FORMULA One is on the fast track to further success with sell-out circuits, record-breaking numbers of small screen big race worshippers and major automobile marques queuing up to join in the action under the guidance of its president and chief executive officer Stefano Domenicali.
The F1 bonanza is also boasting a growing galaxy of Netflix-generated younger fans, leading a charge towards sustainable racing, as well as tackling the thorny issues of gender balance in the sport alongside human rights.
It’s no wonder Mr Domenicali was too busy to see the GDN’s managing editor face-to-face despite his team making the first approach of suggesting an interview with F1’s main man, who apparently only gives one journalist per country, per race, the pleasure of his company … well almost.
After suggested dates came and went and even the offer of a coffee at Fuddruckers in Sakhir or chat over breakfast at a hotel was snubbed, a 30-minute Microsoft Teams video conferencing session was scheduled instead.
It seemed a little strange, post-Covid to get the office computer all set up again with microphone and camera for an interview with someone a maximum of a 30-minute drive away? But Mr Domenicali, who took over the Liberty Media F1 hotspot in 2021, is a very busy man.
He also radiates infectious enthusiasm, portraying a profound love of the sport, drive, ambition and the pressure he puts on himself and his team became apparent in the 20-odd minutes (I’ll come to the right royal reason later) we talked online. Perhaps, if we’d been in the same room, it may have been necessary to don a precautionary passion-protecting face mask.
“You can be sure of one thing, we don’t sleep a lot in the night,” said Mr Domenicali. “We always have something. I am pushing my team to be aggressive with ideas and not to be shy and then it’s up to us to decide if it’s the right thing to do.
“We are an organisation that wants to keep growing and we want to keep pushing and we want to keep changing.”
Embracing change is clearly the mantra.
Criticism over the sport being too male-dominated has been addressed in recent days. And, plans are afoot to attract more people of colour into the sector.
Formula 1 has announced Susie Wolff MBE as the managing director of the F1 Academy category, which aims to develop and prepare young female drivers to progress to higher levels of competition.
Announced in November, F1 Academy is an all-female driver series featuring five teams with Ms Wolff, a British former professional racing driver, brought in to enhance the managerial structure and offer her unique insight.
She will report directly to Mr Domenicali, spearheading the development of female motorsport talent and focusing on creating a successful pathway to higher categories in the F1 pyramid.
“On the track we have launched the F1 Academy, an all-female series which will kick off this year with 15 drivers, seven events and 21 races, as well as significant testing time,” he said, elaborating on the initiative.
“Just this week we appointed Susie Wolff – the former William test driver and Formula E Team Principal – to run the project and we are subsidising each team entry with $300,000 per driver, significantly reducing the financial burden on drivers.
“Across our organisation, we have several initiatives to increase diversity, including scholarship programmes, engineering apprenticeships and our F1 in Schools programme, designed to inspire school children into careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These changes do not happen overnight, but we are committed to them and have structures in place to succeed.”
The green crusade is high on the agenda too.
When Formula 1 cars take to the track in 2026, they will do so powered by carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, part of the sport’s ‘net zero by 2030’ plan and clearly advertised off-track at Bahrain International Circuit with several ‘on message’ displays.
“We are strong in our position, from a technological point of view,” he said, “by choice we have taken to embrace being net zero by 2030 and having sustainable fuel by 2026.
“By the way, this is already happening in Formula 2 and Formula 3 this year.”
He’s correct, there is a well-documented history of technology transfer between F1 racing efforts and road cars. A paddle shifted transmission first appeared on Ferrari’s F1 car back in 1988 and subsequently went on to win its debut race, motorsport.com reported. Within a few years this design became the norm for F1, and by 1997, Ferrari was offering electro-hydraulically-controlled paddle shifters on the road-going 355.
Not long after, the automaker also pioneered the use of diamond-like carbon (DLC) coatings to reduce friction (and in turn, parasitic power loss) in its F1 engines, an innovation that was later introduced in the 458 Italia production car. Both technologies are now commonplace in production vehicles.
The message that F1 might know what it is doing appears to have been realised by politicians too with the European Union perhaps backtracking on its pledge to fast forward electrification. Other global leaders have voiced concern that they might not be able to plug in as fast as they first thought with a planet-saving battery-powered motoring option.
“The world of mobility cannot go with one solution alone, it’s not possible,” he added. “We are serious in pushing through Formula 1 a solution that will be much more effective in a world where there will be more than two billion vehicles with an internal combustion engine … on top of that commercial trucks, ships and planes.
“I think we are going to push for a solution that will be complementary to electrification and very effective in the future.
“As has always been the case, we have been the technical facilitator for new things – what’s happening in Formula 1 will later be applied to the normal car industry.
“In this situation, that is why a lot of manufacturers are interested in becoming involved, the technology that is coming into Formula 1 will give them other opportunities to develop their businesses in the field.”
