Formula One Fans A Necessity

“They are the best fans”, is often a line we hear from Lewis Hamilton when he and his dominant Mercedes finish on the podium of any Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton celebrating with fans at the Silverstone GP
Lewis Hamilton celebrating with fans at the Silverstone GP

But, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, all races up to and including the Hungarian Grand Prix have either been postponed, cancelled, or scheduled to be held behind closed doors.

Formula One boss, Chase Carey, is still optimistic, however, believing that a 15-18 race season is still possible and will start in Austria on the 5th July.

The season would then travel through Europe, Asia, and the Americas before having the final races in Bahrain and the UAE. With Abu Dhabi being the traditional end-of-season race.

However, it goes without saying that the vast majority of these races, if they indeed go ahead, will be behind closed doors.

To be fair to F1 though, they’ve done alright at not having fans at Grand Prix events in the past.

Time for a quick history lesson.

The Brabham BT46B, more commonly known as the ‘fan car’, took part in just one race – the Swedish Grand Prix – in 1978, and won, meaning it has the best win percentage of any car in F1’s history.

The concept was supposed to rival Lotus’ ground effects but was ruled illegal after the race, although their final classification for the Grand Prix stood.

But in terms of spectators, empty grandstands that would usually be choc-a-bloc with fans, both local and those who have travelled far and wide, to watch their favourite drivers, and support their favourite teams would be, in some ways, quite a sight.

It goes without saying that Formula One would not be the same with a spectator-less Suzuka, Interlagos or Monza.

Not hearing the Tifosi go wild as Charles Leclerc or Sebastien Vettel crosses the finish line, or even hear them booing Lewis Hamilton or Valterri Bottas as they take the top step of the podium dressed from head-to-toe in silver.

Imagine Belgium and Austria, where the young Dutch superstar Max Verstappen has a huge following, completely barren where we would usually see the stands packed with orange at La Source at Spa or turn one at Spielberg.

Imagine a spectators Zandvoort; the Dutch Grand Prix returning to the calendar, arguably largely due to Verstappen’s popularity as a driver, for the first time in 35 years, would be empty. Silent.

Grandstands packed at Circuit of the Americas
Grandstands packed at Circuit of the Americas

Moving into the American leg of the season, and the stands leading to the uphill turn one of the Circuit of the Americas completely void of people who believe that driving left very fast for an afternoon is entertainment.

Although, in my opinion, it's hard to see how the US Grand Prix will go ahead behind closed doors.

Despite the USA having the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, states are starting to open up again, and with the vast amount of money in sport in the USA in general, Liberty Media will be keen to cash in after losing 84% of their income in the first quarter of 2020.

However, to their credit, Formula One has been trying something new to perhaps try and gain fans during this time in lockdown.

Virtual Grand Prix has taken place since the weekend of the cancelled Bahrain GP, featuring professional drivers from all fields as well as other celebrities.

In the UK, these races have still been broadcast on Sky Sports F1, as well as the Formula One YouTube and Twitch streaming platforms. Allowing people from all over the world to tune in and watch their favourite drivers.

Not all drivers though. I don’t see Lewis Hamilton, Sebastien Vettel or Kimi ‘Leave Me Alone I Know What I’m Doing’ Räikkönen taking part in a virtual race (even though Hamilton is an ambassador for the Gran Turismo games).

These Virtual GP broadcasts also come with sponsors that we usually see at a regular Grand Prix, such as DHL, Pirelli and Rolex.

Furthermore, racing simulator company Fanatec are providing all the racers with their own set of pedals, wheel and stand with no doubt a sponsorship deal in place between them and Formula One, or Liberty Media, since they are also sponsoring the Virtual Grand Prix.

Whilst these events could attract new fans, the viewing figures appear to be nowhere near what they would be for an actual Grand Prix.

For example, the most recent Virtual Spanish Grand Prix currently sits at just over 390,000 views on the Formula One YouTube channel, but it’s more than likely an actual Spanish Grand Prix would receive millions of viewers in the UK alone.

And as for the atmosphere with these virtual races? I’m not sure sending a message into the real-time chat when it’s in ‘slow mode’ is the same as hearing people cheer at a packed stadium section at the Mexico Grand Prix, in my view one of the best places for fans to watch on the entire F1 calendar.

So, does F1 need fans?

Personally, I believe it’s the same question as; does any sport need fans?

If a football, cricket, rugby or tennis match can’t take place due to social distancing and the pandemic, then why should F1 host events?

Ferrari rolling Vettel through the pit lane
Ferrari rolling Vettel through the pit lane

Especially when you take into account how crowded a pitlane usually is, with around 20 mechanics working on a pit stop at any given time, plus the strategists on the pit wall all huddled up.

If F1 did race this year behind closed doors, then yes, the TV spectacle would not be as engaging as it is now.

Silence as Hamilton rounds Club corner to win at Silverstone.

But hey, at least we won’t be able to hear him say, yet again, “they are the best fans.”

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