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Issue 22

Racing Ahead: How The Popularity Of F1 Rebounded Globally

Sahil Mohan Gupta

After the global success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive (2019), the popularity of Formula-1 racing raced to new heights. What does this success mean for F-1 racing in India? Saahil Mohan Gupta traces the happenings that led to this rapid growth.

2005 was very similar to the way 2021 ended with Lewis Hamilton losing out on the world title for the first time in 4 years. Michael Schumacher had won five driver’s world championships on the bounce and Ferrari had won 6 constructor titles in a row. F1 had become predictable and boring. In 2005 and 2006, the legendary German was dethroned by Fernando Alonso in a fast Renault car and some rule changes designed to stop Ferrari in its tracks. It was an end of an era, but it was a time when F1 should’ve adapted but didn’t.

Schumacher was by far the biggest brand in F1. He drove for the most famous and loved team in the history of the sport – Ferrari. F1 was a machine in the mid-2000s and its popularity was spiking when in late 2006 Schumacher decided to retire. A decade and a half later Lewis Hamilton would statistically overtake his feats but F1’s popularity through his career has been in decline. The emergence of a Netflix documentary series, a young prodigy in Max Verstappen who many believed would put an end to the Englishman’s dominance has changed things.

In 2007 — F1 was treated to one of the greatest championship battles of all time. There were not 2 but 3 drivers in the mix for the crown. The battle went down to the wire to the last race of the season . It was the year Lewis Hamilton announced his arrival when he took on the world champion Alonso. But in the end, Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari prevailed. Raikkonen had replaced Schumacher took an unlikely win by a point. 2008 there was another titanic fight — this time it was Massa’s Ferrari and Hamilton in the McLaren. They went down to the wire, but Hamilton fortuitously prevailed. This year F1 had 600 million unique viewers, a number that has since not been achieved. F1 never embraced social media as its CEO Bernie Ecclestone was against it and would remain so till he was in charge till 2016. 

2009 was when the tide started turning against the sport. Ferrari and McLaren, the two icons of the sport, were nowhere in the mix. Alonso was struggling in the Renault. Brawn GP came from the ashes of Honda’s F1 project to propel Jensen Button to a world title. This team by 2010 would become the very same Mercedes team with whom Hamilton would become a world-beater. There was the rise of another power — Red Bull which had an Schumacher acolyte in a young Sebastian Vettel who made Button sweat for his only world title in 2009, but in 2010, he trounced the entire grid 4 years in a row. In this period F1’s growth of unique viewers dropped from 527 million to 450 million uniques between 2010-2013. But the overall viewership figures were growing still, even in India. 

In 2010 the eponymous Senna documentary was released by Asif Kapadia in 2010. It chronicled the story of Aryton Senna who had passed away during a crash in May 1994 at Imola. He is still considered the greatest F1 driver of all time and F1’s star was given another fillip. 

That year — Alonso who was now at Ferrari heartbreakingly lost out to Vettel in a cliffhanger. By 2011 the race in India was getting off the ground at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida. Things were looking good, but people didn’t show much love to the brash dominance of Vettel and the Red Bull team. People were still rooting for Ferrari and Alonso who pulled miracles in a slow car till 2013 coming P2 three times in a 5-year tenure at Maranello.

Come 2014, Mercedes had nailed the new turbo hybrid V6 engine and its advantage was immense. Mercedes and its driver line-up of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were different gravy. The 2014 season was a battle between the two — and Hamilton won out. Vettel had also joined Ferrari as a 4-time world champion. But in his 5-year tenure, especially in 2017 and 2018 when he had a car to match Hamilton and Mercedes, he faltered. In 2015, Red Bull fast-tracked a racing prodigy called Max Verstappen to its junior team Toro Rosso and then in 2016 elevated him to the main team where he won his first race becoming the youngest Grand Prix winner in history.

By 2017, F1 was also now under the control of Liberty Media which acquired the commercial rights from Ecclestone. It opened up social media for the sport. Before Liberty Media, drivers were not allowed to post on social media any content from the races and generally F1 till 2016 as a sport had no digital presence. Under Liberty Media, F1 even closed a deal with Netflix for a series called Drive to Survive (DTS). The first season debuted in 2019 chronicling the 2018 season but it didn’t feature Ferrari and Mercedes as the teams opted out of it only to change their mind for the next seasons.

DTS has been the single biggest catalyst for the rise of F1 in the US which had hit a stinging blow in 2005 thanks to a fascicle USGP at the legendary Indianapolis track. Even the return of the US GP at in Austin didn’t do much to improve things as F1 was mostly a one-man, one team show — Hamilton and Mercedes. Under Liberty Media in 2023, the US will have three races.

DTS showed the inner struggles and rivalries of the drivers. The audience saw the human side of the sport for the first time as mostly it was regarded as something highly technical and boring to watch. By the end of 2020, the cumulative average was 87.1 million viewers per race and overall the figure was at 1.5 billion ( not unique ) across a 17 race season which had 4 fewer races thanks to the pandemic. The overall figures of 1.9 billion in 2019 were higher though but it was social media that had 99% growth impressively. In India alone, F1 had 31.1 million viewers. That year the Italian GP had 112 million viewers — it was the race in which Charles Leclerc for Ferrari beat out Hamilton to win at its home — outlining how important its success is to F1 globally.

From a peak of 600 million uniques in 2008, the year Hamilton won his maiden title, these numbers had plunged to 352.3 million in 2017 when Hamilton won his fourth title in 2017 which was the first year of Liberty’s takeover of F1.

Aside from Drive To Survive and opening up social media, Liberty Media put in several measures to improve the reach of F1 which resulted in that number catapulting to 490.2 million uniques in 2018. These numbers have stayed relatively steady since — at 471 million uniques in 2019, 433 uniques in 2020 and 445 million last year. A big part of the digital push was the development of the F1.com website, the F1 app and also a series of podcasts like Beyond the Grid, F1 Nation which propelled the digital growth of F1 further. Now, there is a focus towards E-sports as well thanks to the pandemic.

This growth continued with 1.55 billion viewers at the end of the 2021 season, but this was a year Ferrari wasn’t in play for the world title hence the TV numbers of the audience were lower than in 2019 despite having one more race. The season finale at Abu Dhabi where Verstappen beat Hamilton to the world had only 108 million viewers was still lower than when Leclerc won for Ferrari in 2019 at Monza.

ESPN reported that the first race of the 2022 season that was won by Leclerc and featured Ferrari’s first 1-2 since the 2019 Singapore GP was the highest viewed F1 race since 1995 in the US. And with Ferrari having a competitive car, the rise of young Max Verstappen and the popularity of drivers like Carlos Sainz Jr, Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc and George Russell, F1 is set to have its best year ever — both globally and in India.

Sahil Mohan Gupta is a technology and automotive journalist with more than a decade of experience specializing in the field of artificial intelligence, consumer electronics and semiconductors. Currently, he works with a multitude of publications across domains. He is consulting technology editor at carandbike.com and also leads F1 coverage for the website. Alongside, he is the India editor of TechAdvisor UK and contributing tech editor for CNBCTV18.com and GQ India. 

Picture Credits: Wikipedia

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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