Last weekend’s British Grand Prix was the latest in a series of high profile motorsport events where fans (Not all fans, but various different groups of fans) booed a driver on the podium. It goes without saying how disrespectful this is to the drivers and teams in question, but let’s try to figure out why it’s happening in the first place.
Interestingly, the first instance of booing this year that I noticed on a race podium was not in Formula 1, but at the Le Mans 24 hours. As we all know, this was a race decided when Toyota, who had lead since the early stages, suffered a failure in it’s lead car of Nakajima/Buemi/Davidson in the final few minutes of the race, handing victory very unexpectedly to the #2 Porsche of Jani/Dumas/Lieb. The boos seemed to surround the fact that whilst Toyota were in despair and heartbreak in their garage, Porsche were celebrating in shock at a race they had never expected to win. This is backlash I didn’t really understand; were they supposed to feel guilty for winning at the last death and building a more reliable car? Did they not work just as hard for victory? Porsche drivers and team members displayed a lot of empathy in interviews, and their publicity afterwards gave almost as much credit to Toyota as to themselves.
Most recently we saw booing at the podium of the Austrian GP after Nico Rosberg collided into Hamilton during an incident on the final lap of the race. The circuit commentator read the crash as Hamilton turning into Rosberg, and many on the ground held the Englishman responsible as a result and let him know about it in no uncertain terms. Not to be outdone, members of the British public decided to retaliate by booing Rosberg on Friday during a public appearance at the track, and then they opted to do the same after the race, despite Rosberg doing very little wrong the entire weekend; even his team giving him advice on how to manage a gearbox issue could not really be classed as his own fault.
This is nothing new. I remember the first time I saw booing at a motorsport event, and not just minority booing but full scale booing from an entire crowd: It was the Austrian Grand Prix, this time back in 2002. I was a 6 year old at the time and it was my first season watching Formula One, but I remember vividly watching on TV as Rubens Barrichello, who had led the entire race, was forced by Jean Todt over team radio to move over for his Ferrari teammate Michael Schumacher in the closing stages, the Brazilian choosing to do so in the dying metres before the finish line on the last lap. The crowd was furious at the fixed result, and quite justifiably expressed their huge displeasure towards Ferrari despite Schumacher attempting to appease the crowd by letting Rubens stand on the top of the podium. Being very young and having seen most of the 2002 season up to that point, I was under the assumption that pretty every race was arranged so that Schumi won; I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. When I got upset was a few races later at the Nurburgring when Barrichello led Schumacher in the closing stages and didn’t let him through… I remember getting very upset about that and being sent to my room by my parents as a result. The irony being that years later after leaving Ferrari Rubens actually became my favourite driver on the grid. But I digress.
It was incredible to see a motorsport crowd express so much anger and rage. I never thought it would be matched until I saw the 2005 United States Grand Prix, a race infamous for a Michelin tyre fiasco meaning that only the six Bridgestone runners could take the start of the race. Like in Austria, American fans were understandably bemused and very annoyed in 2002 when Schumacher pulled over for Barrichello on the line in an attempt to stage a dead heat, which was seen as almost “pittance” for Austria. But this turned to pure anger at the farcical race in ’05; cans were thrown onto the circuit, makeshift banners blaming Max Mosley and the FIA were created, and those that didn’t leave instantly booed in unison. Endangering the lives of the drivers was perhaps taking it too far, but again the reaction makes sense because they felt robbed of a show they’d paid to see.
One-off booing can be dismissed and moved on from, but repeated boos at multiple venues can be hard to take. Look at the case of Sebastian Vettel during his 10 race winning streak in 2013; he was being booed for performing too well, too often and making the sport boring and predictable, as well as the fallout from the multi-21 controversy. Publicly he laughed it off, but once he wrapped up the title in India that year he revealed just how much it had affected him.
“It’s very difficult for me personally, to receive boos, even though you haven’t done anything wrong,” he said.
“At the time it hurts not to get the reception you expect but I think I’m clever enough to understand why they do it. I’m not blaming them.”
Even Rosberg has suffered booing in the past after causing a puncture for Hamilton at the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix. That day in the podium interviews Eddie Jordan chastised the hecklers for their reaction, but at Silverstone Mark Webber chose much more tacitly to introduce Max Verstappen and then redirect the cheers for him towards Rosberg, thereby highlighting those in the crowd that cheered and applauded all top three finishers.
Booing can be done for many reasons, but it is often tribal and intended to make the targeted driver feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or guilty. Whether you’re blamed for a controversial incident or simply deemed to be too successful and therefore undeserving, the result and reaction from the crowd is the same. In some instances where there is blatant manipulation at play then such a reaction is partially justified; by comparison though the boo brigades at recent races have seemed pathetic and bitter, as though they could not celebrate with the winner due to their own bias/prejudices, or just wanted revenge for a previous race where their driver was wrongly accused. But revenge doesn’t make things better, it just reignites animosity and creates an unhealthy atmosphere. And at classic circuits like Austria and Silverstone which are supposed to show off the best of F1 and at which we claim to have some of the best F1 fans in the world, (and certainly get some of the best attendance trackside) maybe a little more restraint and respect for those who have worked so hard to reach the podium, regardless of personal feelings amongst fans, would go a long way.