Lewis Hamilton, in case you hadn’t noticed, won the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship this Sunday following a remarkable season that has seen him become the first British driver since Jackie Stewart to win two titles or more, and join the exclusive now-10-member ‘drivers to take titles with more than one team’ club.
And I use the expression ‘in case you hadn’t noticed’ with no irony whatsoever. Unless you were tuned in to the race or happened to turn on the news on Monday morning, it’s entirely plausible that you’d have no idea that Lewis had succeeded... even though he’s a Brit, in a car designed and built in Britain, powered by an engine designed and built, yes that’s right, in Britain. If it was a footballing world championship, the whole country would be in meltdown right now: parades, knighthoods, front pages for days, the whole country being renamed EnGERland, and so on. Lewis’s success has been met with, it’s fair to say, a relatively luke warm reception.
Since Sunday, there have been articles attempting to offer a reason for Lewis’s perceived lack of popularity in the UK, citing nonsense about him being not entirely likeable (yes, Eurosport, because Wayne Rooney’s a wildly articulate ray of sunshine isn’t he?) or even because of his race (that’s Guardian clickbait by the way, and based on nothing at all really). They’ve even blamed the ‘recent meddling’ with the rules of Formula One (Eurosport again, this time the Motorhead column), which is so wrong it hardly warrants addressing. The same author claimed that, “If you want to watch cars racing wheel-to-wheel, Formula One is literally the worst way on the entire planet to do so.” Leaving aside his (or her) apparent total misunderstanding of the word ‘literally’, the racing in Formula One is more exciting than it has ever been: in much the same way that people who claim music’s rubbish these days forget about Ken Dodd having two songs in the top ten behind The Beatles’ Day Tripper in 1966, fans of rose-tinted spectacles conveniently forget that the famous Arnoux/Villeneuve duel at Dijon in 1979 was the exception not the rule.
I’d like to offer a radical suggestion for why Lewis isn’t as popular as pundits (both sporting and motor sporting alike) believe he should be. Are you ready for this? Maybe, MAYBE, it’s because no one really cares about Formula One. It’s just not really that popular-a-sport.
Yes, since Sky took over, several of the predictions I made in an article the day after it was announced that the BBC had handed over all meaningful broadcasting rights to The Murdoch Machine have come true. Primarily that “Formula 1 has an enormous audience, yes, but a huge percentage of those people are casual observers [so] audience figures will, of course, fall through the floor [and] struggling teams will be forced to drop out as they fail to get their budgets together.” According to official numbers, the season finale averaged 4.71m on the BBC’s coverage and a whopping 963k on Sky Sports… and by whopping I of course mean entirely pitiful. 2008’s title decider meanwhile saw 8.8m average and 13.1m peak.
Clearly there’s an enormous gulf here. But while plummeting viewing figures are undoubtedly responsible in some way for the decline in the sport’s popularity in this country, all it really demonstrated is that people don’t really care enough to follow it to pay-for-view. It’s an effect as much as it is a cause.
So why don’t people care? So many reasons, it’s impossible to go in to in any real detail, but I’d posit that the age of the drivers has something to do with it. I think it was a recent Motorsport magazine article that suggested that it’s difficult to have heroes with acne and in the last fifteen years only Jenson Button hasn’t broken the ‘youngest champion’ record with their first title. The sport is more out of reach than ever: with the new way of choosing drivers, if you’re not on a team’s roster by the time you’re ten, you’re already out the game, so you can’t even really dream about becoming an F1 star.
And look at the brands involved: Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Rolex – not exactly drawing in the youth, and Bernie has even explicitly said he’s not interested in bringing in a new audience: almost certainly because the old bastard will be dead before it matters.
Finally – do kids even have heroes today? F1 has always been a sport that relies on that ethereal ‘mythical superstar hero’ thing – it’s what elevated the sport above driving round in circles and imbued the Sunday afternoon heroics of Mansell, Senna and Stewart with a deep meaning for fans.
Has the always-on-access-all-areas modern media tarnished the shine of superstardom to such an extent that kids only care about things that anyone can do? Is that why X-Factor is so popular? Has the ever-decreasing attention spans of the human race meant that a 90 minute football match is now the limit of a sporting attention span?
Maybe, sadly, it’s because a British F1 World Champ isn’t that unusual?
I don’t know, maybe this is a huge over-analysis. Maybe F1’s just not that interesting to most people and maybe, instead of all this self-referential whinging about a lack of coverage the media should simply celebrate his, and his team’s, success?