How Formula 1 Racing Attracted a Ravenous New Community of Fangirls

Writer and Formula 1 expert Lily Herman discusses her new podcast, Carlos Sainz's jeans, and the pettiest dudes in motorsport.

How Formula 1 Racing Attracted a Ravenous New Community of Fangirls
From left, Esteban Ocon, Lewis Hamilton, and Sebastian Vettel. Photo:Getty Images

Before Netflix took a turn for the TERFs, the once-monopolistic streaming service had upped its budget to over $13.6 billion dollars, with a good chunk of that money now dedicated to unscripted programming. The content ran the gamut from mind-numbing and high cringe to shockingly delicious, with the likes of Too Hot to Handle, Tiger King, and Love Is Blind. Along with the rising tide of “lowbrow brilliant” series came a little show so campy and so melodramatic—with “carbon fiber death traps,” Russian oligarchs, Nigerian princes, men with baby Elvis swoon power, and a dream-crushing game of musical chairs—that it bore out a ravenous new community of fangirls no one saw coming. To just about everyone’s surprise, a star with a hell of a lot of horsepower was born out of a show about…race car drivers?

Accompanied by the zest of European men who can dress (thank fucking god), Formula 1: Drive to Survive is a show about the perils and pleasures of race car driving, the content of which isn’t entirely far off from what might be called The Real Housewives of the Monaco Grand Prix if it existed in the Bravo multiverse. As the series caught fire with young Americans and thirsty cougars like myself stuck at home in quarantine, so, too, did the world of motorsport, and along with it came a flood of appetite for content: Who of the drivers got in a tiff that week? Who would be the next to score a Valentino partnership? And, oh my god, did Kevin Magnussen really tell fellow driver Nico Hulkenberg to “suck my balls, mate?”

Luckily for us, Lily Herman, the co-host of the new podcast Choosing Sides: F1 from Sports Illustrated Studios and IHeartMedia is here to dish. The show, also hosted by Michael Kosta of The Daily Show, examines why a 70-year-old sport founded on a lingering hero complex and the boredom of WWII vets has attracted a thriving community of unexpected fans. Let’s unpack the sport’s scandals, rivalries, resentments, and daddy issues, shall we?

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ocon of France and Renault celebrates winning the F1 Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on August 01, 2021 in Budapest, Hungary. Photo:Getty Images

There’s a common scenario in sports in which women or nonbinary people might be interested in something like Formula 1, but feel it’s not marketed to them, nor was it created by people who look like them. What was it about F1 that kept you around?

Formula One really does offer something for everyone, even if it doesn’t try to. If you want the engineering or technical aspects, you can find that. If you care deeply about racing itself, you can find that. But a lot of sports, in general, require a great deal of pageantry and, quite frankly, a lot of camp. Formula One is no exception. I could tell you about Brawn GP becoming Mercedes or why the double diffuser is an important technological advancement. I could also tell you why I closely follow what Carlos Sainz’ denim choices were over the weekend. These things are equal to me in terms of importance. But we still hear that there’s a lot of gatekeeping from the old fans towards the newer Drive to Survive fans, and often, that means the exclusion of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks, which spells more violent reactions and harassment of those newer fans.

In the podcast, you talk a lot about the influence of money in the sport and how difficult it is for these drivers to secure funding. Does it seem unfair to you that there’s such an onus on them to convince sponsors that funding them wouldn’t actually be a risk?

The classism of the sport comes across differently for every driver. If you’re looking at someone like Lewis Hamilton or Esteban Ocon, these are guys who had to fight all odds to make it into the sport. Ocon’s parents famously mortgaged their house and spent years living in an RV so he could kart, with his dad as the mechanic working on his car. I couldn’t imagine the sacrifice or even being aware at such a young age that your family is in some form of financial constraint because of this dream you have. Other drivers are called pay drivers, meaning they’re in the sport because they bring in significant sponsorship dollars, be it from a parent or another family member or from some major corporation. So, money absolutely plays this massive role and you can’t talk about any driver without explaining how they got there.

