“I’LL GIVE YOU AN ESTIE BESTIE FOR A PASTRY,” said a voice behind me. I was standing at the edge of a huge group of fans at the 2024 Australian Grand Prix. The fashion, vibe and energy were akin to a music festival and everyone was gathered to catch a glimpse of their favourite motorsport superstar, as they made their way into the paddock. I whipped around, curious to see what was being exchanged, to find two teenage girls, arms full of handmade plastic friendship bracelets in various team colours, swapping blue for orange: an Estie Bestie (a fan- derived moniker for Alpine driver Esteban Ocon) for an Oscar ‘Pastry’ (Oscar Piastri, Australian driver for McLaren Racing). A fair trade, they agreed.

When I looked around at the hands holding giant printed heads of drivers and handmade posters, I saw arms carrying bracelets for Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo, Lando Norris and even Mercedes-AMG Petronas team principal Toto Wolff. I later found out from Piastri himself – who left the Australian Grand Prix weekend with “at least 50” bracelets – that this trend, made famous by the Swiftie community, was new for Melbourne but had been emerging within the young, female F1 fandom communities at various races over the past year alongside the Taylor Swift Eras Tour. It seems the power of Swift’s influence over fan behaviour can infiltrate even the male- dominated world of motor racing, but such is the so-called ‘fangirlification’ of F1.

Fact: the fangirl has been haunted by gendered and often weaponised tropes and hit with labels like “hysterical” and “crazy”. Yet, in the case of any sector they disrupt, be it music or in this case, F1, they are often highly informed experts with extensive knowledge, deep cultural understanding of their chosen topic and huge economic power. And they move in groups.

You don’t need to identify as a girl to be a fangirl, either. Sure, the culture itself is rooted in many shared social experiences of girlhood, but being a fangirl is less about gender and more about bringing a new sense of shared fun, creativity and a desire to be informed. It’s an outward-facing, highly visible celebration of passion. Like it or not, as we’ve seen happen in music and film, the ‘fangirl’ is now shaping storytelling and promoting diversity within elite sports – and nowhere has this been more evident than in Formula 1.

A Daniel Ricciardo fan at the 2024 Melbourne Grand Prix. Photography: Getty Images

IF YOU CONSUMED only American media about F1 in the past few years, you’d likely think that Netflix’s Drive to Survive is solely responsible for the sport’s rise. You’d also assume that F1 has never previously enjoyed passionate and devoted fandom, a ridiculous, even infuriating supposition in a sport that’s hosted many storied rivalries and historic teams, especially in this part of the world.

The FIA Formula One World Championship, as it is officially known, has been consistently one of the most followed and witnessed global sports since its debut in 1950. And while variations of the Australian Grand Prix have existed since the ’20s, we became part of the F1 World Championship in 1985. Australia even holds two of the top three attendance records across race weekends. At number one, the 1995 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide (520,000 people); and at number three, this year’s race at Albert Park (452,055); with the 2023 British Grand Prix sitting between the two (480,000).

Where fans were once relegated to quieter, more insular ways of supporting and talking about their love of the sport, what has changed the game is the mainstream acceptance, visibility, media attention and online behaviour, as well as a culture of social signalling, leading to a wider audience hungry for stories and eager for a sense of belonging and community connection.

“When I started, we were photocopying press releases and hand-distributing them to journalists,” laughs Bradley Lord, chief communications officer of Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team. “In Monaco, they’d print out press releases and get a boat across the harbour to the media centre, where there were still typewriters in the 2000s. But the world is completely different, and the nature of fandom has shifted with the nature of media. What I mean by that is the accessibility, immediacy, instantaneity of social media has driven a much hungrier and information-rich, or information-demanding, fan culture than we’ve ever had before.” Lord adds: “Fundamentally, we’ve seen a strong desire to see behind the scenes, the front and back of house, what happens away from the garage and the racetrack, to what it’s like in the engineering briefings.”

Fancy a Red Bull manicure? Photography: Getty Images

The go-to narrative for the past couple of years has attributed this spike in interest to Drive to Survive. It’s a fair assumption, for the series was a catalyst for those behind- the-racing storylines. Since the documentary series’ 2019 launch, F1’s fandom has grown and become more diverse in gender identity, location and engagement. The most recent figures for 2023, released by F1’s parent company Liberty Media, claim a fan attendance of six million (up five per cent on 2022) across 23 races, 1.5 billion cumulative TV viewers and 70.5 million social-media followers. F1 has become the fastest-growing league on social media for four consecutive years, it claims.

This, as Stefano Domenicali, Formula 1 president and CEO points out, is strengthened by the increasing number of young and female fans actively engaging with the sport. Recent figures from F1 show that female fans now make up 40 per cent of global fandom, with the average age sitting at around 32.

Today, Drive To Survive’s viewership is declining, which, if you take a closer look at the forces driving fan engagement, may not come as a surprise. The fact is, the series was just one element of a perfect storm that, despite many sports’ attempts to replicate, may never happen again.

