Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Digital Revolution

Anyone who has lived through the last ten years will be aware of the Digital Revolution. The point where the mobile telephone ceased to be merely a way of enabling other people to call you when you were away from the office and actually became a fashion accessory isn’t quite clear to me. Nor is the reason why people continue to wear a wrist-watch when the time is displayed on their phone, which they seem to be constantly using.

And the Personal Computer, from being a glorified word-processor and calculator, has evolved into an everyday household gadget to be found in every home – in many cases being more utilised than the washing machine or even the television.

Linking these two, and bringing together the full power of the technology, is the Internet. Homes without ‘always-on’ broadband are now the exception, rather than the rule, and most people nowadays have a single media supplier, providing an internet service, TV and telephone.

What has become clear in recent years is that this is technology for the masses. Home broadband today is as fundamental a utility as gas or electricity. Computer ownership is as ubiquitous as the car or the refrigerator. In my opinion, we are in danger of underestimating the historical significance of the era that we are living in. The twenty-first century ‘digital revolution’ is every bit as important as the revolution in transport of the last century, or the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Maybe you think I’m stating the obvious; and in any case you’re no doubt thinking that this is not supposed to be a technology blog. True on both counts, and technology is certainly not my specialist subject, but bear with me. Failing to recognise the significance of the digital revolution is to fail to take an opportunity that occurs just once, at most, every hundred years. It is that important. And motor-racing, only just one hundred years old, has to be in a position to react. Indeed, being a competitive sport driven by speed and technology, motor-racing needs to push at the conventional understanding of the way that things are done.

There are two aspects to this in particular that I want to highlight here.

The first of these concerns the way that major motor races are presented to the public. Traditionally, television has been the most sought-after medium. Exposure on TV has brought the sport into people’s living rooms. Achieve this at a peak viewing period, when folk are browsing channels, and you increase awareness of the sport, hopefully attracting people to watch again, or even to attend in person; and most important of all: to buy the products of the company that’s providing the money to pay for the coverage.

However, these days there is such a preponderance of available channels on most people’s televisions, and those channels are usually tailored to the viewer’s interest area: drama, sport, news, etc. Also, the airing times of many motor-racing events are increasingly esoteric. All this reduces the numbers of casual viewers and instead, you get people watching who have made it a specific goal to find the programme concerned. Idle browsers are a rare breed these days.

Experience from the World Endurance Championship tends to suggest that there is a different type of viewer these days. This is no couch potato who comes across a six hour sportscar race and gets hooked on the mellifluous tones of John Hindhaugh and the dramatic shape of a modern sports prototype (nor even the other way round).

This new breed of viewer is the dedicated fan, who has live pictures streaming on the one hand, live timing on the other and live commentary on his headphones. More than likely he’ll also be keeping tabs on Twitter and Facebook as well and interacting with fellow fans in one way or another. This is unquestionably an intense way of following a race, but from what I can gather, the numbers of people doing so is increasing with every round of the championship. This is a global audience, independent of TV or radio, for whom the Internet is as much taken for granted as the fact that clean, fresh water comes at the turn of the tap.

And for the people who are paying to make the coverage happen, an increasing audience can only be encouraging, surely? The beauty (or in the view of the socially inept, like me, the peril) of social media is that it is very susceptible to ‘viral infection’, in the modern, technological sense. In other words, what used to happen by word-of-mouth now happens via the Internet, about ten times more quickly and a hundred times more effectively. Hey presto, advertisers find that their exposure grows.

Race organisers have to appreciate this shift in approach. No longer is mainstream television the target for their broadcast, but a TV production company that can provide pictures (and commentary) still needs to be an integral part of the package for the event. Get those pictures onto the web and the audience will do the rest.

But who pays for it all? Series’ organisers know that it costs money to get a series onto a commercial TV channel, even a cable channel that the consumer has to pay for. But if you’re putting that coverage onto the web, your costs can be much less. And if you can make your series attractive enough, then it will gain momentum as the size of the audience grows. This makes life easier for the entrants, who after all, ultimately have the most to gain from demonstrating to their partners that the global interest in their brand is growing.

Race organisers need to learn that just as stewards, timekeepers and marshals are essential elements to run a race meeting, so a production company, providing pictures and commentary, should be no different. Just as the printed (and TV) media have come to realise that the Internet is for many a much preferred source of news, so race organisers must appreciate that the broadcast of a motor race to a general TV audience may not be commercially viable, but that making it available to an interested, dedicated fan-base might well be.

A second, possibly darker, consequence of the digital revolution is the way that people actually participate in the sport. The Nissan Playstation GT Academy has shown how drivers can be trained in the isolated world of video games. Importantly, it has also brought drivers out of that world and into the ‘real’ world of racing. There is no doubt that it has had success in doing that, while at the same time succeeded in promoting its brand. So far so good.

However, there are many drivers out there who will remain in the ‘virtual’ world and will never make the physical journey to Silverstone, Brands Hatch or any other real racing circuit. Why not? Because they don’t need to. Their ambitions are constrained to the virtual racing world, and that’s as far as they want to go.

As technology makes such endeavours ever more realistic, so there is a whole marketplace that is being lost to those who make their money out of people going racing. Whether it is eight year olds going karting, or successful businessmen (and women) taking up racing later in life, I see it as inevitable that there will be a reduction in those who go and apply for their racing licence as the appeal of virtual racing takes hold.

I cannot imagine a world where ‘real’ motor-racing is replaced by ‘console’ gaming, but that might only be because my own imagination is conditioned by a lifetime of knowing the reality of Paddock Hill Bend, Hangar Straight, Pflanzgarten, Eau Rouge and Les Hunaudières.

I know what it’s like to drive a real car along those real bits of tarmac, because I’ve done so. And for me, a simulation would never do justice to the memories that I have, however good that simulation, because ‘being there’ is… well, just better.

But I might be wrong. The growth in popularity of Formula 1 was unimaginable fifty years ago. Who knows where it will go in the next fifty years (without Bernie, presumably)?

I believe that a hundred years from now, people will look back at this era and identify it as the turning point when a whole new way of doing things began. I think it’s worth pausing to ponder that; and consider what we all might do differently as a result.

The industrial revolution brought a new meaning to the word ‘horsepower’. I wonder if a casualty of the digital revolution will be the word ‘reality’?


  1. Racing games capture a lot of intangible aspects of real-life racing - the time spent setting up your car and training for a race, the mental strength required, the competitiveness - but miss out on one crucial ingredient: the fearlessness of real racers who face injury or death as they drive at the limits of their car at every turn. This is a big part of the appeal of watching real racing, that will never be replaced by spectating on racing games.

  2. I think the rise of the GT academy has been a good thing to find the hidden gems of gifted people young or old who can't afford to go to a track and race, who can translate that knack into real world driving.
    Over time with more applicants the selection process will become harder, as in the real world, moving from junior formulae to the upper echelons of our sport.
    Some people will be content to remain using GT as game and that is not a problem at all in my view, others will pursue the ultimate goal and try to follow Lucas Ordoniz (sp?). Again in the real world some people will be happy to drive a road car, with an occasional karting interlude and then you will get another sect who will aim high and stand in pit garages wishing to emulate their heroes, be they Ickx, Bell, Senna, Hill, McNish or the Vettels and Hamiltons.
    As long as race tracks still exist their will be some people who will want to drive them, its down to us as fans to continue to support the races/ organisers by following the spectacle, either by being there, or using the multitude of media on offer. the more hits a web stream gets the more a marketing dept will know if its a good route into a marketplace.
    p.s. keep up the blogs, love to read them