Observed


Formula 1 racing’s surge of U.S. followers over the past five years has been nothing short of staggering. An aggressive marketing campaign, some savvy PR during the height of Covid, and the soapy, narrative-heavy Netflix series Drive To Survive have boosted viewership (and water cooler interest) exponentially.

Now, you see the fruits of F1’s brand strategy everywhere. Lewis Hamilton jerseys, Mercedes gear, reality-TV crews mining golf’s PGA tour for similar drama. And, of course, the F1 logo itself featured on a sea of merch.

It’s an interesting time to think about F1 design. The logo and branded elements are still relatively new (to U.S. audiences at least). F1 also overhauled its whole broadcast package, including TV graphics like the leaderboard which feature all kinds of metrics conveyed to a very wide range of enthusiasts.

Also, the cars themselves just went through a huge overhaul. So, you’re watching the design process happening in real-time as they drive through 2022.

That got me thinking about F1’s overall state of design. Does it work? Who’s it working for? Which team’s design is the best? Is sonic branding a factor?

The mobile influence

What’s interesting about the recent design change is that you see the mobile influence come into the TV broadcast. The leaderboard and other TV graphics feel like they were designed mobile-first.

That would explain some of the design decisions. The redesign falls short on a larger screen experience. I don’t know the statistics of who’s watching it on their phone versus a tablet versus like a big screen, but the legibility starts to suffer on a TV. 

The margins are thin and there’s very low contrast for some information that you really want to know. 70-inch flat screens, laptops, mobile phones – it’s a lot of states for a designer to manage.

Managing fan literacy

Design changes over the years always elicit mixed reactions. Everyone has an opinion, myself included. But the real tension designers need to manage has to do with the levels of fan literacy.

You have people who are maybe watching their first Grand Prix ever, versus folks that have been watching it for decades. And so, you have to reach both audiences in a really clever way.

You have to provide enough information to teach the newcomers, but you don’t want to dumb it down too much for the folks that know a lot of the things that are happening throughout the race. A good example of all this management? The leaderboard.

Let’s talk about the leaderboard

The leaderboard is your visual touchstone when watching F1, and this year it underwent some pretty significant changes. Position, lap time, tire condition … it conveys a lot of information in a very small footprint. What do you prioritize? What is the hierarchy?

The redesign of the leaderboard did a good job of visually communicating the various conditions that occur in the race, like whether or not there is a safety car, virtual safety car, red flag, or yellow flag. 

These different states read immediately clear from a distance, and as a viewer, I’m brought up to speed very quickly if I’ve stepped away or come into the race late.

My biggest critique is the choice to de-prioritize tire compound information alongside each driver. This is such an important variable in overall race strategy and can determine the performance of the car on the track and ultimately the outcome of the race. 

The smaller font size and razor-thin margins create such a low contrast this information is nearly illegible at a distance. In previous years tire compounds were much easier to read.

Image courtesy of monstersport.com

Sound design

Often when we think of sonic branding, our brains go to audio “stingers” cooked up for streaming companies (like Netflix). But the evolving aural component of the F1 experience is more complicated than that.

My husband and I have an F1 subscription we cast from our computer to our TV through Chromecast, which is a pretty fluid experience. However, something changed recently, and I think this is definitely due to the uptick in American viewership. 

The default broadcast on our subscription was the international broadcast, which has different commentators. It’s a completely different stream, and we developed a fondness for them. 

This year, for the very first Grand Prix, it took us about 20 minutes into the race to figure out what was going on. The default switched to the American broadcast, and we couldn’t figure it out. Who are these announcers? There’s a toggle to select if you want the international stream. Because our IP address is from the United States, it just defaulted to the North American broadcast.

Commentators are so woven into the “sonic brand” of different sports. We’re rapidly approaching an era of multiple streams offering different language and tonal options for all sports, but part of F1’s resurgent appeal in America is connected to how global it feels.

