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Friday, April 19, 2024

Tears and cheers as fans flock to meet F1 drivers Oscar Piastri, Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris on opening day at Albert Park

At last year’s GP, first-time fans made up 37 per cent of the crowd while 39 per cent of the crowd was female, a rise on the 28 per cent global average in 2023.

“We are a bit gobsmacked that a few years ago, this event would attract 300,000 people, and now we are tracking towards 450,000. We had 444,000 last year,” Australian GP chair Martin Pakula told a Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry breakfast on Thursday.

Fans pack Albert Park for a glimpse of the drivers.

Fans pack Albert Park for a glimpse of the drivers.Credit: Eddie Jim

Drive to Survive has really introduced F1 to a new generation of fans and an entirely different cohort as well. People are attracted to the stories behind the teams and the drama within.”

Speaking of drama, Verstappen is going for a record-equalling 10th consecutive race win this weekend, but the F1 world is arguably more interested in the controversy surrounding the beleaguered Horner, who was pictured in conversation on Thursday with another Netflix favourite, former Haas team principal Guenther Steiner.

Horner was investigated in early February for alleged inappropriate behaviour after a complaint from a female staff member. Horner has always denied wrongdoing and the grievance was dismissed just before the opening race of the season, but an apparent power struggle within the Red Bull organisation remains a talking point.

Both Verstappen and his Red Bull teammate, Sergio Pérez, said everyone in their garage was focused on continuing the team’s dominance.

Oracle Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner speaks to Guenther Steiner at Albert Park on Thursday.

Oracle Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner speaks to Guenther Steiner at Albert Park on Thursday.Credit: Getty Images

“Of course, I would like the chat to be a little bit more about the great car that we have, but hopefully that will come,” Verstappen said.

He also dead-batted speculation that he could defect to Mercedes at the end of his contract, which runs until the end of 2028.

Hamilton, who will drive for Ferrari next year but for the moment remains ensconced at Mercedes, wore a burnt-orange jacket unzipped to display his bare chest as he strolled down Melbourne Walk.

The English superstar’s visits to Melbourne have always been eventful, whether for his $500 police fine for pulling a burnout in front of fans in 2010 or his race victories in 2008 and 2015.

Those fans were lined up 15 deep on both sides of the walk on Thursday.

Since the Netflix series Drive to Survive was released in March 2019, Formula 1 racing has experienced a stunning jump in new, young and female fans who have latched onto the drivers and their stories as told in the heavily stylised documentary series.

Melbourne has been the opening race of the season in the past, but after two night races in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to begin 2024, it will be the first daytime race when the lights go out on the track at 3pm on Sunday.

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