[How Qatar is winning F1’s airline race
The company has already made an impact during its first year in the sport as F1’s official airline partner, and that will only become more apparent if Max Verstappen clinches the World Championship at Lusail this weekend, drawing further attention to the race title sponsor.
For decades airlines studiously avoided F1, and it was always said that they didn’t want the public to see crashing racing cars carrying their logos.
That changed as one after the other they arrived as event sponsors, with Gulf Air, Singapore, Air Canada and Qantas all backing their local races, and Etihad doing the same following initial associations with Spyker and Ferrari.
Emirates didn’t have a race in Dubai to support. However, after a brief spell with McLaren, it became the highest-profile airline in the sport from 2013 as an official partner of F1, a deal that saw it take title sponsorship of various races around the world.
The Emirates contract was extended for a further five years in 2018, and it came up for renewal again at the end of last year, at a much higher price given the sport’s boom in popularity. However, having made a competitive offer Qatar Airways stepped in as a direct replacement for its main competitor.
The timing was not coincidental. This season sees the start of a 10-year race contract for the Qatar GP following the experiment back in 2021 when Lusail was invited to plug a gap left by COVID cancellations.
The country saw F1 as the perfect way to maintain an international sporting profile after the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and it was inevitable that its airline would become involved. The fact that the Emirates deal was running out handily created the opportunity for Qatar to become the official airline partner to the sport until 2027, and not just a one-off home race sponsor.
Qatar GP advertising is prominent at Doha airport
Photo by: Adam Cooper
Taking over from Emirates made the deal all the sweeter thanks to the healthy competition between the companies.
There are different ways of measuring size, but if you look at their fleets Qatar and Emirates are head-to-head on 258 and 264 aircraft apiece, and they are in effect chasing the same business. In contrast, smaller local rivals Etihad and Gulf have just 90 and 35 planes respectively.
Qatar’s F1 deal is a significant one even for a company with major associations across many sports, notably with FIFA, UEFA and Paris St Germain.
The man who oversees those deals is Luke Drake, the airline’s vice president of commercial partnerships.
The 37-year-old Briton has an intriguing CV. He started his career with a spell at Prodrive, before heading to well-known sports marketing agency Prism, where he was responsible for the Ferrari/Shell account. From 2012 to 2017 he had a senior role at Williams, from where he moved to F1 as head of commercial partnerships.
Over a four-year stint, he was involved in various deals as F1 built up its sponsorship portfolio. Then in August 2021, he joined Qatar Airways, just a few months before the first race at Lusail.
“At the Grand Prix itself, we had a presence,” Drake recalls of that first race. “But it was just from a hospitality standpoint. And I was able to support my colleagues, being quite new, with some knowledge of how to conduct hospitality at the race.
Qatar Airways trackside branding
Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images
“But really I was recruited in order to help deliver the FIFA World Cup in 2022. So my primary role at the time was preparing for that tournament. From a sponsorship activation and hospitality standpoint, that was the focus of my team.
“The first F1 race was a project on the side, which we looked after, without being race sponsors. And that developed into the opportunity to be F1’s airline partner going into 2023, which of course I was personally very pleased with.
“I think that it was a great way of building on the foundation that Qatar and Qatar Airways had laid down across the World Cup, the most successful, well-organised, the most watched World Cup. On and off the pitch, it was a great event.
“But then we have F1 events and MotoGP events, and we’re able to leverage the network of F1 for the purposes of the airline. So it was great to be able to lead into that, and for the World Cup to be the start of the story, rather than the end of the story.”
The inside knowledge gained working for an agency, the Williams team and the F1 organisation itself put Drake in the perfect position to help put together the deal to replace Emirates as the sport’s official airline partner.
“It’s been a good foundation to be able to support everything that Qatar is looking to do when it comes to involvement with motorsport and particularly F1,” he says of his CV.
“I think agencies are a very good school and background for people to really understand how things work behind the scenes, what is required in terms of scoping and resourcing to deliver successful sponsorship programmes and events.”
Qatar GP ads
Photo by: Adam Cooper
The fact that he knew so much about the inside workings of the F1 business, and was now sitting on the other side of the negotiating table, ultimately helped both parties.
“There are so many nuances of F1 in terms of what you need from a passes perspective, what you need from branding and rights,” he says.
“And so having that information and knowledge was useful when it came to building specifications with our rights and our partners at F1, who are really strong colleagues, as well as partners.
“The relationship between Qatar Airways and the F1 commercial team, and with Stefano Domenicali, all the way up to our leadership, is really positive and healthy.
