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F1 fans at Monza in 2021 (Feature Image Credit: GrandPrix247)

2021: When rivalry has consequences

2021 saw a rivalry that will become iconic in F1's long history. But the intensity has led to a knock on effect for the sport

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 Verstappen and Hamilton, Red Bull and Mercedes can be divisive figures in F1 today. While F1 has grown massively in recent seasons, how has their rivalry affected F1 and its fandom?  Simply put, all actions have consequences. 

The dramatic moment Verstappen overtook Hamilton to clinch the 2021 World Championship (Image Credit: Motorsport Magazine)

Say the words “Abu Dhabi 2021” to a fan and depending on who you ask you will get two responses. A Verstappen fan will state that he was a deserving champion,  the title payback for multiple crashes between him and title rival Lewis Hamilton during the year. A Hamilton fan will state that the race and title were fixed. The neutral says it was a very poorly handled situation, but Verstappen had won more races that season, and was still a deserving champion, even if the circumstances were unfortunate.

To this day, almost a year on,  “F1xed” still trends on Twitter. Verstappen’s conduct of swearing in races has come under scrutiny, as has his race-craft, such as in the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, amongst other incidents. He was taken off the podium in the US in the 2017 season for cutting the chicane to pass Kimi Raikkonen, only to say afterwards of the FIA that “they are killing the sport”.

However, Lewis Hamilton has had his fair share of detractors too since he arrived in the sport in 2007. Hamilton has often been accused of being arrogant, just as Verstappen has. The British driver had several high-profile questionable moments during his early years with McLaren. The most notable came in 2011, when he posted highly sensitive telemetry data on Twitter, before swiftly taking it down. Another incident in 2009 saw him lie to the stewards after the Australian Grand Prix, after being told to do so by Team Manager Dave Ryan. Then in 2016, Hamilton drove excessively slowly during the finale in Abu Dhabi to force teammate and rival Nico Rosberg to battle with other cars.

Driver opinion – be realistic
Fans bring F1 to life. A toxic minority has infiltrated F1’s amazing fanbase (Image Credit: Formula1.com)

Both drivers have their critics. Both very much have flaws as they are only human. However, both are still truly unbelievable drivers. Challenge either of them to a Go-Kart race, you will be lapped from lap 2. Say “I can drive an F1 car better” watch them justifiably laugh at each other as you frantically try to engage the clutch paddle. Then watch them collapse on the floor laughing as you perform a Richard Hammond, and stall the car so much it cools the tyres down. In short, these two drivers are the best of their generation and know their craft more than most of us know our jobs. Yet, sadly, we have fans online who post messages such as “it’s the car” or “he’s not a real champion”, “he said this”, or “he moans, he should retire”.

Some fans take this to extremes, claiming Toyota’s Timo Glock gifted Hamilton his first title in 2008. The British driver’s pass on the German at the last corner of the track on the last lap in wet conditions is well known. But some fans think it was a fix, even though Glock was on dry tyres on a soaked track. Having raced in a Go-Kart myself on slick tyres in a thunderstorm, I can assure anyone doubting the validity of Glock’s speed, that driving at anything near full speed becomes impossible. I felt like an elephant on rollerblades. I had no grip and no temperature in the tyres.

Certain parts of F1 fandom continue to argue Timo Glock did not race Hamilton at the final lap of the 2008 championship (Image Credit: formula1.com)

Then there’s Jenson Button, the “accidental champion” according to some parts of the F1 fandom. An F1 driver does not become World Champion by accident. It takes hours and hours of car set up, engineering debriefs into the early hours of the next morning, and total commitment, to the cost of your personal life. Nico Rosberg chose to retire after winning his title. The German simply could not sacrifice his personal life again as he had in 2016. The toll was extreme. This would be the case for any driver battling for a World Championship and raising a young family.  But some “fans” choose to ignore this or brush it aside.

Fans have opinions and make the sport what it is. All drivers commented on how the absence of fans in 2020 meant F1 was not the spectacle it was a year previously. Fans are thankfully now back in the grandstands, with multiple events now selling out to capacity crowds. But hidden within the crowds,  an invasion of supposedly “hardcore” fans of Hamilton and Verstappen is happening.

But are they true fans? To loyally follow a driver shows passion and is to be commended. Very sadly, it seems it is now acceptable for a minority of “fans” to hurl abuse at other fans they believe support a rival. A now very vocal minority of Hamilton and Verstappen “fans” have become vocally abusive online, verbally abusing those who support the other driver, or disagree with their views. This isn’t rivalry behaviour representative of F1’s fanbase.

However, the disgusting incidents in Austria need to be separated from this discussion. The men reportedly assaulting women because “no Hamilton fan doesn’t deserve any respect at all” are not fans of Verstappen or the sport. They tarnish F1’s image and its fanbase with their actions. It is sickening and F1 needs to clamp down on this problem immediately. Since Austria, no further instances of this behaviour have been reported thankfully. No doubt these cowards retreated back into the shadows after being called out online.

