The 2017 Formula One season saw the split of two brands after three painful years together. Re-entering Formula 1 at the start of 2015, Honda aimed to take McLaren back to championship winning ways. Just two and a half years later, and very little to celebrate, their marriage ended, with McLaren pairing up with Renault from 2018 onwards.
McLaren’s relationship with Honda has caused damage to their on-track reputation: their last podium visit was at the 2014 Australian Grand Prix. But has the damage for both McLaren, and their lead driver Fernando Alonso, extended to off the track and onto social media?
The F1 Broadcasting Blog has analysed the number of social media followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that Formula 1’s teams and drivers have obtained going back to the middle of 2015, reporting on progress at checkpoints half way through the season and at the end of the season. Generally, you expect to see all metrics increase, as drivers become more popular throughout their career, growing their fan base. Similarly, fans may switch allegiances depending on which team their favourite driver heads to.
At this point, I hear you say “why are you not tracking engagement”, and maybe saying “the number of followers is useless if no one interacts with the brand.” Both points are equally valid. However, engagement data is not readily available in the public domain, and it would be extremely difficult to track and record the engagement data across three platforms, covering potentially thousands of different data points (platform, multiplied by 33 accounts, multiplied by individual statuses).
No two tweets generate the same amount of engagement. There is no “one size fits all” approach to presenting this data. For the moment, it is what we have, although I am open for other ways of analysing the data. I would argue that, as a measure of popularity, the number of followers one driver has compared to another is still an interesting statistic.
McLaren continues to rise, but at a slower rate of knots
In July 2015, McLaren reached 4.37 million followers across the three main social media platforms. Fast forward two and a half years, and that number has increased by 64 percent (or 2.79 million followers) to 7.16 million followers. In isolation, it feels like a good increase, and not one that suggests apathy from new fans engaging with the brand. Given the brand history of McLaren, it should be looking to grow at the same rate as its nearest rivals, such as Ferrari and Red Bull.
Interestingly, Ferrari’s number of followers over the same time has also increased by 64 percent, from 4.82 million followers to 7.90 million followers. So, despite having a much poorer period than their Italian neighbours, McLaren kept the pressure on, rising by an identical percentage from a similar baseline.
The problem for both Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes is the onslaught from Red Bull. The drinks company has increased their following by 113 percent, rising from 5.77 million followers in July 2015 to a whopping 12.27 million followers. Whilst still shy of Mercedes, their positive and fun social media strategy, with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen at the helm, has caused a surge in their following, bringing new fans to their outlets. As noted during the Summer break, Mercedes’ social media growth has slowed in the past year.
For allegedly such an important brand to Formula 1, Red Bull is now streets ahead of Ferrari in the social media game. And, to their credit, McLaren’s following has continued to rise despite their poor on-track performance. One of the drawbacks with this data is that we do not know the overlap of followers between teams. How many of Red Bull’s new followers are new Formula 1 social media followers? If the answer happened to be ‘the majority’, from a Liberty Media perspective, this is a group of people that they should be interested in tailoring their output to.
Hamilton wipes social media history as Raikkonen joins the fray
Fernando Alonso’s social media profile has also risen, but to a slower degree. Comparing Alonso’s performance across social media with other leading drivers on social media is difficult as there are only four other drivers who were in a similar situation in July 2015. They are Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen.
Unsurprisingly, Ricciardo’s and Verstappen’s following has surged and both have increased in larger share and volume than Alonso. Alonso’s performance flat lined in the second half of 2017, but the gulf between him and the remainder of the field means that his social media position is not under threat. Of course, Hamilton is still comfortably out in front. For the moment…
Following the gathering of the statistics behind this post, things went south for Hamilton, and his social media profile has come under scrutiny in recent weeks. As a result, the four-time Drivers’ Champion has wiped his complete Instagram account, and his Twitter account dating back to October 2013. If any of them disappear completely, his large profile of over 15 million profiles will be gone in a flash, and places a major dent in Formula 1’s social media presence.
We live in a bizarre world now where Kimi Raikkonen has more Instagram posts than Hamilton. No, that is not a misprint. Yes, the Finnish driver has joined Instagram, already amassing over 300,000 followers in a week, ahead of the likes of Stoffel Vandoorne, Esteban Ocon and Kevin Magnussen.
Outside of Hamilton, the Red Bull drivers and Perez, no one else stood out in the second half of 2017, in what was a quiet end to the social media year. The one team further down the field that impressed was Toro Rosso, who are on course to overtake Force India, a surprising development considering Toro Rosso was the lowest ranked team on social media just two years ago. Toro Rosso’s large increase is likely due to their driver rotations this year, bringing in a wider variety of fans as a result to their social media pages.
A long way to go for F1, and motor racing as a whole
Formula 1’s official social media pages have shown strong growth across 2017. Between March and November, their profiles grew by 39 percent, reaching 11.04 million followers, overtaking NASCAR during 2017. However, Formula 1 remains some way behind MotoGP overall, thanks to a significant gulf in following on Facebook, and is unlikely to overtake MotoGP for many years.
Liberty Media themselves have touted Formula 1’s growth on the official F1 website. Whilst F1 has indeed grown proportionally compared to other brands, their reach remains far, far lower. La Liga, which according to F1 has grown just under 30 percent year-on-year, has 34 million followers on Facebook, dwarfing anything motor sport has to offer.
The F1 website also points out Formula E’s growth on social media, which is amusing considering how it is not in the same category as any of the other major brands listed. IndyCar’s PR team may be mystified at how they have not made the list considering it has a far greater social media presence than Formula E and grew their number of followers by 33 percent between March and November.
Proportionally speaking, F1’s following is spread equally between Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, something Liberty needs to work on changing as Facebook is a far bigger platform than Twitter and Instagram. Different content works for different audiences across the three platforms, and that is something F1 needs to explore further in 2018 if it is to unlock the potential that Facebook presents.