The unexpected seven months of the off-season is almost over as fans worldwide eagerly anticipate Sunday, July 5th. It’s taken me by surprise just how much I’ve missed Formula One. But these dark days without racing could’ve been a whole lot worse if not for some drivers. We have to thank the newest entrants to the sport for their role in minimizing any F1 lockdown lows.
When I first began watching F1 in the ’90s, the BBC would air an end of season review at some point around the Christmas holidays. A 1 to 2-hour special TV show that received little in the way of promotion. I’d invariably only remember about it the day after its broadcast, and with no on-demand service back then, that would be it until the first race in March. I would have to make do with reading my “Formula 1 Yearbook”, an annual present from my mom if I wanted an F1 fix. How long an off-season would feel if coronavirus hit us back then.
The Internet has transformed coverage of every single sport for the better. Formula One dropped behind others for a long time, before a surge forwards over the last few years. Sitting on such a rich back catalog of content, they’ve drip-fed us over the pandemic via YouTube with commercial-free full classic races, top 10 videos, new features, and Virtual Grand Prix. The latter has only had success thanks to the latest drivers in F1 regularly competing. Their willingness to be on camera over this off-season marks a new era of driver availability.
Social media has been around for a while, of course, and even the longest-serving driver, Kimi Raikkonen, got on board with Instagram in December 2017. To many drivers and teams, though, broadcasting the goings-on in their enviable jobs is a modern-day requirement. Sponsors, merchandising, and team marketing all tie in to carefully planned posts and stories to maximize exposure. The likes of Raikkonen have been forced to adapt to this new world rather than be born into it.
Not so for the newcomers. George Russell, Alexander Albon, Lando Norris, the newbies of 2019, alongside Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly, who debuted fully in 2018, have been behaving their age and playing video games throughout the lockdown. Leclerc has highlighted that his sim racing exploits are re-strengthening bonds he and his fellow young drivers formed during their days in the junior formulae. These drivers may have only been racing in the spotlight for a year or two, but they have been competing against each other for over a decade.
Loading up Call of Duty or Fortnite to play with each other as friends, as many of these young guns do after a sim race, is humanizing. It shows these elite athletes are just like you and me looking to wind down after work. Their job involves grappling a 200mph rocket on wheels and mine a keyboard and cappuccino, but shooting digital bullets at night on a PlayStation with mates is a shared millennial experience. Yes, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas did similar at Monza a few years back, but it was in the F1 paddock, not the spare bedroom. And to further highlight that difference in relatability, check out the sim racing setup Bottas enjoys at home!
I fully expect these young guns to change things up as they progress through their careers, with the most successful moving to mansions and penthouse suites. Lewis Hamilton didn’t live in multi-million dollar properties in his first years, after all. The difference with these new stars is that their entire journey is being shared from day one in the public eye, and fans have a direct way to virtually walk in their shoes as they ascend the ranks.
The accessibility we can enjoy lets us feel like part of the gang in the first act, rather than jumping in final scenes as we did with Hamilton and Raikkonen. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and the comradery they share is endearing. The appeal of sitcoms, or podcasts, or some reality TV shows is feeling like an extended part of a group. Picking up on the inside jokes and knowing how your favorite characters will react. That’s what we’re benefiting from for the first time with the newcomers, in particular, during the lockdown. You and I can feel part of their friendship and laugh alongside them all.
It’s such a fresh perspective that’s making F1 feel entirely different from years gone by when we saw nothing between the season finale and the following years’ first race. Yes, I’m sure the friendships will be strained if and when these drivers battle for a championship, but that’s a good problem to have when it comes around. But right now, these youngsters show us the life of a new F1 driver, in the car, and at home. At a time when F1 has been trying new ideas to engage a digital audience, those youngest are doing it for them. Norris and Leclerc are approaching half a million Twitch followers apiece on the streaming platform, too, tapping into an entirely different potential fanbase.
We could be approaching a time when Formula 1 switches from having drivers who gain a following from their weekend performances to online influencers who go dark for a few hours every other Sunday. Guys with some fans that only watch them race, some followers only checking their social feeds, and some who do both. But as long as the racing is good (and they provide pandemic entertainment), I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.
Originally published at www.fortloc.com.