‘What team do you support?’ fans of football ask one another when meeting for the first time.
Invariably, it’s a question that’s met with a simple answer. A predictable one in most cases, since your football team is usually assigned to you at birth based on where you were born, or some familial connection.
Football teams represent towns. They ARE towns. They make up part of your locale, your geographical identity. Your home.
You don’t really get to choose your football team, it chooses you. And unless something monumental happens, it’s with you (or you’re with it) until the day you die.
Formula 1 is different. It’s more nuanced. It’s more opt-in. And it’s a lot more transient. You get to choose who you support again and again.
Let me explain.
There are two approaches to being a Formula 1 fan.
The Tifosi are a great example of the first breed of F1 fan. They follow their team irrespective of who’s driving for them. Ferrari has been around for 70 years (still a pittance compared to the 150 years+ of most association football teams) and its support is as a result of generations of F1 fan adding layer upon layer of attachment.
In Italy, Ferrari is so intertwined with the Italian national identity that it would be almost heresy to support anyone else.
Not that there’s much opportunity to do that. Despite its enormous F1 heritage, Italy’s last Grand Prix win was 13 years ago (Giancarlo Fisichella) and their last F1 world champion was Alberto Ascari in 1952.
In Italy, F1 is very much a team sport.
The second approach is largely favoured elsewhere.
Finland, for example, doesn’t have a Formula 1 team, but it is very good at breeding Formula 1 drivers. (One third of all Finnish F1 drivers have won a world championship), so naturally Finnish Grand Prix fans tend to throw their support behind its drivers irrespective of which team they drive for.
But a Grand Prix drivers’ career is finite, so, what to do when your driver of choice calls it a day? Well, you hope there’s a natural born successor, lined up to take his place, otherwise you might find yourself in the F1 wilderness for a few years before another starlet comes along for you to throw your weight behind.
In Britain we’re spoiled. We have a number of the world’s most successful F1 drivers, and a plethora of top teams are either from here or are based here too.
Mansell, Hill, Stewart, Hamilton, Hunt, Clark: These guys are among the most successful drivers in the history of F1. And they’re among the best supported.
Teams too. Eight of the top twelve most successful Formula 1 teams are or were British. And of the four non-British teams, two are based here (Red Bull and Mercedes).
So we have a wealth of options for the discerning F1 fan resulting in a divide in approach – some choose Method A and follow a team, others Method B: a driver.
So what’s my point?
Well, at any one time, the support a driver/team combo (for they’re one in the same thing) consists of some fans who support the driver and some who support the team. They wear the same colour polyester shirts and baseball caps, but their interests are very different. And they often don’t see eye to eye.
Williams’ current predicament has surfaced quite a rift between fans of Robert Kubica, and fans of the Williams F1 team.
Robert Kubica, veteran of 80 Grand Prix is Poland’s only F1 driver. When he burst onto the scene in 2006, the nation of Poland rose up in support of him as a potential F1 champion with a fervour rarely seen elsewhere.
Their hopes were cruelly dashed with Kubica’s seemingly career ending crash in 2011. But miraculously he returned this year with Williams, and it seems like the intervening 8 years has done little to dampen Poland’s fervour.
Williams, on the other hand, is one of F1’s most enduring teams and one of its most successful. It has a rich heritage and a large, passionate fanbase, that stretches back generations in some cases.
Kubica’s loyal support wants to see him to be successful. Williams’ loyal support wants them to be successful. It’s one and the same thing.
But when things aren’t going well, as is the case at Williams at the minute, each set of fans looks to the other to blame.
‘It’s the car’s fault’ say the Poles. ‘Kubica is seconds off his team-mate’ say the Brits.
In reality, Williams’ (and in particular Kubica’s) predicament is rooted in neither party doing as good a job as the next guy.
But they are a team. To be successful, both driver and team need to be at the top of their game. It’s a tired old cliche, but they win together and they lose together.
We, as fans, need to rally behind ‘them’ (team and driver as one) and give them our support.
That’s not to say we can’t express our frustration or disappointment, or be critical in our assessment of their performances or position.
But let’s do it as a whole.