Formula 1 is ready for an exciting new season.
All 10 teams have launched their 2020 F1 cars and undergone hours of rigorous off-season testing. Soon the lights will go out at Australia’s Melbourne Park as motorsport’s most famous series takes to the stage once again.
But Formula 1 feels different in the modern era. Different from the glitz and glamour of its glory years. Because this sport carries a unique characteristic: it is under constant pressure to reinvent itself. To attract new audiences in its perpetual state of transition.
F1 is littered with relentless accusations, lazy labels and tired clichés. It is boring, all too predictable, not entertaining enough - a foregone conclusion. People are losing interest. The same teams always win. (Mercedes has dominated the driver and constructor championship standings for the last six years. Red Bull controlled the early 2010s, and Ferrari before that).
It favours the super wealthy. Small teams just fight for meaningless scraps. The gap between rich and poor is getting wider. New sponsorship is hard to come by. Track facilities are in decline. Rules are getting increasingly complicated and ever-changing. Formula 1 is losing its thrill factor.
While there is some reality in those statements, the truth is Formula 1 is attracting (and maintaining) a new audience. It is capturing and enthralling the younger generation.
F1 figures point to younger audience
The figures say as much. In January 2020, Formula 1 released its viewing stats from the 2019 season and – for the third successive year – it grew across television and digital platforms. A cumulative audience of 1.922 billion watched F1 on television last season – a 9% increase compared to the previous year and the highest since 2012.
The slight decrease in unique global viewers (471 million, down 3.9% compared to the previous year) was countered by considerable growth in markets with the biggest reaches. China, United States, Brazil and the Middle East all enjoyed favourable returns. Poland (+569.7% with 8.4 million viewers) yielded the highest growth, due to Robert Kubica's return to the grid.
Liberty Media, the American corporation that acquired a controlling stake in Formula 1 in 2016, is changing the sport’s scope. It introduced smarter broadcast contracts, better highlights packages and a sharp focus on social media lacking under previous owner Bernie Ecclestone.
Naturally, Formula 1’s social platforms continued to grow in users last season and was up almost 33% on the previous year across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. Impressions, engagement, video views and interactions all rose significantly.
F1’s core digital platforms surpassed one billion page views across 2019, nearly doubling the previous year’s total (+82%). Around 56 million unique users consumed F1 media digitally, with sharp increases in app usage and podcast listens.
Now Liberty’s plan to attract a new, younger generation of users is showing gains – 62% of new Formula 1 fans over the past two seasons have been under the age of 35. Targeting big markets with revitalized social media gusto has been a big factor. But there are other things to consider as to why F1 continues to attract a younger audience.
Netflix series a factor
Formula 1’s exclusive Netflix series Drive to Survive showcased the sport to a massive new audience – at the end of 2019 the streaming service had approximately 167 million paid subscribers. The series was gripping and proved extremely popular.
The behind-the-scenes documentary was filmed during the 2018 F1 season. It gave fans a no-holds-barred insight into the life of a Formula 1 team, through the eyes of the drivers and key team members.
Over 10 episodes, Drive to Survive documented the extreme highs and lows experienced by Formula 1 teams throughout a season. It exposed the audience to explosive storylines and the cutthroat world of motor racing both on and off the circuit. It received high praise from both fans and critics.
It was so popular, in fact, that a second series was commissioned and filmed throughout the 2019 season. This time, Formula 1’s ‘Big Three’ (Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull) took part. Drive to Survive Season 2 launches February 28th on Netflix.
Director of Media Rights at Formula 1 Ian Holmes said of the series’ impact: “Drive to Survive has enabled us to reach a entire new fanbase globally and partnering with Netflix for a second season ensures we are continuing to put fans at the heart of what we do and make the sport more open and accessible to all.”
Rise of esports and F1 Esports Series
Also crucial in marketing the sport to a young audience has been the rise of esports and in particular the F1 Esports Series. The series launched in 2017 and, as of 2019, all 10 Formula 1 teams were represented on the virtual grid. Ferrari’s David Tonizza won the latest instalment, which saw a record $500,000 prize fund across the competition and attracted 5.8 million viewers online.
Both teams and esports drivers regularly broadcast videos through live-streaming service Twitch, which allows them to connect and interact with younger fans. From streaming live events to Q&As, it allows Formula 1 to connect to a new audience through a completely different medium.
To give an indication of its growth: the online viewers alone for 2019 were greater than the 2018 series’ total online and TV viewing figures combined (5.5 million that year).
The crucial element: anybody who owns a copy of the official Formula 1 video game developed by Codemasters can enter online qualification. The fastest drivers are then entered into the Pro-Draft, where F1 teams select their representation for the season’s Pro Series. Around 109,000 people attempted to make the grade for the Pro Draft in 2019. It has changed the scope of how Formula 1 teams think.
Ferrari F1 Team Principal Mattia Binotto said of F1’s Esports Series: “We recognise that it’s [esports] a very important factor for younger generations. We understand the importance of gaming for the new generation, and esports is part of our Ferrari Driver Academy programme. It’s not something which is fully separated – it is a part of it.”
F1's young guns and their influence
Another big factor in appealing to a youthful audience is that Formula 1 drivers are getting younger. The average age on the grid for the upcoming 2020 season is 26 – two years’ younger than the average age of 28 in 2000. The ‘big’ teams are investing heavily in youth: Ferrari driver Charles LeClerc is 22, as is Red Bull rival Max Verstappen. Alexander Albon, also at Red Bull, is 23. There is now a bigger focus on driving academies and nurturing talent from a progressively early age.
The majority of drivers on the current grid also grew up amid the social media boom (from MSN/Myspace to Instagram/TikTok) and have strong online personas and presence. Lewis Hamilton’s influence online, even as the second oldest driver on the grid at 35, is impressive – the six-time F1 world champion has 14.3 million followers on Instagram.
Through launching a Tommy Hilfiger fashion line and previously dating former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, Hamilton entered new circles of celebrity. This helped move Formula 1 out of the shadows and back into the limelight. People who had never previously heard of Hamilton suddenly knew what Formula 1 was.
Formula 1 drivers always held role model status – we all wanted to be Ayrton Senna growing up. Just the image of a racing driver was enough to draw people in, because it was cool and dangerous. But the emergence of social media opened up a whole new world.
Content is changing
While there is still a generation of fans who consume F1 news from physical newspapers and magazines, there has been a dramatic shift to prioritize and grow the more youthful, technologically advanced and online audience. Formula 1 teams are creating more and more content for websites and social media.
For example, McLaren cleverly utilises driver Lando Norris, 20, for funny social media content to help attract younger audiences – like this ‘accidental’ launch date leak. Teams are constantly reinventing themselves online to appeal to new audiences and stave off competition.
Expect this trend to continue as F1 seeks to attract newer, young audiences. While Formula 1 is not at the point of desperation, it remains slightly behind the curve compared to other sports. But, for now, Formula 1 is on the right track.