Analysis: How Mexico bucked F1's second year blues

If there is one thing harder that putting on a successful Formula 1 race for the first time, it has to be delivering a bigger and better race the following year.

Time and again, the novelty factor of a new grand prix venue has led to bumper first year crowds – look at Indianapolis, India, Korea, and Austin – being followed by a real struggle to draw the fans back for the second time.

For Mexico though, this trend has been bucked – with attendances at each of the three days this year being up on F1’s return to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in 2015. Here is how they compare.

20152016
Friday 89,365 Friday 91,243
Saturday 111,964 Saturday 113,698
Sunday 134,845 Sunday 135,026
TOTAL 336,174 TOTAL 339,967

A few thousand more fans may not seem much, but against what is the norm it is a very impressive feat – and something that can perhaps act as a trailblazer for other venues.

Masked fan
Masked fan

Photo by: XPB Images

Fan investment

The success of Mexico is certainly one that F1 should look deeper at, for it flies in the face of a belief that the sport is struggling to get people to dig in to their wallets for race tickets.

Of course some factors work in the event’s favour – an iconic local driver in Sergio Perez, a willingness by Mexican sponsors to promote the event heavily, a strong sporting heritage in the country, plus a circuit that is city-based and has always held the race.

But while all those factors would explain why the event was such a success in 2015, they do not explain how race promoter CIE – the third largest music promoter in the world – managed to pull off something bigger this year than last.

For that, the answer appears to be a simple: investment in fans.

CIE president Alejandro Soberon believes that the root of this year’s success can be traced back to the 2015 event, where a decision was made to ensure that fans had a day they would not forget.

It was not a case of grabbing the ticket money, packing the fans into grandstands so they can just watch a race and letting them go home again.

Instead, a raft of music, entertainment, and fun was put on for everyone – and those that rammed themselves in to the iconic stadium section were revved up to create an atmospheric buzz that has become iconic in F1.

For Soberon, making sure every fan had a ‘day to remember’ rather than just a ‘race to remember’ was essential.

“I think what we did last year was to really invest in the level of entertainment for the fans, in all the different areas – and it is paying off,” he told Motorsport.com from his office overlooking the start/finish straight at Mexico City.

“The fans have come back this year, and a lot of people have come from the outside. There were a great number of tourists and it is great to see people from Finland, from Spain, and some guys from Estonia.

“They said, ‘we heard it was a wonderful race and we had to come’. So we are trying to establish this race as one of the best races on the calendar. And that will attract more fans to come here. You have to invest in the fans to make them come back.”

It is become increasingly popular for grand prix venues to put on major concerts in the evenings to increase the attractions – and the success of the US Grand Prix this year was put down to the genius of getting Taylor Swift to play on Saturday night.

While some purists may deride the fact that the only way to get a decent F1 crowd is having big music stars there, the reality is that the world has changed – and people need more reasons than ever to spend their money on a grand prix ticket.

As Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said: “If Taylor Swift is the answer, get Taylor Swift.

“If F1 in some countries is not the only attraction any more, then you need to add other attractions. I am not aware that Taylor Swift is being in Mexico City and it is full grandstands on Friday or Saturday.

"It is well-organised, well-promoted, there are spectacular Mexican drivers and narrative created around them. If you are in charge and you need to take the right decision in order to promote the GP, it is not so easy.”

Soberon agrees: “I think it is all about experiences, and I think the F1 show is a wonderful show. But how do you make the other five hours that you spend at the track memorable? You want to make the fans happy, for the day to be a memorable event in their lives and make it very special.”

Felipe Massa, Williams FW38, Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW38
Felipe Massa, Williams FW38, Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW38

Photo by: Williams F1

Stadium excitement

After the stadium section of Mexico took F1’s breath away last year, Mexico wasted little time in bigging up its attraction – and making it clear to fans that if they wanted to feel part of the event this was the place they needed to be.

Its buzzword this year was ‘F1ESTA’. The organisers even got permission from FOM to build a wrestling ring in the paddock for a night of Lucha Libre.

For the fans though, the place to be is the stadium section. The magic atmosphere of this section was the original dream of cutting the track through there - but equally there was a big risk that if the track weaved its way through a section of empty seats then it would have been pretty embarrassing for the organisers.

“It was a big bet, but it paid out,” added Soberon. “To change the podium and to make it a sort of icon for F1 has worked really well.

“For anyone who thinks of F1, thinks of that celebration, that podium and the party that becomes unbelievable. I saw Nico Rosberg over the weekend and he told me ‘Alex, I really felt like a rock star last year!’ They are rock stars, so they need to be treated like that!”

One other investment that the promoters made was in not cashing in on the huge attendance of the first year, which is why ticket prices were kept both affordable for the locals – and at the same price as 2015.

“We decided not to raise ticket prices this year and kept the same prices of last year – even if it was a devaluation [for our profits],” added Soberon. “We didn’t want to just hike it and confuse people.

“It is a very premium event, and there are a wide range of tickets ranging from a general admission ticket of $87 USD for three days, to $1500 tickets in the main grandstands, or the Paddock Club. And it completely sold out. It is great to see the different levels of experience accordingly to what you pay, but everybody is walking out happy.”

A Sergio Perez, Sahara Force India F1 fan
A Sergio Perez, Sahara Force India F1 fan

Photo by: XPB Images

F1 lessons

For races like the German Grand Prix, which are in serious danger of dropping off the calendar, the success of Mexico needs to be something not that they should be jealous of, but that they can learn from.

As Wolff said about the comparison between Germany’s failure and Mexico’s success: “We had some great events recently. If you look at Austin, the crowd was great. What has been organised around it is really spectacular, lots of innovation and entertainment for the fans – and it was the same in Mexico.

“I think we just maybe need to look beyond the tip of our nose in how we can activate the fans which we have lost in some of the countries. Why is that? If there is a simple solution or simple answer, I think Bernie would have probably found it.

“Is there a bit of a hangover in Germany because we have had 10 years of world champions there? Have fans transitioned into others sports? I don’t know. Hockenheim definitely deserves big crowds - and you just have to look at what Mexico is doing and what Austin is doing and some of the other tracks that have been innovative.”

For Soberon, the message is clear: it’s about fan investment.

“I have attended a lot of races, and there is a time when it is important to reinvest again into the fan experience,” he said. “My only comment is that I have seen so many historic races, historic tracks – but probably if they could invest more in the fan experience, that pays off.

“Last year there was a nostalgia effect for us and it sold out in the first two weeks. It was unbelievable. But this year it wasn’t nostalgia, it was pride and excitement and people are happy to come here. So it was good to see that we have done it again.”

More than 300,000 Mexicans cannot be wrong.

Jolyon Palmer, Renault Sport F1 Team RS16
Jolyon Palmer, Renault Sport F1 Team RS16

Photo by: XPB Images

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Event Mexican GP
Track Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez
Article type Analysis