F1: The race to pop culture

Thursday, August 26

By Annelia Vakrinou

“It’s lights out and away we go”

This is the phrase that makes every Formula 1 fan’s heart pound with excitement as the 20 pilots fight to cross the starting line and the race begins for good. Up until probably the beginning of the pandemic this phrase meant nothing to the majority of the population, except for the few that devoted their weekends to watching the races and were knee-deep into driver standings and weird racing vocabulary. But with the world at a standstill, Formula 1 surpassed leagues such as the Bundesliga, NBA, NFL, UFC, and LaLiga in terms of social media engagement in a surprisingly short period of time.

Despite a shortened 17-race calendar and non-ticketed events in 2020, Formula 1's TV audience averaged 87.4 million viewers per Grand Prix, only 4.5 % lower than the previous season. Formula 1 had a 35 % increase in followers on social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitch, and Chinese social media platforms. But the story of F1’s rise to the mainstream media started a good few months before the outbreak.

The Debut of the show “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” on Netflix in 2019 offered an intimate look into the sport, presenting an insider angle of the 2018 season. Even before the two biggest teams (Mercedes and Ferrari) agreed on having the film crew document their progress, the show attracted an immense number of new fans into the sport and brought F1 into the spotlight like never before. Many of Formula 1's major moments have been captured over the three seasons, including drivers getting sacked in the middle of the season and achieving emotional first wins and podiums. Romain Grosjean's escape from a fiery crash that buried him in the smouldering wreckage of his car for nearly 27 seconds at the 2020 Bahrain GP was one of the most dramatic moments of last season. 

However, a big part of the show’s success has come from portraying the personalities and lives of drivers outside of the racetrack. By documenting their thoughts, drama, emotions and insights surrounding their work as well as their training process, personal lives and mindset, the show really humanised the drivers in the eyes of the viewer. From Lewis Hamilton’s millions of Instagram followers to Lando Norris’s average of 18 million views on his Twitch account for e-sport streaming, Formula 1 material is frequently trending on all social media platforms. Additionally, several young drivers, like Alex Albon, Charles Leclerc & George Russell, participated in simulator races during the lockdown period, demonstrating the rising interest in e-sports while maintaining contact with the F1 fanbase.

Since the start of the 2021 season, the momentum of excitement and suspense grows from one race to the other and not without a cause. F1 truly is the sport that has it all: anticipation, glamour, celebration, drama, friendships, historic failures and show-stopping successes. You can never know the outcome of a race even seconds before the first car crosses the finish line; anything is possible and everyone can go from last to first place and vice versa in the blink of an eye (or the scratch of a tyre). 

As an avid fan of F1, I have been engaged with the space of motorsports since 2019, mostly because of my parents. The races and later more of the events and random trivia around each race (qualifying, free practices etc.) and driver became a staple of our weekends as well as that very niche thing that we passionately discuss in various family moments. Watching the sport become more and more popular across the globe makes me really excited as I get to discuss it with even more people and the support for my favourite drivers grows by the day, making each point & podium they win even more worthwhile.

As the mid-season break reaches its end with the beginning of the Belgian Grand Prix in the circuit of Spa, I hope this assessment puts a smile on the F1 fans’ faces currently watching the sport grow in popularity (and are glad that more people know Spa is also a circuit!). And for those that haven’t really given the sport a go, it is the perfect opportunity for you to start with the upcoming GPs in addition to the Michael Schumacher documentary (Sep 15) and the previous 3 seasons of F1: Drive to Survive, all of which can be found on Netflix. Until then, see you at Spa! (hopefully, my Ferrari jacket will have arrived by then, thanks eBay)

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