Lewis Hamilton is officially a Ferrari driver. These few words were enough to send not only the world of Formula 1, but of the entire sport and entertainment, into a frenzy. In nations such as Italy, England, Spain, and Germany, where competitive motor racing is an integral part of the culture and linked inextricably with history and tradition, Hamilton’s landing in Maranello has even reached the front pages of newspapers and the opening stories on the news.
This story has so many profiles to analyze-sports, marketing, economic, just to name the three most obvious-that it is perhaps impossible to get to the rational core. Or maybe we are simply dealing with one of those cases where reason is not needed and where, who knows, it was really the heart that ruled, and then the rest comes later.
The most famous car in the world and the most titled driver in history are now finally together. It is hard to say whether the title is more beautiful than the fairy tale itself, and whether this glittery-colored cover will live up to expectations on the inside pages. Impossible to calculate precisely today the precipitate outcome of this operation, which will likely be clearer only in a few years.
The 7-time world champion’s signature comes at the end of an extraordinary trajectory for Formula 1. The circus has been transformed in recent years-and more specifically since the end of 2016-back to being one of the most glittering stars in the sport business firmament. Liberty Media, which in the early days seemed to be trudging through a more challenging reconstruction than initially believed, has succeeded in the task of bringing new luster and glamour to the sport, but without zeroing in on the sport’s original legacy or betraying its values.
As mentioned several times in this blog, this was not an easy task. Today’s Formula 1 is Las Vegas, but it is also Monza. It is Abu Dhabi, but also Spa Francorchamps. Combining tradition with innovation is always a difficult and risky game, and while there are those who would like nothing to ever change, there are also those who see renewal as the panacea to all ills.
The Americans have been adept at this, adding new spice to the recipe and making the automotive product fashionable and palatable again for new generations and new investors. New circuits and the usual trove of celebrities are important, sure, but it is impossible not to recognize that the new ownership has done far more than that, understanding with great clarity what the sport is about, and what it needed to grow.
The post-COVID Formula 1 has, in every respect, disintegrated every record of the past: extremely long and spectacular calendars, stellar TV ratings, and an impressive number of sold-out circuits. Social media reach, audience sentiment, and the generational breadth of the target audience has grown.
The marriage between Hamilton and Ferrari comes right at the apex of this Gaussian, an incredible star following comet, which is perhaps also why the echo of the news is so jaw-dropping. Whether this is happenstance or a patient game of chess is not known, although many today glimpse in so many details of today and yesterday the glimpses of what to all intents and purposes is the most sensational handover in motorsports history.
I am the walrus
Another of the superpowers of this story is to crumple time, at least for two reasons.
The first lies in the dilation. When Lewis Hamilton faces a Grand Prix for the Prancing Horse it will be March 2025 and the Briton will be 40 years old. A number that cannot be ignored, especially in a sportsman’s career. It is clear that Maranello believes that the Stevenage native can not only still be competitive at that age-and one only has to see what Alonso has done and is doing to think that this is not a utopia-but can win races or even fight for the world championship. It is a gamble, the first of many, that Ferrari is making in this affair in which the stakes are very high. Maranello cannot afford to have a driver at the wheel who is famous but not fast, or the Scuderia would quickly lose credibility and positioning, becoming easy prey for critics, pundits and wine shop speculators. The redhead needs a famous AND fast driver, because whoever drives for Ferrari cannot not be, especially if his name is Lewis Hamilton. It matters little if he is 40 years old.
The second way this affair is manipulating time lies in its disappearance. With the announcement of the liaison between Hamilton and Ferrari marked 2025, the year 2024 disappears from the radar. Paradoxically, with the championship set to start in just a few weeks, everyone is already looking to the 2025 grid, which will likely see Carlos Sainz land in the court of newcomer Audi at this point.
That of Audi’s entry is yet another story, adding to the thick index of things that haven’t happened yet but that everyone is already talking about. It is clear that the German giant cannot tiptoe into the party, but must arrive to win right away, or at least to be ultra-competitive. Likewise, recent and past history shows us that it is very difficult to figure it out right away, in this world, and that other high lineage suitors were in their time rejected with loss.
