Alex Thomson: “I wanted to create the content that lived on social media”

Alex Thomson has been working in F1 since 2015, having covered the sport on her own blog for years before. Two years ago, she left her role at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix’s Yas Marina Circuit, going on to work in Sweden with the F1 Paddock Club before the Coronavirus pandemic hit. Now she has started her own freelance company and is producing a world first with the Zoom Virtual Formula 1 Paddock Club. I spoke to her about this, life in the paddock and her inspirations.

In 2018, Alex was working as Yas Marina Circuit’s Social Media Manager. After four seasons with the circuit, she took the decision that it was the right time to move on. “Originally when I moved to Dubai in 2015, I had in my mind that I would do three, maximum four years. The way I saw it, it was my opportunity to learn, get exposed to many avenues of business and also specialise in Formula One. I made the decision that I didn’t want to continue on the promoter side, and I wanted to move away from that,” she said. After beginning to look elsewhere, it certainly wasn’t an easy journey to finding her next step. “I started putting some feelers out, but I had a few false starts by being offered roles and then not being able to see them through because of Visa requirements,” Alex told me.

Whilst working at the Grand Prix in 2018, she had started talking to the team who were working on a new project with the F1 Paddock Club. “They’d just launched their social media programme, and at that stage were still trying to secure it fulltime. We just started chatting, and I kept a mental note that that could be an option,” the Australian explained. A few months and discussions later, this networking paid off, with her saying: “in February 2019, I had breakfast with a friend who was part of the programme. A few days later he sent me a message saying they’d like me to head the social and content side.” Although moving away from her current role was what she felt like she needed, it was still a huge decision to make. “I was looking back to when I joined. I had made so much progress, I’d learnt a lot and I was proud of what I’d done, but I just didn’t feel there was enough progression. It was a bit scary, leaving something so secure, but I had to take a leap of faith,” she said.

“I wanted to create the content that lived on social media”

Alex went on to become the agency’s Social Media Manager, moving to Sweden where the agency was based. From managing the F1 Paddock Club’s social channels, to developing digital strategies, there were similarities to her previous role. However, there were also new responsibilities that she discovered a passion for. “What I found most enjoyable was that it was far more content production based. I would come up with a production plan and then manage the creative to make sure we were getting the content we needed. I loved it and it was definitely what I wanted to move into. I still love social media, and I love how teams in F1 use their personality on there, but I wanted to create the content that lived on social media,” she described. When working with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, this was the only race Alex was guaranteed to attend, though this changed with her new role. “When I was with Yas Marina Circuit, any other race I went to, I was sending myself. I wanted to be there and see the race, cover the it from the track and obviously I would get to see Jack (Aitken) race which was an added benefit. I would only go to a couple of races a year, but for 2019, I was going to every race apart from Singapore and Brazil,” she told me.

Unfortunately, this role came to an end earlier this year, with the agency she was working for having to downsize quickly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With her one-year visa in Sweden coming to an end a few months later, she needed to find something soon. “At the time, Jess (McFadyen) had just started at Motorsport Network, and I was talking to her the day after I was made redundant. She didn’t know, but she said she needed someone like me on her team. I said: ‘well actually you can have me!’” Alex explained. After starting her own freelance company, she signed contracts with the Motorsport Network brands, as well as returning to Formula 1 to produce the Zoom Virtual Paddock Club.

In 2020, a race weekend for Alex is extremely busy, with her both covering sessions online and producing the Virtual Paddock Club. Speaking about how her weekend plays out, she said: “I arrive wherever the race is on Wednesday. We’ve usually started planning the schedule for the Virtual Paddock Club around then when we will decide who we want to request to be interviewed and the content structure. We go through this with F1 and our remote expert hosts, aiming to have a new show every week even if we are talking about the same subjects. On Friday, we do a dress rehearsal. With the Virtual Paddock Club being a live show, we have to have it nailed, so rehearsal time is important. I’m also balancing my race weekend commitments to Motorsport Network, though thankfully the schedules complement each other. In the morning, I dedicate my time to Autosport and Motorsport.com coverage to populate the social channels, I’ll then get ready for the Virtual Paddock Club. Thankfully on Saturday and Sunday it becomes very executional as we’ve already done the prep earlier in the week. Due to broadcast restrictions, our show ends before F1 qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday. Sunday can be a little more relaxed. As soon as the live show finishes, I cover the race with Motorsport Network and we wrap-up the weekend content.”

