Drive to Survive: the Formula One Online Fanbase

In all the vagaries of my obsessions, nothing has evoked the sheer breadth of my emotions, nor held my sanity captive, quite like Formula One, the pinnacle of motorsport.

Perhaps I was too quick to judge in high school when I first learned of its existence. Then, the sport only seemed inaccessible, alien, and quite frankly, boring. To my younger self, Formula One was no different from NASCAR, and all the excitement my lone friend invested in sports had stirred besides was nothing more than the crazed ramblings of a boy who cared far too much about untouchable universes for his own good.

(Pot, meet kettle.)

It was in the haze of final assignments and increasingly alarming COVID-19 news that I stumbled headlong into the Formula One fanbase a scant five months prior to writing this. My roommate at the time had been watching a Netflix show called Drive to Survive, and in a flurry of passion inspired by recent boy troubles, she half-jokingly declared one Charles Leclerc her new boyfriend.

I humoured her for an hour or so, and sitting cross-legged on her floor, watched an episode of the first season with her.

Then, on my own time, I found myself binge-watching all three seasons.

To the outside eye, Drive to Survive captures the high-stakes drama and politics of Formula One, providing an in-depth view of remarkable situations while leaving audiences craving more. Certainly, the producers craft neatly-tied narratives that sell the sport’s appeal—but the show paled in comparison to my first live race, and after exploring the fanbase for a day, every basic idea I had of the people in the sport, as well as the sport itself, unravelled into rabbit holes waiting to be explored. I was caught hook, line, and sinker by Netflix and Liberty Media.

However, rather than viewing this new interest as a (complete) detriment to my wellbeing, I found myself giddy over the prospect of uncharted territory to explore; but for all my experience with “bandom” and being a fan of various celebrities, I was ill-equipped to understand how the Formula One fandom worked, mostly because I was ill-equipped to understand how sports fandom worked in general. There is a whole field of sports sociology that one can examine to know more about the ways of sports fandom, so instead of summarizing the literature, I’ll discuss my personal experiences and observations delving into the Formula One fandom.

The biggest difference between sports fandom and other fandoms that I can describe is this: people attach their very identities to the teams and drivers they support in a way that fans of band members and actors do not, as parasocial relationships extend beyond athlete personalities to the multimillion-dollar corporations they represent, and community interactions are underpinned by a thrumming current of competitiveness. The Tifosi, for example, are almost terrifying in their loyalty and devotion to Ferrari. Nobody is spared from the ebb and flow of the competition: those who are mostly fans of individual drivers still have a team they place an interest in and an opinion on the championship battle. The community space is mercurial, and the fandom’s day-to-day operations depend heavily on who won last; what discourse transpired the hour before; and more.

Initially, I laughed at it all, scrolling through my timeline of ever-increasing motorsport fan accounts. You poor, self-deluded fools, I thought to myself, with your milquetoast understanding of real-world nuances, jumping over yourselves to support people in a sport so far removed from reality it might as well constitute as fiction.

Unsurprisingly, I became one of those very fools two weeks later.

I fell in quickly with Sebastian Vettel fans after a disastrous Bahrain Grand Prix, having recently watched his fallout with Ferrari on Drive to Survive. After a brief stint supporting Max Verstappen, I also found myself strongly rooting for reigning champion Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes as my championship favourites.

Today, I think of Mercedes as my team. I even bought a rain jacket from them to feel like part of the community. And despite all its flaws, by a phenomenon I like to call Sebastian Vettel Brainrot, I have what can only be described as a “soft spot” for Red Bull Racing. These are multimillion/multibillion dollar institutions that I’ve become emotionally attached to. Red Bull Racing alone is valued at 640 million USD. It is an amount of money that I cannot begin to fathom, but pocket change to the people who have a financial claim to the sport.

Formula One is (and likely will continue to be), as aptly described by Hamilton, a billionaire boys club. It’s a man’s world, and a filthily rich one, at that. Why should anybody invest themselves emotionally in it when there are seemingly no returns for the average person? At its simplest, the sport is an overblown, televised event where millionaires in fast cars go around in circles for two hours or more.

