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Racing Point: A Poorly Managed Image

The case of Racing Point’s image management between 2018 and 2020 should be studied by the faculties of Public Relations as much as those of Journalism in Brazil analyzes the Base School case. The reason is the same: it is an example of what an excellent professional should not do.

Successive errors and negligence made the team and its drivers (mainly Lance Stroll) the target of constant attacks and misinformation by the press. There was likely a conflict between the solutions to the image problems and the interests of the team. This article analyzes Racing Point’s failures to deal with successive image crises before its transformation into Aston Martin.

(The author of the article has a degree in Broadcasting from Faculdade Cásper Líbero and took courses in Press Office and Crisis Management by the same institution and Senac. Her teachers were Neuza Serra and Aurora Seles.)

 

1- The beginning of Racing Point and the first crisis: the Esteban Ocon Case

 

In 2018, Indian businessman Vijay Mallya faced legal problems in his home country’s justice system, which accused him of fraud and money laundering. His team in Formula One, Force India, declared bankruptcy in July of that year due to successive debts. Amid various speculations about the team’s future (among them that the Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, one of Sergio Pérez’s sponsors, would buy it), Canadian Lawrence Stroll, Lance’s father, joined an entrepreneur group to set up a consortium and buy Force India. Consequently, the team ran the rest of the 2018 season as Racing Point Force India.

 

Vijay Mallya: Force India’s owner from 2007 to 2018. (Photo: Getty Images) [1]

 

Lance Stroll, until then, drove for Williams, a team marked by severe administrative problems. Team principal Claire Williams and chief engineer Paddy Lowe blamed the drivers for the team’s poor performance. However, this problem lay in the low structure of the car assembled by the engineering department. The press adopted Claire and Lowe’s narrative and attacked Stroll and his teammate Sergey Sirotkin.

Since one of the new owners of Force India was the father of a driver, they speculated that either Sergio Pérez or Esteban Ocon would leave to make way for him. Pérez brought in more sponsorships and got higher scores, making him the most likely to stay on the team. On the other hand, Esteban Ocon was a personal friend of Lance Stroll, although the emotional component is not definitive in business decisions. However, they highly omitted that Ocon was already quoted to leave Force India. His then patron Toto Wolff, Mercedes’s team principal, would have offered him a seat on his team if he hadn’t made it difficult for Lewis Hamilton in a possible dispute for positions at the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix.

 

Toto Wolff failed to give Esteban Ocon a seat in 2019, but the driver choose to let the media blame Lance Stroll. (Photo: EsporteNET) [2]

 

According to the American podcaster and communication theorist Ben Shapiro, the facts become irrelevant to the media when it creates a narrative to follow its agenda. In the analysis of the German sociologist and communication theorist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), the media has a purely market view of its target audience. Reconciling the two theses, we see that it was not enjoyable for the press to divulge the truth: Esteban Ocon was leaving. It would be more in line with its plan and financial interests to create controversies to sell headlines, even if this would damage Lance Stroll’s reputation.

The Canadian driver’s press officers never learned how to manage his image crisis generated by the media persecution. Many journalists refused to acknowledge their achievements in Formula One, which the category considers ‘historic.’ The strategy adopted was to ignore malicious comments from the press and fans. Although this is an excellent plan to maintain emotional control, “silence is never the best answer,” Professor Neuza Serra said. Stroll’s advisers’ duty was to clarify that he never fit into the ‘pay driver’ profile. One proof is that the Canadian fulfilled all the FIA prerequisites for entering Formula One, like the 40 points in the Superlicence (these are earned and cannot be bought). The other is that he achieved a podium and two records in his debut year by a team that is not very competitive.

 

Lance Stroll’s podium at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix: the last Williams had. (Foto: FORMULA1) [3]

 

Esteban Ocon took advantage of the controversy to disregard the case. He knew that was Toto Wolff’s fault for his probable exit from Formula One, as he failed to get him a seat on another team (the others viewed the relations between Ocon and Mercedes with suspicion). However, Ocon preferred to let the media blame Force India’s purchase by Lawrence Stroll and his partners. Only after months did the driver speak out against the attacks on Lance Stroll, even though he was not sincere about those responsible for his delicate situation. Maintaining the controversy despite the announcement was an excellent self-promotion strategy for Ocon.

 

Esteban Ocon clarifying the controversy, pero no mucho. (Photo: Instagram) [4]

 

2- The second crisis: the departure of Sergio Pérez and the entry of Sebastian Vettel

 

During 2019, Lance Stroll took longer to adapt to the new car, and consequently, his scores were below those of Sergio Pérez. Soon, some press sectors continued to doubt its capacity, as did Brazilian commentator Reginaldo Leme during the broadcast of the French Grand Prix by Rede Globo. Despite this, it had some impressive results, like fourth place in Germany.

