F1’s sunset showdown & brand debacle

As the sun sets on the recently concluded 2021 Formula One Season, there’s no denying that it has been one of the most closely contested F1 seasons in recent past. With Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen facing off for a winner-take-all challenge for the Driver’s Championship at the final race in Abhu Dhabi. It’s been a closely fought season with the two physically coming together on track on more than one occasion. Even in the penultimate race at Jeddah, due to a team miscommunication, Hamilton suddenly came up to a suddenly decelerating Verstappen and couldn’t avoid colliding with his rear. The competition was acrimonious. Luckily while drivers and their bosses traded barbs, the brands kept it civil and impartial on track and online. But the final chapter of the season could see Mercedes-Benz on the backfoot where its PR and branding efforts are concerned.

The context

This season closer at Abhu Dabhi was tense from the start. With Lewis Hamilton taking the lead off the line and beating pole sitter Verstappen, there was drama and contestations into the first corner with Verstappen diving into the corner and Hamilton going wide yet keeping his position. Red Bull argued that the position should be given back, the race stewards and director didn’t think so. In the laps that followed, Lewis looked like he had the race in the bag by stretching a comfortable lead even on medium tires to Max’s soft. The lead only came down with some master craft driving by Red Bull’s second driver, Checo Perez holding up the leader. But the lead was soon stretched again even though Max had caught up. It was Mercedes dominance on show. The brand pundits couldn’t have been happier. It look liked their star would shine again under the lights at Yas Marina.

Then five laps to go, a crash by a Williams car warranted a safety car. Viewers had already seen a previous incident on lap 37 involving the Sauber of Antonio Giovanazzi retiring. Where in a rare display of trying to influence outcomes, the Mercedes-Benz team Principal Toto Wolff was seen talking to Race Director Michael Massi, requesting that the safety car not be deployed. Red Bull in the meantime played their cards right, dove into the pits and armed Max Verstappen with fresh hard tires. A few laps later another crash saw William’s Latiffi crashing into the barriers. The Safety Car was deployed so marshals could clear the track. Max changed tires to soft under the Safety Car. Hamilton stayed out to protect his track position. What happened next was highly controversial in that the Race Director removed the black markers (cars that were one lap down) between Hamilton and Verstappen but not between Verstappen and third place runner Carlos Sainz when the Safety Car was to come in. Not only was this peculiar, but there was also indecision with race officials initially saying that black markers wouldn’t be cleared and then opting to clear specific ones. This ensured that Verstappen was literally nose-to-nose with Hamilton, at one point, when the race restarted for one lap of racing and Sainz couldn’t contest for second place. Wolff was on the radio constantly with Massi crying foul play regarding the interpretation of the safety car rules and deviation from the norm. The result, – Verstappen took the lead and crossed the line as Formula One’s newest World Champion. Mercedes-Benz were shocked and livid, to say the least.

End of drama? Not quite. Hamilton didn’t take his car to the grid, commenting on the team radio that he felt the race was manipulated. Nor did he attend the usual post-race driver press conference. With the team already having won seven back-to-back world championships, some fans would have thought that they were over-reacting and not being magnanimous in defeat. But till that point it was understandable that Hamilton was feeling cheated. What happened next changed the narrative. Mercedes immediately lodged a complaint. Which they had every right to do. The fact that they had a lawyer on hand to take to the race stewards (when Red Bull did not) seemed to indicate that they were only too well prepared for such an eventuality. To be sore losers. Susy Wolff, wife of Toto Wolff and CEO of Formula E’s Venturi Racing later lashed out at Michael Masi on Twitter saying she felt that Hamilton had been robbed of a win by the race officials, while acknowledging Red Bull’s win. This added fuel to the snowballing conversation. Hamilton fans took to Twitter to cry foul. Mercedes threatened to appeal once their on-track appeals were turned down by race stewards. This left the fans confused. Who had really won. What would be the outcome? The FIA finally intervened and said it would investigate the race thoroughly, looking at the rules, the Race Director’s behaviour and the behaviour of the Team Principals. An act of appeasement. The Mercedes-Benz team conceded to back down (even though they felt they could have won a legal case) and released a statement on social media and to the press that congratulated the Red Bull team and Verstappen for their race craft, while underscoring their lack of faith in the FIA and the system. This was the statement that they should have made once their on-track appeals were turned down. Sure they could exercise the right to appeal, but from a branding perspective, in the eyes of Formula One fans a quick decision and communication would have been better. The matter could have and should have ended there.

But sadly, it did not. This was followed by both Hamilton and Wolff refusing to attend the prize giving ceremony to be held by the FIA in Paris with James Allison being delegated to pick up the Constructor’s Championship trophy. Wolff’s wife even didn’t attend her prize ceremony for her Formula-E team as a mark of protest. Yet at the same ceremony Max Verstappen by reiterating what he keeps saying in his post-race interviews appeared to share an olive branch of respect to Lewis. Hamilton’s presence would have made a difference for the brand. Individually, each of these elements could be disregarded as small matters and truly justified. Taken together it paints a brand narrative of a team that at some level doesn’t know how to lose graciously. Especially when compared to the seven times Red Bull has been defeated in the recent past. Yes, the Mercedes Formula One team is justified in feeling that their driver’s championship was robbed from under their feet. But it is the way in which they conducted themselves during the race and after that could be a small problem for the Mercedes-Benz parent brand whose brand philosophy is ‘The Best or Nothing’.