It’s like when the English Premier League first hit the states, U.S. fans were sort of dipping a toe into the unknown, and away from the homogenized sports announcing that’s taken over football, baseball, etc. European announcers make it all feel more “authentic” somehow. More sophisticated, maybe?

Branded audio possibilities

This feeling won’t last forever. As F1 grows in popularity here, American announcers will too. That transition will follow, for better and worse, an Americanization of how we watch and listen to the sport, and I’m not quite ready for that. Besides, to be a truly global sport, you need voices from all over the globe, which creates all kinds of branded audio possibilities.

Corporations tend to emphasize “sonic logos” as their defining the brand with sound, and I wonder if that’s a way to punt on far more complicated, far more interesting possibilities. F1 is the perfect example of how a product’s immersive aural landscape can elevate a fan’s connection to the sport.

For instance, when they launch the Formula 1 intro song at the start of the race, it ignites excitement every time I hear it. The British announcers in the international feed then say “Lights out and away we go” and it feels like something really special is about to happen.

A well-curated audio design makes it all so personal. The engines, the crowd reactions, the car radio feeds, the excitable commentators — we’re brought into this world in a real-time, intimate way that other sports would do well to emulate.

The car with the best design

From a livery standpoint, my answer would be Mercedes, but I’m biased because they are my favorite team. From a performance standpoint, Ferrari is by far standing out as the strongest on the grid, and it’s honestly great to see Ferrari win races again.

Red Bull is right up there as a close third. They integrate into extreme and high-performance sports so well.

In 2022 all of the cars on the grid underwent a huge overhaul. The FIA presented the teams with a new set of regulations that promised better racing conditions on the track. While working with the same guidelines, each team approached their cars differently, and Ferrari appears to have figured out the best direction for optimal performance at this point. It’s also a beautiful car – the curves, the gills on the sidepods, it’s really lovely.

Mercedes’ pair of cars are called the Silver Arrows, which is a pretty strong association. If you ever say the Silver Arrows to anyone and they are interested in Formula 1, they’ll know that you’re talking about the Mercedes team.

Over the last decade, Mercedes cars consistently ranked number one on the grid. It comes through in the branding, in the car, and in how the team communicates with each other. It even comes down to some sharp detailing on the wheels. As we continue to march on through the 2022 season, I hope we’ll see Mercedes performance match the excellence in their team brand.

Courtesy F1

The car with the worst design

They’re all strong. I don’t wanna dog on any of the teams. But — from a completely subjective standpoint — if I had to parachute in and redesign a team’s branding, it would probably be Alpine. It’s just not to my taste. It looks like a bubble gum wrapper.

When you think of Formula 1 cars, you really do think about aerodynamics. A successful livery is really to emphasize the quality of the car.

There are a lot of reasons why people get into racing, of course, but one of the core mandates is to make the brand attractive. You want fans to look at your car and think, “Wow, Mercedes makes beautiful things,” then have that translate to going to a showroom and buying a Mercedes.

The difference between a good livery versus a less successful livery is how the livery accentuates the beauty and the function of the car itself. The Alpine car presents an interesting case. Even though it’s aesthetically successful, the design doesn’t feel as informed by the car as other liveries on the grid.

It’s a massive challenge designing something so beautiful that also has to live in a high-stress environment. The front wing on some of these cars is €100,000, and damage occurs with great frequency. A relatively light touch with another car or barrier means it’s trashed.

Courtesy F1

Type treatment

When it comes to the headlines and the overall look and feel, the F1 brand is really clean and cohesive. The  Wieden+Kennedy-designed F1 logo is strong and distinctive, and it carries the same track theme into the logo.

The typeface cleverly evokes a track layout as seen from overhead, especially the “a” in lowercase. It’s expressive, and the use of curves really brings the track to the web experience.

The legibility struggles in the body copy, but it really does communicate the shapes that you see in the track. So I understand the choices, and I respect them.