Formula 1 is, and always has been, obsessed with the association of celebrity. Perhaps only rivalled by Centre Court during the Wimbledon fortnight, we are regularly presented with images of famous people simply...being there. Whether they are there as fans or simply because it is an extravagant, lavish place to hang out isn’t always clear, but in general it doesn’t take much sleuthing to work out which ones know who is on pole that weekend.
The desire for A-List validation extends from the Bernie era and celebrities waving the chequered flag is nothing new, either, even after Pele forgot to wave it at the culmination of the 2002 Brazilian Grand Prix.
But with Tuesday’s announcement that F1 is set to team up with Will Smith’s production company, Westbrook Studios, to produce a series of videos involving celebrities at circuits, it does raise the question of who exactly this is for.
A series of ‘stunts, appearances and live musical performances’ have been promised, and it is probable we don’t need to look too far from Smith’s one-on-race with son Trey in Abu Dhabi in 2018, accompanied by Lewis Hamilton, to get an idea of what the partnership will produce.
And the methodology from Liberty Media’s perspective comes from modern marketing 101; attach yourself to an influencer and cling for dear life to their band of followers hoping, desperately, to convert some of them.
But this isn’t a pair or Ray-Bans or a Gucci handbag. Are fans of celebrities going to invest time in F1 by way of association? Yes, celebrities and their significant followings can increase publicity to the sport and allow races to reach the types of media and news broadcasts that it may not appear on under conventional circumstances.
But it’s a short-term injection of interest, a bump of exposure that more often than not comes across to the casual observer as, well, desperate. Throwing cash in the direction of David Beckham to bear the chequered flag, or in the case of Winnie Harlow, hire a model then give her the wrong instructions as to when to wave it, isn’t going to convert viewers. Rather, it’s likely to turn them off.
Martin Brundle’s long-standing grid walk has become less about using the broadcaster’s expertise at extracting information from teams and drivers before the race, and more about him clambering over mechanics to chase down famous people, like he is at a red carpet premiere.
Brundle has done it for a while but he’s never seemed at ease with it, and there’s a fundamental difference between interviewing celebs who have a genuine interest in the sport, versus asking Beckham about Manchester United or confusing Guy Ritchie with some other bloke who looks like him.
Stars are lining the paddock at the #BahrainGP...@craigslatersky caught up with David Beckham to chat about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and England's progress
At least when Carol Vorderman and Rory Bremner were interviewed for The F1 Show on Sky Sports, you could tell instantly that they loved racing and wanted to talk about it. They may not have 55m Instagram followers, but at least they have something to say. Ritchie, meanwhile, said he was there to support ‘the Englishman’.
What sports fans want to see is not A-Listers for hire, shoehorned into situations in which they have no desire to be in beyond perceived street-cred and a bag emblazoned with a dollar sign. What they want is genuine stories and emotion. And although reports are still early, this is vindicated by the relative success of the Netflix series F1: Drive to Survive.
And it’s because the documentary, whilst at times serialising conversations and events a little too much, spends time respecting the skill, attention to detail and bravery of the drivers in order to garner appreciation for the discipline. Unsurprisingly, it works!
Season 2 is already in production and the more Liberty Media focus on converting Netflix’s gigantic, demographically-broad audience by educating them and enticing them into the intrinsic drama of F1, the less they need to spend on eye-rolling gimmickry.
Lest we forget, lest Liberty forget, that we are dealing in a sport with a fantastically rich history, where drivers career around the track exceeding speeds of 200mph, at points wheels touching they are so close, while attempting to squeeze past each other through the tightest of corners, all behind the wheels of the finest pieces of automotive excellence on planet Earth.
If you feel the desperate need to attach VIPs to that description in order to grasp at relevance, you are doing it wrong
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