“The pale, male and stale-ness
f F1 made it ripe for disruption

“Whenever I talk about Drive to Survive, I always bring up social media and the rise of the creator economy,” says Toni Cowan-Brown, an F1 and tech commentator, educator and content creator, whose work circles the business of fandoms. “Because had it not been for the creator economy, you would have had a lot of people watch Drive to Survive and maybe talk about it with a few friends, and that’s it. But what happened was the rise of TikTok, where people didn’t just talk about F1, they made content about it, which meant all of a sudden these virtual online communities were happening. New fans hungry to learn were discovering it through social-media channels that spoke to their interests, while the already-existing silent fans had more spaces to engage and talk about the sport.”

Lewis Hamilton at the 2023 Monaco GP. Photography: Getty Images

There are other contributing factors at play. Drive to Survive’s first season was in 2019, but it was the 2020-21 lockdowns when people, hungry for sport, engaging storytelling and a sense of belonging and community, started to really tune in. Locked-down and race-less, some of the younger drivers took to streaming channels like Twitch to broadcast their days, their personal lives, relationships with other drivers and online SIM races.

All at once, F1 was engaging at a highly personable and accessible level with the gaming, streaming, racing and fan communities – this wasn’t exclusively a teen thing, either. Let’s not forget the rise in adults who got into gaming during the pandemic. This is what threw gasoline on the already-hot profiles of Charles Leclerc, George Russell, Lando Norris and Alex Albon, known as the ‘Twitch Quartet’, and the casual and intimate nature of streaming is one of the reasons these four have such passionate young fanbases to this day.

“The pale, male and stale-ness of F1 made it ripe for disruption,” says Cowan-Brown, who also created Sunday Fangirls, a brand that speaks to the growing number of ‘fangirls’ within sports. Like team wear and the Swiftie-inspired bracelets, these fan and community-created merchandise lines, of which there are many, are now common sights at the races, acting as social signals and giving this new wave of fans a sense of presence, visibility and belonging IRL.

“Like team wear and the Swiftie-inspired bracelets, these fan and community-created merchandise lines are now common sights at the races.” Photography: Getty Images

SCRATCH THE SURFACE and you’ll find subcultures within the subculture, speaking to any and every niche adjacent to the sport: fashion, technology, engineering, pop culture, gossip and business. “[F1’s past] meant that every time someone vocalised something online, they had to face the backlash of that existing community,” Cowan- Brown says. “Which is where a lot of people then went, Okay, cool. I need to create my own community over here.”

This was the case with Two Girls 1 Formula (TG1F), a podcast, discord community and Y2K-styled merchandise line that sits at the intersection of F1 and pop culture. Think a 2000s skate-inspired crew neck with a flaming’ ‘RICCIARDHOE’ across the chest or ‘F1D’, a play on the British boy band with an illustration of Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, George Russell, Pierre Gasly and Lewis Hamilton and the words ‘Formula One Direction’. There are plenty more.

Founded by long-time US-based F1 fans Kate Byrne and Nicole Sievers, TG1F was born out of a desire to connect with like-minded fans that spoke their cultural language. “We found ourselves immersed in the online content coming from F1 drivers and the fan community, and we began sending each other memes and videos every day,” says Byrne. “After searching the internet for female content creators discussing F1 in the way we wanted to – Charles in glasses on Twitch, Kimi Räikkönen’s adorable family, Carlos Sainz’s girlfriend, etc – we weren’t seeing much, so we chose to do it ourselves, knowing we couldn’t be the only ones who wanted to have these conversations.”

While the podcast-scape is not lacking in F1 commentary from traditional media or partner brands, TG1F is one of a growing number of fan-turned-creators, commentators and educators garnering a loyal and highly engaged following – a good example of how media and sport are being disrupted by digital communities.

Founded by long-time US-based F1 fans Kate Byrne and Nicole Sievers, TG1F was born out of a desire to connect with like-minded fans that spoke their cultural language. Photography: courtesy of TGIF

“The main ingredient for success is simply connection and making sure your audience knows that you’re real, you care and you appreciate them,” says Sievers. “When we started the TG1F Instagram and Discord, we received countless messages from people expressing how thankful they were to find us because they didn’t have anyone else in their lives to share their love of F1 with.”

Sievers continues: “We’ve seen friendships blossom that wouldn’t have happened without this sport that we all love. Members who met on our Discord now travel internationally together for races, meet each other’s new babies, attend their weddings, start hobby groups dedicated to passions outside of F1 and so much more. The power of a community cannot be understated when it comes to developing lifelong connections.”

Rashi Gaur is the India-based creator behind Hamazinglew, an insanely detailed Instagram account dedicated to decoding Sir Lewis Hamilton’s fashion. Gaur has been an F1 and Hamilton fan since 2011 and started documenting the Mercedes driver’s sartorial choices in 2018, using her own research methodologies. Over the years, Gaur has built such a resource for fans and fashion lovers, with a fairly even gender split – “Men really do want to know what he’s wearing” – that she’s garnered relationships with Hamilton’s past and present stylists.

@Hamazinglew, an insanely detailed Instagram account dedicated to decoding Sir Lewis Hamilton’s fashion.

