liking’ Rossi through that service.

Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo are both ahead of Alonso overall, with a reach of 7.76 million and 6.80 million accounts respectively. From a social media point of view, MotoGP has more superstars than Formula 1 currently and with neither Rossi, Marquez or Lorenzo retiring any time soon, that picture looks set to continue. It is one thing that Formula 1 has struggled to do: build superstars on social media. The reason for that is MotoGP’s large audience of Facebook, which Formula 1 is only starting to replicate (see below).

> September 2016: In conversation with Ian Wheeler (part one; part two)

Away from the MotoGP and Formula 1 comparisons, Nico Rosberg bows out with 5.26 million combined followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Losing three of the five biggest names on social media in 2017 will hurt Formula 1. Jenson Button in fourth can reach out to 4.17 million combined followers, whereas Sergio Perez who sits in seventh reaches out to 2.12 million combined accounts. That’s a sizeable difference. It takes time to build up the younger stars which is why the older stars are still up top. But that is where FOM and Liberty Media come into play by working with the teams, in the same way Dorna did with MotoGP’s outfits to build up a strong social media presence.

Red Bull utilise the power of Facebook Live whilst Mercedes use Rosberg’s exit to generate hits
Facebook Live is becoming increasingly important to reach out to new audiences, something Red Bull have exploited in the latter half of the season. More and more teams are using these tools, but clearly Red Bull are doing something right in this space as their combined audience jumped by almost a million accounts between August and December, jumping from 8.08 million to 8.95 million, an increase of 10.9 percent. Red Bull’s Facebook videos have a lot more views and interaction than Mercedes despite having a lot less ‘likes’. No other team can boast that activity aside from Mercedes, and it is clear fans are liking the antics of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen… for now.

Four of the leading ten drivers from 2016 will not be in Formula 1 next season, a big loss for Formula 1’s social media profile.

Nico Rosberg’s retirement sent shock waves across social media, with the BBC reporting over two million unique hits for its article on the subject. Whilst the news itself generated attention that Formula 1 would never usually see in the off-season, Mercedes capitalised on it brilliantly from a social media standpoint. A spoof advert appeared in AUTOSPORT Magazine, which in turn led to several ex-drivers and media personalities ‘applying’ for the role via Twitter!

It is difficult to stand out from the social media crowd without a coherent social media strategy. You get the impression that Formula 1 is really starting to get the handle of what content works on social media and what doesn’t. When looking into greater detail, it’s interesting to note how the follower profile differ between MotoGP’s leading riders and Formula 1’s leading drivers. The overriding conclusion is that MotoGP skews firmly towards Facebook with over 60 percent of its social media audience coming from that platform. In comparison, Formula 1’s social media is much more ‘thinly’ spread out between Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

How MotoGP’s leading riders and Formula 1’s leading riders perform across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: a stark difference depending on the platform.

Are casual fans more likely to ‘like’ superstars on Facebook and monitor their activity there, rather than create a Twitter account and follow them via that medium? As previously mentioned on this site, the grower in this space at the moment is Instagram, which is eating slowly into Facebook’s market share where Formula 1 is concerned having gone from a combined following of 8.57 million accounts in December 2015 to 19.13 million accounts in December 2016 (all teams, drivers and official F1 included).

MotoGP has the largest presence overall
The official Formula 1 accounts across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have a combined audience of 7.34 million, up 14.4 percent from August and up a massive 211.5 percent on December 2015. This time last year, their combined following was just 2.36 million, although the large increase is due to their Facebook migration back in March. Nevertheless, the numbers should help Formula One Management (FOM) see how important social media is to the Formula 1 brand. In Abu Dhabi, FOM did their first #F1Live broadcast on Facebook, which was a success story (more on this in the next few days).

However, the official MotoGP accounts across social media are followed by a combined audience of 17.28 million people, thanks to a large Facebook following, as noted above with Rossi, Lorenzo and Marquez. Behind MotoGP is NASCAR, which is helped by a strong Twitter profile. MotoGP, NASCAR and Formula 1 are the ‘big’ three motor sport series and this translates across to social media.

