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F1 drivers and the media: When does social become anti-social?

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F1 drivers and the media: When does social become anti-social?
Oct 7, 2016, 2:49 AM

There was a fascinating cameo yesterday in Suzuka as F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton spent the duration of the FIA Press Conference on Snapchat, a...

There was a fascinating cameo yesterday in Suzuka as F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton spent the duration of the FIA Press Conference on Snapchat, affixing bunny ears to images of himself and Carlos Sainz, sitting behind him.

The incident highlighted a key question in the relationship between F1 drivers and the media - and between drivers and their fans.

Snapchat

Do they need these 'intermediaries' any more? Why not have control of the medium and the message, free from top spin and interpretation? In a landscape where the consumers are increasingly seeking out content and curating their own news sources, often direct from the athletes and the content producers themselves, surely it's logical for a top F1 driver to be in control of a direct, two-way relationship?

These are the questions to ponder after Hamilton's gesture. He later Tweeted that he had not meant to be disrespectful to the media or to the FIA, but he had certainly made his point. And he made it both to the media and to the Mercedes team.

Lewis Hamilton

He has undergone a gradual erosion of confidence in the traditional print media, through experience of comments being spun or used back against him. The newspapers would argue that they did not sign a clause in their F1 pass form to say that they were there to support him or any other driver, but to cover the sport. The gap in trust widens.

After the comments he made in Malaysia about "something or someone" not wanting him to win this year's world championship, predictably a torrent of opinion was unleashed, some of it hammering him for criticising his own team and inspiring conspiracy theories, much of it from his own supporters along the lines that Mercedes is sabotaging his championship.

The bi-directional nature of social media means that Hamilton reads a constant stream of positive messages from his legion of fans along these lines; here's a comment from a fan in response to his Sunday night Facebook post in which he clarified his position.

"Keep going Lewis. Nico can't beat you on merit. That has been proven time after time. The team have failed you this year and Rosberg's title lead has been gifted, not earned. If NR becomes champion this year it will be a travesty and he will be the luckiest champion in history, at the expense of you being robbed. Your record speaks for itself and if there is any justice you'll be champion again this year."

Reading these messages on social media creates an 'echo chamber' effect where you hear back in resounding numbers opinions that echo your own world view, it becomes like an echo chamber. Increasingly we all increasingly default to this; in a dangerous world full of a bewildering range of news sources and blogs, we seek common ground.

Lewis Hamilton

His interaction with the congregation of the supportive also speaks to that side of a highly competitive racing driver that believes that he is the best and that any result or outcome which doesn't go his way is the result of something abnormal. Hamilton is not unique in that; Alonso, Senna, Mansell, Schumacher - the list is extensive of champion drivers who found their sweet spot in a siege mentality, "it's me against the world". If social media has existed during their careers, they would probably have done exactly as Hamilton does, (although perhaps without some of the more colourful images).

Lewis Hamilton

None of this is to critice Hamilton per se; as a driver he is a great champion and as a sports figure he is a global phenomenon, a product of the modern social media landscape. His social media work has done more to popularise F1 beyond its traditional boundaries than any other single contributor.

This is a wave that is only going to get bigger and the debate around what part the 'old-fashioned' media plays in reporting and interpreting the future is far too extensive to explore here today. But we will return to the topic regularly in future, especially with Liberty Media taking control of the sport and likely to 'open up' the communication of it.

The point is that Hamilton finds his comfortable place as a public figure by interacting with his fans and feeling the love direct, no intermediaries. As well as the sheer pleasure of driving the car and feeling the elation of victory, it's what gets him through it.

Other drivers would no doubt do the same given the chance, given the high profile and the competitive situation he enjoys. One can count Kimi Raikkonen out of that number; the Finn sat staring ahead implacably throughout the press conference, not wishing to interact with the Snapchat wheeze, which Hamilton shared with Sainz behind him and Alonso alongside him. Both had a giggle, but were also visibly embarrassed, Raikkonen was totally disengaged.

Contrast the situation also with the Red Bull pair, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. Both are young (or young at heart) and highly competitive, but for the moment they are able to share banter and a sense of fun. A few days after driving side by side through a sequence of high speed bends in Sepang, thrilling every motorsport fan who saw it, they were baiting each other with sparky Instagram posts (below).

Instagram

Instagram

The mood is collaborative and it's good light hearted banter at present. It's also great for the sport.

Next year when race victories and a world championship at stake that only one of them can win, the tone may change. How they handle it and what part social media plays in it, will be fascinating to see.

They are social at the moment; let's hope the heat of that battle doesn't make them anti-social.

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