Booing has made a return to Formula 1. Ever since that controversial first-lap incident at the British Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton has been on the receiving end of jeers from some members of the crowd, with the majority of them seemingly supporters of Max Verstappen. The intense title battle between these two might be a new occurrence, both for them and their fanbases, but booing has happened before in F1.
In fact, it most recently made an appearance in another fight involving Hamilton, though was not directed at the seven-time World Champion. Hamilton's former teammate and rival, Nico Rosberg, was jeered by fans in 2014 after clashes between the Mercedes drivers. Meanwhile, booing was also heard in 2013 for Sebastian Vettel, who had similarly been involved in an intrateam battle with his Red Bull stablemate Mark Webber.
At the time, Vettel questioned whether the negative reception was symptomatic of fans becoming tired of his dominance, given that the 2013 season marked the fourth consecutive year that he had clinched the World Championship. However, incidents such as the infamous 'Multi 21' affair had perhaps contributed to Vettel receiving this response from some members of the crowd.
So why does booing happen? Well, these examples illustrate a common theme. It seems that we love a 'hero vs villain' narrative – one driver or team for a time is seen almost as the 'villain', by some fanbases at least. Meanwhile, the other is the 'hero' who has probably in the eyes of some been seen to experience an injustice. Incidents like 'Multi 21' illustrate this well; Vettel had arguably taken a victory away from Webber in an unfair manner by ignoring the team's order to maintain position, contributing to this sense of someone – Webber – being wronged.
As the popularity of Netflix's dramatic 'Drive To Survive' documentary suggests, fans relish a story, and this narrative fits the bill (though whether stories are reflected entirely accurately in 'Drive To Survive' is another debate). This is especially true when the 'hero' figure is particularly popular with a large fanbase. Any fans of MotoGP will have witnessed this; given Valentino Rossi's iconic status and massive following, Marc Marquez quickly learned from the crowd's reaction after some run-ins with 'The Doctor' that he had been made the 'villain'.
The 'good vs bad' narrative has been a frequent occurrence in entertainment, such as in reality television. However, our thirst for such potential cruelty in formats like this has died down in recent times, in fitting with the knowledge of how such treatment can affect the mental health of those involved.
Meanwhile, in the world of sport, the discussion surrounding mental health seems to be slightly behind; the fact that tennis player Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open earlier this year due to struggles with her mental health caused such discussion shows that it is still rare for these issues to be talked about so openly by athletes. Perhaps this shows that a certain lack of understanding still exists, and maybe that's why the 'hero and villain' narrative still thrives in sport.
Booing does eventually go away. Battles come and go, and public perceptions change. It is hard to imagine Vettel – such a likeable character – ever being jeered by the crowd these days; in fact, it was probably his popularity that contributed to a backlash from some fans over his disqualification at the Hungarian Grand Prix. But does the harm that it might cause disappear so quickly?
Vettel admitted at the end of the 2013 season that the booing from fans had hurt him. The German said at the time: "It's very difficult for me personally, to receive boos, even though you haven't done anything wrong. 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."
Rosberg has also spoken about the difficulties of receiving a negative reception from the crowd. "There were the two camps, the Nico camp and the Hamilton fans," the 2016 World Champion recently told The Times Magazine. "And all the Hamilton fans were against me, of course.
"[Once], there were these four-year-old girls right in front of me with their dads, and they were booing me and giving me the thumbs down. Their dads told them I was bad and that they needed to boo me."
Hamilton, for the time being at least, has taken a different approach. After first receiving boos over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, the Mercedes driver said that it was actually motivating him, so on the surface it does not appear to be hurting him. Only he will know if it actually does.
Meanwhile, Verstappen has said that it is not up to him to stop the fans from booing Hamilton. "Well, I look at it like this. When you go to a football match, you come into a home ground, the opposition will be booed at some point," the Red Bull driver told select media, including RacingNews365.com, ahead of the Dutch Grand Prix.
"It's not up to the local club to go on to the speakers and say, 'Guys, you cannot boo', because it will naturally happen. They're very passionate and they support their local team.
"I don't think it's up to me to then say, 'Guys, you cannot boo', because I am not them. And I have to just focus on what I'm doing on the track. And I'm pretty sure that most of them are here for just a great weekend, to see cars racing. Of course, some of them will boo, but I cannot decide for them.
"I can, of course, say you can't do this, but do you really think they're gonna listen to me? So I just hope that they will have a good weekend."
So both Verstappen and Hamilton appear unaffected by the situation. Others have criticised it; Hamilton's boss Toto Wolff, for example, has voiced his opinion that jeering does not belong in F1. And what perhaps makes this occurrence of booing more problematic than in the past is that, as well as this happening, Hamilton received racist abuse online in the wake of his Silverstone clash with Verstappen.
This kind of abuse – which has been seen in other sports this year, too, such as the targeting of several football players from the England squad following the Euro 2020 final – is inexcusable and has been condemned by everyone in Formula 1. Whilst there is not a direct link with the booing – and no evidence to suggest that they are being committed by the same people – there will be some who feel that the jeers carry an uncomfortable air in the wake of such abuse. The message on social media to 'be kind' is clear yet still seems to be getting lost in reality. It's obvious that online abuse is not acceptable, but booing appears to be taken more lightly.
So is booing acceptable? An interesting point to consider here is whether it could potentially make a point on the correct occasion, meaning that rather than targeting a person who probably doesn't deserve it, maybe it serves a purpose in highlighting mistakes made by the sport itself. The recent Belgian Grand Prix, for example; booing from fans would have been understandable in getting across the frustration over how the situation was handled.
But to jeer an individual arguably feels outdated in many respects. The world has moved on in our understanding of mental health, even since Rosberg was affected by booing just a few years ago.
Whether the booing remains will perhaps depend on what else happens in the intense 2021 World Championship battle. Of course, we are all enjoying this level of competition, but maybe we need to think more about where to draw the line with crowd reaction. What is the solution, though? It can be condemned, but ultimately – as Verstappen perhaps alluded to in his comments – the onus is on the fans.
If history repeats itself, it will die out. But with the Verstappen vs Hamilton fight likely to continue for longer than those that occurred between Webber and Vettel, and Rosberg and Hamilton – with each of these rivalries ending thanks to the former’s retirement – it could take a lot longer for this round of booing to be put to bed.