Editorial Notebook

Formula 1’s racist race fans

Formula 1 fans need to chill. The sport has been blowing up recently, in large part because of the Netflix documentary series Formula 1: Drive to Survive. The series premiered in early 2019, and each successive season has increased in popularity. Adding to its newfound recognition, F1 was one of the first sports to resume after COVID-19 hit. Combining these two factors resulted in a massive increase in viewership, largely coming from the U.S. F1 is a historically European sport in both its fan base and competitors, so this influx of American fans has been met with mixed reactions. Introducing more avid fans should be good for the sport, right? Well, it’s more complicated than that.

I enjoy watching the racing and driving and learning about the engineering associated with F1, but I cringe whenever I open Instagram after a race. I know as soon as I peer into the comments of any F1 post, I will be met with an overwhelming amount of hate directed at drivers, teams, and other fans. The hypercompetitive nature of the sport is one of F1’s attractions, but the fans have taken it too far.

As with many sports, new fans were quick to jump on the bandwagon of one of two teams: Mercedes or Red Bull. Before the last two seasons, Mercedes was the dominant team in F1, winning eight consecutive seasons in a row, usually by a considerable margin. During that time, Red Bull and another team, Ferrari, were the underdogs in races that many fans found boring due to Mercedes’ unwavering ability to win. It all came to a head in the 2021 season when Red Bull finally produced a car to rival Mercedes. Thus ensued the bitter rivalry between Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull driver Max Verstappen.

For most sports, team and player rivalries are usually matched, if not exceeded, by the rivalries of their associated fans. F1 has had its fair share of rivalries before Hamilton and Verstappen. However, as the 2021 season progressed and the championship battle remained close, the supporters of Red Bull and Mercedes became increasingly toxic. I frequently saw slurs and insults directed towards the drivers and other fans online. This was no longer friendly banter; it was a hateful environment created by the fans that sucked new fans to one side or the other, fueling the already hot fire.

At the 2021 British Grand Prix, fans were allowed back in full capacity for the first time since F1 resumed races after COVID-19. On the first lap, Hamilton and Verstappen collided at high speed, sending Verstappen sliding into a tire barrier with a 51G impact. Online, I saw fans who claimed to hear the British fans cheering at Verstappen’s crash, while others proceeded to slander either Hamilton or Verstappen and blame one or the other for the crash. Even Nelson Piquet, a famous retired F1 driver, called Hamilton a racist slur in reference to the crash. This attitude continued through the 2022 season, worsening to the point where fans at the Austrian Grand Prix were outright yelling racist, homophobic, and sexist phrases at each other. F1 finally stepped in to attempt to address complaints about the fans behavior, but the damage was already done.

New fans to F1 only know this bitter atmosphere as normal, which is sad not only because it is despicable behavior from the fans, but also because it shifts a lot of the focus away from the fun in Formula 1. I wish fans would stop their horrendous behavior, insulting each other and drivers over every little detail from each race. I wish the media would stop fueling this fire by overhyping rivalries and creating click-baity, instigating content. I wish we could just enjoy Formula 1 for what it does best: world-class engineering, driving, and high-speed races.