One of the things that has characterised these early Grand Prix weekends of 2017 has been the greater sense of freedom among the F1 drivers to express themselves and to present a lighter face.
This has come through the freedom that has been granted to them by F1’s new owners Liberty Media, who have allowed them a freer rein to use video and other assets in their social media at the circuit. Liberty want to build the new F1 on the personalities of the drivers, both as heroes, but also as young guys with whom fans can identify and interact.
This has also had a knock-on effect in the FIA Press Conferences, which were criticised last year by Lewis Hamilton for being sterile, but which have been re-imagined this year with smaller, more dynamic panels. Hamilton has certainly embraced it and has been funny all weekend, even after losing the pole on Saturday to his team mate (photo below); hard to imagine last year! Rosberg’s departure has certainly contributed to that mood, but he also seems to have taken responsibility for leading on how the drivers should present themselves in this very different new environment.
His outreach to Chinese fans in the grandstands during the rained off Shanghai practice session was another good example of that.
The effect has been that the drivers now interact with each other mch more in the press conferences – which are after all not an entertainment but a working tool for the 200+ journalists from around the world who attend the races – and have fun and yesterday was a great example after Valtteri Bottas scored his first F1 pole position.
Sebastian Vettel has always been happy to use some wry humour and a sardonic grin is never far from his lips (apart from when his car is under performing)
Yesterday he kicked off some great banter between drivers that had all three of them and the whole press conference room laughing in the aisles
“Today is the day for Finland and Formula One. Keeping it Finnish!” he said.
Finnish journalist Heikki Kulta always takes immense pride when a Finn achieves something in F1 and always gushes with questions in the press conference. Yesterday he was straight in there complimenting Bottas on being the first Finn on pole for 168 Grands Prix, then asked a hilarious question,
“Lewis.. the last time you lost the pole to a Finnish driver was 2008; do you still remember how that felt? Does it feel the same as now?”
Hamilton: “Cold! Yeah, I remember 2008, Silverstone, I remember it very very clearly. Heikki (Kovalainen, his McLaren team mate that year) did a fantastic job. He was quicker throughout the weekend..
“You know, when you asked the first question I had a really crazy thought: I’m sure at home he (Heikki Kulta) has like a wall and every day he goes home and he ticks off – ‘damn, it’s another race that (no Finn is on pole)…’ He’s got a whole wall..whatever it is, 168 crosses so I’m sure on Monday you’re going to be repainting the wall, a nice clean one!
Vettel chimed in, “Does the word ‘excited’ exist in Finnish?”
Bottas replied, “Kind of.”
Hamilton joined in, “It’s probably something really simple. What is ‘exciting’ in Finnish?”
Bottas looked blank.
Vettel: See! It doesn’t exist!
Hamilton: It’s not one that’s really used much in the vocabulary.
Bottas: I don’t know really. *
Here’s another exchange; Heikki Kulta asked, “Valtteri, congratulations, I counted that is has been 168 races without a Finn in the pole. How important is it for you to put Finland back in the polesitters group?”
Bottas: “Thank you Heikki, and congratulations to you as well! Sure, it feels good. I didn’t even realise it’s that long – nearly ten years.
Vettel: Who? Where? [Heikki Kovalainen, Silverstone] Oh.
Bottas: It’s good to break that, it’s a lot of races without a Finn on pole so that is good and obviously very proud always to drive for Finland, for my country and very glad for all the support I’ve got from there. So yeah, happy.
Vettel: Where were you in 2008. F3?
Bottas: Formula Renault!
There have been other examples this weekend, but the point to the same thing, which is the F1 drivers realising that the future of this sport lies not just in their continued greatness and high standards behind the wheel but also in how they present themselves as personalities. The new F1 Management want to encourage that as much as possible, as it is the way to penetrate into new audiences as well as to provide existing fans much more frequent and rewarding touch points with the sport.
F1 drivers on the whole are intelligent, bright people. They are now starting to let the shackles off and as the younger ones see the older more famous ones doing it, they will start doing it too.
It should be an enjoyable year off track as well as on it, this year.
* The Finnish word for ‘exciting’ is INNOSTONUT
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