What does it mean for the brand

I read somewhere that Toto Wolff is co-owner of the Mercedes F1 team. Which means he can pick a stance and stick to it righteously. The question though is what kind of fallout is the parent automotive brand going to take post-race amongst its fans and potential customers. The silver lining for the silver arrows is that after the track side post-race contestations, they didn’t follow through with lodging another contestation. Instead, they opted to continue discussions with the FIA, Formula One’s governing body who are going to be reviewing the race procedure followed during the race. I don’t think there was ever a question of the driver’s championship being awarded to Hamilton once the on-track appeals were denied. Which was what Toto Wolff wanted at the time, saying that the race results should be judged by the drivers position on the lap preceding the Safety Car. Wolff feels he has a legal case that he could surely win. But the outcome of that case wouldn’t change the championship result and leave the sport in a mess.

But what does it say about the parent brands? For years now the main title contenders have been Mercedes-Benz and Red Bull. Side by side these are one of the two largest brands in Formula One. Yet they are very different. Red Bull is primarily a sports brand that sells an energy drink. It does some epic stunts with its Formula One cars like doing donuts on helicopter pads on high-rises or city drive throughs. Sure it has a Honda engine in its F1 car, but how many of us directly associate a Honda road cars with the racing team at first glance? This is not so for Mercedes-Benz. Ever since the brand bought out Brawn racing to re-enter the sport as a full-fledged works team, the brand has been carefully building a close connect between its road cars and its F1 success. Leveraging drivers that include Hamilton, Rosberg, Schumacher and Bottas. This strategy also holds true for their key sponsors like Petronas. So, the actions of the brand’s most notable key figures on track do project on the brand image in the consumer’s mind. And rubs off on their title sponsors who have decals all over the car. Max Verstappen’s aggressive driving actually at some level dovetails into the Red Bull chance taking brand imagery. Hamilton’s let the driving do the talking approach on a good day is symbolic of Mercedes-Benz’s drive for perfection.

But when you see how the team principals behave as they did throughout the entire race, it was both thrilling and shocking. It has been best described as tantamount to badgering between Team Principals (Wolf and Horner) and Race Director Michael Masi. Right from the first corner incident most likely. This has been compared by many to having rival football team coaches crowding around the umpire in a shouting match to influence a judgement. This has been more evident this year, as we’ve had unprecedented coverage of conversations that happen between the teams and the Race Director on tv coverage. These Team Principals represent their teams and like their star drivers are literally the embodiment of their brands. Their actions are always in the limelight. Seeing them bicker with Massi in this manner for the fans left a bad taste and is likely to have an impact on the brands they represent. In fact, the one person who seemed to be embodying most of the brand cues was none other (in my opinion) than Valettri Bottas. Who ironically is leaving Mercedes-Benz at the end of the year.

What can we expect next

I am sure given the time the fans will settle down and look forward to the next year’s season with its new cars and talent. Lewis Hamilton will be paired with George Russell and fans will be closely looking at the new team dynamic and whether it can compete with Red Bull’s awesome pairing. While some might cry about the integrity of the sport, most fans will just remember a race that went down to the line and had them at the edge of their seats. Netflix will remind them before the season opening with another explosive behind the scenes with their docu series – Drive to Survive, which should be in its best season yet.

Brand strategists might run a brand sentiment analysis using tools by Significant Systems and keep track with regards to the fan chatter on social media. Just to analyse what the actual brand sentiment is post-race. They’ll then figure out how to use this to their advantage smartly.

The brand PR pundits had a perfect opportunity to divert the conversation with Lewis Hamilton being subsequently knighted in the week after the race in a ceremony at Buckingham palace by Prince Charles. While the title had already been bestowed upon him before the season started, the official ceremony hadn’t happened. One would have expected the Mercedes-Benz team to push the ongoing narrative towards the indomitable fighting spirit of Hamilton and the parent brand and his overall contribution to motorsport. While the Mercedes-Benz brand might face some fallout, I doubt that the Lewis Hamilton brand is affected in any way with the outcome. Not only did Hamilton wish Verstappen in Parc fermé but his father congratulated Verstappen and his father too. Sure Toto Wolff says Hamilton is disillusioned, but I think there is no doubt that he will return to get that coveted record making 8th championship under his belt.

I would expect an advertising campaign to play up the constructors championship win and the racing spirit of the Silver Arrows once the sand settles. The Mercedes-Benz yearly Christmas commercial will be a talking point that diverts attention from the F1 season that was to the festive season that is.

As for Massi, Liberty Media (Formula One’s owners) should be happy that he gave the sport its most nail-biting finish to a season since recent past. I hope we see him again next year, but with the added support much needed, in the future. And not having rival teams yell at him while he is making race critical decisions. Cooler minds need to prevail. What is certain is that race craft should be the only decider to a season ending. And that teams need to be sporting no matter the outcome.