“And I think they really see that in Qatar Airways they have a partner who really does want to activate and build the brand of F1. And I’m not shy in telling Stefano and the commercial team that I’m a big F1 advocate!
“We can really feel confident in putting a lot of resources into making F1 as good as it can be. Because the better it can be, the better it can deliver for Qatar Airways.”
Drake says that Qatar really makes its sports sponsorships work successfully.
Qatar Airways branding has been widespread on F1 circuits this season
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
“Qatar does a good job at 360-degree activation,” he says. “We have the Qatar GP, whereas if you look at other airline partners in the past, they didn’t have their own home race, which is particularly important from a domestic perspective. And then we’re also able to activate our global network as the global airline partner.
“And of course, we’re in a competitive business. And when it comes to sponsorship rights, there is some competition as well. And with the growth of F1, we’re very pleased to be in a position that we’re at the moment.
“We are challenging our competitors, and I think building a very impressive and premium portfolio with the likes of F1 and FIFA and PSG and some of the other rights and sports interests and entertainment and music festival interests that we’re building.
“We do everything in our own way, though. I think the Qatar Airways way is distinct. And we would prefer a fewer, bigger, better approach to the rights we have. So we want to have the most premium rights holders like FIFA and F1.
“We could spend on more rights elsewhere to have a bigger portfolio, but we would prefer to double down on truly activating the rights that we have, and being quite selective of who we partner with, in order to be able to demonstrate a really good fan experience and passenger experience.”
That fan focus is genuine, as is demonstrated by the ticket and travel packages the airline is selling, across the whole F1 season.
“The philosophy of everything that we do within the organisation is not to leave anything on the table, unleveraged and unused,” says Drake.
F1 will return to action in Qatar this weekend after last visiting in 2021
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
“We value the branding rights that we get from F1, which are really impactful, and deliver a lot of media value. We also value the hospitality rights. But we do want to add in terms of activation on top of that great fan products, which we deliver as our ultimate F1 fan experiences.
“We are able to provide fans the chance to fly with Qatar Airways, stay in a hotel booked by Qatar Airways, and buy tickets in convenient packages.
“That really puts the fan at the heart of the story, and our passengers at the heart of the story, and enables us to really live and breathe the partnership, rather than be a sort of a passive logo on the side of the track.”
Aside from the home race this year Qatar also had the title sponsorship for the cancelled Imola event, as well as the Hungarian GP. Drake’s insider knowledge of how the latter venue showcases track signage because of its slow nature proved valuable.
“I think that the deal was reasonably late in the day,” says Drake of those choices. “It wasn’t like the package was discussed two years in advance, which meant that some of the races were already committed. But F1 gave us a very reasonable list to choose from.
“The reason for Hungary is it’s a destination we fly directly to. Budapest is a nice place to host guests. And also, it is a race that has the ability to deliver some of the most coverage for a title sponsor, if you actually look at the quantity of coverage, and you don’t need the numbers to see it. It does very favourably for the title sponsor.
“We will rotate in and out of some of our priority markets for the remainder of the term, which will see us be at races that are different to the ones we had this year. Some of those we select on an annual basis, some of them are already agreed.”
Qatar Airways branding has featured on some of the most iconic F1 corners
Photo by: Uncredited
Last month Qatar announced an extra level to its F1 involvement as official airline partner of the Alpine team.
You might think such a deal wasn’t necessary for a company already sponsoring the whole show, but Drake says there are specific reasons.
“The package of rights that we get with F1 doesn’t allow for some of that intimate access to the teams,” he notes.
“And I think for the guest experience, that’s quite important. The expectation, if you’re going to the race with the global airline partner, is that you get the most privileged access, and quite rightly so, especially given the accolades and standards of the airline.
“So we don’t want to let anyone down, we want to make sure people have the chance to meet drivers, access garages, have access to team merchandise, and other bits and pieces that are important for our guest programme.”
Qatar is also making full use of its involvement across a range of sports. At the Miami GP there was an activation event involving PSG players, and this weekend’s VIP visitors will include David Beckham, Ronaldinho, and South African cricket legend Faf du Plessis.
There’s also a surprise awaiting Max Verstappen.
“It looks like we’re going to be fortunate enough to crown the world champion this weekend, which I think is a great promotion of the circuit,” says Drake.
“And we’ve got lots of plans in order to make that a special ceremony, given the title sponsor has the right to do various things around the podium. So we’ll be taking part in that, which is very exciting.”
Qatar may be winning the F1 airline war, but who will win on Sunday?
Photo by: Pininfarina