Racing towards a different future

Alex Twitchen
Open University, UK

Hans Erik Næss & Simon Chadwick (ed.)
The Future of Motorsports: Business, Politics and Society
277 pages, hardcover
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2123
ISBN 978-1-032-29910-5

The Future of Motorsports: Business, Politics and Society is an edited volume of 19 chapters divided into four parts. In their introduction, the editors, Hans Erik Næss and Simon Chadwick, argue that motorsports are currently at a point of inflection whereby the sport either understands and responds positively to change or goes into decline. The cause of this inflection is not just associated with the environmental concerns generated by the use of fossil fuels to power racing-cars, but also includes the impact of digital technologies and forms of social activism that exert an influence on the standards of corporate responsibility. It is these processes that Næss and Chadwick claim will frame the future of motorsports.

The introduction to the book also describes, albeit briefly, the relationship between motorsports, the automobile and automobility. The editors make the substantial claim that motorsports have a ‘big role’ to play in the future of more sustainable forms of automobility and not least in developing and promoting electric powertrains as a replacement for the internal combustion engine. What I understood from the introduction was that the book would answer an important question as to how elite motorsports will develop a renewed association with the automobile when many of the sports traditions are becoming obsolete.

The first part of the book includes four chapters on ‘The Motorsport Sector’. These chapters mostly address the business, finance and commercial developments that have occurred in motorsports since the election of Max Mosley as President of the Fédération Internationale de l’ Automobile (FIA) in 1993 and the signing of the fourth ‘Concorde Agreement’ in 1995 that effectively transferred control of the commercial rights to Formula One from the teams to a series of private companies ultimately owned by Bernie Ecclestone. Chapter 2 describes the subsequent expansion of motorsports, especially Formula One, into the Gulf Region and addresses the issue of ‘sportswashing’. Chapter 3 describes the governance controversies that the FIA has confronted, not least the conflict of interest posed by being both the regulator and promotor of many global motorsport events. Separating the regulatory and promotional functions of the FIA was undertaken, as chapter 3 eloquently outlines, after the court case with the European Commission in the late 1990s. It was the outcome of this case that helped to create further commercial opportunities in motorsports for private companies and institutional investors which is explored in chapter 4.

The editors, in making their opening claim that motorsports have a significant role to play in the ‘green transition’ that will redefine the automobile and automobility, have not sufficiently considered the potential for an increasing divergence between the automobile in everyday society and motorsports.

Part two is entitled ‘The Operating Environment’ and includes four chapters that mainly cover the extent to which motorsports are changing and evolving in the context of the challenges associated with environmental sustainability. Chapter 6 specifically addresses Formula One and draws on the concept of ‘greenwashing’ to question whether the ‘profit-over-all’ objective, necessitated by the private ownership of Formula One by the Liberty Media Group, will limit the extent to which it can achieve real progress in reducing its impact on the environment. This theme is continued in chapter 7 which examines how the World Rally Championship (WRC) has sought to retain the traditions of rallying whilst addressing environmental concerns through the introduction of several new initiatives. A similar theme is also the subject of chapter 8 which outlines the business model of Extreme E. This is a new motorsport series that has been developed with environmental sustainability built into the strategic aims of the competition and these aims are listed on page 105. Chapter 9 takes, and excuse the pun, a handbrake turn into the world of motorcycle road-racing and the famous Isle of Man TT races. The TT races are vital to the economy of the Isle of Man, yet it is an event that is amongst the deadliest forms of motorsports. It is, as the chapter title nicely describes, an event that is ‘on the edge’ as the traditions of the TT are trying to be maintained whilst making the racing safer.

Chapter 10 starts part three of the book which focuses on ‘Social Responsibility’ and contains six chapters. Two these cover gender and motorsport, two others revolve around the use of social media and specifically the role of X (twitter). The remaining two develop the concept of greenwashing further and explore the social responsibilities of motorsports in the context of human rights. Each of these six chapters have important observations to make and provide an informative commentary on significant issues, yet this part of the book seemed to lack the coherency and flow that the other parts had.

Part 4 entitled ‘Digital and Technology’ contains four chapters that in my view provided the most thought-provoking and profound insights into the future of motorsports. Chapter 18 for example draws on an empirical study of an autonomous racing series to provide some interesting insights into what the future of motorsports might look like. Roborace features racing cars that are not controlled or driven by human beings. Instead, they are controlled by AI software programmed by teams of engineers and use sensors to help the car navigate the racetrack. At present the technology is still in its infancy and the series is currently a time-trial race where only one car is on track at a time. The authors of the chapter researched the perception of Roborace amongst ‘Generation Z’ individuals. They found that at a race between a human driver and an AI-driver would be an attractive prospect. But, as the authors point out, whilst at present a human-driver would be the winner there will come a time when the AI software improves to such an extent that an AI powered racing-car will outperform a similar vehicle driven by a human being.

