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Sorry, boys — F1 is for the girls now

Maria Noyen   

Sorry, boys — F1 is for the girls now
  • Formula 1 fans don't look the same as they used to.
  • The female fan base has continued to grow, especially in the US.

Bella Jung didn't particularly care for Formula 1 growing up. Not the way her dad did.

"He's always been interested in cars," Jung, a 24-year-old product designer at Oracle, told Business Insider. "But we never really talked about it."

It's not like she didn't like sports — she grew up in a family of sports lovers, so naturally, she "absorbed a decent amount of knowledge" about the American classics: basketball, baseball, and football.

But Jung didn't consider herself a huge fan. And when it came to F1, she often felt intimidated to ask how it worked.

That is, until roughly a year ago, when she started watching Netflix's "Drive to Survive," a docuseries providing behind-the-scenes glimpses of a race season through interviews with the drivers, team principals, and experts.

It first premiered in 2019 and released its sixth installment on February 23.

The impact of "DTS" on F1 is undeniable. In 2023, Statista reported that more than one in five F1 followers from the US said the docuseries played a "major factor" in their choice to become fans. The success of "DTS" has also led to copycat series cropping up for other sports like tennis, golf, and NASCAR.

Not everyone is a fan of the Netflix series, though. Some longtime followers of the sport, including Jung's dad, blame "DTS" for turning F1 into a reality show akin to the "Real Housewives" franchise.

"My dad was like, 'It overdramatizes it. It's not accurate,'" she said. "I watched it and was like, 'OK, that's true. But at least I know who the people are, and you can see the humanity behind the sport.'"

Jung didn't just like what she saw. She loved it.

"I started to turn on all my notifications for F1 on Instagram, Twitter, all of social media," she said.

Jung decided to take her newfound F1 fandom a step further by creating a TikTok account dedicated to the culture around the sport.

"I was interested in the stories behind a lot of the drivers," she said. "As I was learning a lot more about F1, I wanted to share that."

It wasn't long until she discovered a community of like-minded F1 racing buffs — many of whom were women.

Some women, including Lissie Mackintosh and Toni Cowan-Brown, had been covering the sport for a while, using internet platforms to launch fully-fledged careers as F1 commentators.

But many were newbies, like Jung. They all played a part in transforming the traditionally male-dominated F1 fandom.

The old boys' club

Jung entered the F1 fandom at a time of great change for the sport and its viewers.

F1 held its first Grand Prix in the UK in 1950. From the start, it's fair to say the sport was an old boys' club. Drivers often came from affluent European families, which is still the case. And nearly all of them have been men.

Nothing in the official rules prevents women from racing in F1. And yet, in the 70-plus years since its founding, there have been so few opportunities for women to race and lead teams. There's been one female team principal, and only two female drivers have officially qualified for a race in the sport's history.

In 1975, Lella Lombardi, nicknamed the "F1 Female Trailblazer," became the first and only woman to score points in a Grand Prix.

For decades, the lack of female representation mirrored the demographics of those tuning in to watch races. But things started changing soon after "DTS" came along.

In November 2022, F1 Group CEO Stefano Domenicali said that about 40% of F1 fans were female, an 8% increase from 2017. ESPN also reported that more female viewers in the US watched the 2022 F1 season than ever before.

For some key figures in F1, it's a welcome change.

Speaking to Today in 2023, McLaren's Lando Norris called the "huge amount of girls" in the fandom "a good thing, not only for the sport as a whole to increase the variety of people that are watching, but also for girls to get into racing."

'If a girl gets something wrong, they know absolutely nothing'

The new wave of F1 fans hasn't always met with open arms. In 2022, for instance, multiple female fans said they were harassed by male spectators at the Austrian Grand Prix, The Guardian reported. F1, as well as several team principals and drivers, issued statements condemning the behavior.

"People should come here and feel included and follow whoever it is you want to follow," Lewis Hamilton said in response to the reports. "It should not matter about your gender, your sexuality, the color of your skin."

But harassment against female fans continues to exist online.

Jung is among several F1 female fans who have received disparaging social-media comments and questions about how much they really know about the sport.

Neha Sridhar, a 24-year-old software engineer, told BI she's been a fan of all kinds of sports her whole life but became increasingly drawn to F1 after watching "DTS."

Like Jung, Sridhar runs an F1 TikTok account, though hers leans toward the tech side of things. "Tech strategy, data, that is my bread and butter," she said.

Still, she said "traditional" F1 fans, both online and in person, have accused her of only liking the sport because she has a crush on the drivers.

"They're like, 'You obviously only watch F1 because you think Charles Leclerc is attractive. It's only because you think Carlos Sainz is attractive,'" she said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, they're in a car with a helmet on. If I wanted to do that, I could watch any other sport."

