LET’S TALK ABOUT LEWIS: ON POLE POSITION FOR POLARISING F1 FANS

Lewis Carl Davidson Hamilton MBE, British Formula One racing driver for the Mercedes AMG Petronas team. Image Credit: rponline.de

No other F1 driver polarises fan opinion quite like Lewis Hamilton. He is either passionately revered or vehemently reviled. Within F1 global fan communities he is either received with adulation or considered to be disingenuous and egotistical. But why?

Ironically, you would think it normal and acceptable to believe that F1 drivers behave egotistically, but this is not usually the case. Most show exceptional respect towards not only their fans but also their rival drivers. This respect is very much part of the social media culture of Formula One with Renault and Mercedes leading the charge with genuine friendly rivalry and good-natured banter. Overall, Formula One appears as an extremely friendly sport, with a thriving and welcoming fan community no matter which driver or team you support.

In the midst of all this friendly banter, team badinage and sportsmanlike conduct Lewis stands out as the ultimate money machine, a ruthless brand builder and not a team player, prioritising himself above others. In doing so, for some F1 fans, he also positions himself above the spirit of the sport.

On the other hand, many fans adore him. In the UK, he attracts far more conversation on Twitter than any of the other drivers, and the majority of this is positive in tone. Popular hashtags include #TeamLH and #WeWinAndLoseTogether, indicating that his fans see themselves as part of his team, strongly identifying with his success or failure.

We tracked mentions of the British and Hungarian Grands Prix on social media in the UK throughout July. The chart below shows spikes around each race weekend, with a huge peak on the weekend of the British Grand Prix weekend at Silverstone. The Hungarian Grand Prix attracted significantly less attention from British fans.

F1 Social Media Mentions spanning 10-31 July 2017. Data sourced via Brandwatch.com

Digging into these race day conversational spikes, we determined the volume of mentions relating to Lewis Hamilton. The chart below shows that Lewis drove a staggering 33% of all fan conversation on the day of the British Grand Prix. Comparing this to the 16% equivalent on the day of the Hungarian GP it’s clear that Lewis definitely mobilised a significant volume of UK F1 fans.

Source: Disruptive Insight using data sourced from Brandwatch.com

Looking at the mentions by hour of day for 16th July, the day of the British GP, we see a significant peak at 2pm, showing that fans were most engaged during the time of the actual race rather than immediately before or after (see chart below). This indicates strongly that Lewis’s UK fans are not just ‘fans of the man’ (or brand) but also active F1 fans.

Source: Disruptive Insight using data sourced from Brandwatch.com

But is fan sentiment towards Lewis genuinely polarised? Do some fans revere him while others revile him? We examined the fan sentiment expressed towards key drivers during the British Grand Prix including Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel.

 

THE FRIENDLIEST FACE IN F1

Daniel Ricciardo, Australian racing driver competing in F1 for Red Bull Racing Image credit: bandt.com.au

We identified the following patterns of fan love and hate by each driver and, in the bluntest of terms, Vettel is the most hated and least supported, Hamilton is the most polarised and Ricciardo is the most loved.

Source: Disruptive Insight using data sourced from Brandwatch.com

Vettel is the outlier here, largely due to unpopularity resulting from his behaviour at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix where Vettel apparently deliberately drove into Hamilton. Fans described Vettel’s poor performance (or bad luck) at the British Grand Prix as being due to “karma”. Unsportsmanlike behaviour, it seems, is not tolerated by F1 fans.

Although he is much more popular than Vettel, hatred for Hamilton is significantly higher than for Verstappen, Bottas or Ricciardo. This is especially unusual given that Hamilton was racing at his home Grand Prix. Why do so many British fans hate the man who is racing on home soil?

 

WHY PEOPLE LOATHE LEWIS

“I’ll be interested to see how it will come out. I’m really conscious of making sure it looks right.” Image credit David Clerihew and quotation source both courtesy of Men’s Health (Mar, 2017)

One of the more frequent criticisms of Hamilton is that he is arrogant and self-centred. For example, when commenting on his team mate Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement in November 2016, he positioned himself at the heart of his public message, not allowing Rosberg an inch of achievement above his own: “We said we’d be champions back then and now we both are!” The fact that he didn’t tag Rosberg in the tweet was cited as evidence by one commenter that the congratulatory post was “disingenuous”.