A comparison of the leading motor sport series across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

At the other end of the spectrum, a combined audience of just 433,000 people follow the official Formula E channels, which puts it in line with the World Endurance Championship and the British Superbike Championship. The other point to note down the latter end of the table is the very small profile for both GP2 and GP3, showing why Liberty Media desperately need to integrate both series’ into Formula 1’s overall offering as they are firmly treated at the moment as a ‘bit on the side’.

Lastly, Roborace. A combined audience across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram of 2.24 million having never turned a wheel in anger during a real race. Fake followers? I think so…


Verstappen leads the Google Trends table

Mercedes may have led the way on track, but have they been the most searched ? According to Google Trends, the answer is no. Using data from Google Trends, Max Verstappen leads the way in the popularity rankings, whilst Lewis Hamilton has been searched more than double his team-mate.

To start off with, Google Trends data is described as follows:

Trends adjusts search data to make comparisons between terms easier.

Search results are proportionate to the time and location of a query:

  • Each data point is divided by the total searches of the geography and time range it represents, to compare relative popularity. Otherwise places with the most search volume would always be ranked highest.
  • The resulting numbers are then scaled on a range of 0 to 100 based on a topic’s proportion to all searches on all topics.
  • Different regions that show the same number of searches for a term will not always have the same total search volumes.

To analyse the data, we need to find the largest data point from every driver in 2016. They largest point is scaled at 100 with the remainder of the data following afterwards. The data is aggregated weekly, so we can see which driver led each race week throughout the season.

Max Verstappen’s win at the Spanish Grand Prix was the most searched Formula 1 topic of 2016, narrowly beating Fernando Alonso’s spectacular crash at the season opening Australian Grand Prix.

Most Searched Drivers’ on Google in 2016
14 x Max Verstappen (RUS, SPA, MON, CAN, BAK, GBR, HUN, GER, BEL, SIN, JPN, USA, MEX, BRA)
3 x Lewis Hamilton (AUT, ITA, MAL)
2 x Rio Haryanto (BAH, CHN)
1 x Fernando Alonso (AUS)

It was a Verstappen whitewash at the top of the table for the majority of the year, showing the global impact he has made in such a short space of time since his move to Red Bull following the Russian Grand Prix.

Behind Verstappen were the aforementioned Hamilton, Alonso and Haryanto, in that order. Hamilton has been a title contender all year-long, so his placing should not be surprising. Alonso would not be as high up the pecking order without his Australia crash, which generated a lot of press attention and imagery to go along with it. Haryanto was the first Indonesian driver in Formula 1, becoming somewhat of a celebrity in his home country as a result.

Nico Rosberg has been consistently behind Hamilton throughout the season by a ratio of 2.5 to 1, never once moving ahead of him and only once equalling him in the search rankings following the Austrian Grand Prix. Even if Rosberg does win the championship on Sunday, Hamilton will remain by far the more recognisable figure outside the paddock thanks to his superstar status.

Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo and Jenson Button are the only other drivers’ that get respectable search numbers via Google. Everyone else is clustered within the same region, led currently by Felipe Massa. The Sauber drivers of Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson trail the table, with Jolyon Palmer just ahead of the pair.

Analysing each team is difficult as someone searching Ferrari could either be searching the racing team or cars to buy, whereas Red Bull could either mean the racing team or the soft drinks. Using the data already gathered though, it is possible to see which race weekends generated the biggest impact via the Google search engine. As already discovered, the Spanish and Australian weekends lead the way, thanks to Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso respectively, although the Spanish race win for Verstappen was due to Mercedes’ own misdemeanour as well.

The wet race in Brazil featured as the 3rd best race of the season, again Verstappen the key here for the search metrics. Austria and Mexico rounded out the top five positions. It’s clear to see why those five races generated a lot of search traffic. Shockingly, races with big moments result in a surge in search activity for those associated with the action.

At the other end of the spectrum, the European Grand Prix from Baku generated the least amount of search traffic all year. Not only was the race poor, but it clashed with Euro 2016 and more importantly from a motor racing perspective, Le Mans. Hopefully Baku manages to avoid a Le Mans clash in 2017 as it hurt the former more than anticipated in the process.