"We are also just as interested in cars going in crazy circles," Sridhar added.

Dealing with male F1 fans has made some women feel like they have extra pressure to know their stuff.

"You already have preconceptions of you," Jung said. "If you feed into that by not having any of the things you're talking about based in fact or truth, then that's even more ways someone could come for you."

Jung said there have been times she has posted F1 videos only to take them down out of fear of being called out by male fans.

Meanwhile, Sridhar said she meticulously scripts her videos on the sport to avoid criticism.

"I want to be taken seriously," she said. "I also want to get as much out there as possible while facing the least amount of potential hate."

The double standards aren't lost on them. "If a guy gets something wrong, it's fine, we'll gloss over it," Sridhar said. "If a girl gets something wrong, they know absolutely nothing."

You can be a 'fangirl,' no matter who you are

Irene Su is another racing fan and F1 content creator. For Su, a 22-year-old jewelry designer, it wasn't love at first sight with the sport.

In college, a friend who was F1 "obsessed" made her watch a race. "Then I didn't watch Formula 1 for a while because I was like, 'This is actually really confusing. I don't like this.'" she said.

It was only when Su started watching "DTS" that it clicked. "Seeing people's personalities helped me feel like I got to know the drivers and started making the connection of who's who," she said.

And Su's also no stranger to negative comments on her F1 TikToks. Most of the time, she's happy to ignore or delete them, she said.

"I brush it under the rug because I literally do not care," Su said. "This is a comment that so many people see all the time, and I'm like, 'Please be more creative if you're going to try to bully me. If you're going to do it, put some thought into it.'"

But she said the reaction many female sports fans get isn't unique to F1, pointing to the flak Taylor Swift has gotten for attending NFL games.

"It is so clear that for whatever reason, people do not want sports to get any bigger than what it is," she said. "They do not want to grow their community; they want to gatekeep."

Those gatekeepers might also try to discredit female fans by labeling them "fangirls." Sadly, for those doing the name-calling, the fangirls don't see it as negative.

"In some ways, everyone is a fangirl," Sridhar said. "Even a guy can be a fangirl."

"Fangirl just sounds a bit more girly," Jung said. "But you can be intelligent, understand the sport, and know the rules like any other fan."

Some F1 fangirls also say there's a "pipeline" connecting their love of the sport to pop-culture fandoms, especially those dominated by women.

"It's really fun to bring this lighthearted element into the sport," Su said. "Women are able to build communities in such a strong way."

"There's this very natural path for people who liked One Direction at some point to follow this path to F1, which is 100% me," Sridhar said.

The parallel between F1 and pop-culture fandoms also helps contextualize big news for those less familiar with the sport. When Hamilton announced he was leaving Mercedes for Ferarri, Sridhar said she helped colleagues who were less in the know about F1 by equating it to Zayn Malik leaving One Direction in 2015.

"They were like, 'Oh, I get it,'" she said. "The cultural impact of that in the fangirl world, Formula 1 fangirls were feeling exactly that — and you can't tell me that men were feeling any differently."

The 'fangirls' are here to stay

As F1's viewership continues to change, the women said content from diverse creators is crucial to keeping up the momentum around the sport.

"This male perspective isn't what is catering to other more diverse audiences," Sridhar said.

"We're seeing people are coming for the drivers," she added. "But ultimately, they're staying. And you need to keep them interested because otherwise, it'll just get old."

Whether original F1 fans want it or not, the fangirls are here to represent the newer audiences while simultaneously holding the sport accountable.

They drive conversations about diversity within F1, which they say is still a huge issue — and not just in terms of gender, but race and income, too.

"There is definitely a problem," Jung said. "There are so many races in different places in the world, but there aren't as many drivers coming from those locations."

When it comes to gender, there has been some progress, notably the launch of the F1 Academy, an all-female race series focused on helping female drivers reach the highest levels of motorsport competitions like F1. The program is directed by Susie Wolff, a former racing driver and the wife of Mercedes' team principal, Toto Wolff.

"Seeing those doors open for more women at the ground up to have them come into Formula 1, hopefully, it will bring on this new wave of engineers and strategists," Sridhar said. But, she added, "we need more."

Ultimately, the women said the way they admire the sport isn't any different from male fans.

Some care more about the drivers, while others are intrigued by the off-track drama. Some are obsessed with the tech and livery of the cars, and some aspire to careers in the industry.

Jung, for example, said she's contemplating a future working in sports, something she'd never given much thought to before getting into F1.

"It's built up my confidence in becoming interested in sports and having a voice," she said.

Career ambitions aside, being an F1 fan has also helped her connect with the men in her life, including her dad.

"It's been funny now talking to my brother and my dad about Formula 1 because they don't know as much as I do now," she said.