During race week for the British Grand Prix, Lewis failed to attend F1 Live, an event taking place in London a few days before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. This led to a large number of complaints from his detractors, with the most common sentiment expressed being that he doesn’t care about his fans:

“couldn’t give two hoots about them in London the other day”

“Hamilton praising the fans. Same fans that turned up on Wednesday to see their hero but couldn’t because he couldn’t be bothered”.

This led to complaints about him viewing himself as too important:

“the man thinks he is bigger than f1”

“thinks he’s too important”

“the way he conducts himself is shocking”

Similar sentiments were expressed relating to him more generally, rather than focusing on F1 Live:

“only loves himself”

“crybaby”

“busy believing all the hype surrounding him…prima donna”

People also hate Lewis due to perceived bias from the media and bad behaviour from his fans:

“I don’t know how they can say @LewisHamilton fans r the best when they boo other drivers when they have a problem #unsporting”

“Next gp I’ll go to will be Spa…not Silverstone because of some Hamilton fans disapproval supporting other drivers”.

This highlights one of the key things we observed in the Formula One dataset – the importance of sportsmanship. This was seen even with Vettel: “Whoever boo’s [sic] Sebastian isn’t a real f1 fan”. Not only will drivers be criticised for unsporting behaviour, so will fans.

 

WHY OTHERS LOVE LEWIS

There are some specific reasons expressed in the dataset to explain Hamilton’s popularity. For example, he is associated with feelings of British pride, with a number of commenters implying that their support of him is due to his nationality:

“I’ll defo be watching. IT’S THE BRITISH GP. You go LEWIS”

“Bring it home Hamilton”

“Proud to be British!”

“We are proud of you Lewis you’re British”

There was also a suggestion that the arrogance and self-centredness discussed above is a positive for some fans, with him receiving praise for being a rockstar and good entertainment value:

“Absolute top notch tellybox watch”

“the rockstar of #f1. Thank you for the entertainment you deliver on good days and bad”

“People criticise lewis but he’s the only rock star f1 has! A legend!”.

 

HUMANS DO LOVE A WINNER

So, why does he get away with bad behaviour? More than that, why do so many people adore him despite these instances of poor sportsmanship in a sport that is so focused on the importance of good sportsmanship?

Basically, it could be because he’s a winner.

For example, as mentioned above, Lewis was heavily criticised for his non-attendance at F1 Live. Many Hamilton fans defended him from these criticisms. Posts discussing his dedication to fans referenced the criticism that he had received earlier in the week e.g. “Don’t have to do Donuts in London to prove your [sic] the best”, “Let the 1000’s of fans at Silverstone show you how much @LewisHamilton is loved, we want to see him race not at some stupid event!”.

The love of fans is possibly blind because, according to the Mindspace Framework:

“We tend to behave in a way that supports the impression of a positive and consistent self-image. When things go well in our lives, we attribute it to ourselves; when they go badly, it’s the fault of other people, or the situation we were put in – an effect known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’. We think the same way for groups that we identify with….The classic illustration of this effect is sports’ fans memories of their team’s performance in a match. Fans systematically misremember, and misinterpret, the behaviour of their own team compared with the opponents”.

This could go some way towards explaining why fans in general are more likely to disregard mistakes made by their favourite sports personality. Therefore, for die-hard fans, Lewis really can do no wrong.

 

LEWIS’ BEHAVIOURAL PATTERN

There is a clear feeling among some F1 fans that Hamilton is disingenuous, that he is detached from his fans and from reality. The level of negativity displayed towards him is unusual for the sport, focusing as it does on his personality and general character rather than on his racing skill. It seems that his default position is arrogance and narcissism, placing himself at the centre of every F1 narrative, as can be seen with his reaction to Rosberg’s retirement.

There was some repositioning after F1 Live, with Mercedes sharing content of Hamilton meeting fans at Silverstone. This was well-received by some fans, with comments such as “always there for his fans”. This sort of repositioning by Hamilton is used as a rationale for die-hard fans to continue to support him, which is then reinforced by the fact that he is a genuinely excellent driver. But this dedication could evaporate if his performance starts slipping. When the gilding comes away from Hamilton and we’re left with the man, will he have the strength of character to be a gracious sportsman or will he just become the bitter panto villain of F1?

Thank you for reading. The data for this blog was sourced through our friends at Brandwatch.com.

© Disruptive Insight 2015.