“It’s a challenge, but we know these precautions are necessary, without them, we wouldn’t be able to go racing”

Since racing returned in July, strict COVID-19 bubbles have been introduced to the paddock to ensure everyone stays safe. However, these can present a challenge. “There are times when we think of an activity or view-point that would be great to show, but then realise you’re not in the same bubble. A perfect example of this was in Spain. We would usually do a podium tour, but the route to the podium was on the other side of the FIA’s bubble and we couldn’t cross that. It’s a challenge, but we know these precautions are necessary, without them, we wouldn’t be able to go racing. Reduced staff on the ground means that everyone is juggling a few different roles. It’s the same up and down the grid. people are working their arses off to make sure we can keep racing,” Alex explained. After the season was postponed, it was a difficult time for those working in motorsport, so to return to racing has been a comfort to many. “When I walked back into the paddock for the first time in Austria, there was this feeling of relief. I was still working, it had been a hell of a year so far for everyone, but I remember thinking: ‘right, I’m going to be OK’,” she said.

From the very beginning, social media has been a large part of Alex’s career, with her now having amassed quite a following. “I love it when I check my DMs and I have someone say they love what I’m doing, or ask if I have any advice, because that was me six or seven years ago, I was that person. I’m obviously still quite a small person in the paddock though, but it’s just crazy,” she told me. Although she’s unsure of this, her own fanbase seems to be forming. “I think they’re more fans of Jack,” Alex said. “For a while I had my twitter bio as ‘unofficial Jack Aitken fan account’. I don’t really post pictures of Jack and myself together, and if someone came across my Twitter, they might just mistake me for a fan – it happened quite recently actually, someone tweeted saying: ‘I was today years old when I found out that Alex and Jack are actually dating’, it really made me laugh.” This does provide the couple with some entertainment though, especially on Alex’s side. “I have a bit of fun with Jack about it. There’ll be times when he responds to something, and I’ll go in and ‘steal his limelight’, I like that side of Twitter, it’s really wholesome,” she explained.

“It’s funny how quickly the paddock becomes your family”

Alex’s work in F1 began with writing her own blog, Alelbuth.com. The sport has gone on to change her life, with her meeting people she wouldn’t have done, and working in places she would never have gone. “I can still remember the early stages that I thought about working in Formula One. I’m still not where I want to be, there’s still more I want to do and achieve and work on. I make sure I keep checking in with myself and looking back to where I started to see how far I’ve come. It’s funny how quickly the paddock becomes your family though. Most, if not all, of my closest friends work in motorsport, and I’ve met Jack through it which is lovely. Before I met Jack, I did have a rule for myself that I wouldn’t date inside the paddock, and definitely wouldn’t date a driver! He likes to tease me on that one… oh well! I also like to keep mementos of everything, I try and collect something from every race weekend. I also like to keep Jack’s little mementos and driver cards; especially when he gives them to me as presents! I genuinely can’t imagine what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing this,” the Australian described.

“In a business sense, and personal, she’s just a force of nature!”

Having spent several years working in Formula One, Alex has worked with many people who inspire her. “It’s hard not to feel inspired in the paddock alongside women like Alexa Quintin, Amy Overy and Kate Beavan, just to name a few. Being able to watch them work and learn from them has been invaluable. It also helps that they are so lovely and have become friends of mine. The person I still want to work with most, and I’ve told her before how much she inspires me, is Aurelie Donzelot,” she said. “Aurelie had just joined Lotus when I came in for my first meetings about an internship, and she’s still with the team now, having become Renault. I love the work that she does, I just keep thinking: ‘when I grow up, I want to be like Oz!’. Also, I have worked with Jess for a while now, and I’m a couple of years older than her but when I see her, I just think: ‘she’s got her s**t together!’ In a business sense, and personal, she’s just a force of nature!”.

With eight Grands Prix raced, there are still nine to go, with some of the tracks having been absent from the F1 calendar for several years. Looking to the rest of the season, there are several things that Alex is excited about. “I think I’m looking forward to a bit of stability and security, which I suppose is related to work, but slightly more on a personal note. I still actually haven’t been to the Russian Grand Prix so I’m looking forward to experiencing that too. I’m most excited for Portimão and Imola though track-wise. I could never have dreamed of being involved in a season with this calendar,” Alex explained.

You can read more about Alex’s career previous to this here.

Photo credits: Alex Thomson and F1.

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