Despite counterintuition, however, this insular world is a universe that is irresistibly alluring, from its potential for entertainment, to its rich history, to its science. It’s romantic; it’s an eternal cycle of suffering; it’s a testament to the human experience. It’s an endless mythos of underdogs rising to become champions, of heart-wrenching falls from grace, and above all, of perseverance. More brutally put, it’s the contemporary Roman gladiator fight, where twenty drivers from around the world duke it out on circuits across the globe—and aren’t we all sadists, in the end?

The goal, in watching Drive to Survive and sniffing around for a race or two, was never to get invested; but sports fandom has a way of drawing you in until you’re knee-deep in quicksand and losing your balance. From incredibly talented people sharing their edits, art, and more with the fanbase, to the foulest bigots I’ve ever had the displeasure of sharing a community with, the Formula One fanbase has it all. It’s not just that the memes are impeccable—though they are, to be sure—but there is a palpable, driving force behind every post to be involved, know more, and stay up to date with new developments. And, from March to November, there are developments almost every other day.

For about two hours yesterday morning (at the time of writing), the fanbase went into a frenzy over an investigation regarding alleged insider trading between the Mercedes Team Principal, Toto Wolff, and Lawrence Stroll, a Canadian billionaire with his fingers in the Aston Martin F1 pie. At around 9:00 AM, however, meme production and conversation trickled to a stop. A friend messaged me at around 9:30 AM asking what had happened, and gleefully, I gave a brief rundown of the supposed financial activities of rich white men.

This story repeats itself in various iterations. Today—the time of writing—I awoke at approximately 9:45 AM (after having suffered from a nosebleed in the middle of the night) to a new sponsor award being announced. By the time I had learned of the situation and understood the dozens of memes with traction online, it was already old news.

Unlike most other fandoms, sports fandom has an unprecedented immediacy and turnover time. It takes “you had to be there” quite literally, as everything is perhaps more context-dependent and isolated than one might think. Interactions and relations between fans are strengthened or weakened by the drivers/teams that they support. A “retweet” or “reblog” can speak volumes about the kinds of people and circles that others associate themselves with. A “like” can mean an immediate “block,” depending on the severity of the infraction perceived from that very action of liking.

That’s not to say that other fandoms are not so cutthroat. Anime Twitter, for example, is one collection of communities that are notorious for their acute sensitivity of every discourse under the sun. However, in the Formula One fanbase, where teams and drivers are real people, where there are legitimate political stakes, and where interpersonal conflict can make the difference between financial stability for generations and a life on the run, every interaction seems somehow heightened. Arguments quickly become personal attacks where no lines are drawn. A racing incident can devolve into a social war where racism proliferates exponentially within minutes of its broadcast. Caustic, off-hand remarks cause full-blown scandals that further drive a wedge between the fan communities supporting different drivers and/or teams. Through it all, people are expected to keep the perspective that this is one of the most expensive sports in the world, and that no team or driver is “squeaky clean” or “unproblematic.”

It might be hard to imagine how people can support the sport and its people, much less how fan communities can be built around it. I certainly struggled, at first. Funnily enough, however, it’s almost comparable to a K-Pop fandom, with its questionable overarching institution, its poor little meow meows, and its media presence—but that’s just about where the similarities end.

As a relatively new fan, I can’t speak to the differences in the fandom between this season and past seasons, though the overall experience is undoubtedly influenced by heightening tensions regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and environmental justice. Nonetheless, I believe I can say with certainty that while the world of sports fandom is a different experience from other fandoms, it is still a fandom community with all that fandom entails, and as a whole, the positive experiences—meeting new people, finding friends, creating art—far outweigh the negatives. To stay supportive of people in this sport is to separate oneself from typical fan machinations and stay cognizant of the ugly layers beneath Formula One’s illusory veneer. After all, there can be no ethical consumption under capitalism; so, together, we choose what we engage with, and we stumble along with our best foot forward, growing and learning from all experiences.

On that note, if I have anything to say to my past self regarding motorsport, it’s this: Formula One is not the same as NASCAR.

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