In conversation with Steve Day

From former racer during his teenage years to Dorna’s World Feed commentator in their MotoGP coverage, Steve Day (@SteveDayGP) has moved up the commentary ladder in recent years.

Whilst Silverstone was getting a soaking during the fourth MotoGP practice session on Saturday, myself and Steve took cover for a quick chat, looking at how he prepares for a race weekend and how to get the best out of a commentary pairing.

F1B: Thanks for this interview Steve. To start with, just give us a brief introduction to yourself and how you got to where you are today.

SD: I actually raced myself when I was younger. I started out in the Aprilia Superteens when I was aged 15 back in 2000. I suppose you could call it unlucky really, but I was racing against the likes of Casey Stoner, Cal Crutchlow, Chaz Davies and so on. I raced for two or three seasons, went to the British championship and crashed quite a bit. Ultimately, I realised quite quickly that I wasn’t going to make it like those around me and it was costing quite a lot of money, it’s an expensive game. I decided when I was about 23 or 24 that we’d call it a day racing. And then for a few years I was working at car dealerships, Volkswagen and Toyota. My Dad was involved in a race series called Thundersport GB and they needed someone for free to come and prat around basically on a microphone! I thought I’d give it a go, so on weekends when I was free, I’d go and do that. For the first few seasons, I commentated and gave it a go. Someone said it sounded alright! I think it was in 2010, I was commentating on the Sidecar Championship for Eurosport and I spoke to Eurosport to ask if there were any openings. At the time there weren’t too many but they gave me a go [with MotoGP] and it just went from year-to-year really from strength to strength. I’ve gone from earning no money, doing it part-time for a few years to now sitting here in the Grand Prix paddock and yeah, I’m loving it.

F1B: Now that you’re a commentator, you used to race bikes so that must be a pretty big advantage in that you’ve, sort of, been there and done that.

SD: It’s a massive help because you understand the mind of a rider a little more. You can appreciate how the crashes feel, what a rider is going through on the bike. You have the general understanding of how a bike works, I’ve found it an aid to my commentary. Okay, I wasn’t racing at a world championship level, but it’s definitely been a help.

F1B: You know the basics.

SD: Yep.

F1B: Just thinking about the current season, how do you prepare for the season and for this weekend?

SD: As a commentator, you have to do a lot of research. There is paperwork around the house everywhere. I tend to start with the riders, so I’ll look at all the riders and I’ll just try to get as much research as possible. There’s a fair amount in your head, I’ve been a bike racing fan for a long time as well as a former rider, so a large quantity is already in your head because you’re sitting and watching it on your couch anyway. It’s just a matter of going through every single piece of research that you can on each rider, writing it down as it stores the information in your head a little easier when you write things down. And then researching the circuit information, the rules on the championship, the bikes. The start of the season is definitely tougher because there are normally new faces, new coloured bikes that you have to get used to, different styles of helmets. On a round-by-round basis, I have data on my iPad that I then update after each round and I’ll add to that as well in between rounds and get ourselves ready for the weekend.

F1B: How is the dynamic in the commentary box between different co-commentators, do you have a preference, what’s the protocol?

SD: I’ve always been a lead commentator, so I’ve always had what they call an expert in with me. I’ve had the chance, since working with Eurosport and now with Dorna, to work with around 15 or 16 different commentators from ex-riders to general experts. I don’t necessarily have a preference, I tend to try to have a conversation before I’m working with someone just to try and work out what their style of commentary is and then try and work within that. It’s no good constantly talking over each other, I think you have to have an out of commentary box relationship with that person as well, it works really well. Last year, I worked with Greg Haines. Me and Greg [Haines] off circuit got on like a house on fire, it worked because you can feel that. Me and Matt [Birt] this year, we get along really well, we have some common interests, we’re good mates so that works as well. Some of the ex-riders I’ve worked with, the likes of Neil Hodgson, had a great rapport with him. Julian Ryder, he’s brilliant at what he does, I’ve worked with him as well. So yeah, a mixture of different types of commentators. You have to just try and work out yourself, put the feelers out and try and find the right dynamic.

F1B: For you guys it’s important that you have the relationship, because chances are you’ll be sitting in the box next to each other for seven hours.