(Shutterstock/Ev. Safronov)

Why then is Roborace such an interesting insight into the future of motorsport? Back in the early 1990s, Formula One teams, most noticeably the Williams team, developed cars that featured several technologies that provided the driver with assistance. These ‘driver aids’ included computer controlled active suspension, traction control, anti-lock braking, and semi-automatic gearboxes. After the Williams team dominated the 1992 and 1993 season these aids, with the exception of semi-automatic gearboxes, were banned and still are to this day. Amongst the arguments for the banning of these technologies was the extent to which they took away the control and skill of the racing-driver. The ban reinforced the idea that motor-racing, as a sport, is essentially a contest between highly skilled human beings who are in control of the vehicle they are driving.

This is an important defining principle at a time when the everyday automobile is not only moving towards electrification but automation as well. Cars are moving towards a future where they become vehicles not driven by human beings but places to watch YouTube videos, flick through Instagram and catch-up on emails. This, in my view, goes to the heart of this book. The editors, in making their opening claim that motorsports have a significant role to play in the ‘green transition’ that will redefine the automobile and automobility, have not sufficiently considered the potential for an increasing divergence between the automobile in everyday society and motorsports. By divergence I mean the automobile becoming an increasingly autonomous vehicle controlled by AI and software whilst motorsports remain a sport where the vehicle is controlled by a human being with the regulations being written accordingly. The inflection that motorsport confronts is not only concerned with de-carbonisation and environmental sustainability but also the extent to which it remains a sport for racing-drivers. Is the future of motorsports more like Roborace? I for one would hope not, and I’m not sure Netflix would be interested in making a Drive to Survive series that only features software engineers and programmers.

There is no doubt that this book makes a valuable contribution to the academic study of motorsport, which, as the editors point out, is still lacking. I would though have liked to have read a closing chapter that drew the threads of the arguments featured in the preceding chapters together. The relationship between motorsports and the automobile has existed since the first automobiles were invented. Yet, as the automobile industry itself enters a period of inflection that will redraw the map of the automotive industry, the role of motorsports in this process is still far from certain. One ray of hope lies in the decision of Audi to enter Formula One in 2026. For a brand that is committed to an all-electric future as part of the Volkswagen group, committing to Formula One which will retain an internal combustion engine that under the new 2026 regulations will make more noise, is at the very least a very interesting business decision.

Copyright © Alex Twitchen 2024

Table of Content

      1. Introduction: Motorsport in the 21st Century – Trends and Tendencies
        Hans Erik Næss and Simon Chadwick

Part I: The Motorsport Sector

      1. Formula 1 in the Gulf Region: The Fast and the Furious
        Simon Chadwick
      2. Governance Controversies and Financial Mismanagement in Motorsport
        Christina Philippou
      3. When Institutional Capital Flows into Motorsport: From Leagues to Teams
        Achille de Rauglaudre
      4. The Business of Motorsports in China: From Shanghai to Every Emerging City?
        Ren Huitao

Part II: The Operating Environment

      1. Formula One and Environmental Sustainability: Changes, Shifts, and Future Challenges in Motorsport
        Timothy Robeers, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mike Stocz
      2. Cultural Traditions and Contemporary Pressures: The Path Ahead for the FIA World Rally Championship
        Sam Tickell
      3. Motorsport Racing to Save the Planet: The Business Model of Extreme E
        Cem Tinaz
      4. Events on the Edge: Values of Motorcycle Racing, Its Past and Future at the Isle of Man
        Harald Dolles

Part III: Social Responsibility

      1. The Prospect of Societal Duties in Motorsport: Racing for Humanity?
        Hans Erik Næss
      2. Gendered Representations in Motorsports and the Case of the F1 Grid Girls: Looking Back, Looking Forward
        Anna Tippett
      3. What Initiatives May Help Women in Motorsport? A Commentary Essay
        Lin Li
      4. Processes of Greenwashing, Virtue Signalling, and Sportwashing in Contemporary Formula One: Formula Façade?
        Damion Sturm
      5. Twitter Activism (or Lack of It) during the Saudi Arabian Formula E Motorsport Races in 2018 and 2019: Does Anybody Care?
        Hans Erik Næss and Martin Hölzen
      6. Fighting on Twitter: How Online Trolling Affects Offline Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Motorsport Sponsorship
        Bradon Peterson and Christine Wegner

Part IV: Digital and Technology

      1. The Gamification of Formula One
        Mark Finn
      2. A Convergent Approach to Motorsport Digital Video Content and Data: Gaining Traction
        Jamie Coles and Alex Fenton
      3. Autonomous Racing as the Future of Motorsport: An Empirical Investigation of the Attractiveness of Autonomous Car Racing for Generation Z Spectators
        Salomée Bracke and Patrick Planing
      4. Future Growth of Formula E: Reinforcing Spectators’ Sensory Experience through Sonic Branding
        Jeongbeom Hahm
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