Behind the helmet: What makes the likes of Hamilton, Verstappen and Leclerc F1’s most marketable drivers?

Only soccer and tennis can lay claim to more representatives than motorsport in this year’s list of SportsPro’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes. With the 50MM ranking now out in the open, the BlackBook looks at some of the reasons behind the increasing marketability of drivers in Formula One.

The 13th edition of SportsPro’s 50 Most Marketable (50MM) Athletes list features more Formula One drivers than ever before. While the criteria used to determine 50MM has evolved over time, competitors from the global motorsport series have been a mainstay throughout its history, with Lewis Hamilton topping the ranking in 2014.

Yet the fact that ten per cent of the athletes on this year’s 50MM list are from a historically niche sport – only soccer and tennis have more representatives than motorsport – reflects well on Formula One’s efforts in recent years to better showcase the personalities of those behind the wheel.

It also speaks to the changing face of athlete marketability. This year’s list, which was developed in collaboration with NorthStar Solutions Group, was generated using methodology that took into account a wide range of factors – spanning data analysis, social media monitoring, economic valuations and real-world consumer insights.

The reasons behind the number of Formula One drivers in this year’s 50MM list are therefore nuanced, but it’s hard to ignore the impact of Netflix’s Drive to Survive documentary. While not an all-conquering revolution in sports content, the show has provided fans with unparalleled access to the sport, and the global motorsport series has been reaping the rewards ever since it debuted in 2019.

However, it’s impossible to talk about the success of Drive to Survive without also looking at the drivers who have been placed in the limelight as a result of it. No longer hidden behind race helmets, more and more of the racers are becoming household names, which is evidenced by the fact that five drivers make this year’s 50MM list.

All of the Formula One representatives come from the top three teams, with Hamilton and George Russell of Mercedes featuring alongside Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

Unlike in the 2022 world championship standings, Leclerc is ranked above Verstappen in terms of marketability, with the Monegasque placing 25th in the list, eight places ahead of the reigning world champion. In 33rd, Verstappen just pips Russell and his teammate Pérez, who rank 35th and 36th respectively.

Interestingly, despite recently being crowned champion of the sport for a second time and with his popularity seemingly at an all-time high, Verstappen not only has the lowest brand strength of all the Formula One drivers on the list, but also of every individual that appears in this year’s 50MM ranking.

It goes to show that marketability in Formula One is about more than championships alone.

Driving change

In terms of genuine global recognition, it’s hard to look past the highest-placed Formula One driver in this year’s 50MM list. Ranked third of all athletes – behind only soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo and tennis legend Serena Williams – Hamilton has an overall marketability score of 64.58 out of 100.

Most notably, the Brit is the only athlete on the list to receive a maximum score of 20 out of 20 for brand strength, which illustrates the value he offers to partners such as Tommy Hilfiger, Monster Energy and UBS, as well as Qualcomm, L’Oreal and IWC.

What’s important to note is that Hamilton’s appeal to brands is twofold. While statistically the greatest driver of all time with seven world titles and 103 career wins to his name, his impact now stretches far beyond the race track. As his time in the sport has grown, so too has his confidence in speaking out about important social issues such as racial inequality and sustainability.

Indeed, as Formula One’s only Black driver, Hamilton has taken it upon himself to lead the fight against racism in the sport, encouraging his fellow competitors to take the knee before races and displaying messages in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on his helmet and other items of clothing.

One of Hamilton’s more powerful protests came at the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix, when he wore a T-shirt displaying the message: ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’. Shortly after that statement at Mugello, the International Automobile Federation (FIA) announced all drivers were required to wear their race suits closed up to the neck during post-race procedures, illustrating the challenge Hamilton faces even within his own sport.

If anything, though, it has only made Hamilton more determined in his campaign for greater diversity, and it could be argued that this crusade has become the most important aspect of his racing career, superseding on-track success. The 37-year-old was instrumental in the publication of the Hamilton Commission, an in-depth study on diversity in motorsport, and is working with his Mercedes team to create employment opportunities for individuals from under-represented groups.

Hamilton’s mission is something that resonates with brands, especially at a time when businesses are looking to incorporate more purpose into their marketing. That can sometimes be a fine line to tread, but there are few ambassadors better placed to speak about topics like diversity and inclusion than Hamilton, who over his career has also shown a willingness to take an active role in collaborating with his partners.

His efforts have been amplified by sponsors such as Swiss watch brand IWC, which last year ran a campaign focusing on Hamilton’s evolution from a ‘driver of the fastest cars’ to a ‘driver of change’.