SD: You have. I’ve not been in a situation where I’ve necessarily worked with anybody that I don’t like which is a bonus! I’ve worked with other commentators who perhaps haven’t done the job for very long so you end up talking a little more than others. But 100 percent, if you’ve got some rapport, have a bit of a laugh, you’ve got that relationship outside the commentary box then it does come out on air.

F1B: Sepang last year, [Valentino] Rossi vs [Marc] Marquez, how was it?

SD: Believe it or not, I wasn’t actually commentating on that race, I was sitting at home watching it. In that moment, there were perhaps a few swear words from the couch! I couldn’t actually believe what I’d saw. In so many ways, it was bad for the season, in other ways it raised interest. People were then on the edge of their seats ready for the final round. It was certainly full of drama. It would have been nice if the championship had gone to the final round with them fighting all fair and square, but it didn’t happen. It was probably the most dramatic moment I’ve ever seen in MotoGP for sure.

F1B: Looking ahead to MotoGP’s future, obviously part of that future is a MotoGP without Rossi. How will it play out?

SD: It’s a question that a lot of people have asked because of the character of Rossi and his legendary status. But it takes more than one rider to make a championship. Every sport has its icons, and MotoGP will be fine. The series has never been healthier than it is right now; the crowds are record-breaking.

F1B: You would think today (Saturday) is a race day at Silverstone.

SD: Yeah, exactly, it is busy. The key at the moment is that Rossi doesn’t want to retire, he’s extended his deal and he’s still in great form. He’s in better form this year than he was last year, he’s just been unlucky in a few of the races. However, I would say post-Rossi, I don’t know. Some people think that MotoGP will go downhill when Rossi leaves. Okay, there won’t be another Valentino, he’s an amazing character but the sport will maintain the same interest. Of course this assumes he does retire, he might go until he’s 50!

F1B: Imagine us sitting here having the same conversation in ten years’ time!

SD: For me, while he keeps performing at this level, I would not be surprised in the slightest if at the end of 2018 he was to announce another deal.

F1B: Another area of course is social media. How do you find social media, of course you’re a commentator so you get reaction in when things have happened, how do you think social media will play out?

SD: I think social media is absolutely key in the modern era and I think its massive now for MotoGP. They’re understanding how important social media is. I suppose in a way I’m quite lucky, because I’m 32, I’ve come in at a time when social media has already been a big part of my life anyway. I think that for a lot of the people who have been here pre social media takeover, they’re now understanding how important it is. I think it’s the best way of reaching out to people. I’m one of those people who probably checks their Twitter feed all too often.

F1B: Just like me!

SD: Yeah, all too often! But it is the era that we’re in, there’s less paper about. People go onto Twitter and onto Facebook to find out the information. It’s in a healthy state, it has to be utilised in the right way and I think MotoGP are doing that.

F1B: Where do you see yourself in the next few years, currently you’re the MotoGP commentator, but do you want to do other sports or do you want to do other roles within the paddock?

SD: I don’t know. I’ve done other sports with Eurosport and I always like to test myself. I think there might be a point in the future where I may want to branch out and do something else, at the moment I’m happy within bike racing as a whole, not necessarily just MotoGP, but all bike racing. I’m happy doing what I’m doing, but I’m still young and I’ve got time on my side. I can’t say that one day I might take on something at the Olympics, who knows. At the moment, I’m happy with my role, I love being a commentator, and it’s nice and dry in the commentary box which is a bonus!

My thanks go to Steve Day for spending the time with me on the above interview.

In conversation with Ian Wheeler (part two)

My conversation with Ian Wheeler, who is the Marc VDS Marketing and Communications Manager, continues (part one can be found here).

In the second and final part, we talk about social media and how Dorna have increasingly helped MotoGP’s teams over the past few seasons.

IW: The other good thing about social media is that all of our partners have an active social media department as part of their marketing department. So what we do on social media is very visible to our sponsors. Not only that, but they can also see our metrics, and where they can’t see the metrics, then we supply the metrics. For them, the most important metrics we have are TV, the EAV (equivalent advertising value), which we give to our sponsors, I don’t know if any other teams do. The other thing is the social media metrics because they know that their social media accounts are also there, they want to see how our metrics compare to theirs. So, again it’s another way of measuring their return on investment in the sponsorship, it’s a very visible way of communicating.

