The importance (or lack thereof) of being number 1

Jawad Yaqub Roar Guru

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    Lewis Hamilton and his team are facing their biggest challenge yet (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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    The moniker of ‘number one’ in motorsport is of greater significance than much of the rest of world sport, with the athlete physically able to display the numeral on their machines, to the envy of their competition.

    Over the years, the champion’s digit has been donned by many legendary figures.

    Michael Schumacher’s four-year reign over Formula One from the turn of the millennium could perhaps be the embodiment of that title.

    However, in more recent times, the coveted #1 has been neglected by champions across the world in varied categories of motorsport.

    Formula One itself has not seen numero uno since Sebastian Vettel’s dismal title defence in 2014, with Lewis Hamilton for the next two seasons opting to retain his personal number of 44.

    That’ll again be the case in 2017, with reigning world champion Nico Rosberg not even present on the grid, having retired from the sport at the conclusion of the previous campaign.

    MotoGP must look back as far as 2012 to see #1 being represented by a rider, with Aussie Casey Stoner having utilised it following his title triumph in 2011.

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    On the Australian Touring Car scene, 2017 will be a rarity with the defending series champion in Shane van Gisbergen opting to maintain his famous #97 – instead of highlighting his status as the champ with #1.

    While for traditionalists, the breakaway from endorsing #1 by title holders is a bit of a culture shock, it isn’t a malicious act.

    The issue in Formula One in the past decade has been its dwindling popularity, which is due in part to its archaic marketing techniques.

    The majority of the grid lacks any personality or character, for which historic figures such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, James Hunt and Gerhard Berger were well known.

    When it was announced that from the 2014 season, drivers were permitted to select their own numbers to represent them through their respective careers at the pinnacle of open-wheel racing, there was great expectation that the move would be as successful as the fiercely branded rider numbers of MotoGP.

    Nine-time Grand Prix motorcycle world champion Valentino Rossi has his distinguishable #46 emblazoned in bright yellow, on his Yamaha bike, his uniform and his merchandise.

    Hamilton’s #44 however, while gaining popularity amidst his own fan-base, isn’t anywhere near as eminent as the famous 46 – with even merchandise not utilising and stylising this brand to its full potential.

    That goes for the rest of the drivers on the Formula One grid with their personal numbers.

    And that isn’t the fault of the drivers, but rather the sport itself. Hopefully the marketing savvy of new owners Liberty Media will see that untapped area explored.

    If executed a la MotoGP or even NASCAR, then it would be excusable to see a champion not exhibit #1 in Formula One – as it would be more pleasing to the eye to have a catchy #44 or a striking #77.