Given the intensely competitive nature of Formula 1, and the fact that its athletes span different backgrounds, nationalities, and generations, it is hardly surprising that instances where all 20 drivers find themselves in agreement on controversial matters are very rare indeed.
Whether it be track limits, the legality of overtaking manoeuvres, or changes to the structure of the race weekend, every racer in the field is relentlessly asked for their takes throughout the course of the season by a baying press. The stronger personalities may be the ones more likely to voice grievances or demand change, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the grid falls in to line.
What a shock, then, to find every F1 driver apparently on the same page in Miami over the weekend. The burning issue which brought them all to consensus? Being introduced, US-style, to the fans in an on-grid parade minutes before the start of the race.
With LL Cool J compering the ceremony and will.i.am conducting an orchestra of musicians, all playing a bespoke piece of music the Black Eyed Peas frontman had created in conjunction with Lil Wayne, each driver walked out on to the tarmac individually with only Logan Sargeant, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen stopping to indulge the rapper with a sentence or two into the microphone.
“None of the drivers like it,” McLaren’s Lando Norris said after the race. “It’s a business at the end of the day so it’s what we’ve got to do but adding more and more stuff like this, no driver likes it.”
Things do not run entirely smoothly, with some fans booing Verstappen as he was introduced to the crowd last of all. Fans worldwide were not too enamoured either, with the bizarre and rather stunted pomp mocked online for being cringeworthy.
The criticism is entirely valid. The vast majority of drivers’ entrances were awkward and hurried, with most looking as though they would understandably rather be anywhere else. Coming just before the start, their preparation for lights out was disrupted, and it is impossible to tell if some reaction times were therefore affected.
The unorthodox (to put it politely) conducting style of will.i.am and the zoomed-in shots of men in tuxedos playing tubas didn’t exactly work as a sports television spectacle, either, and it would be a surprise if the introductions were repeated in this format in Miami next year or at the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix in November.
Since American mass-media company Liberty Media took control of F1 in 2017 after buying out previous supremo Bernie Ecclestone, the sport has placed increased marketing focus on the stars beneath the helmets.
Drive to Survive, increased fan engagement and behind-the-scenes content on social media, and the embrace of digital streaming are all part of an effort to tell the story of these 20 drivers’ lives, and to draw fans into becoming emotionally invested in their successes and failures. Making the athletes accessible, including parading them in front of the crowd in Miami, is part of that strategy.
So, the theory behind the walk-ons might make sense, but the rather perplexing execution was very poor.
That doesn’t mean that F1 should prevent individual events from putting their on stamp on the weekend in future, though.
F1 is the most prominent sport which truly travels the globe every year. It races on five different continents, sending its stars to some of the most unique and storied locations on the planet. And yet so few of those places are allowed to instil any of their own identity into the event itself.
Watch a typical F1 race weekend from start-to-finish and, bar a few drone shots of a waterfront/city skyline/countryside landscape used in pre-race hype montages, we’re all essentially just staring at stretches of non-descript tarmac wrapped in swathes of advertising.
That’s fine during the race when the action is live, but it means that the coverage around the grand prix is the same wherever F1 goes. Take a look at the TV screen during most of the weekend and nothing really tells you if this is Austria or Australia
Little of the personality of gorgeous and glorious places like Sao Paolo, Montréal or Budapest are allowed to make into the wider show. No input from local people, no celebration of what makes the venue worth a visit.
The fact that the culture, history, music, and spirit of all of these locations are so accessible to F1, but that none of it is particularly visible nor used as part of the sport’s approach to storytelling, is something of a sin.
The way in which Miami went about trying add a dollop of Americana to the F1 pageantry may not have worked, then, but the fact that event organisers are being allowed to try and add a city or country’s character to the race weekend is not a negative itself.
Experiments sometimes fail. They key is to learn from them and move on. Miami should reassess its pre-show entertainment next year, but the spectacular collection of other F1 venues should be invited to show themselves off too, allowing the sport to harness the distinct identities which make it such a rip-roaring world tour.
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