F1B: It’s good to see the reluctance has disappeared, it really is.

IW: It sort of happened overnight. We were all invited to a social media workshop in Jerez last year, they [Dorna] brought a couple of people from Facebook, a guy from Twitter.

F1B: Were all the teams there?

IW: It was all the MotoGP teams.

F1B: Wow. I think that shows that Dorna really wanted to do something about social media.

IW: They brought in specifically Aiste Milasiute as the Social Media Manager. In the past, they’ve had a community manager, but not with the seniority to set policy. This was a change I guess quite high up at Dorna to change the policy and to bring in a Social Media Manager. She came in and the whole system changed overnight. They’ve provided the link to Facebook and Twitter, which we would have never been able to have as individual teams. All of a sudden the doors were open. Now I speak to the guy at Twitter, not frequently but if I want to know something, I sent him an e-mail and within a day I get an answer.

F1B: From what I gather, it sounds like things have changed for the positive.

IW: The biggest thing for a race team when working with sponsors is that we are limited by budget on what sort of support infrastructure we can have. The marketing department in the team is basically me. Our team principal Michael Bartolini, he’s involved in the commercial and marketing side and that’s about it. When you look at one of our sponsors, for example Estrella Galicia or Total, these are big companies with a big, active marketing department as they’re big consumer brands. For them, social media is one of their key channels of communication. For us to be able to go to them and say “okay, we have these chances now, we can promote your involvement in MotoGP through these channels.” But it’s not just us, it’s when MotoGP helps us out sharing this information, the figures are incredible. Sometimes we put things on social media and we don’t highlight it to MotoGP, we save it for something when we know the numbers are going to be good. The difference between that and something that is shared by MotoGP is huge. For us, it’s the biggest step forward in terms of providing our sponsors with ROR (return-on-relationship).

F1B: MotoGP without Valentino Rossi. How will that effect things going forward, will sponsors leave?

IW: It’s a difficult question. I don’t think sponsors will leave. Valentino Rossi is the most recognisable figure in MotoGP. Sometimes we speak to companies who have never had any involvement in motor cycle racing. You speak to them about MotoGP, you explain to them what it is and as soon as you mention the words Valentino Rossi “ah, yeah, we know him.” He is a massive part of our sport. He’s the biggest rider out there, he transcends MotoGP. He’s a little bit like what Barry Sheene was for the British in the 70s and 80s. He’s gone outside of the sporting environment and he is a real celebrity. To lose a celebrity like that, especially somebody as clever as he is. To lose his persona is always going to be difficult for the championship. But it’s not going to have a massive negative impact. Yeah, we won’t see the yellow smoke across the grandstands in Mugello. But those grandstands will still be full, they’ll just be full of people who are supporting other riders. I don’t think we are going to see a big downturn in interest, maybe we will have a small dip at the start where the fanatical Valentino Rossi fans will maybe think about whether they want to continue supporting, but I think the core following MotoGP will not dip so much and I think it will continue to grow. I think it’ll be a long time before we see another Valentino Rossi.

F1B: He’s a once in a generation.

IW: It is. Maybe once every two generations. But we have the riders, we have the close racing, it’s just this personality we will be missing. So, yeah it will have an impact on the championship but I don’t think it will have a negative impact that some of the doom-mongers would have you believe.

F1B: One last question: have you heard of virtual reality?

IW: Well it’s funny you should mention that.

F1B: It’s meant to be the next big thing.

