Insight: F1 drivers and the media, presenting the winning formula
Formula 1 drivers are rarely out of the media spotlight.
Formula 1 drivers are rarely out of the media spotlight. On grand prix weekends, everyone wants to know how they are getting on, if the car is performing well and what that means for the race. Between events the focus switches to the work going on to get ready for the next one.
In that everlasting media glare, some drivers sparkle more than others. Personality matters. This is because in the modern era of the sport, drivers are often accused of spewing the safe, pre-determined party lines of their teams and not speaking their minds. Those drivers that do are celebrated and have huge fanbases.
F1 is entertainment, with the bigger personalities adding to the show, but it is also a political world with huge commercial and technical considerations. So how do drivers cope when it comes to playing the media game?
According to journalist and TV presenter Louise Goodman, who provides media training to racing drivers, it is all about personality.
“One of the big things I’m always keen to put across to people is that my idea of media training is not producing bland little PR automates who just spout the right thing, because we live in a era where personality is really important,” she explains. “For me it’s about helping the drivers to relax and be comfortable in the environment so that their personality can come across because that is ultimately what any fan out there is going to connect with.”
To do this Goodman provides an understanding of how the media works and what journalists are looking for, interview practice – both on-camera and for print media – mock press conference work and public speaking techniques.
“It’s really a very broad spectrum and what I do is quite personalised towards the individuals involved as well,” she adds.
Goodman has worked with many up-and-coming drivers, some fresh out of karting and entering series such as Ginetta Juniors, to FIA Formula 3, GP3, and GP2 racers, as well as F1 drivers that need help with their media appearances. As the most high-profile member of a racing team, the vital component behind the wheel, fans readily connect with drivers, which makes them important mouthpieces for teams and sponsors.
“[Drivers] are the spokesperson through which many of the media view or build their impression of the team and the way it is presented to the public,” says Goodman.
In F1, the stakes are higher than the lower categories with vast amounts of money being spent on the cars, transport and hospitality, among the many other aspects of the paddock.
The teams therefore naturally want their drivers to be as professional and smooth in media as they can, which has given rise to the perception that they are given rigid lines to follow. Goodman believes that while the drivers are not told what to say, with sponsor requirements, technical relations and the motivation of a whole squad hanging on their words, it is only natural that it’s suggested they play things safe in interviews.
“It’s quite complicated when they get up to Formula 1 level,” she explains. “So I think sometimes the drivers are told which way to respond, not necessarily what to say but given a direction in which to respond.”
The F1 sphere has also changed dramatically, even in the last ten years or so. Drivers can no longer rely on their talent alone to make it to the top. A high-profile online presence and personal skills to attract sponsors are vital, and solid media training can help with that.
“It can’t make you quicker but it can help you to be an all-rounded, top-level racing driver,” says Goodman. “Back in the day I remember stories of drivers selling their houses to find the budget to get into Formula 1 [and] you’d probably need to sell the whole street these days and that’s just to get a shot at GP2. You’ve got to be media savvy if you want to keep on progressing up the ladder.”
The media anti-hero
But some drivers buck the trend. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen regularly polls as one the championship’s most popular racers despite a noticeable lack of engagement with the media.
But Goodman reckons the 2007 world champion’s no-nonsense personality – he famously offers little in interviews no matter the situation – is what attracts fans.
“He’s got a strong personality, a quirky personality and he’s edgy so he stands out very often for what he doesn’t say more that what he does say,” she says. “He’s got attitude, people like his attitude and that is what stands out about Kimi.”
But Raikkonen, one of the last drivers before Max Verstappen’s rapid leap up the ladder to be plucked from a junior series at young age and thrust in F1, is not an example Goodman thinks young drivers should follow in terms of their own approach to media relations.
“He made it into Formula 1 in a different media era and although 2001 might not seem that long ago it is when you look at the rise of Twitter and Instagram and all of that kind of thing, and it was a slightly different commercial era as well,’ she explains. “It’s almost as if he didn’t have to do some of the commercial and media leg work that a driver would have to do in this day and age in order to make the move up through the ranks.”
Social media and its pitfalls
The new media era has social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram taking up significant parts of peoples lives – particularly the younger drivers that have grown up with it. It’s an easy place to create controversy, deliberately or otherwise, as Lewis Hamilton’s SnapChat press conference at Suzuka proved, but it can also be a powerful marketing tool for drivers and teams.
Goodman highlights social media as a useful way for drivers to directly connect with their audience and offer fans previously restricted access to their world.
“They can shape the image that they put across and it is all down to their control, it’s not being filtered through the eyes of a journalist in any shape or form,” she says. “And they can take the public to areas that they couldn’t normally access.”
In the highly secretive world of motor racing – a factor at all levels of the sport – drivers do have to be careful about what they post online, but from seat fittings to training videos and simulation shots, social media can provide a snapshot into the lives of racing stars.
At every level of society, the media can be manipulated and things are no different in F1. Team principals question rules to get the advantages of another car nullified, driver managers mention that their charges are being looked at by a rival to try and secure a better deal, and some drivers play masterful mind games through the media to try and gain an competitive edge.
“The classic example is Mark Webber and his ‘not bad for a number two driver’ comment [at the 2010 British Grand Prix],” says Goodman. “It was made over the radio but Mark knew damn well – although I’ve never asked him and I’m assuming – that it would be broadcast and create a story.”
But getting noticed in the media can help up-and-coming drivers too, and Goodman advises young racers to contact their local newspapers, TV and radio stations, as well as cultivating their online profiles.
“I think there is a tendency for some drivers to think people aren’t talking about them,” says Goodman. “But when they look at themselves – are they giving anybody a story? What is the story? A, have they got a story and are they telling that story?”
F1 is now consumed in many different ways and the interest in the sport is pretty much non-stop. The media spotlight can be helpful and a hindrance to drivers as they climb the motorsport ladder, and it gets even more intense at the top.
“A driver might make a flippant comment that is instantly up on a website that can be read by someone who is putting together another website, and five websites later that comment is totally out of context with none of the backstory around it,” says Goodman. “So that is another reason why drivers, certainly at the top level of the sport, the impression that you get is that they’re a lot more protected.”
But personalities will always stand out and media training is a vital part of an F1 driver’s ever-expanding skillset. It might not win them more points, and therefore prizes, but it can be extremely useful in a world where excitement and emotion exist alongside technology, business and politics.What do you make of Goodman’s thoughts on media training? Do you have an opinion on the personalities of today’s F1 drivers? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JA on F1 Facebook page for more discussion.
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Insight: F1 drivers and the media, presenting the winning formula
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