In 2020 Racing Point started the season as a candidate for ‘top team,’ as its cars and drivers had an excellent performance. However, the team was accused of copying Mercedes’ brake systems and gaining advantages. Although FIA ordered Racing Point to pay a fine and lose 15 championship points after an investigation, the drivers managed to bring it back to the top. At the time, Lawrence Stroll commented on the case, stressing that he does not usually appear in the press but intends to clarify the situation, proving his team’s integrity.

 

Renault took the leadership of the movement against Racing Point, though its past is not exactly the most ethical in Formula One. [5]

 

They soon forgot this case due to a second image crisis. Again, the media found an opportunity to tarnish Lance Stroll’s reputation by accusing him of influencing Racing Point’s decisions for being the son of one of the owners. Fired from Ferrari due to a series of wrong choices that costed points for the team, Sebastian Vettel was out of options for the 2021 grid.. He decided to buy shares in Aston Martin, the company that would own Racing Point the following year, and soon secured his place. The problem was in the disclosure of events: Racing Point, sometimes denied, then confirmed the arrival of Vettel, and there was also inconsistency in the narratives about whether they warned Sergio Pérez or not.

The fact is that Racing Point never mentioned in its releases that Sebastian Vettel was more than a driver but a shareholder. And even big names in the media reporting the fact (like Adam Cooper and Sergio Quintanilha), the press reinvested in insinuating that Sergio Pérez was dismissed because firing Lance Stroll was out of the question. The natural thing for a press relations team would be to clarify two main points in this case: that Stroll is a driver with an excellent start to his career, and because he is young, he can be a good investment in the long run, and that Vettel bought his seat. Instead, both the team’s and Stroll’s advisors preferred to omit what would be crucial to ending the crisis.

 

3- The passivity of Lance Stroll (and his press office)

 

Given the facts listed, it is essential to note that Lance Stroll’s stance in the face of the successive crises through which his image goes is, at least, curious. As stated earlier, the driver and his press office prefer to ignore the insults because they know they are unfounded but end up wasting a good opportunity to reveal the truth to the press and improve his image. Ignoring the crisis is not going to make it go away; it just increases it.

The proof that Lance Stroll does not have privileges at Racing Point (as many in the media suggest) is that there is no complaint from him or his family on the constant fails of his strategists who persistently fail to plan for the races. It happens mainly at pit stops, as in the Turkish Grand Prix, where Stroll started from pole position and ended in ninth place. And his staff could use a handy resource to silence these rumors permanently.

 

Though the strategists are constantly failing, neither Lance Stroll nor his family complains about it. This is just one from the many proofs that Lance is not receiving privileges in the team. [6]

 

As evidenced in “Formula One in Brazil: An analysis of the television broadcasting in the country,” those who criticize the wealth of Lance Stroll, an indigenous and Jewish driver, and do not do the same with white drivers with fewer achievements, are racist. The same goes for those who criticized Lawrence Stroll’s investments in Force India and did not do the same with Sebastian Vettel’s investments in Aston Martin. In its marketing view, the press pretends to be a supporter of the fight against social inequalities, and – as stated by Ben Shapiro – it invests in the class struggle discourse to engage its target audience. But it is very suspicious that the convict in this narrative is precisely a Jewish-Amerindian driver, a member of ethnic minorities, and involved in social causes.

By this logic, what would apparently be a narrative case of promoting a class struggle (between the driver “lucky to be rich” and the fans “without the same luck”) turns out to be a reactionary discourse that reinforces a system of oppression of minorities, because it denies the athlete of historically persecuted ethnic groups (Jews and Amerindians) the right to fortune while allowing those belonging to the dominant group (white Europeans).

(Translated from Portuguese to English from “Formula One in Brazil: An analysis of the television broadcasting in the country”, p. 120-121)

 

Therefore, it is strange that Lance Stroll’s advisers do not point out the racist character in the media attacks on the driver. If it did, the press would be forced to report, and journalists, fearing that they would be labeled as ‘racist’ by public opinion, would change the discourse. Also suspicious is that Stroll still considers Esteban Ocon his friend, even when he used the Canadian driver’s image crisis to promote himself instead of helping him.

