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Opinion: Has Formula 1 Stopped Being About Racing?

Written by Carrie Foley, Edited by Sean McKean

Credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Formula 1 can be represented by one word: passion. People don’t just like this sport, they fall completely and utterly in love with it. Something about it is irresistible, appealing to petrolheads, adrenaline junkies, and racing nostalgia lovers alike. Once you’re in, you’re in.

For many of us, we grew up watching it with our dads. We’d happen to be sitting in the living room floor, doing whatever eight-year olds do with their Sundays, and he would turn the telly over to a Grand Prix. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much else about the sport back then, but I could have drawn the Monaco track with my eyes closed.

In all honesty, I forgot about it for a long time. It’s only in the last couple of years that I started paying attention to it again. The beauty of this sport is that it is everywhere. It took me less than a year to catch up on everything I had missed, to find out everything I needed to know (including the fact that many of the drivers I watched as a child were still racing!)! There is a conversation to be had about fan culture and the treatment of drivers and the people around them -- all real people -- but gatekeeping based on how long someone has been a fan, or what started it all for them, is not it.

The way in which Formula 1 is viewed has changed, as has just about everything now social media, television and broadcasting has completely transformed and evolved. The Internet is the way forward, and now anyone can hear about it and find out more with a single tap and three minutes of their time. It is certainly this online age that has led to Formula 1’s massive growth of popularity, and perhaps it is also why people are becoming unhappy with their perceived “authenticity” of new fans, because it is difficult to believe someone could find out so much in such a small amount of time, when others have spent their whole lives doing so. Let me ask you this: isn’t the whole point of the Internet accessibility? If this sport is something you love and think is beautiful, why wouldn’t you want others to have an opportunity to fall in love with it like you did?

The new style of conversation around Formula 1 is fun, allowing drivers to be more interactive and involve fans more. There’s less of a disconnect: with their active social media presences, drivers aren’t just larger-than-life legends. We are increasingly being reminded that they are just real people. Extraordinarily lucky, extraordinarily talented, but ultimately normal people.

With this increased interaction, however, comes an element of invasion. People feel more entitled to know about drivers’ personal lives. On-track conflicts become gossip that leads to deep-dives into those drivers’ entire history with one another. Hounding a driver’s rumoured girlfriend, or gossiping about a driver’s personal issues or traumatic events like it’s nothing is concerningly rife. It’s invasive and not at all representative of what fans should be.

If only we put our energy into respecting real people’s privacy and reducing this invasiveness rather than agonising over who is and who isn’t a real fan based on whether or not they have watched Drive To Survive, maybe a more productive conversation about fan culture could be had.

In some ways, then, apprehension towards how the fanbase of Formula 1 is changing is founded: drivers are being turned into celebrities and treated like fictional characters, and that is where the line is becoming blurred.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with innocent edits or fanfictions, but it can quickly become disrespectful, and that is where an issue arises. As with any celebrity or person in the public eye, boundaries will inevitably sometimes be overstepped. People, especially younger and more impressionable fans, must always be reminded that these are real people. Be careful and respectful with what you are saying, reading, writing, or putting out there. Especially if the subject of these things has already stated that it makes them uncomfortable. Even if they haven’t, it’s easy to use common sense. The key word here is respect. There is a line that we should be careful to never cross.

Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with liking the sport because you like the people behind it. We all know that the passion surrounding Formula 1 is a huge part of why it is so great and passion is human. People and their stories, their motivation, and their individual passion is why we are so hooked by the sport, because we care about them. It feels like there is something to lose.

Consider Niki Lauda, for example. His story is incredible, and that gritty resilience represents the heart of Formula 1. As does Aryton Senna’s, as does Schumacher’s, Fangio’s, Hamilton’s… so don’t ever try to tell me that the people aren’t important. Being “in it for the drivers” is a good thing, and it’s the natural thing, and it doesn’t for a moment mean that you’re not “in it for the racing.”.

A particular point of concern is that many of these fans being criticised are teenage girls. The problem then stops really being about fans and starts becoming about the rampant misogyny surrounding women in the world of motorsport. Teenage girls have mastered the Internet, and they are at the heart of Formula 1’s growing online presence. The well-deserved huge popularity gain we have seen for the sport we love so much? We owe it to teenage girls, and when their love for the sport is made so abundantly clear through what they are doing, they deserve to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, not everyone seems ready to accept that women can be interested in the sport, and can care about a driver’s racing story, without it being only because they think a driver is attractive. This is the kind of ignorance that we must drive out of our sport.

Everyone who loves Formula 1 does so because they fell in love with the racing, with the passion, with the stories. It’s about time we acknowledge that we are all here for the same reason: we love Formula 1, and it loves us back.


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