His current one, Eric McNeal, often helps her with custom or emerging designer credits and Hamilton himself has acknowledged the work she does. With 24.4k followers and an eagle fashion eye, Gaur’s page is often the first port of call for a brand to find out it has been worn by Hamilton – and the community she’s built now uses it as a resource for their raceday outfit planning (another buzzy talking point among F1 fan communities). “I started watching F1 in high school,” she says. “So it’s not like young people are new to the sport. But back then, no-one was talking about a lot of these new subjects – women in motorsport, the technical stuff or what goes on behind the scenes and nobody talked about what a driver was wearing. This younger community perspective is what’s leading to new topics and discussions happening. And it’s great to see.”

The fandom is not without its dark sides – stalking, boundary-crossing, aggressive bullying, for example – and this even spills into how fans engage with the teams. According to Lord, fan behaviour can become quite intense in the case of a rivalry like that of Max Verstappen vs Sir Lewis Hamilton. “The intensity of fandom has grown very steadily, but with that, we’ve seen the partisan nature of the fandom also grow,” he says. “So, like we’ve seen in many spheres of life, social media generally pushes reactions to emotional extremes.”

Beyond the emotion, hungry fans are not just engaging with what’s fed to them – they’re investigating and sniffing out their own stories to tell. Take the launch of Hamilton’s non-alcoholic tequila, Almave, for example. After watching Hamilton drink a glass of liquid on camera at the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix, the TeamLH community deciphered a jumbled username of a vague Instagram account followed by Hamilton, figured out the product name and launch date, searched registries to discover what the product was and scooped the reveal.

The question everyone asked was: fandom feat or a marketing easter egg placed by the British driver himself?

Lando Norris fans on the grid. Photography: Getty Images

THERE’S NO DOUBTING the enormous growth and power the new wave of fandom has brought to the sport. But the question arises: is F1 giving back as much as it’s taking? The answer is a resounding, ‘no’. “A really important point we all should be discussing is how much Formula 1 takes from the fans,” says Gaur, pointing out that F1 barely works with creators or fan communities. “On one side, I am really happy to see F1 now talking about things fans are interested in, like fashion. But at the same time, you see a lot of concepts and ideas taken from so many amazing creators.”

There is plenty of evidence that F1 and its teams are watching creator and fan culture and copy/pasting for engagement – see the rise of driver and even team boss thirst traps, clickable narratives, fan nicknames adopted by teams, hyping rivalries/friendships and merchandise ideas.

An example of what’s happening in merch is F1 fan and X user Rie (@High5Forever), who trolled F1 teams to release bucket hats for years and (mostly) succeeded. “It’s become much more of a conversation,” says Lord on the influence and hunger of the fans. “It’s certainly forced us to be much more responsive and reactive. And I think, as a sport, we do listen a lot more to the fanbase than we once did.”

“All we are asking for is the bare minimum. We’re asking for respect, to be seen and heard and feel safe at the races”

Lord points out that the global and commercial nature of F1 makes it complicated for a team like Mercedes-AMG to work with content creators directly, even if they wanted to. “It’s an area where we do try and be active. It’s a complicated one, given the broadcast rights within F1. And that’s a space that – quite rightly as a huge pillar of F1’s revenue is TV rights and local broadcast rights and protecting the perimeter that those companies have invested in – is really important. Finding how creators plus those broadcasters work together is something that is not easy to make work in a way that protects our partners, F1’s partners and enables independent creativity, as well.”

A Max Verstappen fan shows their love. Photography: Getty

Other sources, who asked not to be named, told Esquire that some of this comes down to the increasing restrictions Netflix is placing on F1 as it struggles with viewership, and a desire to control and be the go-to for off-track narratives. This, we were told, also explains why we don’t see as much behind-the-scenes video content, live streaming and team- produced narratives as we once did.

The hype cycle dictates that, after a spike in interest, there is a trough of disillusionment, followed by a plateau. We’re seeing this shift now, where creators, communities and fans are starting to question if the excitement around F1 will continue. “In my opinion, the biggest misconception is that this growth is sustainable,” offers Sievers. “A lot of the community-building work is being done by fans who care deeply about the sport and the friends they’ve made along the way . . . F1 teams, and the sport as a whole, will need to increase their levels of nurturing and growing their communities if they want to continue seeing the success.”

Cowan-Brown is less subtle: “Something I have questioned is, what’s going to happen to all the fandoms who entered the sport via a content creator if that creator pivots and decides this is no longer for them? What percentage of that fandom is so invested in Formula 1 that they’re going to stay? And what percentage of that fandom goes, I’m going wherever you are?”

The fact is, every fan we spoke to on the ground at the Australian Grand Prix and in communities for this article has the same ask: fangirls bring economic spend and power, cultural relevancy, community and knowledge and all they want is to be seen.

“All we’re asking for is the bare minimum,” says Cowan-Brown. “We’re asking for respect, to be seen and heard and feel safe at the races.

“For everything the fans and the content creators have brought to this sport, the bare minimum is just engaging with us. You can’t use us and not at least acknowledge us.”

This story appeared in the winter 2024 issue of Esquire Australia, on sale now.


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