Yet 2024 is here waiting for us and brings with it several questions, the answers to which will be important for the year ahead, somewhat like in the I Am the Walrus of the Beatles, in which one should not get caught up in the rush for everything to flow in the hope of figuring it out later.
On equal terms
Sportingly speaking, there are so many issues that this affair opens up that it is difficult to find the crux of the matter.
Tying in with the talk just now, the 2024 season will be important and difficult for both Hamilton and Ferrari. Wolff and Vasseur will find themselves with two drivers who, with the season not even started, already have their bags packed and will have to be managed.
If rumor has it that Vasseur was instrumental (in the manner of John Elkann) in getting Hamilton to Ferrari, the same does not seem true for Wolff, who was apparently caught off guard by the whole episode. Mercedes now has quite a bit of homework to do to find a replacement, which could be Albon, although a less-than-stellar past in the first team is turning some noses up at Stuttgart.
Reasoning about pilots, another who may have slept with one eye half open is Charles LeClerc, who, if he can sleep soundly for a long and peaceful future at the court of the Cavallino, now finds himself in the team with an experienced and capable driver who can win, as well as a character of quite an unwieldy size. Many of the flashing lights of the coming months and early rides in Ferrari will not be for the boy from Monaco, and we will have to see how this is handled.
Always the men in red then will now have to manage a technical 2025 project that cannot disappoint. Having a pairing like LeClerc and Hamilton and giving them a car that does not perform is the equivalent of buying the Monnalisa and then hanging it behind the refrigerator. The gap with Red Bull at the end of last season was abysmal, and the first clues about the future will only be available when the 2024 versions of the single-seaters are on track for the first race of the season.
Larger than Life
While sports newspapers and fans are already sketching a Ferrari with the number 44 and Hamilton dressed in red, the New York Stock Exchange offers the first response on the matter. Broadly positive. Buoyed by the news of the Englishman’s engagement, Ferrari’s shares rise from $346.78 to $384.00 and, to put it bluntly, the company gains about $7 billion overnight, from an estimated capitalization of $62.4 BILLION to its current capitalization of $69.12.
These are staggering numbers that only partially give a measure of what has just happened. The intangible of the affair, if possible, is even more surprising.
At the end of 2020, Ferrari was being named the “World’s strongest brand” for the second time by Brand Finance, with a BSI of 94.1 and a rating of AAA+. To give a measure, only 11 other brands around the globe can boast the same rating. It is just the official consecration of a thought that is actually quite common: everyone knows Ferrari, which has always been an epithet of excellence, luxury, speed and elite.
At the marketing level, it is difficult to handle such brands and move the elephant in the glassware without dropping a single glass. Few things can be done, and these necessarily have to be gigantic, perfect, sensational.
Signing Lewis Hamilton is among those things. Take it away from the competition (not only sports, but car maker), put it side by side with the Predestined, putting him in the car hoping that he will win something is an important corollary, but only a corollary, because we must not forget that this move is as much about sports as it is about brand marketing and could have this headline: “even the most successful driver ever eventually chooses a Ferrari.”
From the stars to the stars
As Formula 1 experiences one of its most extraordinary periods ever, the announcement of the agreement between Hamilton and Ferrari comes to drop the poker of aces on the table. With only a few weeks to go before the Bahrain start, it is hard to think of a moment of greater hype for the Circus, whose popularity is now at its zenith.
How to convert all this buzz, this cascade of popularity and anticipation is now the question. How do you turn all this excitement into something tangible, something concrete? What are the KPIs to be collected after this avalanche of notoriety? The mistake would be to look at the short term. It is clear that the goal cannot be just to fill the circuits in 2025 or to attract viewers in front of the screen. All this will happen, without a shadow of a doubt and without even too much difficulty.
Rather, the key will lie in generating a new fanbase that is loyal, solid, and eager to become the new “hard core” of the sport. Someone who, in the wake of the glories of these times, will commit to the long term, positively engaging across the now very wide range of Formula 1-branded products, securing a new era of the discipline.
What sound does an exploding galaxy make?