Analysis: The Mexican GP's 'third album' challenge

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After two award-winning events, the organisers of Formula 1’s Mexican Grand Prix are relishing the challenge of making it three for three with the 2017 race.

Using a historic rally to get people talking about F1 is hardly normal practice. But the organisers of the Mexican Grand Prix have never been interested in following convention.

It is a philosophy that has proved successful. Not only was the reborn Mexican Grand Prix immediately popular with the local fanbase – who can forget the Mexican waves in the stadium section when Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez hit the track for free practice in 2015? – but the race became a firm favourite with the F1 travelling circus.

Ahead of this year’s Canadian Grand Prix, Mexican race organisers CIE worked with the Carrera Panamericana to put together a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the local and international press.

For the first time in the history of the Panamericana, journalists were invited along for passenger rides in cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s, Studebakers, Mustangs, and Fords that had competed in the deadliest race of all time.

Chapa de Mota, a small pueblo two hours’ drive from Mexico City, was home to the special stage. The town’s main square roared with engine noise, and the air was heavily perfumed with engine oil, frying churros, and the smoke of a dozen competing barbacoas. Schoolchildren in their uniforms crowded round, jumping at the sound of the cars powering off the stage start.

Strapped into the passenger seat of a ‘64 Mustang, pace notes on my lap and a five-point harness keeping me in place, it was time for the world’s worst map reader to attempt to navigate a mountain-top rally stage, sheer drops and all.

The 15 kilometres that followed were some of the most exhilarating of my life. Flashes of greenery flew past the window as we raced up the narrow highway, trusting that the roads had been closed not only to local traffic, but also to local wildlife.

It was one hell of a way to promote a grand prix.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in support from local governments and local communities in how we can promote the race,” Rodrigo Sanchez, director of marketing and communications for CIE told Motorsport.com in Mexico.

“We saw that today: closing a highway for us is no small ask! But when they see the power of Formula One, local governments become very friendly and they’re willing to do things with us that maybe they wouldn’t have done in the past.”

Sanchez has been a driving force behind the innovative promotions for which the Mexican Grand Prix has become known in the two years since its return to the F1 calendar.

The race has twice won the Best Promoter award at the FIA’s annual prize-giving gala, and while it’s not unusual for an incoming event to claim the award in its first year, Mexico’s second win prevented 2016 debutant Baku from collecting the traditional ‘thanks for joining us’ silver.

Few who have attended the Mexico City race would deny that the event is impressive. The size of the crowds during practice sessions is testimony enough to the continuing interest from the local market, but the magic of the Mexican experience comes from a concerted effort to make the Mexican Grand Prix feel, well, Mexican.

“A lot of thought and work goes into making sure the Mexican Grand Prix feels like a Mexican event,” Sanchez acknowledged. “We’re just trying to change the game a little bit, like we did last year with the lucha libre at the bullpen. We do things differently, and we tend to break the rules a little bit.

“We’re always trying to find new ways to incorporate Mexican culture into everything that we do. Even from a publicity standpoint: the way we design and create our show is fully focused on showcasing Mexico.

“It really goes into everything we do; how to highlight Mexico in a positive manner, because F1 for us is obviously a global platform to showcase our country. That’s our biggest focus from a strategic standpoint.”

Part of CIE’s approach involves carpeting the country with publicity in an aim to amp up the excitement even among those unlikely to attend the race.

“When everyone flies into the race, we’ve put publicity all over the city even though we don’t have any tickets to sell a few weeks before the event,” Sanchez said. “But the publicity creates a vibe, this energy, this expectation around the race.

“For people who are flying in, they come to the airport and they start seeing all the publicity everywhere: the hotels, the restaurants, the airport, and it brings excitement.

“For us it’s not just an event that is happening at a racetrack, it’s an event that’s happening in Mexico, and we try to get the entire country to live and breathe the race with us.”

CIE are experienced events organisers, and Sanchez – although young – has years of experience in international motorsports.

But despite he and his colleagues being the driving forces behind Mexico’s F1esta, the communications director points to the Mexican public as being the secret ingredient in Mexico’s magic.

“Our success? I think it’s a mix of things: the Mexican public, which is very unique; their energy, their passion – it really comes into play; and us focusing on doing our jobs.

“Proper planning, proper execution, and adding that little bit of Mexican flavour. It becomes this fiesta, and we’re very proud to be showcasing it.

“I think that’s what we need to keep doing: keep doing, keep working, keep using the local resources that we have, because at the end of the day they’re going to be the best tools we can use to showcase Mexico. We have to use Mexico to sell Mexico.”

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