Following Lewis Hamilton’s antics in the pre-Japanese Grand Prix Thursday press conference, media (both off and online) and fans went in to overdrive. The whole situation that unfolded was a whirlwind tour of issues in F1. From fan access and driver egos, to the roll of the trusty press conference and allegations of Hamilton being in ‘meltdown’.
The criticism Hamilton received for Snapchatting his way through the press conference kicked off a social media storm. The underlying issues – which can be boiled down to a series of important questions for F1 – got lost. So I thought it would be worthwhile to retrace our steps and consider the ramifications for the sport.
Question 1: was it ok for Lewis to Snapchat the press conference?
Let us start with a simple statement: the Thursday driver press conference is not meant to be entertaining or compelling viewing. It is a fact finding opportunity for the written media. It is supposed to be workmanlike and for the drivers it will be, at times, uncomfortable. And that’s the point: it’s a place of work.
Just as my boss and colleagues would get on my case if I Snapchatted my way through the Monday team meeting, journalists have every right to be annoyed at Hamilton. He may not view the press conference it as a good use of his time but for them it is.
It is hard to support Hamilton’s behaviour and those who criticised him constructively for it were completely justified. You cannot imagine Hamilton being happy if his race engineer was tweeting during a pre-race strategy meeting.
Question 2: does the Thursday press conference need updating?
Hamilton’s subsequent remarks about trying to make the press conference fun and less dull carried some merit. But the manner in which he made his feelings known was at best ham-fisted. At worst the comments carried more than a whiff of a naughty school boy trying to extricate himself from trouble.
Does the Thursday press conference need spicing up? In Lewis’ opinion it does but that is a question for the journalists and not Hamilton, nor his legion of fans.
Lewis’ intervention on the matter is irrelevant. The journalists who cover F1 should be the ones to decide if the press conference format needs spicing up. One of the main suggestions that came from the Twitter-sphere to shake up the format was to make it fan-drive. And so a third difficult topic for F1 came in to play as fans and media weighed-in.
Question 3: does F1 have a problem with fan engagement?
Absolutely. It is a bigger, more complex issue however than simply turning the press conference in to a fan forum. The Thursday press conference is not for fans. And it is not for those who are perceived to be supporters or haters of any particular driver.
Dropping the current format and simply handing it over as what would be a token gesture to fans. A wider, more considered approach is needed. But similarly is an acceptance from drivers that the media must have their place – even if they make it uncomfortable for them. Something that Hamilton in particular seems to have an issue with.
Question 4: should drivers expect the media to be supportive?
At a Mercedes media briefing post-qualifying Hamilton declared that he would not be speaking to the media at Suzuka:
“I’m not here to answer your questions, I’ve decided. With the utmost respect, there are many of you here who are super-supportive of me and they hopefully know I know who they are. There are others unfortunately that often take advantage of certain things.”
Hamilton then walked out.
Understanding his logic was tricky. Was this simply an emotional over-reaction to the criticism? Has Hamilton lost perspective on the fact his job entails his press and media engagements? Or worse still was it simply the action of an over-inflated ego that believes it should be above criticism?
Press and media conferences are not about supporting or beating up on any driver. It is a chance for the media to scrutinise drivers, teams, the FIA and the sport. Hamilton’s desire to hand it over to fans on social media implies that if the media will not be his cheerleaders, he will only speak to those who will.
Question 5: does F1 need to incorporate more fan engagement?
Hamilton fans pointed out that following the infamous Thursday press conference Lewis did a 30 minute fan forum at Suzuka. The less-than-subtle implication was that he is a man of the people and not interested in the nasty machinations of the media.
There is no doubt Hamilton has an excellent relationship with his fanbase and cultivates it very effectively. However it is more logical to consider that he was seeking the shelter of a friendly fan-forum.
Anaemic questions about his pet dog and how much he loves (insert country name here) typically dominate such proceedings. And in Japan – a nation famed for its painful observation of etiquette and politeness – he was hardly likely to be scrutinised about his downturn in form and chances of scoring a third World title in a row.
I’m all for opening up access to drivers from fans but that should not come at the cost of access for the media who, in the main, take an impartial view of the sport and report the facts. As for Lewis, only time will tell whether his ideas and suggestions carry merit or whether they were ill-conceived reactions to a palpable increase in pressure.