Few people have a better handle on the way Formula 1 has evolved this century than Jenson Button.
The former F1 champion joined Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei and Las Vegas Grand Prix CEO Renee Wilm to talk about this weekend’s race with Robb Report’s Viju Mathew and Sportico’s Eric Jackson at House of Robb at Wynn Las Vegas on Thursday. The group discussed the ways the sport has changed since Liberty Media took over and what to look forward to in the years to come.
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Button, who took home one of the most improbable driver’s championships in history while racing for Brawn GP in 2009, has watched F1’s popularity explode since he last competed in the series. A big part of that boom can be attributed to Liberty Media, which took over the sport in 2016 and quickly replaced its controversial, longtime chief Bernie Ecclestone.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about Bernie, but I will,” Button said with a laugh. “Bernie did a lot for the sport through the decades that he was involved with it, and the sport wouldn’t have been what it was without him. But it was time for new leadership. I’m so impressed with where the sport has gone since I raced.”
The surge in popularity isn’t just about changes at the boardroom level, though. Improved regulations, better technology, and a new generation of drivers have also done a lot to improve the on-track product, he explained, even if Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing have dominated this season.
“The fights on track are unreal, the strategy as well, just coming into it with the teams,” Button said. “The level is just they’re raising the bar every year.”
The driver, who now competes in endurance racing, is particularly excited about the latest addition to the competition’s calendar. The grand prix, which is the second to take place in the city — the first, in 1982, was infamously held in the parking lot of Caesar’s Palace — is a 3.8-mile street course, which he explained will present a different set of challenges for the drivers, and could result in some surprises on the podium.
“You have to build up to it slowly, and you get to that qualifying lap and you put it all on the line. You’re scraping barriers,” Button said. “If you get back to the pits and you haven’t got a bit of barrier on your tires, you haven’t pushed hard enough. So I look forward to these guys pushing the cars to the maximum in the tricky conditions. It’s not going to be easy out there.
The competition isn’t finished growing, either. There’s room for expansion in Asia — Maffei expects that South Korea will be its next new host country — and F1 wants to have a race in Africa eventually. It will also keep working to broaden both the pool its fanbase and the pool its drivers come from.
“Since we’ve acquired Formula 1, it’s a younger average age, it’s a much higher female at base,” Wilm said. ”And we have F! Academy, which will hopefully put a woman in the seat of an F1 car one day.”
F1 will also continue to figure out new ways to get its drivers, race cars, and races in front of viewers. The series is experiencing a boom in popularity as linear TV dies a slow death thanks to TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, according to Maffei. There are plenty of fans who want to watch a full race, but there also those who want to watch it condensed into a 30- or 12-minute highlight package.
“I think that’s we try to do,” he said. “We are unique in being able to take advantage of the [sport’s] global nature.”
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