It’s often said that where Formula One leads, others follow.
Think anti-lock brakes, traction control, active suspension, hybrid energy recovery, even flappy paddle gearboxes. I could go on. They all started life as a seed in the minds of Formula One engineers.
So could Virtual Reality use Formula One as a stepping-stone to the mainstream? This month sees the introduction of an official Formula One VR channel, using footage gathered at the end of the 2018 season, as well as promise to cover at least ten races next season.
The motivation behind such a move is pretty clear. In 2017, F1 made just $10m in digital revenues and for sport where some teams can charge $5m for just a few inches of space on a driver’s helmet, that’s small change. But now new owners Liberty Media have their feet firmly under the table, technologies such as VR, social media and even in-race betting are becoming integral to the series.
VR won’t help anyone win a race, but the fact that F1 is taking the technology seriously is a key leg-up for the industry. Imagine bumping into Max Verstappen (nothing new there) in the paddock, or watching Lewis Hamilton steam past Sebastian Vettel (again, nothing new there) into the first corner at Baku, all in 360º vision? Then there’s the chance to experience a podium ceremony in VR.
Having VR break the traditional F1 timeline of ‘watch start, fall asleep, watch end’, by inviting them into the sport’s inner sanctum, can only help to attract new followers. If Kimi Raikkonen is leading a race by 30 seconds on lap 25, then VR can offer viewers a trip into the pit garages to watch Renault’s mechanics prepare for a pit stop. Or even a chance to watch the media pack in action as they chance down another retiree. It’s all about adding value to a Sunday afternoon narrative that can, at times, vary from fascinating to less-than-exciting.
But that isn’t all. Formula fans are often most fascinated by the technical aspects of the sport – aerodynamic updates, tyre compounds, even engine settings. And during that magical hour of qualifying on Saturday afternoons, there’s data aplenty to consume. If VR could offer even the tiniest insight into Lewis Hamilton’s pit garage during the top-ten shootout, complete with on-screen data, it’s almost certain there would be a huge take-up from dedicated followers.
Formula One has dabbled with VR previously. In 2017, several teams mounted VR cameras on their cars for a parade in Regent Street, just before the British Grand Prix. The results were mixed and throughout the 2018 season, a number of teams released 360º videos of key moments in races. McLaren, meanwhile, has partnered with HTC to launch a special edition VR headset and racing game.
None of these efforts have really used VR to its fullest potential, but the willing to experiment is clearly present. And with Formula E continuing to generate valuable interest with sponsors and manufacturers alike, motor sport’s premier series is under pressure like never before to remain relevant.
The pace of development in Formula One, both on and off the track, is unrelenting – so expect VR to become a key part of the viewing experience over the next few years. The mainstream has never been closer.