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Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali Has Big American Dreams

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
The motorsports exec speaks with Boardroom about what comes next for the world’s biggest racing competition after F1’s successful expansions into Miami and Las Vegas.

You could see the start/finish line from Stefano Domenicali’s office at the Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix.

This particular structure at Miami Gardens’ Hard Rock Stadium is attached to the two-floor luxury Paddock Club that sits atop the 10 F1 teams’ garages — all part of a series of upgrades for the in-demand event’s second annual iteration as laid out to Boardroom by Miami GP managing partner Tom Garfinkel — that also included the teams’ hospitality areas extended onto the Miami Dolphins‘ home field. The day before the Grand Prix that was ultimately won by Red Bull‘s Max Verstappen, the Formula 1 CEO said he heard several positive comments from teams and drivers about the upgrades to the Miami experience from Year One to Year Two; he applauded Garfinkel and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross for their efforts.

“It’s been phenomenal the last couple of years, having an incredible amount of people,” Stefano Domenicali told Boardroom. “The level is growing. The bar has been raised, and we want to make sure that every event is different from the other.”

As the world’s most popular racing competition gets set for its annual crown jewel on May 28, the Monaco Grand Prix, Domenicali takes pride in every Grand Prix having a different look and feel, from Miami and Monaco, from Baku to Bahrain, and from Singapore to Silverstone.

“When I hear, ‘could this model be applied in other places?’ I would say no,” Domenicali said. “Everyone has its own personality, and that’s what we want to keep.”

Domenicali with Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei (Photo courtesy of Formula 1)

Looking ahead, the first-ever Las Vegas Grand Prix is now fewer than six months away, an event so important to F1 that the organization has invested more than $500 million in efforts to bring high-level racing to the Vegas Strip for at least the next decade and is promoting the race itself in-house and on a dedicated basis with parent company Liberty Media.

Regarding the City of Sin, Domenicali sees two sides of the coin: While the buzz for the Vegas Grand Prix has been tremendous, there’s equal and opposite pressure that comes with the responsibility to shape it into an iconic global event in the very first time of asking. As the CEO spoke with Boardroom, elements are gradually falling into place out in the desert, including a growing group of permanent buildings, asphalt resurfacing, and helping the city prepare to shut down the iconic Strip for hours at a time to make room for 20 V6 turbo hybrids.

Normally, big-time week-long events in Las Vegas end up divided among different casinos and resorts, Domenicali noted, but fans are due to witness a more unified experience leading into the Grand Prix’s rather rare Saturday night race schedule, so F1 is working with local and state officials and resort executives alike in order to leave nothing up to chance. Everyone from Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo to leaders from the city’s fire department was on hand in Miami to get a feel for how a first-ever Formula 1 weekend would take shape in their city. Little by little, the community has learned how to embrace the project and comprehend its massive potential as one that could go down as one of the biggest and most coveted on the global sporting calendar.

This year, more than a quarter of the F1 world championship schedule takes place in the western hemisphere, with Las Vegas joining Miami and Austin races in the US, plus Montreal, Mexico City, and São Paolo. Domenicali said there are no current plans to expand its presence in the Americas beyond those six, however, as F1 aims to solidify its current set of Grand Prix races as such.

“Just a couple of years ago, we were thinking with Austin: ‘Do we need to stay?'” Domenicali said. “Is it worth the investment in the United States?”

Well, the growth of F1 in the United States has made three American races worth its while — last year’s United States Grand Prix at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas drew the biggest crowds in the 10-year history of the event.

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So, while Stefano Domenicali is elated by this current phase of the sport’s growth, he said that Formula 1 does need to remain cautious amid its expansion to further corners of the earth.

After all, Domenicali still remembers when F1 was an afterthought in America; nevertheless, ESPN loyally stood by its side as its domestic media rights holder. When the organization renewed its rights agreement with the Worldwide Leader this year, the CEO said he didn’t forget what the network did when times were tougher.

“They were the ones that believed in our product during a period where not a lot of American media broadcasters believed in us,” Domenicali said. “So, we renewed with them because they deserve to be with us. We had others bid for that, but I thought we made the right choice.”

In the future, Domenicali said it’s a matter of helping Formula 1 maintain the rabid attention it currently boasts stateside, which he said ESPN continues to do a good job of supporting. Anyone even halfway paying attention expects the next F1 media rights deal to be far more lucrative than the current one, however — and at the right time, Domenicali said the promotion will sit and try to find a solution for the future; right now, renewing with ESPN over other opportunistic bidders was a necessary sign of respect for what it did for the sport.

Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

On the track,meanwhile, Domenicali is rightfully impressed by Red Bull Racing’s current dominance and is happy to see Aston Martin‘s improvement with a better car and the new addition of former world champion Fernando Alonso, adding that the other eight teams need to put in the work to close the gap. He still thinks that competitive balance in the sport will come, noting the rest of the teams besides Red Bull are much closer than they once were.

“The limit is there, so they need to improve and work on a daily basis so they can really maximize their performance,” Domenicali said of Ferrari, Mercedes, and the rest of the pack.

The limit he’s referring to is the cost cap, which was put in place to limit excessive team spending in 2021 and is set at a $135 million threshold for the 2023 season. While teams will admittedly look for loopholes to circumvent the cap as they hope to exploit every possible competitive advantage, Red Bull was fined $7 million last year and saw its wind tunnel and computational fluid dynamics testing time reduced for a year following a minor 2021 violation. With that in mind, Domenicali called the cost cap a key element to the entire system’s credibility, one that he considers to be a great success.

“It’s important that the FIA is keeping the right pressure to check if all the teams are in compliance,” he said of motorsport’s global governing body, adding that infringements are difficult to verify, especially when each team has a different financial structure and are based in different countries with different rules, regulations, and laws, “not only for the financial sustainability of the teams, but also in terms of the credibility of the sport. The complications and technicalities of the system are quite complex. I know that the FIA is reinforcing the team to make sure that the control is done properly. And I’m sure that if there is something that we believe is not right, it will be taken with the right approach.”

All these efforts, from the cost cap to new races and fan experiences in Miami and Las Vegas, are aimed at the same goal: strengthening Formula 1’s popularity in places like America that have the audience to propel motor racing to new heights.

“Every day, we have to confront the fact that we cannot be complacent,” Domenicali said. “There’s an incredible potential we need to take advantage of.”

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