One of the highlights from the Formula One season’s pause was seeing some younger drivers engage with their fans on social media.
George Russell, Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon and Lando Norris regularly met up on Twitch, a streaming service among online gamers, to race, chat and generally just to catch up with each other.
The quartet, all friends off the track, are widely regarded as the next generation of F1 stars thanks to their stellar junior careers.
Leclerc and Albon were team-mates at ART Grand Prix during the 2016 GP3 series, which the Monaco native would ultimately go on to win.
As Leclerc graduated to F1 with Sauber in 2018, Russell, Norris and Albon all earned promotion the following season after placing in the top-three of the F2 Championship.
Even through various battles over the years, their friendship off the track has not distracted them from their job on it. The unwritten rule in racing is that once the helmet is on, there are no friendships.
As a sports fan, it’s refreshing to see these young drivers remain friends, a vast contrast to previous decades in F1 when it was all fight on the circuit and little time for friendship off it.
“We have group chats and things like that. We talk about a lot of things. We talk about everything. I would say that 80 per cent of what we talk about is not to do with racing, it’s rubbish,” Albon told the F1 Nation podcast recently.
“We all want each other to do well. We are the young generation, we all support each other.
“It’s quite a normal thing to race hard on the track and be friendly off it.”
Through Twitch in recent months, the quartet have created entertainment for fans and formed a greater bond, regularly joking and commenting on each other’s gameplay. There have been many funny moments too like when Leclerc wore a banana costume and Norris shaved his hair.
Leclerc and Norris, in particular, are among the most popular drivers in F1, boasting 3.7 million and 2.1 million followers on Instagram and 536,000 plus 645,000 on Twitch respectively. A significant audience that has the potential to attract new fans to the sport.
Watching the likes of Leclerc and Norris online on a regular basis has given fans more of a feel for their personalities and pushed them to switch on the television to follow their progress on F1 race weekends.
One of the big appeals with gaming on Twitch is its young demographics where 72 per cent of its audience are under the age of 34 and 26 per cent aged between 13-17. Viewing numbers are impressive too with 18.5 million daily active viewers in 2019.
The online charm is certainly gaining traction and its potential cannot be ignored.
When Liberty Media acquired F1 in 2017, the sport’s TV viewership was in decline and interest had started to drop. In an attempt to reverse the trend, F1 ramped up its outreach to fans on social media and streaming services.
Since March, the Virtual Grand Prix – held in place of the postponed races during the pandemic – generated over 95 million views online, including 22 million on live streams. The sport’s overall social media engagement is up 30 per cent year on year.
Now through social media and online gaming, new followers are provided with more access to these sporting personalities. From watching Norris, Russell, Albon and Leclerc gaming live, fans feel like they are creating their own personal relationships with them. This, in turn, may force new followers to follow F1.
Of course, times have changed and who is to say that if social media and online gaming was big 20 years ago, that we wouldn’t have seen the likes of Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard or Rubens Barrichello capitalising on a growing market and interacting with their fans.
Nevertheless, Norris, Russell, Albon and Leclerc come from a new generation that understands interactivity and social media. Added to that is the fact they are likeable, funny athletes. This direct engagement through video allows fans to get to know the drivers better, even though they may never have met them before.
While talk of Twitch becoming the future way to watch F1 may be premature, it offers some fascinating opportunities for the future, especially for drawing in new fans and a new audience.