IW: I have heard of virtual reality. One of the things that social media has done is forced MotoGP and other sports teams in general to reconsider how they deliver content. When I first started in 2001 as a press officer, you only really had one way to do it then and that was an e-mail to journalists who you’d hope would pick up what you sent and put it in their print content. Or you soft soaped the TV people and hoped they mentioned your riders, teams and so on more than anybody else. Now, it’s completely different. We don’t have to rely on the TV to speak to the fans, to promote our sponsors to our potential customers, because we have that audience ourselves. But that audience, their demand for content is different to how the journalists worked in 2001. They don’t want them to send them a press release because they already have all the information about that session, that race aggregated by websites which turn the information around so quickly. Even the teams can’t compete with that. What the teams are being forced to look at now is what content works best on social media. It’s photography, it’s short paragraphs of information, it’s video. And now teams are having to look at this and say “okay, we weren’t really set up to do this.” We were set up to communicate in a traditional manner, where we send press releases, we put them on the website and then we take the links from the website and post them onto Facebook and Twitter. And we still do that, because the press releases are our document of record and the website is our repository for that. But we’re all being forced now to come up with new ideas for content.

One of the ways we’ve changed massively over the last two years is that we put a lot of resource into new content. Short, not produced to Hollywood standard, but just to try to get a behind the scenes look. Dorna have reacted to this, their TV rights are very important, safeguarding those TV rights is critical to the future of the championship. But they also realise that the teams need to promote themselves, and by extension promote the championship. So, for example one of the things that has been relaxed in the past year is filming. Before, it was impossible for us to film, unless we organised a private test at great expense and then went and filmed there. Now, they realise that we need this opportunity to film the sponsors. We can film, we have to ask for permission and get the footage authorised by Dorna, but now we can film during MotoGP tests. This is a huge advantage to us. I think when it was allowed us, LCR Honda, who are also very progressive, and a couple of other teams were straight onto this since it benefits the sponsors.

Now, every time we go to a test (Brno and Austria before the Summer break), every team is doing it. Whether it be a professional video camera, we invested in some equipment so that we could slow-motion for MotoGP because it’s quite interesting. We’ve got Pramac with GoPro, they’re quite inventive about what they do, the content is very, very popular. The teams have changed, and it’s not just to the benefit of the teams, it’s for the benefit of the people who invest time into our race weekends, because its popular content that promotes the championship. And Dorna, quite rightly, have opened this up but also kept some control regarding the quality of the videos that goes out, which is also important to protect the championship. We’ve never had them say “no, you can’t use this.” We go and film at a test, we share it on social media and Dorna then step in and help us again by sharing the content again. So it’s win-win for us. They got a lot of criticism, but with the changing social media policy, their understanding of what the teams need to do to secure the sponsorship, to secure the racing outfit, there is a massive difference now compared to three years ago – a positive difference. I can’t fault them for that, I really can’t, it’s been a very clever thing to do.

F1B: Is there anything further you want to add that we haven’t already talked about?

IW:  The only other thing is cost cutting. We’ve seen cost cutting measures brought into the paddock and in reality, they might cut costs initially but teams will always find a way of spending money. It’s just the way it is, you cut costs there but increase costs here. It’s only going to cost us this amount of money, so we go and do it. To race at this level costs a lot of money. What I think Dorna have done well is give the teams the tools they need to bring this money. Some teams use it more effectively than others, not so much in MotoGP because you don’t get to race in MotoGP without being able to generate money. But in Moto2 and Moto3, you see that some teams are much more effective at what they can produce to secure the budget they need, and all of it helped by Dorna, and that’s probably the most profitable change.

My thanks go to Ian Wheeler for spending the time with me on the above interview.

In conversation with Ian Wheeler (part one)

Thursday in the British MotoGP paddock was a busy day for myself. Alongside my conversation with David Emmett, I also had a chat with Ian Wheeler (@IanWheeler) who is currently Marketing and Communications Manager with the Marc VDS Racing Team.

I have split the conversation over two parts. In this part, myself and Wheeler chat about the logistics of preparing for a race weekend, along with an introduction to where MotoGP currently stands in the social media landscape, a topic that we will also cover in part two.

F1B: Thank you for the interview Ian, just give us a little bit of your background, what you’ve done before, what has led you to where you are today.

