From Herbert to Hülkenberg – Why Casual Fans Love Average Drivers

One of the unusual things about Formula 1 fans is their split reactions towards drivers. Mainstream Formula 1 fans are more than willing to talk trash online about the lower-end drivers on the grid like Nikita Mazepin, Joylon Palmer or Esteban Gutiérrez. However, when it comes to drivers who are a step above those, but clearly also average (maybe above average) at best, there is a weird protectionism in action. The idea of drivers like Nico Hülkenberg or Antonio Giovinazzi experiencing the end of their Formula 1 careers caused lamentation and a questioning of the sport’s health on platforms such as Reddit.

This pearl-clutching is not even a new thing fueled by the social media age, given the popularity of perpetually average drivers. To supply two examples: Johnny Herbert is one of the golden cows of the motorsport fan community and to this day people sing the virtues of drivers like Olivier Panis (in particular users of the GPR Discord are wont to entertain the utter nonsense that is the belief that Panis could have been a title contender in 1997 had it not been for his accident in Montréal). 

Obviously, this state of affairs warrants speculation. What is it about Formula 1 fans that makes them often reject the backmarkers, but embrace mediocrity in terms of driver talent? This is the mindset the author hopes to explain in this Gravel Trap. To take away immediately the obvious cynical comment: it is not because they are average people themselves and relate to the average Formula 1 driver. Even the midfield and backmarkers of modern Formula 1 enjoy a lifestyle that is well removed from the ordinary Joe, and therefore it is unlikely that this parasocial relationship is built on a perceived likeness.

One of the reasons for the attachment to midfield drivers that never had more than midfield talent is that, for most of them, you will find one or two amazing moments that belie their actual abilities. With context for these moments lost and the audience not paying attention to the week-in and week-out drives in the way both hardcore fans and team staff do, many mainstream fans are understandably led to think there is more than actually is there. 

The casual fan does not know nor care that the choice that gave Nico Hülkenberg his pole position at the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix was made by someone else. They just saw the final result of the product of the mind of future Circuito Nova Schin Stock Car Brasil champion Rubens Barrichello. Hülkenberg came in for dry tyres and took pole, and they thought “Now there is someone who could be a star in one of the top cars”. They just saw Herbert’s victories, including his first career victory at the 1995 British Grand Prix and thought “Now there was an actual star driver”. This belief persisted even though he failed to qualify in the top three even once during the sole season he had control of a race winning car. They just saw Giovinazzi being competitive with former World’s Champion Kimi Räikkönen (ignoring that Räikkönen was five years past the point where he should have retired from Formula 1) and thought “Now there is someone who should be staying in Formula 1”. They saw Olivier Panis earn a legendary and well-deserved victory on the streets of Monaco and thought “Now there was a future world champion in the making”.

Another factor comes in the form of familiarity. Formula 1 fans are well known for being rather averse to change, no matter how it comes and whether it actually is a change for better or worse. Especially with the sorry state of affairs in the feeder series, Nico Hülkenberg and Anotnio Giovinazzi are at least known quantities – even if what is known of them is average at best. Therefore, when a new driver is announced replacing one of the mediocre faces fans are familiar with, there will be complaining. This is also related to the fact that their longer careers in the premier motorsport series allow their personality and history to shine through, as seen in Herbert’s general loveable demeanour and major injuries (which could have very well been career-ending with a bit of additional bad luck) and Hülkenberg’s vocal feud with drivers like Kevin Magnussen. Antonio Giovinazzi did not quite profit from this effect; at least the author does not remember any major personality moments, but he is an attractive man, thereby getting enough screen time to create a major halo effect.

This factor also ties in to another thing that could be called “purity”. For better or worse, if you hang on in the sport, your need to provide sponsorship money to your team lessens. To the casual Formula 1 fan the idea of drivers paying for their seat is an affront to all they consider sacred. The fact that you need someone to pay for your motorsport career if you want to go past the karting level is something that is wilfully ignored. Since most Formula 1 rookies provide sponsorship unless they are the product of a junior team, they are obviously perceived as paydrivers that “force” competent drivers out of the sport. Even if names like Giovinazzi are in the sport on behest of the works teams, that is generally seen as a good thing. This reaction may be based on the idea that manufacturers would only put in that effort for worthy drivers, even if the mere existence of the Alpine driver program puts that notion to bed.

The final point is a rather unpleasant one, a conversation the fandom would rather not have. It is the question of nationality. One of the realities of mainstream Formula 1 fandom is that it operates under the implicit rule that only certain nationalities and culture groups are legitimate motorsport cultures. Only those cultures may produce Formula 1 drivers. The new drivers that earned the most vitriol online for replacing established drivers in recent years were Sergey Sirotkin, Nikita Mazepin and Guanyu Zhou. This hostility came in spite of the fact that they replaced respectively: a driver retiring from the sport one year after his originally planned retirement date; a driver whose relationship with his team had clearly gone as far as it was going to go; and an Italian driver who was merely mediocre. It is therefore pretty clear that the fact that they were Russian and Chinese was a key part in the hostilities (it should be noted that Sirotkin and Mazepin debuted in 2018 and 2020, so the Russo-Ukraine war was not the reason). This ties into the reaction of casual Formula 1 fans to new Grands Prix with events in the Middle and Far East drawing much more hostility than the new additions of Miami and Las Vegas, even though there is a reasonable case to be made that the latter are significantly more soulless than the former.

The first instinct is to dismiss these claims and simply point towards the performance of the three names mentioned in the feeder series. This point can be countered by the fact that a driver like Mick Schumacher, who scored only one more win than Mazepin in Formula 2 and in fact scored less wins than Zhou did, was welcomed with open arms by the Formula 1 fanbase. This despite the fact that he owes his career to his surname, is with Haas at the behest of their engine supplier, has been the key of a sizable sponsorship deal (rumoured to bring $15 million to Haas) and replaced one of the more entertaining and competent midfield drivers in Kevin Magnussen. This hypocrisy can only be explained by the popularity of his surname … and his nationality. As a “motorsport nation”, Germany is “permitted” to produce Formula 1 drivers regardless of their actual quality. This is also why there was relatively little pearl-clutching when Bruno Senna replaced Rubens Barrichello, despite the evident lack of talent of the former and the decision being made in the name of sponsorship money.

Is there anything to take from these observations? The author thinks there is. It is a reminder to look at the whole story when evaluating drivers and when telling their stories. Focussing on the key moments can alter the perception of day-in, day-out skill beyond reason. It is a reminder that motorsport fans are traditionalists and reject change sometimes just because it is change. Last, but not least, it is a regrettable, but necessary reminder that stereotypes and prejudices against other nations are no less common in motorsport than anywhere else. It is a reminder that motorsport has a long way to go in becoming more diverse. 

Regardless, drivers will come and popular drivers will leave the sport. With even star drivers like Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo being near the end of their metaphorical rope, their replacements (or the replacement of their replacements if both are replaced with veterans from other teams) will be subjected to a critical look by fandom. Yet, it will happen all the same. There is a chance those replacements might be better than those they replace. One way or another, Formula 1 fandom will find new idols to rally behind. Drivers will come and drivers will leave, and their longevity in the sport does not make them any better than they ever will be, nor are they inherently more deserving of a Formula 1 than their replacements.

Sources: Auto Motor und Sport, Reddit, motorsport.com

Image sources: Jaimie Wilson (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, cropped and resized), Jen Ross (licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped and resized), Reddit

Author

  • Lennart Gottorf is an opinionated motorsport fan hailing from the Federal Republic of Germany. When he isn't working on the Gravel Trap, he is struggling with his cheese cube addiction and loves reading.