 

As Robin would say, “Holy Naivety, Batman!” [7]

 

Also, Sebastian Vettel’s entry into Aston Martin caused a suspicious attitude in Lawrence Stroll himself, whose position is inconsistent with reality and puts his own son’s reputation in check. The businessman blamed Vettel’s dismissal from Ferrari before the beginning of the 2020 season for the German’s poor performance that year. He ignores the fact that this ‘bad phase’ had already occurred in recent years due to Vettel’s “individual mistakes,” leading him to be fired, as reported by journalist and former driver Martin Brundle). He also blamed the Ferrari car for the driver’s misfortune, ignoring that Vettel’s situation is quite different from that of Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin at Williams in 2018 (both drivers had difficulties on the track due to the car). Charles Leclerc’s performance in 2020, far above Vettel’s, proves that, although it has an impact, the Ferrari car was not the main factor for the German’s underperforming performance. Finally, in trusting that Vettel will benefit the team for having been a four-time champion with Red Bull between 2010 and 2013, the businessman resorts to the fallacy argumentum ad antiquitatem (appeal to tradition or the past), presenting the future as a continuity of the past distant, ignoring the changes that occur in the present. However, Mercedes also did not have a four-time champion in 2014, when their team was composed of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, and won all championships from that year. Lawrence Stroll himself does not mention Vettel’s purchase of shares, as if he also wanted to hide this fact so that the German is not remembered as a ‘seat buyer’ (using his past to help with the disclosure strategy). Consequently, as for lack of science (or, maybe, even with his consent), he allows the media to continue distorting his son Lance’s image to satisfy the team’s marketing goals.

 

4- Conclusion

 

Racing Point’s press office has consistently failed to protect its drivers, especially Lance Stroll, from the media’s unreasonable and sensationalist attacks. And even if it means that Stroll does not have privileges on his team, the press prefers to ignore the facts to obtain financial advantages through controversies.

Sometimes, companies end up allowing specific image crises to hide their real interests. In the case of Racing Point, it is evident that Sebastian Vettel did not want to be remembered as ‘the driver who had to buy his seat because, despite his glorious past, his present was a disaster.’ Therefore, the team omitted information that would be essential to save Lance Stroll’s reputation. Consequently, it is clear that if there is a privileged person at Racing Point (now Aston Martin), that someone is Vettel. The passivity of the Canadian driver and his press office is a clear example of how not to face an image crisis caused by the media.

 

They are doing a great job in engineering. They only need to improve in press office. [8]

 

5- Bibliography

To better understand the sources, the bibliography was divided into sections according to the information presented in the article.

 

1- The creation of Racing Point

 

2- The Esteban Ocon Case

 

3- The Williams Case

3.1 Claire Williams and Paddy Lowe blaiming the drivers for the team’s problems (from 2017 to 2018)

3.2 The real causes for the problems

 

4- Reginaldo Leme’s comment

 

5- Lance Stroll’s deeds in Formula One

 

6- Philanthropic actions and social causes defended by Lance Stroll

 

7- The brakes’ scandall

 

8- “Individual mistakes” led Sebastian Vettel to be fired from Ferrari (Martin Brundle’s testimony)

 

9- Sebastian Vettel buys shares from Aston Martin

 

10- Discrepancy of narratives about Sergio Pérez’s situation

 

11- Lawrence Stroll’s fallacious testimony in favor of Sebastian Vettel

 

12- The impact of the car on the drivers’ performance

 

12- Theoretical basis

 

6- Photos

Note: None of the photos used in this article, except the montages, belongs to me. This site has informative intentions, not commercial. The links where I took the photos are indicated below. All copyrights reserved.

 

Formula One: The Business Sport

Virtually all Formula One fans love the sport for its competition. A proof of this is the television audience rates in the 2010s: in Brazil, at least, the number of viewers was falling year after year during the Turbo Era, which marked the dominance of Sebastian Vettel, while it began to increase at record levels when it started a certain balance between Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull. However, fans get so emotional from the cars’ disputes that they forget about a definitive factor in Formula One: money.

I decided to do this article because of an unpleasant episode that happened to a friend of mine. In a Whatsapp group, she talked to a professor and, to reinforce her point of view, included a weblink to an article on the Motorsport website signed by Adam Cooper, which reported on the investments of Sebastian Vettel in Aston Martin. Behold, a man appears and then laughs at her comment, finding it absurd that someone says that a four-time champion buys a place in a team, even if the facts show just that. My friend responded well, arguing that Vettel was not indeed acting as a four-time champion (look at his accidents and results, which in no way resemble his champion days). But the man kept making fun of (and still questioned the journalistic quality of Cooper, an experienced and respected journalist in the area), ignoring a simple question: Why would anyone invest in a team in which they could not participate?

This story proved that the mentioned guy does not know Formula One well, but many fans also do not realize the sport’s financial character. It is no wonder that many journalists try to sell sensationalist headlines based on creating controversies about money instead of informing fans about the role of money in Formula One. As we propose to inform and raise awareness, here is the true face of world motorsport’s top category.

