When Renault F1 announced Fernando Alonso as one of their 2021 driver’s, the story punched a hole in motorsport media for much of the week.
The process was deliberate, intricate, carefully crafted and hugely successful and Renault owned the headlines.
The twitching on Monday evening was pretty hard to miss. After a couple of months of silence amidst the bustles of early-May noise, Renault were finally ready to announce their finalised line-up for the 2021 season.
Had Renault promoted one of the drivers from its academy programme, the news would most likely have raised a temporary blip, before dying down again, but in announcing twice World Champion Fernando Alonso, the French manufacturer were guaranteed headlines.
Despite what one may think of Alonso, the Spanish veteran is a headline generator and the timing and method of the story would have been designed to create maximum noise and coverage.
It is impossible (at this point) to know when the Renault/Alonso deal was done or even when talks began but given the apparent cracks in the relationship between Renault and current pilot Daniel Ricciardo, it would be unsurprising if discussions began quite some time ago. Whatever the case, Renault were in no rush to get this news released.
No matter, the timing still had to be right. It clearly served no purpose for the announcement to be revealed in the same breath as the Sebastian Vettel/Carlos Sainz/Ricciardo musical chairs, as it simply would have been an extra chapter to a story rather than being the story.
Around that time, the Formula One world was flowing with stories and counter-stories regarding the viability of each and every Grand Prix amidst the Coronavirus pandemic.
Acknowledgements that some races would happen – and then not happen – while some venues would take on double-headers – and then not – and the return of some classic races to the calendar – and then not – finding the appropriate space to drop this story was critical.
But Renault could not wait forever. The pin would have to be pulled eventually and the week following the Austrian Grand Prix was a perfect fit.
In following the belated opening race of the season, Renault’s announcement fed on the excitement of Formula One’s return just a few days prior. In addition to this, football across Europe had also returned shortly prior to Formula One, ensuring sporting news as a whole was beginning to emerge from the dark.
Meanwhile in the US, both NASCAR and Indycar had also returned and while Formula One media is of a much smaller scale in the States, the story was enough to create a ripple amidst the general motorsport media.
There was some risk of course. In timing the announcement just after the restart to the season, Renault ran the risk of this news dropping in a time when COVID-19 could have returned to bite the sport hard. Thankfully that did not happen and indeed, the only notable Coronavirus story to have passed through Formula One was the discovery of a couple of infected personnel in the run up to the third race of the year at the Hungaroring, although neither had attended either of the Austrian rounds.
Just placing the story in the week between the Austrian and Styrian Grand Prix was not enough however, as there were still plenty of avenues to navigate, but it was brilliantly managed.
The Austrian Grand Prix had been held, and, in the aftermath, discussion generally revolved around the race and the weekend’s action, with immediate reaction and analysis being the course of the day.
Through Sunday night and into Monday, additional post-race coverage begins to emerge, with more in-depth examinations of driver and team performances dominating output. This generally falls under the scope of 600-to-1000-word pieces discussing the weekend’s developments and trends, with features generally fixating on a specific person or team in an effort to paint a grander picture of the Grand Prix event.
Monday also offers outlets the opportunity to deliver ubiquitous (and pointless and baseless) driver rankings scheme, sided with bite-sized blurbs that aim to maximise word count and minimise usefulness and imagination.
Interestingly, in the case of the Renault driver reveal, it was on Monday evening that rumours began to surface from Spanish media of a Wednesday announcement, immediately fuelling speculation that Alonso was about to make his return to French squad and quickly forcing writers back to their laptops and workstations. Although there had been rumbles of an Alonso return for some time, this merely adding fuel to the fire.
And thus, the Monday rumours germinate Tuesday stories. Generally, in European territories, if your audience is primarily based in that time zone, dropping a story such as this can often sink if it falls outside of prime readership periods – a good editor will know when these slots are open.
As it is a story based on a loose rumour, with no confirmation or quotation of any kind, releasing it at a time when readership numbers are likely to be low is of little value. Launching when you are likely to have a prime number of eyeballs is generally a good shout – for many sites, that’s the following morning at around 9am when people are settling into the nine-to-five jobs and looking to burn a bit of time before their meeting or coffee (or both).
Meanwhile, with no confirmation and – most importantly – no denials from the interested parties, the rumour was allowed to gather steam and accelerate and as Tuesday morning passed into the afternoon, follow-up stories emerged, generally along the lines of, “Why Alonso and Renault are back together” and “What Alonso’s return means for F1”, (etc, etc.).
The story is finally launched, details are solidified, quotes are released, and it is the story for the day online and (if they’ve done the mental gymnastics) the print media.
Importantly, in broadcast sports news, this is also critical as specialist television channels obtain media-junket style individual interviews, while others show pre-recorded video clips virtually guaranteeing near 24-hour coverage (unless something hugely unforeseen occurs).
In a way, launching a story such as this on a Wednesday is perfect, as thoughts of the previous week’s Grand Prix have evaporated and also it gives ample time for the media to enjoy a build-up, release and reload before the next race weekend begins.
Thursday’s coverage allowed for additional reaction and also allowed the story to move on somewhat. The next Grand Prix weekend was officially beginning, and the Thursday Driver Press Conference opened windows to obtain comments from a pre-selected set of drivers about Alonso’s return. Those who bit helped to create additional column inches and stories during an already busy week.
With some exclusive broadcasters slotting in a Grand Prix’ practice sessions, the news becomes a talking point during on track action, which – to be fair – is often barren of action and information. The inclusion of social media correspondence during these sessions – in an attempt to generate additional discussion – helps to fuel the conversation a little longer, before the story is finally overtaken.
The last splash before the story finally goes away. This generally involves broadcasters showing segments recorded specifically for the Saturday qualifying build-up show, with news of the reveal, how it affects the driver market and what Alonso’s return for Formula One means for the young drivers who haven’t been promoted.
These are the final embers of the story before it finally ebbs away. It had been brilliantly played by Renault and Fernando Alonso, and while there was some small amount of luck in making each aspect of this story work, one must never overlook the hard work that went on to build this scenario.