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Has Formula 1’s Popularity Peaked?

Ever seen the zero-interest phenomenon meme? Popular on Twitter and Instagram, users share things that were popular specifically in 2020-2022 when interest rates were near zero, but have since either lost popularity or become non-existent altogether. NFTs. “Cash is trash” phrase. The metaverse. Day trading as a career. All examples of the phenomenon at play.

Here’s one worth adding: Formula 1. We have to preface this by saying F1 in the United States since it’s always had more traction in Europe and other overseas markets. But in the US, it shot up in popularity out of nowhere mid-pandemic.

Allow us to present to you F1’s incredible rise and potential fall we’re amid. We have hard evidence to prove both our points too:

F1’s Incredible Rise

March 8, 2019 — a day that should be etched in F1’s history. That’s when its Netflix show, “Drive To Survive” debuted. Though, it wasn’t a blowout success right away. That would not be the case until the year after.

Season two of the show debuted February 28, 2020 — literally weeks before the global pandemic broke out and people were glued inside. Streaming shows naturally benefited from it, including F1’s series. All of a sudden, the chatter around this racing sport really picked up.

Netflix's “Drive to Survive” led to a huge interest gain in Formula 1 in the United States. A global pandemic and a super close competition also helped matters in the years that followed.
Image courtesy of Book and Film Globe

TV ratings signal this trend. In 2018, the season before Drive to Survive, ESPN averaged 554.000 viewers per race that year. The year before, when NBC had the rights (which is a free channel compared to ESPN), viewers were 538.000 per race. But in 2019, TV viewers surged to 671.000 per event — a 21 percent jump from the prior season.

Drive to Survive gets singular credit for the boost mostly, but that wouldn’t be fair to the sport. That’s because the 2021 season was, arguably, one of the greatest in history. It featured a see-saw battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen for the world championship. In a sport known for lopsided dominance (more on that soon), a heated contest was another boon to interest.

During the 2021 season, races averaged 934.000 viewers — an almost 40-percent increase from 2019. Mind you, most F1 races start at awful times due to the time-zone differences between the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean. When a race was actually stateside, the US Grand Prix, audiences peaked at 1.2 million viewers that year.

F1 had finally arrived in the US it seemed like. For decades, it was an afterthought to other racing sports like NASCAR and even IndyCar. Not anymore, though, as it infiltrated pop culture with folks swapping tips for Formula 1 betting.

In 2022, the sport averaged 1.21 million viewers per race — another 30-percent jump from the year before. The 2022 viewership figure had doubled its 2018 number, the last before Drive to Survive.

F1 responded to the popularity spike by awarding the United States three calendar races — the most of any country. The US Grand Prix in Austin has been in the mix, but joining the fray is the Miami and Las Vegas Grand Prix. Miami debuted in 2022 (with a record 2.6 million TV viewers), while Las Vegas gets its shiny debut later this year. But as they say, what goes up, must come down — and that’s what we’re seeing in F1 right now.

F1’s Slowing Growth

The 2023 season has cooled F1’s popularity significantly. The season is ongoing so we can’t say for sure where the TV audience will lie. But as of mid-July, viewership ratings were 1.26 million. Not catastrophic of course (still a 5.8-percent increase year-over-year), but like the stock market, it’s not up only as it was during the pandemic.

Moreover, the Miami Grand Prix’s viewership fell to just under two million. It wasn’t going to top the 2022 number that had a new factor to it. Still, the figure is far under the three million or so viewers NASCAR averages. It’s fair to compare these numbers because of the start times being similar to American viewers.

More than anything else, the lack of competition on the grid is what’s stalling out F1. We’re 11 races into 2023 and Red Bull has won every single one — Verstappen nine times and Sergio Perez with two. Verstappen has all but locked up his third straight world title only halfway into the campaign.

Yes, F1 has almost always been one-sided this century. Before Verstappen, it was Hamilton, and before him it was Michael Schumacher. Still, American fans appreciate a close battle and the 2023 season has provided none of that. “Boring” is the word some fans are using to describe the campaign.

F1 continuing to grow stateside hinges largely on leveling the playing field. But the sport might have a few more “joker” cards up its sleeve it can pull to reignite interest in F1.

How To Keep Americans Engaged

Content helped turn the sport around in the US, and it has to continue to be a central point. Drive To Survive is still around, but the sport is about to hit the big screen too.

A-lister Brad Pitt is set to star in a F1-based movie soon. He was at the British Grand Prix filming a portion of the movie. If done right — and the Hollywood strike actually ends so the movie can be completed — that could bring in another wave of new fans.

The same would happen if US-based drivers and teams start competing. Logan Sargeant is the only full-time American driver. He competes for Williams Racing. Issue is, he’s not any good. Sargeant has exactly 0 points this season and is 19 out of 21 overall in the standings.

There’s also an American team, Haas, but the same issue persists. Haas has a total of 11 points — eight of ten among the teams.

Not to say the US is xenophobic, but American success would catapult the sport. The perfect storm would be a US-driver succeeding big for Haas — the quintessential underdog story Americans typically latch onto.

All this is to say the sky isn’t falling for F1 in the United States, but still, they’re going to have to work extra to maintain and grow their fanbase stateside.

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