Toxic fan rivalries – the cause
Despite fierce battles on track leading to showdowns in the paddock, Schumacher and Coulthard always enjoyed their company off track (Image Credit: bblane.co.uk)

The toxicity in the fanbase has been building for years. Now it has breached the outer edges of F1 and penetrated normal fandom. All because someone is wearing a Red Bull or Mercedes piece of clothing. This is unacceptable and we need fans to feel safe.  Fans should not fear abuse for having a different viewpoint from someone else.  All in the name of rivalry.

Rivalry is another aspect of F1’s success story. This goes back years. Yet, fans of Senna and Prost, Mansell and Piquet, or even Hamilton and Alonso never deemed abuse acceptable. McLaren and Ferrari had a toxic rivalry in the 1990s and early 2000s, but respect was always key. Schumacher and Hakkinen respected each other on track and off it. In 1998, the year of the infamous Schumacher and Coulthard clash at Spa, the Schumacher documentary has footage of the two together on stage singing karaoke and throwing each other in a pool at a party. Two drivers literally wanting to punch each other singing karaoke in the same year, is unthinkable today.

In 2000, after being forced wide while battling for the lead at Magny Cours, David Coulthard made highly rude gestures to Schumacher. He apologised immediately afterwards in the press conference. The rivalry, although intense, was respectful. The 2021 protagonists apologising for anything today is also unthinkable.

I can recall in 2000, at age 12, queuing for the log flume ride at Thorpe Park with a McLaren cap on. A boy my age was opposite me, with a Ferrari cap. We looked at each other with distrust but moved on. Today, in the same scenario but with grown adults adorning Hamilton and Verstappen caps, an increasing minority would yell expletives and abuse at each other.

To most F1 fans, that is not fandom. It is not normal. Max Verstappen has been very quick to distance himself from fans burning Hamilton memorabilia, calling it “disgusting”. Hamilton called out the Austrian fans for cheering when he crashed in the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix. Verstappen called out Hamilton for celebrating his win at Silverstone when the Dutchman was in the hospital. The tittle-tattle from last season is endless.

The result? The toxic rivalry between Red Bull and Mercedes, Hamilton, Red Bull and Verstappen spilt out into the fanbases. If some “fans” chose to hurl abuse at the other side, that was now acceptable.  Both drivers and Team Principals Christian Horner and Toto Wolff made this possible.  By regularly exchanging jibes in the paddock to the media, “fans” felt vindicated for their actions. After all, if the teams and drivers are throwing jibes around, why can’t we?  Although the stakes in F1 are sky high, in truth it was a bit childish to see two grown men say lines such as “there is no relationship” to the cameras. Neither team came off well last season. The same applies to the “fans” throwing abuse at others for disagreeing with them.

Respect lost – but is returning
Team Principals Toto Wolff and Christian Horner were seldom out of the headlines in 2021 (Image Credit: Sportskeeda)

Social Media has transformed F1 for the better, no question. Teams and drivers have never been more accessible to fans. It adds a layer of engagement that would be simply impossible at the start of the 2000s. But the dark side of this has led to consequences. Hamilton and Norris have both opened up about their mental health struggles.

“Fans” hurl abuse and insults at each other on a personal level if they disagree with a point. Some “fans” seem to have lost the ability to respect supporters of different teams. We are now in the unfortunate situation where some consider this normal behaviour. For the vast majority of fans, differences of opinion on driver skill, team ingenuity and history interpretation leads to rigorous debate, but never abuse. F1’s new “Drive it Out” campaign has a vital role to play to purge this virus.

Thankfully, a layer of respect is returning to F1 with its new generation of drivers. Norris, Sainz, Leclerc, Albon, Russell, and Zhou to name a few are all very respectful towards each other and don’t mind playing golf or the odd prank on themselves. Drivers in F1 can become friends but is a very different relationship to that of those outside the F1 bubble. Crucially though, they believe in having fun and letting their actions on track do the talking. While Russell was emotional after clashing with Bottas at Imola in 2021, Russell immediately apologised for what he called “a bad judgement call”.

It’s sadly still rare today, but the new generation is providing a way out of this toxicity we find ourselves in. Leclerc and Verstappen have enjoyed a rivalry of mutual respect during 2022, with nowhere the same level of insults or jibes. Other drivers seem to have heeded the warning signs of 2021 and are respectful of their peers.

Mercedes and Red Bull provided so much action and entertainment in 2021. But all actions have consequences, which both drivers are finally acutely aware of. The Team Principals, governed by self-interest, will never see this. But I cannot imagine Ron Dennis, Jean Todt or Flavio Briatore engaging in juvenile quips to get “one-upmanship” on their rivals. They let their cars and results do the talking. Let’s get back to that, please.

Feature Image Credit: GrandPrix247

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