IW: Like a lot of people in the paddock, I used to race and was pretty poor at it, I stopped before I seriously injured myself! I ended up going off and doing something completely different away from racing into a normal job. I went to work for a defence contractor and they put me in charge of their website which I knew nothing about. I decided that I’d learn how websites work by building one. I was away on a trip to Malaysia, the same weekend as the first British Superbike weekend. I went online to find out who won what and couldn’t find anything anywhere. I came back, started a British Superbike website, went to the races myself, did the interviews and it just took off because there was no other source of information. As a result, I ended up working for an online company Bike Net and then from there started working for Kawasaki in British Superbikes and also took over as editor of Motorcycle Racer Magazine. With Kawasaki I moved from British Superbike to World Superbike and onto MotoGP in 2003. I stayed with Kawasaki as their Marketing and Communications Manager until 2009 when they stopped. I had a couple of years with Dorna doing the pit lane commentary and then in 2010 came back on this side of the fence with Marc VDS when we came back into Moto2. And obviously being with Marc VDS now, the 2014 championship win and the move to MotoGP with Scott [Redding] in 2015 and now with the two riders in 2016.

F1B: Wow, so the British Superbike stuff I’m guessing that was when the internet started to become a thing?

IW: I was doing it around 1999 and 2000. Then in 2001, I was a press officer for the Kawasaki team, still a little bit involved in the website but not as much. They sold out to another company, gave it to them and they carried it on.

F1B: You moved from Kawasaki to Dorna, what was it that prompted the move from team to rights holder?

IW: At the end of 2008, there were issues with the economy in Japan and the exchange rate, so they decided to stop racing. When you’re developing a factory bike in MotoGP, it is a fairly big financial commitment, and they decided that they had higher priorities at the time commercially. So they stopped the MotoGP project, it was around about Christmas time in 2008, which meant that we were too late to find another position in 2009 with another team. I sat at home doing some freelance and then Michael Morel from Dorna called me saying that we’ve lost our pit lane reporter, do you fancy doing it. I wasn’t doing anything that was keeping me too busy at the time and it was an opportunity to come back to the paddock. I’ve never done it before, apart from once when they made me stand in at Rockingham with Fred Clarke. I thought it sounded like an interesting change, I did it and enjoyed it. Then in 2010, I got a phone call off my ex-boss at Kawasaki Michael Bartolini saying that we’re going racing again and can you come to Belgium. I continued with Dorna for the rest of 2010 but by then it was starting to get difficult.

F1B: What did you learn with Dorna that you were able to bring back to the team?

IW: It’s a good question. When I worked in this role with Kawasaki, your circle of influence is quite small by choice because you’re focussed on securing the exposure for the team, promoting the sponsors and partners for the team. So you’re focussed on a small part. When you’re doing it from the other side where you’re effectively now the journalist and you require things from other teams, then it opens up this circle of context. What I found was that I got a lot of help from the teams. A lot of people in pit lane are looking for the same story and the same information. I got a lot of help from the guys at Yamaha, the guys from Honda, who I only really knew in passing because it wasn’t where my focus was with Kawasaki. When I came back to the team [Marc VDS], it was helping these guys out rather than always looking for the angle. These guys have a tough job, they have to keep people updated, it’s better to help them with information that you normally wouldn’t think to give to them because it is of no advantage to you or the team.  It’s better to build the relationship with these people who do quite a difficult job and are under a lot of pressure. If something goes wrong in the race or in practice, it can be quite stressful. We can help a lot because we have access to the information faster than they do.

F1B: Thinking more about your Dorna role, but also your current role, what sort of preparation is involved for each weekend?

IW: They’re different, but also similar. With Dorna, the Monday before a race you start looking at what is happening across all three classes, looking at the news feeds to see if anything is happening that you need to be aware of, specifically with riders. It is learning about the characteristics of the track, is it going to be hard on tyres, is fuel consumption going to be an issue for the MotoGP bikes. How does the track suit the characteristics of each of the bikes, does the track suit the Honda or the Yamaha. It is also looking for stories that others may not have picked up on by using the contacts in the paddock rather than just looking at the news feeds. It is to make sure that when you arrive on the Thursday at the press conference, or sometimes interviewing specific riders, you were up to speed with everything that is going on rather than to walk into the paddock and be surprised at something. Over the course of the weekend, each evening you go through what’s gone on during the day, pick out the interesting stories for the following day. It is to try to stay ahead of the people who you are broadcasting to.

