Formula 1’s audience figures for the French Grand Prix in the United Kingdom did not paint a rosy picture, with low numbers across the board.
Below the surface here, there is a secondary story, and that is F1’s resistance to move out of the way of the World Cup. But, have things always been that way? Before I wrote this piece, I thought the answer was ‘yes’, it feels like F1 has failed to acknowledge the World Cup’s existence this year.
I have analysed all the World Cup tournaments since 2002 to see if the statistics and timings support my theory…
World Cup 2002 – Korea and Japan
Being eight hours ahead of the UK meant that most matches from Korea and Japan in 2002 occurred during the early hours, but that did not stop the disruption to F1’s European season. Back then, the 60-minute qualifying session started at 12:00 UK time.
But for the European Grand Prix, F1 moved qualifying on Saturday 22nd June to 11:15 UK time, avoiding a quarter-final game between Senegal and Turkey, which kicked off at 12:30 UK time.
The change gave broadcasters suitable time to cover the session, with additional post-session analysis (10 minutes the par for the course at this stage for ITV1), before heading off-air.
World Cup 2006 – Germany
Four years later, the tournament from Germany fell during the same period as three F1 races, causing F1’s organisers to make multiple changes to their weekend schedules.
F1 moved both qualifying and the race for the British Grand Prix to avoid a clash with the group stages of the football competition: the qualifying session on Saturday 10th June started 30 minutes earlier at 12:30 UK time on ITV1, to avoid a potential overlap with England versus Paraguay.
The race the following day started even earlier at 12:00 UK time, preventing a clash between the Grand Prix and Serbia and Montenegro’s clash with the Netherlands, which kicked off at 14:00 on BBC One.
A rare occasion followed during the weekend of the 24th June, when ITV simulcast the Canadian Grand Prix on ITV4. Formula 1’s broadcasters who aired both the football and the Grand Prix faced multiple problems heading into the weekend, and the following weekend with the US Grand Prix.
The knockout games on both weekends kicked off at 16:00 UK time. With qualifying and the race starting at 18:00 UK time, it meant that extra time on either weekend would result in a clash with the F1. England versus Ecuador on Sunday clashed with ITV’s Canadian race build-up but did not go into extra time. Nevertheless, the clash caused significant damage to ITV’s audience figures.
A secondary problem, and the reason for the ITV4 simulcast, was that ITV selected Portugal versus the Netherlands as their live game, which kicked off at 20:00. Clearly the timings were far too tight, with ITV opting for the simulcast so post-race analysis could continue on ITV4. Cutting it tight, indeed…
The qualifying session from Indianapolis on Saturday 1st July did clash partially, even if it was not by design: England versus Portugal went into extra time, clashing with F1 qualifying. For UK viewers it did not really matter, ITV in that era aired qualifying for the North American races on a tape delay late at night.
World Cup 2010 – South Africa
Although three races in 2010 fell into the same period as the World Cup, Formula One Management did an excellent job to avoid direct clashes.
The Canadian Grand Prix occurred on the opening weekend of the tournament. BBC moved live coverage of qualifying, which started at 18:00 UK time on Saturday 13th June, to BBC Two, primarily so Doctor Who could air in its primetime BBC One slot before England versus USA started on ITV at 19:30.
BBC One – Sunday 13th June 2010
16:05 – F1: Canadian Grand Prix Live (race start: 17:00)
19:15 – BBC News
ITV – Sunday 13th June 2010
14:20 – World Cup 2010 Live (match start: 15:00)
17:00 – Midsomer Murders (R)
18:30 – ITV News
19:00 – World Cup 2010 Live (match start: 19:30)
The Montreal race remained on BBC One where it mopped up the floating football audience, becoming the most watched show on BBC One on that day. Starting at 12:00 local time (17:00 UK time), the race started minutes after Serbia’s game with Ghana finished on ITV yet finished before Germany’s tie with Australia started at 19:30. To F1’s advantage, the games in 2010 were spread out across the day better than compared with 2018.
Two weeks later, it was heartbreak for England against Germany on Sunday 27th June. The match kicked off at 15:00, with a risk of overlap between the game and the European Grand Prix, which started at 13:00 UK time. As a result, the BBC moved the F1 to BBC Two, primarily so that they could run an extended build-up, but in the end the two events did not overlap.
Silverstone hosted the British Grand Prix on the same day as the World Cup final, the F1 race serving to be a great warm-up act for the main event to follow later in the evening.
World Cup 2014 – Brazil
With F1 in Europe, no clashes occurred between the football competition in 2014 and the Grand Prix.
World Cup 2018 – Russia
Up until this point, F1 under its previous ownership had done its best to avoid World Cup clashes. Placing a triple header though in the middle of the World Cup was asking for trouble.
During the French Grand Prix weekend, World Cup fixtures kicked off at 13:00, 16:00 and 19:00 UK time, leaving around a 75-minute gap between each game. An F1 race lasts around 90 minutes, meaning a clash of some kind was inevitable. In the end, Liberty Media opted to start qualifying at 15:00 UK time, the closing seconds clashing with South Korea game against Mexico.
As predicted last December, F1 pushed the race back to 15:10 to avoid a clash with England versus Panama, but by moving the race, the latter half of the Grand Prix clashed with Japan versus Senegal. Like in 2006 with England versus Ecuador, F1’s audience figures for the build-up suffered, it was a lose-lose situation for the sport.
Even if the teams are unknown, the dates are known years in advance, and Liberty Media should have had this weekend at the top of their ‘to avoid’ list. Things do not get better for the sport in the next two weeks.
The latter seconds of both the Austrian and British Grand Prix qualifying sessions will clash with a World Cup game. The former on Saturday 30th June will see a slight clash with France versus Argentina, whilst Silverstone’s qualifying session clashing with the opening seconds of a quarter-final clash.
Lastly, the second half of the Austrian Grand Prix will clash with Spain’s round of 16 clash with Russia. What is interesting is that the majority of the clashes could have been avoided had the sessions started at the same time they did in 2017, before Liberty Media tweaked the weekend schedule.
So, when we see the headline “F1 hits new audience low”, we should also remember that an F1 race before 2018 had never faced a World Cup game the 21st century. When Bernie Ecclestone was at the helm, he was sensible enough to move qualifying or the race a couple of hours here or there, avoiding even the slightest potential of a clash, because he knew it would harm the sports audience in the affected territories.
Another element to this is that Formula 1 has significantly more pay-TV contracts now than it did in the mid-2000s, meaning that the number of broadcasters airing both F1 and the World Cup may have decreased, resulting in less pressure towards Formula One Management to change its time slots.
I love Formula 1 and motor racing but I, like millions of others, also enjoy the spectacle that is the World Cup. Even if you do not follow club football, the World Cup has the power to reach cross sections of the population that many other sporting platforms fail to reach. Expecting F1 to come out unscathed from any kind of clash is somewhat naive.
In my opinion, Liberty Media are failing to see the global sporting picture, and where F1 fits in. The World Cup is a once in four years event, and they must be prepared to work around events such as that if F1 is to sustain a healthy audience throughout the course of the season. Liberty Media’s stubbornness is likely to cost the sport millions of viewers worldwide over the forthcoming weeks.