Trend Analysis

The Resurgence of 'Smooth Operator': Uncovering the Impact of Carlos Sainz and Fangirl Culture on an 80s hit song

Exploring how a Formula One driver and his fanbase propelled a 39-year-old song to viral fame in 2023 - and again in 2024!
Lou Rochdi

April 5, 2024

Design by Lou Rochdi

In recent years we’ve seen the resurgence of classic songs. Think about how Stranger Things revived "Running Up That Hill" 37 years after its release and how Saltburn brought "Murder on the Dancefloor", a song from 2001, back to the spotlight in 2024. The influence of movie and TV sync in resurrecting old songs has been proven, but today we’ll explore a more unconventional method to market a catalog track. 

The song "Smooth Operator" blew up on Tiktok in the summer of 2023, leading to a whopping 480% increase in daily Spotify streams from January to its peak. While watching Netflix's docu-series "Formula One: Drive to Survive" later that year, I noticed Carlos Sainz, one of the drivers, consistently singing that very song after his race victories and podium finishes since 2019.

This begs the question - Could there be a direct link between Sainz's post-race karaoke sessions and the sudden resurgence of "Smooth Operator" in 2023? 

Let's look into it!


Sainz first sang the tune at the British Grand Prix (GP) in July 2019, revealing post-race that it had been playing repeatedly on his car's radio. 

"Just a song that kept coming up on the radio of the car [during] the British Grand Prix [weekend]. Then people in the team started telling me what a smooth operator was. And then I realized, well, maybe I can attribute myself that and start creating a bit of a joke around me,"
Sainz explained, as reported by Autosport.

For those not familiar with Formula One (F1), drivers don’t listen to music during races as they need to be able to hear and communicate with their engineer. It's likely that he overheard the song during radio conversations, possibly coming from the pit lane in the background.

Examining radio plays in 2019, we notice a 140% spins surge globally from March to April, indicating the highest interest observed in recent years.

Zooming in on radio spins in the UK during the British Grand Prix, we find that 'Smooth Operator' was aired multiple times over the weekend.

We can speculate that the radio promotion from March to June reintroduced the song to people's minds, potentially catching the attention of engineers and technicians at McLaren (Sainz's racing team in 2019) who coincidentally played the song in the pit lane that weekend, which Sainz overheard.


Reviewing the Google Trends data for the song in 2019, there's no notable peak following Silverstone. However, the gimmick recurred in Hungary in August and in Brazil in November, as he climbed from last on the grid to 3rd on the podium—an impressive achievement that earned him the nickname 'Smooth Operator'.

After those races, we see a spike in Google searches for the song. Yet, two more similar spikes that year unrelated to GP events make it hard to conclusively link the growth to Sainz's singing.

Two years later, at Monza, Sainz did it again, and his engineer playfully teased him. The moment spread widely on social media among F1 fans, and this time, we saw a significant isolated peak. Searches for the song increased by over 90% throughout the week following the Italian race.

Between 2019 and 2021, the link between Sainz's singing and the song's interest is noticeable but fades shortly after each race, failing to trigger a widespread resurgence. But 2023 marked a turning point.


After a stagnant period of several years, the song's Spotify daily streams suddenly surged after April 4th, 2023. The numbers climbed from an average of 155k daily streams before April to a peak of 843,836 daily streams on June 18th, marking a remarkable 445% growth in just 11 weeks.

At first sight, this growth doesn’t seem linked to the driver - he hasn't sung the song at any of the first races in 2023.

​​Upon closer inspection, we observe the consistent release of TikTok “thirst traps” of Sainz to the record from late January through the start of the Formula One season. Just four edits accumulate over 8 million views, expanding their reach beyond F1 to fanbases like Mangas, Twilight, Disney, and Pedro Pascal fans, who started to contribute to the trend in April. 

On May 5th (day of the US Grand Prix), DJ Enzo Is Burning dropped a house remix of the song on TikTok which blew up amongst the masses, pushing the original song to its highest streaming numbers in a decade.

Through a combined analysis of Spotify and TikTok data, we deduce that Sainz fan edits drew attention to "Smooth Operator" in early 2023 followed by the DJ remix which will bring the song to mainstream audience. 

After the song's resurgence, Sainz's singing had a more significant impact on the streams. After his Singapore Grand Prix victory in 2023, where he reintroduced his anthem, streams increased by 15% the following week. Similarly, his celebration following the Australian GP victory two weeks ago triggered a 35% surge, translating to an increase of 173k daily streams (as of April 5th). This represents the most substantial growth in streams attributable to Sainz since his initial rendition of the song in 2019 and it's the first one not showing a decline after a week.


The 2021 Fan Survey by Motorsport Network revealed that fans in 2021 differed significantly from those of the past two decades and that's the key difference between 2019 and 2023.

  1. They're the youngest demographic ever recorded. 34% of fans were aged 16-24 – up from 26% in 2017 and 18% in 2015. 
  2. Female fans are growing and more prevalent than ever - 18.3% in 2021, representing an 83% and 177% increase respectively compared to the 2017 & 2015 studies.
  3. The audience is newer. The percentage of participants following F1 for 5 years or less, tripled from 11.7% in 2017 to 34% in 2021.

The fanbase shift, contrasting with the sport's past 70 years, is closely linked to the release of the Netflix docu-series "Formula One: Drive to Survive". The show directly contributed to F1’s popularity by providing an entertaining introduction to the sport and lowering the barrier to entry for new audiences, including younger and female fans.

However, it took time for fans to join. The first season in 2019 gathered 288k viewers on its release week, while season 5 (released in February 2023) doubled that, reaching 643k viewers.

Traditionally, fan accounts have been managed predominantly by fangirls. So with more female fans joining, driver-focused fan accounts have emerged, and TikTok has provided the perfect platform for creating and sharing fan edits. Though in 2019, TikTok was still niche, only gaining traction during the 2020 pandemic. It’ll take a bit more time before video fan edits can really take off.


The resurgence of classic songs into popularity can be the result of a butterfly effect. 

If radio stations hadn't played the song in 2019, would engineers and techs at McLaren have played it at Silverstone? If Netflix hadn't produced "Drive to Survive", would there be as many female F1 fans in 2023? And if TikTok didn't exist, would fans have had the platform to create video edits? It's hard to say. This case study serves as evidence of how a song's renewed popularity can originate from the most unexpected sources.

Fangirls are your most esteemed marketers and have a significant influence over a celebrity’s brand and reach. 

Could Sainz have produced the same effect for the song without them? Frankly, no.

Reviewing data from 2019 to 2022, despite Sainz’s repeated performances of ‘Smooth Operator,’ it failed to gain traction in streams or radio plays. What made 2023 stand out was the work of several fan accounts on TikTok who crafted well-edited "thirst traps" of the driver to the song. These videos went viral, accumulating millions of views and reigniting global interest in the 39-year-old song.

Fangirls essentially made the song synonymous with Sainz, as evidenced by the majority of comments on the song’s official youtube video focusing on the driver and his recent "smooth operation".

This once again highlights the impact fans have on creating a recognizable brand for a celebrity, and how the streams of associated songs can increase as a result.

If you like this article, you should check out our "paddock fm" playlist for more F1 related tunes :)

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