OPINION: Is Lewis Hamilton More Important to Formula One Than They Realise?

The big Formula One news over the past weekend was that Lewis Hamilton after fifty-six days away, finally made his highly-anticipated return to social media. The post which was uploaded to all of his social media accounts, simply read “I’ve been gone. Now I’m back!”, alongside a photo of himself standing in the grand canyon.

Credit: Twitter @LewisHamilton

Hamilton’s sabbatical from social media came after the controversial ending to the season finale at the Yas Marina Circuit, where the Seven-Time World Champion believed the result had been manipulated to crown fierce rival Max Verstappen as champion, the first Dutchman to ever do so in the sport. The incident in question came in the closing stages of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, when Nicholas Latifi crashed into the barrier at Turn Fourteen.

At the time of the crash Hamilton was comfortably leading the Grand Prix, and was looking all but certain to clinch a record breaking Eighth World Title. As the safety car was brought out so that Latifi’s stricken Williams Racing car could be rescued, Hamilton stayed out on track whilst Verstappen behind pitted for soft tyres, Hamilton remained out on considerably older hards. For all the world it looked as if the race would end behind the safety car, especially after the brakes on Latifi’s Williams had caught fire, however Race Director Michael Masi thought otherwise.

After having to deal with the constant opinions complaints and bickering of both Mercedes AMG Petronas Team Principal Toto Wolff, and Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner, the Race Director decided that the race would in fact finish under green flag racing.

Masi’s decision however came in confusing fashion, at first it was broadcast that no cars would be allowed to unlap themselves, meaning Verstappen would have to find his way past a number of lapped vehicles on the final lap, before getting a chance at Hamilton. Only a couple of seconds later though it was broadcast that only the lapped cars between the two championship contenders would be allowed to unlap themselves, and no one else! It was this decision that brought a bitter and highly questionable end to the season, with a feeling of manipulation amongst many.

Verstappen as we all know, made his way past Hamilton on the final lap and crossed the line to become the first-ever Dutch Formula One world champion. Mercedes lodged their complaint’s and ‘right to review’ the result, before eventually deciding not to take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, after the FIA promised to review the questionable decisions that were made.

Verstappen after winning the world title – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Apart from appearing at Windsor Castle just a matter of days after the final race of the 2021 season to be knighted, Hamilton wasn’t seen throughout the winter break on social media, until last weekend.

Hamilton’s substantial silence had led to rumours that the British driver was considering retiring from the sport, and that he was feeling “disillusioned” with Formula One according to Wolff. His return to social media however has all but crushed those rumours, especially with the words chosen for the post. Whilst no official announcement has been made by Mercedes that he will be returning to Formula One for the upcoming season, the words “Now I’m back!”, does give a significant hint that Hamilton will be on the grid to challenge yet again for the world title.

The post has sent shockwaves throughout not only the Formula One community, the post on Instagram has already achieved over 2.3 million likes, whereas on Twitter it has received over four-hundred thousand, in not even a handful of days. Hamilton is really the only driver on the grid who can generate these sort of numbers in Formula One, especially with over thirty-three million followers across just Instagram and Twitter alone! Verstappen on the other hand has just over ten million combined, still impressive but not even a third of what Hamilton has.

What’s even more staggering is that Hamilton has a greater following than Formula One itself! The sport has a combined following of just over 24 million, around two-thirds of what the Mercedes driver has. Hamilton’s post announcing his return to the various platforms is currently just over a million likes short of both Verstappen and Formula One’s posts announcing the Dutchman’s championship glory, however Hamilton’s post has only been up for a few days, compared to two months. Interestingly both Verstappen’s and Formula One’s accounts produce very similar numbers, although Verstappen’s accounts are beginning to achieve slightly more likes on average than Formula One’s official ones.

Hamilton celebrating winning the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix after an intense battle with Verstappen – Credit: Jiri Krenek

It does look like that from a social media side of things that Verstappen is perhaps going to drive the sport into the future, from a followers perspective. However considering the vast difference in online following between Verstappen and Hamilton and given just how important social media is in this day and age, is Hamilton a lot more important to Formula One currently than they realise, is he perhaps even bigger than the sport itself?

When looking at the data, Hamilton is still the leading figure and icon in the sport despite not being the current world champion, so does Formula One need to do more in preparation for when he does eventually retire and leave the world that is Formula One? Personally I don’t think so, the sport has a plethora of exciting young talent such as Lando Norris, George Russell and Charles Leclerc to name a few, all of which have likeable personalities which could in a joint effort see Formula One into the future.

When the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix comes around it will be fascinating to explore the viewing figures after the Grand Prix, will fans who felt robbed following the season finale follow-through with not watching the sport ever again? Perhaps it will teach Formula One that decisions made on track can heavily impact the companies performance off of it. Everyone is capable these days of sharing their opinion online and not just amongst family, friends and work colleagues, something which wasn’t possible twenty-years ago. Is social media perhaps more powerful than those in charge of the sport believed.

Hamilton’s return post really does indicate that despite the fact he is nearing the end of his career in Formula One, he is much more important to the sport than they possibly ever realised. Talent on track nowadays almost needs to be met with a talent off of it, something which Hamilton clearly has. Whilst Verstappen is undeniably talented and a worthy world champion, does he have the personality to gain a following similar to that of Hamilton? Over time possibly this could be achieved, however it could be argued that Hamilton’s numbers not only on track but also off of it will never be matched, let alone beaten.

Ultimately Lewis Hamilton may just be more important to Formula One than they ever realised, what do you think?

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