F1B: What about your job role now with Marc VDS, what preparation do you do?

IW: It is twofold really. On the one hand it is the media responsibilities for the riders, organising the media schedule for the riders in terms of access to journalists, access to TV, specific TV interview features. When the rider arrives on Wednesday, there should be a riders’ schedule explaining exactly what they need to do, what time, who it’s for, which country it is going out in.

F1B: Makes their life easier.

IW: No, it makes my life easier because then I don’t have to spend hours speaking to their answer phone! It’s just so they know exactly what they have to do, who they’re doing it for and for TV features, we’ll give them a little bit of background about what the journalist is looking for so they don’t go into the interview cold. On the other side, we also have responsibilities for the sponsors. For example, this race, Pro-Bolt is one of our sponsors here, they’re based here in the UK and have been a loyal sponsor since 2010. We’ve got some events with them, which we also use the riders for. We’ve got guests from Estrella Galicia who is our biggest sponsor, so it’s making sure we have a programme for them that includes the riders, pit box tours and also it is scheduling commercial meetings. It is easier to have commercial meetings at the race track as the sponsors are based in that country as well, rather than flying in for a meeting between races. A little bit of everything really.

F1B: Sounds pretty good. The whole area of sponsors leads me nicely onto our next subject: MotoGP’s future with regards social media. Where do you see MotoGP from a social media perspective going?

IW: The most important thing is the championship itself, the product if you like. What we’ve seen over the past few years from Dorna is some quite clever moves to strength the championship, to make it more attractive, to make it more unpredictable and interesting to the viewer. We’ve also see a massive step forward with the TV coverage. The quality is absolutely fantastic. When you compare us to Formula 1 in terms of TV coverage, I think Dorna exceeds what Formula 1 does. Okay, they [Dorna] have a little bit more freedom because we don’t have the rigid rules about the driver access. What they focus their non-race coverage on is exactly what people want, the personalities. Not just on the riders, but the people who you would want to see on the TV, Tito Rabat’s crew chief or Sam Lowes’ tyre guy who you see all the time. They build these interesting personalities because we have some really interesting characters, most of them have got their own story which MotoGP tell very well in different ways with the TV coverage but also their online video coverage. So, we have a strong championship, we have a strong TV presence. They’ve done a lot of the job for us in MotoGP rather than Moto2 or Moto3 of building these interesting personalities. Their social media policy has changed massively over the past two years; they’ve really taken on-board the fact that social media is one of the most powerful communication tools. They’ve brought in people to make the most of that. You look at their audience on social media, it is constantly growing. Even if you don’t understand social media, you can’t argue with the figures.

Even better for us is the past two years have seen a fundamental change in how they interact with the teams via social media. In the past it has very much been standalone. MotoGP and social media, it’s to promote the championship, it’s to promote MotoGP. The teams had been left to themselves, we don’t have that audience at all. Even the biggest team here does not have the audience that the championship has across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Now, they couldn’t help us anymore than they are. They really are making a massive difference, they share content, they are proactive with us, they give us advice “okay, if you do this, then we can share that, this is the benefit you get from it.” If there is something we don’t understand or something we want to know, their door is open, we go to speak to them and they always have something constructive to say or some way to help us out. It has allowed the teams to look at how they utilise social media. Our way has not changed, we focus very much on the personalities, we focus on our riders because that is where the interest is. We’re not a factory team, we have a responsibility to our sponsors, in terms of their image and also securing coverage for them. We’re not limited in the same way the factory teams are by the corporate style, we have a little bit more leeway on how we use social media. It allows us to have a much better relationship with not just the fans but also the journalists as well, we feed information out on social media specifically for the journalists as well as putting information out there for the fans. One example is a rider who crashes during a session, for us social media is the fastest way to communicate that the rider is okay or what has happened to the rider. The fans see it, they’re happy. The journalists see it, including the TV commentators. They have the Twitter feed open while they’re commentating as it’s a good source of information, they get the information and push it straight out on TV.

My thanks go to Ian Wheeler for spending the time with me on the above interview. In part two, we continue to look at MotoGP’s future, and Ian explains what is meant by a ‘social media’ workshop.