Motor racing-Verstappen is F1's fan favourite, McLaren most popular team

FILE PHOTO: Formula One F1 - Turkish Grand Prix - Intercity Istanbul Park, Istanbul, Turkey - October 10, 2021 Red Bull's Max Verstappen waves to the fans after finishing the race in second place REUTERS/Umit Bektas

(Reuters) - World championship leader Max Verstappen beat title rival Lewis Hamilton as Formula One's fan favourite in the sport's latest global survey published ahead of the U.S. Grand Prix on Thursday.

Feedback from 167,000 fans, with an average age of 32 and coming from 187 countries, placed Red Bull's Verstappen top of the popularity stakes with McLaren emerging as the favourite team.

Monza, Spa-Francorchamps, Silverstone and Monaco were the most loved circuits.

The survey was commissioned by Formula One and Motorsport Network and conducted by Nielsen Sports, who said it was their largest ever involving a single sport.

Verstappen, leads Mercedes' seven times world champion Hamilton by six points with six races remaining and the 24-year-old Dutchman was particularly popular among the 25-34 age bracket and across all regions.

McLaren's 21-year-old Lando Norris, yet to win a race, was second overall but ranked highest by female fans.

Mercedes' Hamilton was third overall but top in Britain and among the over-45s.

"His appeal, and that of fellow multiple world champion Fernando Alonso, appears more polarized than most," the survey found.

Formula One chief executive Stefano Domenicali told reporters he was surprised, although the result could be explained by the generally younger demographic.

"For sure it's a sign that we don't have a problem with drivers for the future," he added.

McLaren's Australian Daniel Ricciardo was fourth, and second most popular among female fans, with Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel, a four times world champion, fifth.

They were followed by Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Alpine's double world champion Alonso.

The results showed greater interest and engagement than before, with female participation in the survey growing to 18.3% from a previous 10% in 2017.

Three quarters of those who responded lived in a country with a grand prix.

Some 90% of fans felt Formula One was "the pinnacle of motorsport" and 55% said the sport was in better health than five years ago compared to a previous 25%.

The survey said McLaren had "experienced a renaissance".

They were top in Europe, the Americas and Middle East and Africa but second to Red Bull in Asia-Pacific.

Nielsen Sport's Nigel Geach said McLaren's one-two at Monza in September, the month of the survey, had not skewed the results.

Ferrari, the sport's oldest and most glamorous team, had been top of every previous survey since 2006 but their 32% vote in 2017 slipped to 18%.

Mercedes, winners of the past seven drivers' and constructors' titles, dropped from 16.2% to 11.9% and were fourth most popular.

Half of the fans watched Formula One on pay television and a majority played motorsport-specific video games. Some 64% of those aged 16-34 were active gamers.

"It's clear that we are reaching new fans, people that are also coming to the sport with a different vision," said Domenicali.

The survey found 55% of fans also wanted Formula One to be a world leader in the development of 100% sustainable fuels.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Toby Davis)

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