Who can drive F1 forwards?

Fernando Alonso's retirement leaves a big void to fill

Robin Meakin, Head of Insight

Last month it was announced that Fernando Alonso will retire from Formula 1 at the end of the 2018 season. The news was met with widespread disappointment if not total surprise given Alonso’s difficulties with McLaren over the past couple of seasons and his frequently publicised wish to become only the second person after Graham Hill to complete the motorsport ‘triple crown’ of the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indy 500.
 


Widely acknowledged as one of the best to have ever driven a Formula 1 car, Alonso has attracted fans because of his all-round driving skill, aggression and ability to get the most out of any car that he drives. This combination, along with his charisma, has endeared Alonso to F1 fans the world over. He is, without doubt, an iconic figure in the sport. So, what does Alonso’s retirement mean for the future of Formula 1, and who, out of the current crop of drivers, will assume the mantle and continue driving the sport forwards?
 
Data from CSM’s annual sports fan survey underlines just how popular Alonso is among F1 fans. Looking at which drivers are the fans’ favourites, only two really stand out from the crowd – Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. They are both liked by more than two-thirds of fans and when asked to name their single favourite driver, more than 15% say Hamilton while just over 12% choose Alonso. There is then a big drop to the third most popular driver (Sebastian Vettel at just under 8%), while all the rest are below 5%.
 


This picture varies by country. Alonso is the most popular driver in five of the 18 countries in our survey and the second most popular in a further eight. In Spain, unsurprisingly, more than 50% of fans say he is their favourite driver but he is also very popular in Indonesia, Thailand, Russia and Saudi Arabia. In other words, Alonso is still a big deal in F1 for many fans despite not having won a Grand Prix since 2013, which is testament to his skill and reputation. His retirement, therefore, could be a potential problem for F1.
 
Yet, as might be expected with one of the most established drivers on the grid, Alonso’s fans skew somewhat older than F1 fans in general and they are more likely to have been following the sport for longer. So, while he is going to be sorely missed, there is now a huge opportunity for the other drivers to step up and become a hero for the younger generations of fans who we know from our research are following F1 in increasing numbers, particularly in Asia.
 
Who might break out from the pack and increase their popularity? Driving a competitive car probably helps although this isn’t enough on its own. What is arguably more important is the rare combination of sublime talent and a charismatic personality that creates the sizzle that differentiates some drivers from the rest of the pack.
 
Many people think that Charles Leclerc could be the ‘Next Big Thing’ in Formula 1 and he is certainly getting noticed at Sauber this season. A move to a more high-profile team is more than likely and, at 20 years of age, time is on his side.
 


The two current Red Bull drivers are also strong candidates. Daniel Ricciardo is already hugely popular in his home country, with 40% of Australian F1 fans saying he is their favourite driver. He is also reasonably well positioned in some countries in Asia and the Middle East. Ricciardo has that combination of talent and an engaging, extrovert personality so it will be fascinating to see what impact his surprise move to Renault in 2019 has on his popularity.
 
Max Verstappen is arguably more polarising – some people love his buccaneering driving style while others believe him to be reckless. Either way, he gets attention which may well translate into an increase in popularity, particularly if he keeps appearing on the podium.

Why is all of this important? F1 is no different to any other sport in that it needs big personalities to keep fans engaged. While exciting and competitive racing is crucial, it is the characters, rivalries and tension that really bring the sport to life. The departure of one of the ‘big beasts’ at the end of the season will undoubtedly leave many fans with a sense of loss, but it also creates an opportunity for other drivers to fill the void and challenge Lewis Hamilton for the fans’ favourite berth. F1 will undoubtedly be the better for it.
 
CSM’s annual sports fan survey has data on which teams, drivers and races are the fans’ favourites which can be used to help brands fine tune their sponsorship activation. If you would like to know more, please click here to get in touch.