One of the rumours circulating around the Formula 1 world was confirmed in recent days, as Ford announced a return to the sport for the 2026 season, in a partnership with Red Bull Racing.
“Ford has a great history with Formula 1, it’s just incredible news,” he said. “Over the last few decades we have seen manufactures coming and going and now we have a situation where all the major ones want to be in Formula 1 and want to invest in it.
“That means the technological choices we are making are taking us in the right direction.”
Mr Domenicali also recently received compliments from a correspondent writing for the British Guardian newspaper, whose readers were once described by a former editor of mine as cardigan-wearing leftie teachers who queue for rapidly-wilting organic broccoli, and a publication renowned for publishing ill-informed and pathetic anti-Gulf States whinging from people with a grudge.
Writer Giles Richards said it was ‘hard to doubt the sincerity of the Italian’s belief that racing really is about more than money, that F1 can make a difference and that it will do, as he puts it, the right thing’.
“People who know me, know I am not able to say things I don’t believe in,” outlined Mr Domenicali. “I totally believe in the soft power of the sport to communicate the right values around the world.
“When we go into different communities, with different cultures, it is a sign of respect to share our vision and understand that certain cultural changes take time.
“What we want to be is ‘effective’. I think the power of sport will bring the right attention to certain values which society of today is keen to discuss.”
The proof is in the pudding. The season once again kicks off in Bahrain and will conclude in Abu Dhabi, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar getting a bowl full of action too.
“It was a clear choice to not have all the races in the Middle East in one go, commercially that would be wrong and tactically too,” said Mr Domenicali.
“It shows once again that the Middle East has a very important position in the World Championship – we are starting and finishing here. It’s a statement on how Formula 1 and the region both have an important role to play in the world of sport.”
And, the future looks bright with the race game growing the next generation of fans.
Fifty-seven per cent of US adults, for example, who identified as fans of Formula 1 said they became fans within the past five years, including 26pc who said they became fans in the past year. Among fans between the ages of 18 and 34, 42pc said they came on board in the past year and many Internet search engines suggest this is down to ‘The Netflix’ effect.
The fifth season of the documentary-style popular series Formula 1: Drive to Survive show has just been released on the streaming platform, produced in a collaboration between Netflix and Formula 1, to give a behind-the-scenes look at the drivers and races of the Formula 1 World Championship.
Technology is also playing a part with ‘driver’s view’ cameras on the Bell in Bahrain manufactured helmets making fabulous viewing during the live TV screening. And, on the track sprints to win positions on the grid add to the live action, although that’s still to come to Bahrain.
“The communication is magic and this is a new way of talking about Formula 1,” added Mr Domenicali. “And, everything is connected to what’s happening on the track, such as introducing sprint weekend races – something that has been positively received by promoters and TV broadcasters.
“It’s all about coming up with new ideas and we want to keep the pressure on, and keep new ideas at the centre of our agenda. We are talking about sport and we are talking about exciting racing on the track.”
At that point Mr Domenicali had to suddenly break off from the interview following the arrival of His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince and Prime Minister, at Bahrain International Circuit. He made his excuses and left.
It would have been nice to throw a few personal questions his way to find out what makes the man tick off the track and out of the office, such as how does a very busy father-of-two jetsetter solve the home life / work balance?
But he had to run, as you can’t keep an even busier royal champion of the sport waiting.
Kudos to the gentleman, he knows how to keep a promise and responded to my last questions later by email.
STEFANO DOMENICALI FACT FILE
HE began his latest F1 role in January 2021 taking over from Chase Carey, now non-executive chairman.
After studying business administration at the University of Bologna he began his professional career in 1991 with Ferrari.
Legend has it that his love of fast cars started in his childhood when he frequently visited a nearby race track, where he later assisted in the paddock and media centre.
Like most small boys he had a collection of toy cars and confirmed his favourite was, of course, coloured ‘Ferrari red’.
Mr Domenicali held various positions at the acclaimed Italian racing giant, including heading up the Direzione Sportiva F1 from 2004, before becoming Team Principal for the Formula 1 team in 2008.
From 2009 to 2014, Domenicali represented Ferrari in the FIA World Motor Sport Council.
He was also vice president of New Business Initiatives at AUDI AG from November 2014 before moving to Lamborghini in March 2016 as chairman and CEO.
Married to Silvia, the daughter of famous F1 photographer Ercole Colombo. They have two children, Martino and Viola.
“I live in London, where Formula 1 is based, but with a 23-race calendar I, of course, travel a lot. When I go ‘home’ I live in Monza close to the track,” he told the GDN.
“The work is very intense with early starts and long days. I like to run when home and use the gym when I am away and I also always try to find the time to walk the track with my team at every race. When I get away from work it is always time with family and friends.
“I want my children to find their own passions for things and not be forced by what I do. They come to some of the races and really like the sport and the drivers.”
Stanley Louis Szecowka
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