August 17, 2022

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Thanks to one of the closest title battles in a decade, and increased interest drawn...

Thanks to one of the closest title battles in a decade, and increased interest drawn by Netflix, Formula 1 will wrap up a classic season on Sunday that has gripped fans old and new.
After years of domination by Lewis Hamilton of England, who has won six of the last seven drivers’ titles with his Mercedes team, this season offered a sign of what Formula 1’s future may look like as a new challenger emerged.
Max Verstappen of the Netherlands has been long regarded as the eventual successor to Hamilton. Ever since becoming the sport’s youngest driver at 17 in 2015 and its youngest race winner one year later, Verstappen, now 24, seemed bound for greatness.
Verstappen’s Red Bull team started the season with a car capable of challenging Mercedes, and the two teams remained evenly matched throughout the year. Verstappen was no longer the underdog and had a real shot at the title, leading to a season-long battle with Hamilton.

Hamilton and Verstappen are considered to be the defining drivers of their generation, but they are at very different points in their careers. Hamilton, 36, is seeking a record-breaking eighth world championship; Verstappen has not even challenged for a Formula 1 title before.

“It’s a young guy against the established world champion, and I think it’s very exciting,” Verstappen said. “We always try to beat each other, of course. But it’s been a really cool season.”
Hamilton said he was “more relaxed than I’ve ever been” through the title fight because of his experience, but noted that the challenge from Verstappen had helped his game.
“You’re always trying to level up, trying to improve,” Hamilton said. “There’s a lot of areas you can do it. When you’re in a title fight like this, you’re pushing as hard as you can, even more so in areas where you hadn’t in the past.”

It was the closest championship battle between drivers from rival teams since 2012, when Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull beat Fernando Alonso of Ferrari by three points, causing tensions to flare this year on and off the track. A wheel-to-wheel fight between Hamilton and Verstappen in the final laps of the opening race in Bahrain set the tone for the season.

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The initial on-track battles between Hamilton and Verstappen were hard but fair, but as the competition grew fiercer, a crash looked inevitable. It arrived on the first lap of the British Grand Prix in July, when contact at high speed caused Verstappen to crash into the barrier at a force of 51Gs, resulting in a precautionary visit to the hospital.
It would not be the only time Hamilton and Verstappen would crash together this year. In Italy, Verstappen’s car ended up on top of Hamilton’s after a fight for position, forcing both drivers out of the race. Later in the year, Verstappen drew criticism in Brazil for his aggressive defensive moves to unsuccessfully keep Hamilton behind when battling for the lead.

It fueled season-long tension between Mercedes and Red Bull. Led by their respective team principals, Toto Wolff and Christian Horner, they traded verbal blows, as well as occasionally asking officials to investigate controversial incidents
“It’s the first time they have been challenged,” Horner said of Mercedes. “It’s interesting to see how people react when they are under pressure. It’s by far the most intense political title fight we’ve been involved in in our time in the sport.”

Wolff said the fight was on all levels: political (such as questioning each other’s wing designs, leading to stricter technical checks), sporting and technical (by making improvements to their cars). “I think that whoever wins this championship at the end of the year merits the win, because it was on a very high level.”
The drama of the on-track championship fight and the off-track sparring has been perfect material for “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” the Netflix docuseries, which will show the battle in its fourth season next year.
Since acquiring Formula 1 in 2017, the Liberty Media Corporation has been clear in its ambition to make the sport more accessible to young fans and expand its reach into new markets, with a particular focus on the United States. This year suggested that it had succeeded on both counts, partly because of the impact of the Netflix series.
A survey conducted by Formula 1, Motorsport Network and Nielsen revealed in October that fans were indeed getting younger. The average age fell to 32 from 36 since the last survey in 2017, while the number of female fans almost doubled, reflecting a more diverse audience.
“‘Drive to Survive’ had a big impact, mainly on the ones that were not really such avid fans of Formula 1,” said Stefano Domenicali, the chief executive of Formula 1. “They saw different narratives within the sport.”
“I think diversity and getting younger audiences will enable us to enrich [Formula 1] in terms of being able to capture the attention of more people,” he said.

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“That’s something that we’ve seen [happen with] the effect of having the right language, the right narrative and the right tools that are closer to the way the younger generation are working and behaving.”

Zak Brown, the chief executive of McLaren Racing, said the Netflix series had “driven a younger, much larger fan base” and “really had an impact in America.”
“It’s doing what we as a sport would like it to do, which is turn on a bunch of new fans,” he said. “I think it’s been hugely successful.”
The impact of “Drive to Survive” was no clearer than when 400,000 fans attended the United States Grand Prix weekend in Austin, Texas, in October, the only Formula 1 race in the country. It was not only a record for that race, but Liberty reported in its third-quarter earnings in November that it was a record for any Grand Prix the sport has held in its 71-year history. The race was hailed as a breakthrough for Formula 1 in the United States.
Horner of Red Bull said he felt that Formula 1 made a “big statement” with the crowd in Austin. “I think we have to thank Netflix, but without great content, then it’s not a good show,” he said. “The racing really delivered. Fans are really engaging with what Formula 1 could offer.”
Netflix has helped move Formula 1 into the American mainstream. After the Austin race, Daniel Ricciardo of McLaren was invited to be a guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” He said DeGeneres became interested in Formula 1 through “Drive to Survive.”
“She showed a real keen interest and understanding,” Ricciardo said.
“We chatted a bit after, and she’s all on board. She may get a little bit of time off in the near future and get to a race at some point, I hope.”

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The heightened American interest has furthered discussions over expanding Formula 1 in the United States. A second U.S. race is already scheduled in Miami next year. Las Vegas has also shown interest in hosting a Grand Prix, with some of the race potentially held on its Strip.
“The market could definitely handle a third race,” Brown said. “It’s very complicated to put these races together, but the obvious wish list: New York would be great, Las Vegas would be great, any of the big markets. I hope a third race happens.”
Hamilton felt the close title fight with Verstappen was good timing for Formula 1.
“With the growth of what’s happened through Netflix, I think it’s been incredible,” Hamilton said.
“We’ve got new people coming in, and it’s the perfect time for people to come in and get into the sport, because it’s one of the most exciting times the sport has had in a long time.”


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