Once upon a time, it used to be that the most talented drivers made it into Formula One. Quaint notion, I know, but that was way back in Ye Olde Times. Then it came to pass that most drivers couldn’t make it into Formula One on talent alone… they also had to bring money… buckets and buckets of money. I know, I know… like neon and Member’s Only jackets… so ’80s! But now, just this year, I believe we’ve entered into an entirely new era. Starting this year, apparently money and talent can now be trumped by something even more powerful… social media.
In the off chance that you’ve either been off on a Tibetan solitude retreat for the past several months or in a coma, there has been a lot of media hype building into next month’s start of the 2024 F1 season. But of all the drivers making appearances and posting wacky videos online, who do you see the most? Reigning champion Verstappen? Multiple past champion Hamilton? No, the media darling of the 2024 race season is unquestionably Daniel Ricciardo… a reserve driver. Huh?
You have to hand it to him, while he is/was a decent if not occasionally gifted driver, Ricciardo’s real talent was in creating a cult of personality far bigger and more valuable than his behind-the-wheel accomplishments. With the help of the Netflix series “Drive to Survive”, I would argue that Ricciardo built an image and a “brand” so big, he became a valuable asset just for his media attention alone. Of all the drivers in Formula One, who would you guess has the most social media followers? Hamilton is the top with a staggering 42.8 million. Next comes Verstappen with 14.4 million. But that makes sense, right? These are two multiple World Champions. But guess who is the third most followed driver in the world? Yep, Ricciardo with 11.7 million and growing.
If you think about it, it kind of makes sense that a driver with a massive media following would have outsized value, compared to a lesser-known driver with equal driving talent. F1 runs on money. Where does that money come from? Advertising. What is advertising looking for? Exposure. Where do you get exposure? Conventional and now social media.
So, in this new business construct, an influencer… I mean driver, like Ricciardo, doesn’t even have to drive to be valuable to a team like Red Bull, if he is generating massive exposure for them. The fact that Daniel is also a serviceable driver that could step in when required is almost a value-added. Plus, as a bonus, with him siphoning off most of the apparent pre-season PR duties, it relieves a lot of that load off of his “on track” teammates Verstappen and Perez.
So now, in 2023, one of the biggest, most visible personalities in Formula One, is a driver, who doesn’t drive. I’m beginning to think that Kim Kardashian might have a future at Williams!
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