This weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix will mark two years since Chase Carey first entered the Formula 1 paddock following Liberty Media’s takeover of the sport - and so, so much has changed in that time.

From the revamped approach to digital media to improved relations with both the FIA and the drivers on the grid, the commercial rights holder has changed stance in a number of areas.

Singapore #5 Circuit of Champions

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But the greatest shift has come in its very raison d’être. While CVC was interested in making as much profit as possible - something Bernie Ecclestone diligently delivered on - Liberty has been pushing to grow the sport and expand its reach as a brand.

One of Ecclestone’s most famous quotes came in 2014 when, in an interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific, he said he was “not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is,” and said F1 simply didn’t need young fans.

“Young kids will see the Rolex brand, but are they going to go and buy one? They can't afford it," Ecclestone said. "Or our other sponsor, UBS - these kids don't care about banking. They haven't got enough money to put in the bloody banks anyway."

F1 has completed changed its approach in that regard. At a time when millennial and ‘Generation Z’ markets are contributing to a declining interest in sports viewership and mainstream media, it’s a race F1 is starting from further down the grid that other sports franchises (a legacy of the previous regime). Efforts such as offering more streaming options and the F1 Esports are excellent starts that have been made by the new management, and there is plenty more planned.

Liberty bosses have spoken about the importance of its on-track stars and presenting the drivers as superheroes, and there is certainly an onus on them to play a role in promoting the sport. Lewis Hamilton does a phenomenal job at giving an insight to his life away from F1 through his social media channels, while even Kimi Raikkonen has joined the Instagram bandwagon in recent months.

But who is truly capturing the Generation Z audience F1 needs to tap into? Who on the grid can young people really relate to?

The answer may come in the form of McLaren’s recently-announced 2019 driver, Lando Norris.

Born in November 1999, Norris was just six weeks away from being F1’s first child of the 21st century. His rise through the junior ranks has been rapid, meaning he will debut in Australia next year at the age of 19, becoming one of the youngest drivers ever to do so. And he is the teenage star F1 really needs.

That’s not to say there aren’t other juniors on the grid. Lance Stroll (19), Max Verstappen (20), Charles Leclerc (20), Esteban Ocon (21) and Pierre Gasly (22) are part of F1’s bevy of young stars, all falling within the Generation Z age bracket - that is, born after 1995.

But those five drivers have tended to follow the more ‘conventional’ approach to life as an F1 driver. All of them have gone through a junior programme of an F1 team, giving them guidelines to work within. Verstappen in particular hit success at such a young age, it’s perhaps unsurprising he hasn’t broken the mould more in terms of his approach to media and social media. There is little to separate their approach and promotion to that of their elder peers.

Norris, however, has been establishing himself in a different way for a couple of years now. His social media channels are packed with gifs and spicy memes, while he also has a YouTube channel that has amassed nearly 350,000 views where he uploads a regular vlog. It all acts to give people an insight to his life and show his personality. All of this creates something Norris hopes can make a difference to perceptions of F1.

“I think it can only be positive in terms of just lightening up the mood a bit,” Norris says of his approach to online and social media.

“It seems like F1 is kind of going down that route, opening it up more to the public and letting them know what is going on, what you do, instead of just driving and going home.

“I hope that I can just change it a bit, which is something I’ve always wanted to do: not just win a world championship but be remembered for winning it in a specific way.

“Hopefully I can persuade [fans] and make them think F1 is better than what they currently think.”

The word ‘boring’ has been - fairly - used from time to time when talking about F1 drivers in recent years. Be it due to a disdain for media, or just a laser-focus on racing duties (their primary duty, after all, is to race), few have gone to great lengths to capture the imagination of the fanbase through their off-track activities.

Young, fanatical F1 fans want to interact with their heroes on social media. They want to get a look into their life on YouTube. They want to know as much as they can. And Norris is facilitating this.

Perhaps the most important thing here is Norris’ own personal growth and progression. From the somewhat timid kid this writer first met back when he was just about to step up to Formula 3, Norris has grown and progressed so, so much, most notably over the last 12 months. He is engaging and comfortable with the media, supremely confident - and occasionally cheeky - in his answers, and takes a genuine interest in the topic of conversation.

Following a 30-minute grilling at the McLaren Technology Centre last week following his announcement, he hung about to chat with the journalists, instead of making the quickest getaway possible. It’s a stark contrast to many of his peers.

It all bodes well for when Norris does step up to F1 next year. The British media and British fans will be looking to him as the next man to fly the flag, taking the mantle from Lewis Hamilton as the Mercedes driver nears the end of his career.

So long as expectations are realistic and tempered accordingly, the signs are there for Norris to flourish into a real star both on- and off-track.

And one who is ready to help F1’s bid to tap into the young audience it craves.

 

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