SINGAPORE — Before the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the Formula 1 (F1) motor race was of little interest to me, even though it was a yearly tradition for my family to watch the Singapore Grand Prix (GP) on television.
Back then, I tended to sit through it but while mindlessly scrolling through my phone, only looking up when a crash happened.
But after watching the Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive out of sheer boredom while cooped up at home during the Covid-19 circuit breaker, I found myself thrilled by the sounds of the cars zooming by and the different drivers’ personalities.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the series, it’s part documentary, part fictionalised drama following the thrills and spills of F1 drivers and the teams behind the cars.
This weekend just gone, after years indifference, I found myself front and centre at the big race as part of a work assignment. I’m sure various colleagues would have given their eye teeth to be there in my place.
Bottom line? As I’ll explain in more detail, it was a fun experience. I’m still learning more about the sport — ask me about what DRS is and I’ll just mumble something — but I can begin to see why many people are so obsessed by the roar of the engines and the heady smells of fuel and burning tyres.
(DRS or drag reduction system is apparently something to do with steering.)
Back to that series that helped spark my interest, in response to TODAY’s queries, a Singapore GP spokesperson said that “the success of the Netflix Drive to Survive series has contributed to the popularity of the sport”.
Through the show, social media savvy F1 drivers such as McLaren’s Lando Norris, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, AlphaTauri’s Daniel Ricciardo, Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso have “further connected with the youth with their creative content”, the spokesperson added.
As I spoke to youths attending the race weekend, I learnt that how they came to love this sport differs greatly from person to person.
There are key themes though: The engineering wizardry behind these super-fast cars, the drivers’ personalities and the behind-the-scenes dramas.
These elements keep pulling us into keeping up with the sport.
Long-time fan Ms Iman Khaliesah can attest to that. She had watched her first GP on television at the age of six, as her brother was already an F1 fanatic.
No longer is it just about catching race day action, she told me.
Now 22, the Republic Polytechnic student follows her favourite driver Lewis Hamilton on social media, watching YouTube videos of the driver involved in fun social media challenges like guessing the other drivers’ ages when she can.
Attending the qualifier for the Singapore GP on Saturday (Sept 16), she told me that she’s a Hamilton fan not just because he holds multiple F1 records — the most number of pole positions and podium finishes just to name a few — but also for his personality.
“His motto ‘still I rise’ really speaks to me,” she said, adding that it is a reminder for her to not give up.”
Her brother Harits Raiyan said these efforts to showcase the behind-the-scenes and allow the drivers’ personalities to shine have kept the sport alive today.
“It can be a boring sport if you only watch the cars zoom by. With the Netflix series, it has drawn in new fans and revived the interest of former fans,” said the 23-year-old full-time national serviceman.
How about my own growing interest in the sport? It wasn’t just the Netflix series that got me hooked on F1.
The memes started that started popping up on my TikTok account kept me scrolling for hours. Who knew Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz singing ’80s classic Smooth Operator could be so hilarious?
But as youths such as myself find ourselves drawn to some of the gossip and celebrity surrounding the sport, what can the F1 organisation do to make us more inclined to actually attend the race in person?
INTEREST FUELED BY MEMES, PERSONALITY
As I was explaining, prior to the pandemic, F1 was just about cars racing by, and the only dramatic moment that got me on the edge of my seat during the annual family ritual was when a driver crashed.
What sport of any merit relies on bad stuff happening for its highlights?
I now realise that I failed to appreciate some of the more complex aspects of motor sports at this highest of levels, both on and off the course.
I was surprised watching Red Bull team principal Christian Horner haggle over his partnership with Renault, then finally end it, after an engine failure as portrayed in Drive to Survive.
The raw reactions captured when a crash ends dreams in a shocking moment of drama had me realise that F1 was more than an overgrown adult’s obsession with Hot Wheels.
The series had me hooked, and I would binge watch each season as it came out.
Though the series may have toned down on the drama — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen had boycotted the series until season five as he found it overly dramatised — I still found myself becoming more and more interested in the sport.
The memes were also key to sparking my interest. Clips of AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda talking about food and his dreams of opening a restaurant, rather than droning on about the sport that made him famous, had me laughing as I scrolled through many videos of the drivers outside of the race track.
All these popped up through my TikTok algorithm without searching for it. Though they rarely provided context — I had to Google what a yellow flag meant to understand a meme once — these funny moments stayed rent-free in my mind.
And as I grew more interested in the sport, I found myself catching each race, though I had to often refer to Google to understand some of what went down.
Social media posts like this are also drawing youths to the sport. For music concert junkie Wynne Teh, Leclerc’s good looks caught her eye after she saw videos of him on TikTok focused on his looks leading up to the Singapore GrandPrix.
“He’s so funny and good-looking. I don’t like sports at all, but maybe I could get into this,” she quipped as we spoke during an intermission between the F1 concert on Friday. The driver had gone viral on several occasions for his funny comments through the F1 radio, such as for saying “I am stupid” after he hit a barrier.
Young viewers want more from the F1 than fast cars and cutting-edge engineering, and this is not lost on the sports organisers and teams.
F1’s official social media pages have made their own meme compilations and funny moments from the season. The teams themselves have their drivers featured in challenges or embracing viral moments.
WATCHING THE F1 IN PERSON
While the F1 is doing well online, with the millions of views on their social media accounts serving as compelling proof, getting youths to attend the actual event might be a bigger challenge.
Max Verstappen fan Gerald Chee was at the Esplanade mall on Sunday night. The 24-year-old National University of Singapore business student was enjoying the aircon while watching the race from a bar, although the race track was just outside the mall.
“It’s so hot and tiring to stand out there,” he said. While this may be his first F1 in person, he says it might be the last. “I’d rather watch from home, at least it’s more comfortable. And it’s cars just zooming past.”
I had felt the same way as him. As a new fan, I still couldn’t understand why I might gain anything at all from attending in person. After all, you could see only a small portion of the track, and would be looking at a screen for most of the race.
But having attended this race, I finally understood the appeal that drew in more than 260,000 attendees this year which exceeded organisers’ expectations. The sound of the cars zooming past was exhilarating, and the crowds and atmosphere are addictive.
It is also a buzz to know that many millions are watching around the globe.
Some might argue that attending the F1 is only worth it if you are able to watch a crash happen in person, but I disagree, even though such events definitely generate a buzz in the crowd.
While I may have been attending for work, I saw attendees with their mouths wide open as Mercedes’ George Russells crashed into a barrier while at the Padang. I was interviewing a family as it happened, and we had to pause to absorb the moment with everyone, although we were all not Mercedes supporters.
The undeniable thrill of “being there” comes from being in a huge throng of fellow fans watching a sport live that delivers breathtaking speed and life-threatening spills.
And strolling along the walkway near the track as an F1 car zooms by is an experience as the wind messes your hair and the oddly satisfying high-pitched scream of the engine assaults your eardrums.
The concert lineup was an added bonus, as world-class acts performed before and after the race. The crowds for the concert were more muted as some F1 fans were there to make use of their ticket perks, though it was still a great experience.
So while some youths say watching the F1 at home might be better, I think the thrill and atmosphere of the real thing make the experience worth it.
These experiences are not obvious until you take them in track-side. And for youths who are driven by the driver’s personality, navigating the race area to find opportunities for a glimpse of their favourite drivers can be a challenge.
On this front, perhaps F1 could increase fan interactions with the drivers such that snagging a ticket might be of more worth. Perhaps more publicity about what each ticket entails through videos could capture the excitement of being at the track in person.
But having experienced the race for the first time, this one-time F1 non-fan might just snag a ticket for myself next year. Out of my own pocket this time.