As a child, Julian Tan (pic) was badly bullied in school, but he is having the last laugh now. The genius, who is now the head of the Formula 1’s digital business and eSport, is the only Malaysian named in the 2020 Leaders Under 40 in Sports list for being the brain behind the virtual Grand Prix series.
Q: Congratulations on making the distinct list released by the International Leaders in Sports at the age of 32! How did you get involved in this unique Formula 1 business?
A: I grew up in Subang Jaya and after finishing my school studies, I got a scholarship to study for my A Levels at Taylors College. I moved to London later as I was one of the six Malaysians offered to study at the Oxford University. I did engineering and graduated with first class honours.
I then went to Cambridge University to complete my PhD before securing my first job in London at an American consulting firm called the Boston Consulting Group.
I worked across a range of industries and projects and in 2017 was lucky enough to work at Formula 1 on a secondment where I helped my current boss Frank Arthofer, who is the global director of Digital, Licensing and New Business at F1, to set up the digital department from scratch.
My dad is a huge fan of the sport and I used to follow Formula 1 growing up. We would watch the race over dinner or in the afternoon every Sunday.
So, yes, this is something that I’ve followed as a kid.
How did you come up with the Virtual Grand Prix?
We had already entered the world of eSport in 2017 but the Virtual Grand Prix series was only developed this year in response to the Covid-19 when the pandemic forced us to postpone and cancel our real life Grand Prix.
I quickly arranged to replace our cancelled and postponed Grand Prix with virtual Grand Prix and had the real life Formula 1 drivers participate and race against each other virtually.
It was a big hit – we had over 33 million viewers online and on television!
We helped to deliver value to our sponsors and broadcast partners during a time where most, if not all, sports went dark. And we also continued to engage our fans and kept the lights on at Formula 1.
Has this virtual venture changed the landscape in F1?
We recognised that the Formula 1 have an ageing fanbase so it was important to develop strategies to reach out to a younger audience.
There were countless benefits and one big example is that eSport allows us to break down barriers between our sport and our fans.
The reality about Formula 1 is that unlike most sports like football or tennis where you can pick up a ball or tennis racquet and play with your friends in a local park but you can’t just jump into a race car.
But with eSport, because one can play with a gaming wheel, pedal and simulator seat, the experience is immersive. So, by participating in our activities, you get to experience a bit of Formula 1 racing, so it is a huge game changer.
Does the Virtual Grand Prix take place the same weekend with the F1 races?
For now, the Virtual Grand Prix series have concluded as we are racing in the real world again but we might bring it back in some form in the future.
For now, we have kicked off the fourth season of the F1 eSport Series which is the virtual championship with professional gamers who represent our 10 F1 teams in the championship.
First event is next week and we have announced a record prize fund of US$750,000 (RM3.12mil) and our highest ever participation is at 237,000.
There is potential for growth, especially in China where the gaming industry is big. But what makes Formula 1 eSport different from others?
China is a huge and priority market for us at Formula 1. So much so that it is the first region we have set up a regional championship called the F1 eSport Series China Championship where we are using eSport to find our next F1 eSport star from China and possibly the first-ever Chinese F1 (eSport) driver.
We launched it in 2019 and the competition has grown to be a super success and helps us at Formula 1 to have a presence in China beyond the single race weekend during the Shanghai Grand Prix.
What are your future plans?
The virtual series is helping us reach a younger, more digital savvy, global and growing audience.
It is also about creating new stars for Formula 1 and transforming the lives of our fans by giving the best gamers the chance to sign up to become a driver for a Formula 1 team.
The goal is also to unmask our Formula 1 drivers as terrific personalities (Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and George Russell etc). You see a side of them you can’t see behind a helmet when they are competing.