I know that fans can be passionate about the F1 stars, but I find it decidedly odd that there is so much bile around. Lewis Hamilton is this, Nico Rosberg is that, and so on… How do the fans know? They reach their conclusions based on what they read, see or hear. But do these inputs give a fair impression?
Let’s begin by making it clear that all the stars in F1 have a huge number of demands on their time. Teams, sponsors, media, friends and family, everybody wants time. As such, they cannot do everything that people want them to do, and how this selection process is dealt with by them and their handlers is the root of most problems. Most drivers have designated time slots to deal with the media and don’t go beyond this. It is rare to find them just hanging out. Some drivers use social networks to engage direct with fans, but these interactions tend not to be handled by the drivers themselves, but rather by social media people hired for that purpose. The messages tend to be bland and uncontroversial. They don’t give a fair impression of the people.
On my flight home from Abu Dhabi, I was so tired that I didn’t sleep and having watched almost all the movies available (even the foreign language ones) I ended up watching a film called “Be Somebody”, which is a movie built around a teen celebrity who is famous for being famous. It is a Cinderella type of story about a teen pop star (called Jordan Jaye) who accidentally gets left behind by his tour bus in a small town in America and meets Emily, a normal girl-next-door type, who is unimpressed by his stardom, unlike every other teenaged girl in the film. It is an innocuous film, clearly not designed for fiftysomething men, but there were one or two insights into celebrity living, where your image is created by the people around you and you don’t really have a say. One scene which did amuse me was when Jordan does an Internet quiz “How well do you know Jordan Jaye?” and fails to get any right answers. His visit to small-town teenage life gives him new inspiration and energy while Emily learns how to take risks and to be more adventurous. And there’s a happy ending, of course.
Back on planet earth, F1 stars do not have time to deal with everyone and thus noses are knocked out of joint and stars can be perceived as being graceless. The greatest people person I have seen in action was Australian legend Peter Brock, who always made sure that if he signed an autograph or had a conversation with a fan, he looked them in the eye and shone his charismatic spotlight on them, even if it was just for a second or two. I see drivers sign autographs without looking at the people asking for them and I don’t get it.
When it comes to the media, drivers have different ways of dealing with them. Vettel, for example, does very little media work because he doesn’t want to do it and a lot of folk are frustrated by this because they feel he doesn’t give much back to the sport and doesn’t engage as much as perhaps he should. He’s a funny guy and it is a shame he doesn’t let the world see this more, but he sees it all as being intrusive.
I feel a little of the same distance with Nico although he gives a little more away. Kimi Raikkonen hides behind being monosyllabic, which is clever because the less you are attractive to the media, the less they ask. Others such as Jenson Button are good with the media, but still remain a little aloof when it comes to really engaging with people. You cannot condemn any of them for needing their own space. Lewis puts himself out there and, as a result, is a bigger star than his colleagues. It’s a braver route. Lewis has accepted that he cannot be everything to everybody and so often keeps his own counsel in press conferences, which people then take to be him sulking. He cannot win.
Some drivers choose to have different personas in front of the cameras. When all is said and done, what the fans get is not the reality. This is not to say that they are two-faced but rather that they are protecting themselves.
As a journalist working in this world one gets the chance to see the drivers close up, but obviously they are guarded, more so when they recognise that there are foxes in the chicken coop. Not all journalists play fair, some are two-faced, some get too close to the mark. It’s a difficult and complex world. This is why I prefer to deal with people individually, rather than in groups because that way you know who is dealing with whom and you can have a trusting relationship. The problem, of course, is that one-to-one contact is very difficult to achieve because of time constraints and thus very few journalists can have such relationships and doing that with every driver is simply impossible, so you have to choose who you want to get to know. This is a reflection of the popularity of the sport and why it was easier in the old days when, firstly, there were fewer journalists; and, secondly, they played to different rules and reported in a different way. The old style still exists for many in the business but the access is difficult.
The advent of PR people means that they tend to prioritise journalists based on their reader/viewer numbers and thus TV always gets the first bite of the cherry, although in this age of pay-TV PRs often forget that some TV stations have again fallen behind newspapers and social media in terms of numbers. Sky in the UK for example gets far more access than its numbers deserve because it is perceived as being the only game in town, whereas several newspapers have more readers than Sky has viewers. Channel 4 should get way more access and Brazil’s Globo should be seen as the most important of all.
And then there is the question of influence, which is a better measure than readership. The man from The Times, for example, rightly or wrongly, gets more access than the man from the Hindustan Times, which makes no sense in readership terms, but happens because of the brand value of The Times. Being an F1 PR is anything but easy because one is constantly spinning plates and the top of sticks, hoping none will fall off. And doing it with yapping terriers at your feet, tearing at your trouser legs.
Suffice to say, drivers need their personal space and the media is often seen as pressure they can live without, but in many ways, when compared to other series, such as NASCAR, the F1 drivers don’t do that much.
I find most of the F1 drivers to be fairly sensible people. They are what they are, youngsters who have grown up in the racing world. They are not always sophisticated nor well educated. Some are, some aren’t. They are not all up to speed with the world. Some of them live in bubbles. Some don’t care. One must get used to them being friendly on some occasions and then blanking you on others. Sometimes they are just focussed on something else.
There are no answers in this discussion. People form their opinions based on what they see and what they read and very often these things are slanted. I feel that fans arguing about drivers’ characters is a waste of energy. The abusive fanboy comments one sees on the Internet, do not help. If drivers read these things – and some do – they quickly reach the conclusion that there is no point in getting involved because they have nothing to gain from interaction with opinionated people who don’t have any real idea about the subject. The media, in general, tries to be the link between the two, but a lot of “F1 media” has never been in F1 paddock and some who have have been bad apples, who have served only to make the drivers more cautious.