Why do people become fans of particular sportsmen? It isn’t a question that’s easy to answer and the fans themselves often won’t be able to give you a credible answer. When I started to watch F1 during the final stages of the 1996 season, I was 12 years old. I immediately became a Schumacher fan and stayed one until his first retirement in 2006. Looking back at that time, I can identify several reasons why that happened.
Firstly, the nationality certainly played an important role. Schumacher was German, I had been to Germany a couple of times until 1996 and I was totally in love with the country, it was paradise on earth for me. I loved everything that was German, how could I not love the country’s greatest F1 driver ever? So I think that the nationality of a driver isn’t unimportant although that doesn’t mean that one will always support his own compatriot(s).
Secondly, I’ve always supported underdogs. Who doesn’t like underdogs, after all? It’s easy to forget after Schumacher domination in the first half of the noughties that until then he was considered to be a superior driver in below-par machinery, a true fighter, who brought the car to the top even if it had no business being there.
Thirdly, he was one of the most visible drivers. I don’t need a driver to be popular or successful to like / love him today but a new fan (or a less active / less informed fan) is unlikely to look at the likes of Chilton and van der Garde. Successful drivers, who get a lot of media coverage, will always have more fans than those, who race in midfield or at the back.
Fourthly, I often read German F1 magazines and watched F1 on a German TV channel since 2000. Until 2009, the German media was my main source of information and “Schumi” was in the centre of their attention, just like Vettel is now. I have no doubt that this vast amount of (mainly) positive information helped keep my love for Schumacher alive. As far as I can tell, the British media are more neutral although I’m sure that Hamilton, Button and di Resta still get more of their attention than the rest of the drivers. Anyway, I think the influence of media should never be underrated.
Has the new social media changed how fans see the drivers today? It certainly has. I think that mostly drivers’ tweets, diaries or blog articles just strengthen the image that they have created on the track and during interviews. My feeling is that this would be the case if Schumacher had a Twitter account. But there are exceptions, such as Fernando Alonso’s samurai quotes and tweets that are friendlier than most people probably would have expected. There are always things that we wouldn’t know about our heroes if not for the social media.
Interestingly, I wasn’t a Schumacher fan after his return to F1 in 2010 anymore. I still find it hard to realise that the guy driving for Mercedes was the same Schumacher, who once dominated F1 in a Ferrari. Perhaps I had just closed the chapter and “moved on” (I had already become a passionate Heikki Kovalainen fan by then already). Maybe I felt that coming back wasn’t the right thing to do for him, couldn’t accept that he wasn’t winning or beating his team mate anymore or it’s just that the British media that I had switched to in the meantime didn’t praise him as much. I’m not sure what the main reason was but the love just wasn’t there anymore. The only certain conclusion here is that a fan can change his preferences; it’s not always “until death do us part”.
There can be many other reasons why people are fans of certain racing drivers, such as their physical attractiveness or one’s ability to associate himself with the driver (which didn’t matter to me in case of Schumacher). We often hear the question “Who is your favourite driver?” but why do we so rarely ask “Why is he your favourite driver?”?