Formula 1 Racing’s Breakthrough in America

By Ruby Garff

 Sunday, June 12 at 7:00 am, I should’ve been in bed. It was the second weekend of summer, and I had finally got a break from my unhealthy sleep schedule of around 6 hours a night. I should’ve been taking advantage of  the weekend.  But instead, I was awake. I  sat on the couch, eyes fixed on the tv.  I was watching as one light went on, then another, then another, then another, then finally, they all flashed off. Lights out, and away we go. The screech of 80 tires, the roar of 20 engines. The drivers pulled away as they rounded the first corner, the cars whizzing past the camera, Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes. The 2022 Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix had begun, and nothing, not even a nonexistent night of sleep, could keep me from watching it. 

 In 2011, there were 19 Grand Prix races on the Formula 1 calendar, not one was in the United States. Fast forward to 2023, and there are 22 Grand Prix races on the Formula 1 calendar– three of which will be in the United States. This is more than any other country. More than Italy, home of Ferrari, which has 2. More than England, who originated F1, which only has 1.  The US, home of NASCAR and the Indy 500, will host 3 races of a completely un-American racing series. This year saw the debut of one of these 3, the Miami Grand Prix, with ticket prices for race day alone costing around $750 minimum. 242,955 fans flocked to the Hard Rock Stadium. They watched cars go around the temporary track surrounding a stadium that has hosted six super bowls. This monument to American sport was now the Miami International Autodrome.

F1 broke America.

So what happened?
Why did this country suddenly become fascinated with a European race-car series that doesn’t even have any American competitors? 

The answer is Netflix.

If you have never heard of Formula 1, or never watched it, it can be intimidating. The commentators use words like DRS, slipstream, graining, over-cut, under-cut, etc. The races can seem like long stretches of nothing, like 20 cars parading through a street.  If you weren’t born into an F1-loving family, your Sundays were spent watching Football, not F1. That was until Drive to Survive hit Netflix in 2018.

Formula  1: Drive To Survive is a soapy, slightly overdramatic, docuseries entirely devoted to the sport of F1. It follows many of the 20 drivers and 10 teams throughout the 2018 F1 season.  This was how I got into F1. My brother came down the stairs one day in the middle of quarantine and enthusiastically told me all about this series he was binging. Suddenly, I was hooked. I had to know if young talent Charles Leclerc was going to Ferrari, I had to know why Daniel Ricciardo decided to leave Red Bull, a team who’d brought him 7 race wins. I was cheering when my favorite drivers won and becoming devastated when they lost. 

I have never, like actually never, cared this much about sports. 

This fascination with F1, with the dramatic nature of Drive To Survive, is no accident on the part of F1 as a company, as a business. They saw the lacking numbers in the US market, and frankly, in the world as a whole. F1 wasn’t bringing in young, new viewers. There was nothing about these fast cars that were making people stick around.

There was one person who never saw a problem with this.

Bernie Ecclestone. 

The name is almost unspeakable for young fans. Bernie Ecclestone clung to the old ways of F1, prioritizing and preserving the exclusivity of this expensive sport. For about a 40-year stretch of time, Ecclestone was the owner of F1. He is perhaps the single most influential person in the history of F1, bringing it to its insane popularity, cementing its status and allure above all other motorsports.  Ecclestone’s ideas were far from ingenious in a modern light. He maintained that he and broadcasters held almost exclusive rights over all F1 content. No race footage was even allowed on social media. There are a myriad of issues with Ecclestone–like fraud, bribery, and  deeply problematic comments not normally made by 91-year-old men. F1 as a sport was at its wit’s end with Ecclestone, and finally, in 2017, the brand was bought out by American company Liberty Media for $4.6 billion dollars. 

Liberty Media is the real main character of F1’s breakthrough in America. 

Liberty Media had absolutely zero business buying F1. Their investments prior included the Atlanta Braves, and… Sirius XM? Who were they to purchase one of the largest sports in the world?