On the sustainability front, meanwhile, his work with fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger has centred around clothing lines made from recycled materials.

The Twitch generation

While Hamilton’s on-track success and social activism has helped him transcend the sport in which he competes, there is now a younger crop of digital-savvy drivers who have been willing to embrace different platforms in order to engage with a larger audience. Formula One, too, has pioneered a series of digital initiatives since Liberty Media’s takeover that have helped raise the profile of its competitors throughout the grid.

The most obvious example is the aforementioned Drive to Survive. When the Netflix docuseries first became available to viewers in 2019, the top two teams at the time – Mercedes and Ferrari – refused to take part in filming. This meant Netflix had to focus on other teams, giving the likes of Red Bull more initial screen time. Back then, Leclerc also benefitted from driving for Sauber, meaning he was included from the very first season before his switch to Ferrari the following year. When Russell entered the sport in 2019, he was also featured extensively in the docuseries while driving for backmarker Williams.

While this gave certain drivers an initial platform, one of the first times they were able to share unfiltered versions of themselves was during the pandemic. As sport across the world paused, Formula One launched a virtual Grand Prix series, which gave viewers a glimpse into the passion for gaming shared by the championship’s so-called ‘Twitch generation’ of racers. It not only served to keep up engagement with fans, but also allowed viewers to see how the drivers interact with each other when they’re away from the serious business of the race track.

If nothing else, it made some of the sport’s up-and-coming drivers more relatable by demonstrating that even Formula One’s elite athletes share the same interests as other people in their early 20s.

The most active was British driver Lando Norris, who does not feature on this year’s 50MM list but at the time of writing sits at 1.3 million followers on Amazon-owned Twitch. However, the likes of Leclerc, who has 824,000 followers, and Russell, whose count stands at 248,000, saw their followings increase as they started to engage with an audience outside of Formula One’s core fanbase.

Twitch’s audience naturally skews younger, so the presence of Leclerc and Russell – who themselves are still under 25 – on the platform is likely appeal to brands looking for ways to reach the highly sought-after Gen Z demographic.

That engagement with digital communities should therefore serve both drivers well as they build out their endorsement portfolios, with Leclerc already serving as the face of Giorgio Armani’s ‘Made to Measure’ campaign in 2020.

National pride

The reasons for 32-year-old Pérez’s inclusion in this year’s 50MM list might not be immediately obvious, especially when compared with Hamilton’s far-reaching activism and the way some of the younger drivers are connecting with fans through gaming.

However, his marketability score is less than two points off that of his Dutch teammate Verstappen. This is despite having a social media following that only betters Russell from the top three teams – the McLaren pairing of Norris and Daniel Ricciardo also exceed the Mexican’s numbers.

So what makes Pérez so marketable? There is significant national interest in the 32-year-old, something afforded to Formula One drivers hailing from countries that rarely see representatives from their shores. The last Mexican to win a race before Pérez was Ricardo Rodríguez in the 1960s, and there have only been six Mexican Formula One drivers in history.

The fervent support that turns out at Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez to watch the Mexican Grand Prix demands a home hero, and they now have one in a race-winning car. Perez’s Mexican roots can also be seen in the commercial support he receives, whether it be from long-term partner América Móvil, a telecommunications company based in Mexico City, or his most recent commercial deal with the Patrón Tequila brand.

A similar trend can be seen with Verstappen, who benefits from great support from the ‘Orange Army’ in his home country. It’s therefore no surprise to find that a number of his endorsement deals are with Dutch brands such as Jumbo Supermarkets, which likely sees partnering with the 25-year-old as an opportunity to connect with his highly engaged domestic following.

Verstappen also has a partnership with streaming platform Viaplay, the new home of Formula One in the Netherlands, which is creating an exclusive documentary about the Dutchman’s rise to becoming world champion. The series is set to premiere between the end of the current Formula One season in November and the beginning of the 2023 campaign.

F1 reigns supreme

For all the talk of how many Formula One drivers feature in this year’s 50MM list, representatives from other motorsport series are conspicuous by their absence.

Whether it be Marc Marquez or Bubba Wallace Jr, the likes of MotoGP, Nascar, IndyCar and others would all claim that they too boast athletes who are deserving of a place in the ranking.

Individuals from those series have featured in the past, but this year’s 50MM list shows that Formula One continues to lead the way in motorsport when it comes to producing globally marketable athletes.

And as the series’ following continues to rise, that probably shouldn’t be expected to change anytime soon.

To find out more about the 50 Most Marketable Athletes, including the full ranking, methodology and further insights, click here.