Statistically, fans have just witnessed the greatest individual Formula One season in the history of the sport.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – now with more victories than the great Sebastian Vettel – won an unprecedented 86.36 per cent of the races this season.
Firstly, this should be commended for the historic achievement that it is, but questions should quickly follow regarding the competitive health of Formula One as it goes through a period of such dominance.
This is nothing new to the series – Vettel had four years at the summit of the sport, while Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton enjoyed unrivalled success when at the peak of their powers. But in the budget cap era, which was designed to level the playing field, Formula One might not have expected one team to dominate the field, let alone at historic levels.
Verstappen has won 34 races out of the last 45. Red Bull as a team have only failed to win six races in that time.
Make no mistake, the blame for the lack of competition lies solely at the feet of the other teams on the grid that have been unable to match Red Bull’s brilliance. But this could not have come at a worse time for a series looking to capitalise on its recent growth.
Formula One is still riding the wave of popularity that it has enjoyed in the years since Liberty Media’s takeover. The introduction of Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive brought new fans into the sport, while the addition of events like the Miami and Las Vegas Grands Prix have kept people talking about the series, but fan opinions are beginning to shift.
Whether this has a lasting impact on the overall popularity of the sport remains to be seen, and a swift return to competitive racing at the front of the field will render concerns largely redundant. But a tangible impact may become palpable from next season if nothing changes.
Following a pedestrian season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, BlackBook Motorsport analyses the trends in Formula One TV viewership and attendances, and explores the commercial developments from this year.
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 26, 2023
US viewership points towards potential wider issues
Specific information on Formula One viewership around the world is limited. Sky Sports in the UK, for example, publishes end-of-year figures rather than a race-by-race total.
With Formula One’s current focus on expansion in the US, viewership trends in that market are a good indicator of the overall health of the series. With a largely untapped motorsport audience in North America, the series should be seeing exponential growth in the US specifically, especially with three races now taking place in the country.
Before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the 2023 season was averaging 1.12 million viewers on Disney-owned ESPN, which is short of last year’s average of 1.21 million viewers. This includes the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix which, despite the hype, only attracted 1.3 million viewers. For context, the Miami Grand Prix debut last season drew 2.6 million viewers. The US audience clearly has interest in these new events being staged in its home market, but is currently not being given enough of a reason to stick around.
The reason? Formula One is pursuing its US expansion with little consideration for the audience in the country. The Las Vegas Grand Prix got underway at 10pm local time, which was 1am ET. With that, a significant proportion of the US audience that might have been looking to watch the race was placed at a disadvantage.
One only need look at the audiences for Miami (1.96 million) and Canada (1.76 million) this season to see what happens when the US market is prioritised from a scheduling perspective.
Moreover, Formula One will be wary of the drop in its average global audience per race, which has fallen from 87.65 million in 2020 to 70 million in 2022.
A processional Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, won by Max Verstappen, was a fitting end to the 2023 Formula One season
The Andretti problem
Questions surrounding the US are particularly poignant at the moment for Formula One. Talk away from the track is dominated by Andretti’s ongoing bid to join the series, something that will ultimately have huge commercial implications.
Now formally approved by the International Automobile Federation (FIA), the next hurdle is for Formula One itself to approve the bid on a commercial basis. There has been opposition from teams throughout the process, but the recent news that General Motors has committed to an engine programme from 2028 raises questions around that stance.
There can now be few arguments against the benefit of this team to the wider grid, and General Motors has confirmed that its commitment to engines is for the Andretti entry alone. Formula One would be wise to not let self-interest get in the way of Andretti joining the series.
Two icons. One pursuit. ��
Andretti Autosport is thrilled to support the news of Andretti Global and General Motors with @Cadillac, two American powerhouses coming together to pursue the opportunity to compete in the @FIA @F1 World Championship.#CadillacVSeries #AllAndretti
— Andretti IndyCar & Indy NXT (@AndrettiIndy) January 5, 2023
US audiences are already very familiar with the Andretti name, so what better way to entice viewers to stick around at a time when viewership is threatening to wane in the country?
Sponsors in the US clearly see value in Formula One at the moment, as Haas continue to secure numerous partners from the country, while the soon-to-be-renamed AlphaTauri are poised to announce two major US title sponsors.
Formula One currently resembles a bull market in this regard, as commercial interest grows. But with the sporting regulations to remain unchanged until 2026 – likely the year we will see Andretti join the grid, if accepted – how long will sponsors stick around if viewership continues to stagnate?
AlphaTauri are set to undergo a rebrand for the 2024 season, with two major US sponsors reportedly on board
Attendance remains shining light
One area where Formula One continues to excel is the attendance at its events. Regularly billed as much more than a race, Grand Prix weekends have morphed into celebrations of motorsport, almost becoming festivals.
The average attendance per race sits at nearly 300,000 people, an incredible feat considering the data from previous years. Before the pandemic, Formula One saw average attendances of 203,570 in 2017, 194,920 in 2018 and 198,330 in 2019.
Three races this season achieved attendances over 400,000, with the British Grand Prix (480,000), Australian Grand Prix (444,631) and United States Grand Prix (432,000) the standouts.
The conversion of casual fans into race attendees has clearly been successful, but how sustainable is the growth?
2023 saw Formula One’s social engagement decline for the first time since 2018, which might be particularly concerning for Formula One given the prevalence of younger audiences on those platforms. Analysis by Buzz Radar revealed mentions declined 70.7 per cent, new followers fell 49.2 per cent, and social reach went down 64.1 per cent. In the social posts themselves, phrases like ‘not good’, ‘boring’ and ‘disappointing’ all increased, while ‘love’, ‘great’ and ‘fun’ declined.
Formula One’s most recent financial figures indicate that, despite this, the sport is continuing to prosper. Revenue increased 24 per cent to US$887 million in Q3 alone, so any concerns from executives will be minimal while the money continues to flow.