Oh. 

A 140 million viewer difference between 2017 to 2018? Sorry I asked.

In 2019, the average American viewing of F1 races was 672,000. In 2021, this number saw a 39% increase, to 934,000. This doesn’t seem like much, but during F1’s previous heyday in America, 1995, the number was 748,000.

This brings us back to Drive to Survive. Creating Drive to Survive was one of the first things Liberty Media did. It peeled back the curtain on a deeply intriguing world of sport and introduced us to drivers and other figures like:

Guenther Steiner. 

Team Principal (boss) of the only America-based F1 team. He is one of the most unintentionally funny men on planet Earth.  As far as I’m concerned, Drive To Survive is Guenther’s show and everyone else is just a side character.

Daniel Ricciardo

33-year-old Australian F1 driver with 8 career race wins. Known for just deciding to leave one of the most successful F1 teams of all time and drinking champagne out of his shoe. Yes, his dirty  sweaty race shoe. 

Lewis Hamilton

Greatest F1 driver of all time with 7 championships and 103 race wins.  He won 33% of all races he entered from 2007-2021 because he’s just that good.  

This was an American’s way into the sport; this was a young person’s way into the sport. On top of that, Liberty finally allowed for race footage to be shown on social media by the drivers and the teams, rapidly accelerating F1’s popularity in digital spaces. 

Now when you ask an American about

 F1, you won’t be met with, what? 

Well, you might, but there’s a much larger chance you’ll be met with, “Oh, like Drive To Survive?”

F1’s gone from dated and inaccessible to modern and widely popular. The appeal of F1 is easy to see, with its on-the-edge-of-your-seat action, and the behind the scenes drama. I know that I never expected myself to care this much about cars, and now I wake up in the morning every other Sunday to watch my favorite 20 race car drivers compete for one of the most illustrious trophies in motorsport. 

In three weeks, the next race in Singapore will come, and I’ll be there. Screaming drivers’ names, urging them on, getting angry if they crash and overjoyed if they win. The only reason for this is 40 episodes of reality tv-style drama,  the only reason is Drive To Survive. 

Sources

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2022-05-05/formula-1-s-miami-grand-prix-brings-america-its-drive-to-survive-moment

Graph

FerrariGra

2021

https://corp.formula1.com/formula-1-announces-audience-and-fan-attendance-figures-for-2021/

2020:

https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/article.formula-1-announces-tv-and-digital-audience-figures-for-2020.3sbRmZm4u5Jf8pagvPoPUQ.html

2019:

https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/article.f1-broadcast-to-1-9-billion-fans-in-2019.4IeYkWSoexxSIeJyuTrk22.html

2018:

https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/article.formula-1s-tv-and-digital-audiences-grow-for-the-second-year-running.OqTPVNthtZKFbKqBaimKf.html

2017:

https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/article.strong-growth-for-f1s-tv-and-digital-audiences-in-2017.6Cted4V292gQ420AeoSO2e.html

2016:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/csylt/2018/01/06/f1-tv-audience-reverses-by-40-million-under-revised-measurement-system/

2015:

2014:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/csylt/2015/02/01/f1-loses-25-million-viewers-driven-by-switch-to-pay-tv/

F1 2013, 12, 11:

https://www.autosport.com/f1/news/f1-audience-drop-in-2013-blamed-on-vettels-domination-4471266/4471266/#:~:text=In%20the%20official%202013%20Global,from%202011%20was%20515%20million.

2010:

https://www.autoweek.com/racing/formula-1/a1992986/formula-one-tv-audience-slightly-2010/#:~:text=Formula%20One’s%20global%20television%20audience,London%2Dbased%20Formula%20One%20Management.

2009 and 2008, 2009

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/feb/15/formula-one-tv#:~:text=F1’s%20global%20TV%20audience%20took,following%20year%20to%20527%20million.

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