Several motor sport organisations have joined the wider sporting world in boycotting social media this weekend.
The boycott, which began on Friday 30th April at 15:00 and runs until Monday 1st May at 23:59, led by key English football bodies including the Premier League, is in “response to the ongoing and sustained discriminatory abuse received online by players and many others.”
UK broadcasters, including Sky Sports, BT Sport and ITV Sport, are all joining in with the boycott, meaning that neither Sky or BT will publish content to their F1 or MotoGP channels during the Portuguese Grand Prix or Spanish MotoGP weekend respectively.
In addition, The Race’s media outlets, including their own website and WTF1 have announced that they will not publish material on social media through the weekend.
In a statement, they said “While we are fortunate not to be subjected to disgusting hate and abuse on a regular basis like so many sports stars and celebrities are every day, we believe it is right to join those taking a stand to raise awareness and urging social media companies and relevant authorities to do more to combat this problem.”
“At times over the last year it has often looked like our sport has waited to be guided by world champion Lewis Hamilton on these issues, but it should not be up to Hamilton to carry the weight of these matters on his shoulders every time.”
Independent motor sport website RaceFans have stated that they are taking a similar stance.
No F1 team, or F1 themselves have joined the social media blackout. However, in a statement posted to their Twitter account, F1 said “F1 is wholly committed to combatting any form of discrimination, online or otherwise.”
“We support the actions of the Premier League and other sporting bodies and athletes in highlighting that more must be done to eradicate online abuse that they are receiving directly.”
“We continue to work with all platforms and our own audiences to promote respect and positive values and put a stop to racism,” the statement concluded.
It is a perennial question that comes around every so often in Formula 1 circles, both within the paddock and within the fanbase.
‘When will F1 finally break America?’ F1 has tried multiple times in the past to cut through to the wider American population, but with limited success.
Now, the question is changing. ‘Is F1 finally breaking America?’ With TV audiences on the slide, the job for F1 is increasingly difficult, but we look at how well F1 is succeeding…
A history lesson…
Over the past 30 years, multiple different venues in America have hosted F1 races, whilst many cities, such as New Jersey, have tried, and failed, to enter the arena.
After stints in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Watkins Glen, amongst others, Formula 1 returned to America in 2000 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
F1’s stint at Indy lasted eight years, the circuit playing host to the infamous race in 2005 which saw only 6 cars start, a race which arguably led to F1’s Indy spell ending.
Austin has hosted the US Grand Prix since 2012, minus 2020 due to the pandemic, and next year sees the arrival of Miami to the Grand Prix calendar.
Despite F1’s flirtation with the US, only three drivers have competed in F1 since 1990 with limited success: Michael Andretti in 1993, Scott Speed in 2006 and 2007, and Alex Rossi in 2015. And, well, the less said about the attempted US F1 team, the better…
On the broadcasting front, the championship has moved around different broadcasters in recent years, moving from Speed to NBC, and now ESPN.
Will Buxton, Leigh Diffey, Steve Matchett and David Hobbs led the broadcasting team on NBC, but the move from NBC to ESPN for 2018 saw the line-up disbanded, ESPN instead opting to simulcast Sky’s UK coverage.
Although fans reacted negatively to the removal of the NBC line-up, the move to ESPN did lead to two benefits, but not without their hurdles.
Fans in the US were able to access F1’s over-the-top service from launch whilst ESPN, from race two onwards, aired commercial free coverage of F1. The commercial free move came only after the network faced a barrage of criticism following the opening round in Australia.
Around the same period at the start of 2017, US media giant Liberty Media acquired the sport from Bernie Ecclestone and private equity fund CVC.
Under Liberty, F1 has made tremendous strides on social media to reach new audiences, including commissioning Netflix to produce a documentary series. Entitled Drive to Survive, the series has been a hit with fans.
Drive to Survive’s popularity has led to some claiming that F1 is reaching new audiences in the US. But, is this really the case, and does the publicly available data back up the claim?
…what the data shows…
Motorsport Broadcasting has analysed four years’ worth of television audience data, available publicly via Showbuzz Daily to get an idea of the year-to-year trends.
The industry website publishes audience data for key sporting events each weekend, both total people and those aged within the 18 to 49 demographic, pertinent given F1’s desire to attract younger audiences.
