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Crying child highlights new face of Formula One

By Alan Baldwin

BARCELONA (Reuters) - A sobbing six-year-old, his tears broadcast worldwide after his Ferrari idol Kimi Raikkonen crashed out of the Spanish Grand Prix, became a symbol on Sunday of Formula One's new fan-friendly approach.

Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion and one of the sport's most popular drivers, collided on the opening lap with Red Bull's 2016 race winner Max Verstappen and retired.

As the television cameras panned around the crowd, they picked out the tearful face of Thomas Danel from the French city of Amiens.

A social media surge ensued, with organisers and Ferrari quick to react and bring the boy -- wearing a Ferrari cap and shirt -- into the exclusive paddock area with his family to meet Raikkonen.

The Finn, known as the "Ice Man", gave him a pair of racing shoes and the youngster later joined mechanics to watch the podium celebrations with Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel finishing second.

"This has been the most fantastic day for us," his mother Coralie was quoted as saying by organisers. "We could not believe it when they came to get us and took us to Ferrari."

Formula One's new owners Liberty Media, who took over as commercial rights holders in January, have made improving the fan experience a priority as they seek to boost crowds and drive revenues.

Former supremo Bernie Ecclestone had little time for social media and the sport relied on individual race promoters and the media for marketing.

The Spanish Grand Prix, the start of the European season, saw a number of new initiatives trumpeted as part of a revamped "fan festival".

Drivers and team officials were interviewed publicly on the starting grid after qualifying and before the race for all to hear while more access was granted to other areas.

Prizes included a 300kph ride in a two-seater racing car, trips around the track on the drivers' parade truck were available and pit lane guests were given access to a fully functioning garage.

"Formula One is undergoing a major evolution and the Spanish Grand Prix is a landmark moment in the brand’s history," declared commercial managing director Sean Bratches.

"From the outset, we have focused on getting fans closer to the action and broadening the appeal of the sport."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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