 

1- Expensive sport, investors rule

 

Anyone who accesses the Formula One website notes that there is a part reserved for partners, in other words, the sponsors. As Paulo Mourão well defined in his book The Economics of Motorsports: The Case of Formula One (2017), the costs of running each race are around millions of euros, as there are high material and human demands. Everything costs money in Formula One: the structures of the track and the paddock, the cars’ engineering, the physical preparation of the drivers, transport, the salary of the employees, among other components of the category. Many sectors benefit from this process (hospitality, fuel, tourism, etc.). As you may know, money does not grow on trees, so resources are needed to make all of this possible. Therefore, the sponsoring companies invest in the category for this purpose (other than Formula One revenues, such as selling tickets and consumables, taxes, transmission agreements, contribution rates for teams and organizers).

 

Bernie Ecclestone (the former owner of Formula One) and Chase Carey (the current CEO of Fórmula One). [1]

 

As well explained in the article Understand the Esteban Ocon Case (2019), the high costs of Formula One make it difficult for drivers who do not have significant financial support to cover the team’s expenses. Unfortunately, the sports media fails to teach the public that this is an intrinsic characteristic of the category. However, the following logic can explain it: the press vehicles are usually sponsored and avoid demolishing investments in general. Sensationalism ends up being a profitable business, as it holds more people’s attention and helps disseminate the materials. In other words: it is easier to label drivers and teams than to show that everything in Formula One is related to money.

 

2- The case of Sebastian Vettel

 

It is not uncommon to see drivers expanding their area of expertise. We had the cases of Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, and Emerson Fittipaldi as team owners; Niki Lauda was a shareholder and adviser to Mercedes, Alain Prost became an ambassador for Renault, among others. More recently, we had Lawrence Stroll, father of Lance, as a majority partner at Racing Point, and Nico Rosberg as the manager of Robert Kubica (although he quit the role months later). But the case of Sebastian Vettel has peculiarities that are fundamental to understanding the situation.

 

Fired from Ferrari, Vettel invested in Aston Martin. The event did not generate much controversy (if it were with other driver…) [2]

 

To start, except for Jack Brabham, all the drivers mentioned above (Fittipaldi, Prost, Roberg, and Stewart) entered the business world when they were no longer on the tracks. Sebastian Vettel is a member of the current grid and found himself on the edge of a precipice when Ferrari fired him. After all, as explained in the article The Dismissal of Sebastian Vettel, they were losing money and credibility with the German driver’s constant accidents. It is important to remember that the teams receive payments for their results, which are better when their drivers have consistent performances. It was useless to have won four titles with Red Bull in the early 2010s; nowadays, he was wasting good chances to score points with Ferrari. But Vettel did not give up and was willing to do anything to continue in Formula One, so he looked for an opportunity to invest in a team: he would make money as a driver and shareholder.

However, it could not be any team but one with great potential and real chances of triumph. Nobody wondered why Vettel did not buy Williams shares as Toto Wolff did? Or Haas? To realize why he got so interested in Racing Point, look at its growth in 2020. And unlike Wolff, who was thinking about marketing gains, Vettel wants to clean up his image and bring a glorious new chapter to his athletic career.

 

3- Conclusion

 

Even if the fans do not realize it, sport is a business. That is not the only case of Formula One (Brazilians will remember Neymar’s transfer from Santos to Barcelona, known as Neymargate). Sometimes the press does not instruct the fans properly because as much are people lay on the subject, it increases the chances of believing in sensationalist headlines and feeding a certain fanaticism through controversies. Therefore, many fans still do not realize that business is a much more significant component of Formula One than the competition itself.

 

The case of Neymar is one more proof of the inherent relation between money and sports. [3]

 

So, if you think that Sebastian Vettel does not need to buy seats because he was victorious in the past (even though this is, indeed, the current situation) or that Nico Rosberg managed Robert Kubica for charity, know that you are analyzing the case in a shallow way. And there is no point in laughing or trying to disqualify the other based on sex or age. Both sides must inform themselves to have a reasonable debate.


Bibliography

About Brazilian television audience rates

About the article itself

 

Note: Some sources consulted for this articles are present in the thesis “A Fórmula 1 no Brasil: Uma análise sobre a transmissão televisiva no país” (2020), that will be published by Faculdade Cásper Líbero (I gave sources for the author during the elaboration of the thesis and she gave me resources for my publication). I am clarifying his point so that there will be no accusations of plagiarism.

 

Photos

Note: None of the photos used in this article belongs to me. This site has informative intentions, not commercial. The weblinks where I took the photos are indicated below. All copyrights reserved.