Consider the following scenario. You’re an elite racing driver competing in a renowned race on New York’s streets. You’re in a good spot, about to accelerate to 220km/h, when one of your biggest rivals flies by, thanks to a boost in energy supporters voted for. This is “Fanboost,” an initiative of the FIA Formula E series that has the potential to transform the way fans interact with their favourite sports.
Formula E puts the power in the hands of the audience
Formula E is the electric vehicle equivalent of more well-known divisions such as Formula One and V8 Supercars in Australia. It was founded especially to promote advancements in electric vehicle technology, and it has attracted a number of high-profile manufacturers, including Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Porsche. The series has garnered a committed fan base, but it is small in comparison to the more established racing leagues, racing on street circuits from Paris to Beijing. The issue is that Formula E is a touch too slow and quiet in comparison to many traditional forms of racing. Formula E cars reach top speeds of roughly 224 km/h (compared to 350 km/h for Formula One) and emit an electronic whine instead of the throaty roar of petrol-powered race cars. However, because this sport is as much about spectacle as it is about skill, the series has had difficulty attracting followers away from other types of racing. One of the ways in which the sport’s administration are attempting to address this issue is through Fanboost. Fans can cast their votes for their favourite driver on the official Formula E website, the mobile app, or through social media.
The top three drivers that receive the most votes receive a brief but considerable power boost that they can deploy during the race. The motors of Formula E cars have an electronically limited power output, which is momentarily increased for drivers granted with Fanboost to preserve balance between teams. This allows these drivers to perform a key passing manoeuvre or prevent an attempted pass, potentially changing the race’s destiny. It’s a tactic that’s perfect for enticing the sport’s young, social media-obsessed fan base. Fanboost does not come without its critics. Some fans perceive it as a gimmick that detracts from the drivers’ abilities, while others say the system can be manipulated too easily to produce misleading results. The media and motor racing have long had a tight association. Because running a professional race team is expensive, acquiring and attracting sponsors is critical. Top teams have gone to extraordinary efforts to ensure that their sponsors receive adequate media coverage. Sponsor decals can now be found on every visible surface of the car, including the footwells and consoles in some classes. Even the start time for events like the Australian Formula One Grand Prix has been adjusted to better match European television schedules.
These concessions exemplify what is sometimes referred to as mediatisation: the idea that the media has become so fundamental to modern society that it has compelled other social activities and institutions to conform to its logic. While some academics believe that mediatisation exaggerates the media’s power, the underlying concept is difficult to reject. The media has become an integral element of how we interact with the world, from politics to dating to food ordering. The media operates as a “moulding force,” according to Andreas Hepp, a German professor and one of the world’s leading mediatisation scholars. This shaping force has had a significant impact on the way drivers and teams engage with fans in Formula E. Racing drivers have a reputation for being media-shy. During a television interview, Formula One driver Kimi Räikkönen stated that the most boring moment of a race weekend was “now.” Formula E drivers have taken a radically different strategy, posting live updates and providing insights into their personal lives to increase their social media profiles, with the potential to gain a real on-track advantage by directly engaging fans.
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