Then and Now – Attracting new fans; the Mansell/Hamilton effect

In reading the comments of the passionate Lewis Hamilton fans on this and other websites, it is apparent that he has done a lot to attract new fans to Formula 1. Hamilton’s presence on social media and globetrotting lifestyle means that he is visible to a much wider range of people than most if not all of the other drivers in the series.  Some of this vast global audience have been attracted to follow his racing exploits in addition to his celebrity lifestyle.  This is a good thing as F1 needs new fans if it is to remain viable as a sport which is so dependent on sponsors for its existence.

Hamilton is far from the first driver to tap into a potential new fan base.  During Nigel Mansell’s championship year (1992), the British tabloid press were firmly behind ‘Our Nige’ and this attracted a significant number of new British fans too watch the sport.  This number had grown as Britain had been without a Formula 1 world champion for sixteen years (since James Hunt had taken the title in 1976), and the tabloids were desperate for a home grown hero to beat all those foreign drivers.  The somewhat xenophobic nature of some of the coverage certainly increased the number of fans turning up to Silverstone, but did lead to a somewhat uncomfortable feel as some on the banking were not only supporting Mansell, but actively antagonistic towards others (one banner at Club corner in 1992 read ‘F#ck Off Senna’ for example).  When Mansell quit F1 at the end of 1992 and moved to racing in the US, some of the new fans followed his exploits there and lost interest in Formula 1.  They were Mansell fans and not necessarily F1 fans, they had been attracted by the driver and the determination and commitment behind the wheel and when he left the sport it didn’t hold sufficient attraction for them to remain following it.

One thing Hamilton Shares with Mansell is their commitment when in a racing car, both are spectacular to watch, and routinely drive the car as fast as it is able to go.  In testing Mansell would routinely asked for a low fuel run on fresh tyres at the end of each day, when the track was at its fastest, just to demonstrate to the opposition how fast he could drive.  His replacement at Williams never did this, feeling that it gave the other teams too much information.  The mechanics were worried until the opening race of the 1993 season, that they had lost their advantage over the winter, but were pleasantly surprised when Prost was able to win easily from pole position.

Mansell was never able to win easily, at least if you heard him speak.  He was always fighting against a car on the verge of breaking down, and only through his sheer determination did he manfully carry it across the line (maybe a lap or two ahead of everyone else!).  On one occasion he complained of a gearbox that in his opinion was lucky to survive the race, and how he had to nurse the car home.  Patrick Head, when he heard of this, stated that the telemetry showed that one time during the race the gear didn’t go in smoothly, and Nigel had to reselect the gear, every other gear change was faultless.  During his time at Ferrari (1989-90) Mansell was massively popular with the Italians, this isn’t a surprise as he won in the only car that is important to an Italian (at the Monaco GP in 1989 there was only one Ferrari entered, Berger having suffered burns at the previous race in Imola so he couldn’t drive the car).  When Mansell’s car failed on lap 30, he had to retire the car and all the Italians got up and left the circuit.  However Mansell never learned Italian, so they never had to listen to him speak.  Mansell had to work hard to get to F1, he lied about his age on his racing licence application when karting to appear a year younger than he was to get opportunities in single seaters.  He had to re-mortgage his house to raise funds to complete his F3 season, and drove in his first F1 test with a back injury as he was aware that such an opportunity may not come along again soon.  Once in F1 he took a little while (from 1982 to the end of 1985) before winning his first race, and lost two title opportunities (1986 and 1987) when he was in the best car thanks to incidents and accidents.  In the dominant actively suspended Williams of 1992 he was much faster than his team mate (Riccardo Patrese), some say because he was braver than Patrese, some because he had less imagination about what could go wrong if the car failed, Mansell himself says it was because he was physically stronger in order to hold onto the car while cornering at those speeds.  Patrese says it was because the active car didn’t give any feedback about when the grip would stop, and he didn’t have the same level of belief in the car.

Nigel Mansell reckoned that the support of the home crowd at Silverstone or Brands Hatch was worth a second a lap.  Certainly he was a driver who was affected by his perception of the support he got from the team, and if he believed the team were fully behind him he could deliver a much better performance than if he thought they were favouring the other driver.

Lewis Hamilton, to me, shares many of the same traits.  He is spectacular in the car, especially in wheel to wheel racing with another driver.  He may have more contact with other drivers than Mansell had, but standards of drivers on track behaviour have changed since Michael Schumacher forced the rule book to be rewritten.  Out of the car (or over team radio) though, he does not always come across in the best light.  Like Mansell he has the ability to polarise opinions, largely I suspect for what he says rather than how he drives.

Hamilton also likes to trade on his ‘poor boy from Stevenage’ image.  However while it is undoubtedly true that from eight years old until he won the Champions of the Future cadet karting series at twelve, this was all funded from father Anthony Hamilton’s three jobs, from that point on he was supported by McLaren.  He had the very best equipment money could buy.  There was a lot of resentment in karting paddocks about the level of support he was getting as a fourteen year old and I remember several club level drivers complaining that they could win if given the equipment Hamilton had, forgetting that he only had that level of support because he kept on winning.  However when Hamilton progressed to single seaters there was no rush, he had two years in Formula Renault 2.0, and two years in Euro F3 (needing to win the title before moving up each time) before what was supposed to be a two year campaign in GP2.  That he won the GP2 title in his first year meant that McLaren then had to find him an F1 drive, and with plenty of test mileage he made his debut in 2007 in a front running team.  This wasn’t the rushed apprenticeship of a driver worried that the money would run out and that he may not get another chance, even his karting team mate (Nico Rosberg) progressed through the junior categories quicker than Hamilton, winning the GP2 title the year before.  Yes Hamilton’s first four years racing (from eight to twelve years old) were hard because of lack of funds, but from then on his talent has ensured that he has been able to have the very best equipment.

Like Mansell, Hamilton also seems to draw inspiration from his fans.  While he hasn’t claimed anything like a second per lap benefit, he has shown earlier in his career to be susceptible to poorer performance when others have been critical of him.  He seems to be a lot more resilient now, but still is keen to blame a poor performance on the equipment he has been given rather than any driver error.

Hamilton at 31 still has plenty more years in F1 if he doesn’t get bored of winning, so the fans he has attracted to the sport could have many years to grow to love F1 and not just the driver that attracted them to follow it in the first place.  I do hope so because the F1 audience is slowly ageing, and while that may appeal to Bernie Ecclestone in his desire to sell more Rolexes, for the long term future F1 needs to appeal to youngsters who will then follow the sport through their lives.

This isn’t just a British phenomenon, Michael Schumacher attracted tens of thousands of Germans to follow F1 (so much so that for years Germany was able to hold two Grands Prix a year – the European round being held at the Nurburgring, the German round at Hockenheim), yet when he retired those fans drifted away.  Even the success of Sebastian Vettel wasn’t enough to keep them interested, and last year Germany failed to hold a Grand Prix for the first time in decades.  While the situation in the UK isn’t quite that bad (most of the teams are based there even if some do race under other Nation’s flags), it would be a shame to lose new fans just because the driver that originally attracted them retires.

What attracted you to the sport, was it a driver or a team, or even the technology of the sport?  Was you first experience through reading about the sport, watching it on TV, listening to it on the radio or watching it live from the side of the circuit?  What, in your opinion, does the sport need to do to attract new fans, is it more of the sports personalities (drivers, team principles, mechanics) being more active on social media, better TV coverage or cheaper ticket prices?  Does the sport need controversial characters that divide opinion, or do the disagreements that erupt on social media drive more people away?  Let me know what you think.