For context, take the sport of karting, which is where many of these drivers start out, as kids racing around local tracks. If you want to be competitive in karting, your parents are spending upwards of $100,000 a year. That’s already a major barrier to entry. On top of that, F1 is as much an engineering competition as it is a driving competition, which means there’s an onus for the teams to raise as much money as possible to build these incredible engineering feats, so they’ll want to bring in drivers with big sponsors. IndyCar in the U.S. costs hundreds of thousands to a million dollars per season per car. Mercedes, prior to the budget cap, was looking at over $425 million a year for their program. But all of these rich men are gonna go home to their mansions and sleep well at the end of the day.

In the podcast, you mentioned that watching F1 is, at times, like watching Real Housewives. This seems to be part of why F1 has drawn in so many new fans: We like to see these athletes as people and that means we want to see them being their petty-ass selves.

Regardless of if we’re talking about a chess tournament with people hunched over moving some pieces around, all the way up to F1 to soccer to American football, there’s going to be high stakes, and along with that comes a lot of heightened emotions: people being petty and dramatic, sometimes for absolutely no reason. When push comes to shove, I don’t think anyone wants to watch people getting along. The drama is what we’re all here for, as much as some don’t want to admit it. Even if you are the most anti-reality TV person, we all know how the beats of reality TV work, and we understand the editing techniques. Given that a lot of reality TV is grounded in audiences of women, people of color, and queer people, there’s just a shorthand that they understand that Drive to Survive has effectively tapped into. There are also plenty of straight cis guys to who the drama appeals.

I always say that my guy friends are the most dramatic people I know. This side of the sport is clearly for them, too.

Absolutely. I get multi-paragraph theories from men about George Russell’s girlfriend Carmen Montero Mundt and what the two of them did at Wimbledon. I think they want to participate in that as much as possible; it’s just been deemed socially unacceptable or not “masculine,” which is scary for a lot of men.

Does it feel like this Eurocentric rich-boy fan stereotype will always be around?

Absolutely. At a certain point in the sport, there were more women than men behind the scenes and around the F1 environment. But once Bernie Eccleston—the former chief executive of the Formula One Group—formalized the sport with sponsorships and TV contracts, in the ‘70s in particular, you see a lot of these women disappear. At that time, many of the big corporate spenders who had the money to sponsor a racing team were run by men. It’s a depressing, but unfortunately a pretty familiar history of women being kept outside of the gates, while the few who make it in get taken out through other means (exhaustion, harassment, all the usual suspects). Then everyone shrugs and goes, “We have no idea how that happened. Oops, no one can figure out why.”

Speaking of gender dynamics! I know you interviewed F1 writer Toni Cowan-Brown for the podcast, who’s this voice of authority in the motorsport space. While watching Drive to Survive, she applied her own version of the Bechdel test and found that women spoke for just 49 seconds out of a 38-minute episode. Why do you think F1 avoids talking about representation for women in the space?

Alpine, for example, just announced last week that they plan to bring a female driver into the sport by 2030. But who’s going to check up on Alpine over the next decade to make sure they actually do that? You also have a lot of drivers who don’t know how to talk about issues of sexism or racism, and these are guys with an infinite number of media experts at their disposal. Unfortunately, I know fan-favorite Daniel Ricciardo really stepped in it last year when he said to a reporter, “I don’t watch the news” because of “negativity.” Like, sir, I don’t understand how you’ve gone this far without anyone teaching you how to properly answer that question. So, yes, there’s still a woefully long way to go.

It’s an interesting dynamic: enjoying the entertainment while also looking at the drivers as Roe v. Wade is being overturned to ask, “You have millions of followers and so much influence. What are you going to do with that?”

You do have drivers like Lewis Hamilton voluntarily bringing up abortion rights and Sebastian Vettel, who went from this arrogant young kid who many people hated to this responsible figure talking about climate change. You have drivers wearing shirts in support of LGBTQ+ rights. So, I personally cannot talk about drivers without having a more holistic approach to interrogating who they are ideologically, and who they are politically. We’re in an era where we’re finally all looking at our athletes as more than just mini machines we boss around.

I, a petty bitch myself, am very interested in some of the tea that you’ve gathered. Has there been anything particularly shocking to you?

I knew that Fernando Alonso was also sort of a petty bitch in many ways; it’s something that people joke about quite commonly. But I had no idea just how many big scandals and other negative moments in F1 he was a part of. Listeners will hear us talk about two incidents that are really notorious in Formula 1 history. There’s Crashgate and Spygate, they’re very close together chronologically, and Fernando is implicated in both.

New episodes of “Choosing Sides: F1″ drop every Tuesday.

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