Formula 1 exists not just as the pinnacle of modern motorsport, but at the intersection where so many new technologies, ethical challenges and life-defining news in the 21st century come together in a grand ensemble of speed and of peril.
It’s first and foremost a racing championship, of course, but F1 is also everything from reality TV to climate change, from the gender pay gap to astonishing feats of mechanical engineering, and moments of true glory at the constant danger of death.
Some have spent decade after decade circumnavigating the globe as part of a Formula 1 paddock, a traveling circus from continent to continent with its own stuntmen, star attractions and track masters. Few have seen the sport change from as many different angles as David Coulthard, the former Williams, McLaren and Red Bull driver who challenged Michael Schumacher for the world championship in the early 2000s and is still part of the show as a senior analyst for Channel 4. UK coverage.
“I think it’s important [to make changes to the sport] because it adapts to the world we live in,” he says. “This world of digital content and connectivity has been in place for several years, but I think the Covid lockdown has allowed people [in F1] to see how fans are engaging and how you’re connecting and growing your fan base.
“Without the crowd, the race was still the race, but there is no human interaction. To be able to celebrate with the crowd, the fans and the noise again [is great]. Before, it was like going to a nightclub for an acoustic set… It’s quite difficult to get into the groove!
Formula 1 was bought from Bernie Ecclestone by Liberty Media Corporation, an American sports and entertainment company, in 2017 and has since sought to modernize the sport in various forms. Changes include permission for Netflix to film the behind-the-scenes documentary series Drive to survive, and changing the structure of the race weekend to include F1 Sprint, an additional 100km race which takes place on a Saturday after qualifying and before the Sunday race itself.
“Formula 1 in its previous form didn’t tap into digital and streaming and all those areas,” says Coulthard. “Now people come to me after Drive to survive and say, ‘It’s interesting, I’m going to watch Formula 1’, and that can only be a good thing.”
The Sprint format has been tested at Silverstone and Monza so far this season, and will be raced again this weekend at Interlagos, but drivers and fans have given it a mixed reception. F1 recently conducted a fan survey for feedback that could influence the future direction of the sport, and only 6.1% said the show had been “significantly improved” by F1 Sprint.
Coulthard, however, is a fan. “I’m the kind of person who’s always had an open mind to change. The sport has evolved so much since I started racing in the 90s. I don’t see why riders racing more is a bad thing. I don’t see why fans having more action on track is a bad thing. The offer has been expanded, helping promoters sell tickets and recoup their investment in Formula 1.”
This notion of changing to accommodate what a new generation of potential F1 fans are looking for, and to better reflect contemporary society, is something that increasingly underlies Coulthard’s recent work.
Coulthard, 50, retired in 2008 and immediately started working in television with the BBC, before mounting a production called Whisper Films with presenter Jake Humphrey in 2016, which won the contract to produce the F1 shows for C4 five years ago. Formula 1 is an overwhelmingly white, male, able-bodied and heterosexual environment, but the cover Whisper produced for C4 gave prominent roles to the likes of Billy Monger, the young racing driver turned pundit who lost his two legs in an accident at Donington. Park and Naomi Schiff, a black driver who also works as a presenter.
“Diversity and inclusion are core values [of mine]. Life is not a single shoe. I’m a 50 year old man who sees life through my experiences so I write to myself regularly from the TV broadcast order because I think Naomi and Billy are brilliant, and I’m learning something from them.
The W Series is an all-women’s racing championship founded in 2019, and since that season its races have been held in parallel events to the F1 calendar. Coulthard’s company produces coverage of his races for C4, and he also sits as an advisory member on the series’ board of directors. Increasing the visibility of women in motorsport is a cause close to the heart of the Scotswoman.
“My main motivation is that my sister ran, and I think she lost an opportunity to go further because my career was taking off. It’s really a shame that she didn’t receive the support that I was, and so I’m going to do my best to help young girls and young women to have a platform where it’s not about money, it’s about allowing them to develop their talent early enough and to show if they are good enough.
The W-Series concept was initially met with some skepticism from motorsports figures, who doubted that having women racing separately from men would work. Coulthard flatly disagrees.
“You always have opponents,” he says. “And what I would say is, ‘What are you doing to help women in motorsport?’ If you have another way to help then great, let’s see you put your money with your mouth. But if you come from [complain] and don’t do anything to help, and you’re a prominent person in motorsport, then you really don’t deserve that position because you’re discriminating.
“If we have crowds at all of the W Series events next year, that will make it the largest live audience in any women’s sport in the world. That matters, and it puts names to faces of otherwise unknown women in sport.
Coulthard himself has had to adjust to a new way of doing things, going from racing driver to business owner with Whisper, but thinks there are many similarities.
“My role as a race driver was not to worry about all the technical stuff, I had to be the voice of the car,” he says. “I had to trust my team to design, build and ultimately operate a safe and fast race car. I blah blah blah, I trust the team completely, I can go from shareholder to tea boy – I’ll get the kettle going and make sure everyone is fed and watered.
As the world around us changes enormously from year to year, motorsport must do the same. Coulthard sums up his attitude to both his own path in life and what he believes is the way forward for Formula 1 when, towards the end of our conversation, he simply said, “Evolve or die.
Tune in this Saturday for the F1 Sprint at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, live on Sky Sports and highlights on Channel 4.