In 2017, the last year of F1’s contract with NBC, four races aired on NBC’s main broadcast outlet, with the other races airing on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) or NBC’s business news channel CNBC.
An average of 645,000 viewers watched 16 of the 20 races in 2017. The figure is slightly lower than suggested, as it excludes Australia, China, Malaysia, and Japan, which aired in the early hours for US fans.
In addition, the average drops further when removing the four races that aired on NBC. Excluding those four races drags the figure down to 483,000 viewers, giving us a better baseline to work with.
Three of the four races that aired on NBC in 2017 averaged over 1 million viewers, hence the discrepancy between the two averages. The four NBC races did little to boost F1’s regular NBCSN and CNBC programming over the course of the 2017 season.
The averages include NBC’s wrap-around content, consisting of around 30 minutes of build-up and some post-race reaction, as well as commercial breaks during the races.
Fast forward to 2020, and none of the 17 races aired on broadcast television in the US, owing to the pandemic affected schedule. Instead, every race aired live via ESPN or ESPN2.
An average of 603,000 viewers watched the 2020 action, this figure for the race segment only, from F1’s 5-minute introduction through to the initial post-race analysis.
Viewing figures for the 30-minute segment immediately before the race are unavailable, but including that segment is likely to push the average closer to 550,000 viewers, which is still an increase on the NBCSN/CNBC only figure from 2017.
F1’s growth in the States pre-dates 2017, starting as early as 2013, as reported by Motorsport Broadcasting at the time. Early data from 2021 suggests that the upward trajectory is likely to continue.
ESPN says that an average of 906,000 viewers watched the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, the 6th largest cable audience on record and the biggest F1 audience since the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix, which aired on broadcast network ABC.
18 to 49 audience
From a demographic stand-point, an average of 196,000 viewers aged between 18 and 49 watched each F1 race in 2017, but this figure drops to 142,000 viewers when removing the four races that aired on NBC.
In 2020, an average of 218,000 viewers watched the action, this metric likely dropping to around 190,000 viewers when accounting for 30-minutes of build-up to bring it equal with NBC’s 2017 offering.
Since 2017, F1 has attracted a younger audience in the US. Around 30% of F1’s audience in 2017 were within the coveted 18 to 49 demographic. The skew has since increased over time to around 36%, although analysis shows that the 2020 skew was slightly lower than 2019.
Nevertheless, 2021 has started brightly in this area: 46% of the Emilia Romagna audience were aged between 18 and 49, equating to 416,000 viewers, a massive number for the sport in the US.
From a wider motor racing perspective, NASCAR remains comfortably on top of both F1 and IndyCar, but F1 skews considerably younger than both commodities, making it a more attractive proposition to advertisers.
During the same weekend as Emilia Romagna, a NASCAR race averaged 3.31 million viewers on Fox, but only 650,000 of those were within the crucial 18 to 49 demo, a skew of just 20%.
In contrast, IndyCar brought in 6,000 more viewers than F1, but 159,000 fewer viewers in the 18 to 49 demographic.
…still small pickings in the grand scheme of things
In the wider context, an average audience of just under 1 million viewers for F1 in a country with over 320 million people feels like very slim pickings.
However, Formula 1 is fighting an uphill battle in the US from the outset, with unfriendly time slots throughout the season, especially compared to IndyCar and NASCAR.
Most races start at 06:00 PST / 09:00 ET, meaning that F1 is relying on fans either watching live during their breakfast or catch-up later to engage fully in the sport.
The alternative for F1 would be to move European races to later in the afternoon, and ensure that the likes of Australia, Japan and China start early in the morning.
Both moves would likely result in higher audiences in the Americas and Europe, but lower audiences in Asia and Oceania, making it impossible for F1 to please everyone in this scenario.
In addition, television audiences in America are rapidly declining, and F1’s increases (slim or otherwise) on the traditional platforms should be considered even better in that context.
While TV audiences initially rose as COVID hit in March 2020, figures soon went back into reverse and, as Hollywood Reporter put it, the gains “couldn’t reverse larger, systemic declines on ad-supported networks.”
For F1, and many other sports, traditional TV is only part of the picture, with fans able to easily access F1’s over-the-top platform and watch the live action, cutting the cord.
Or, alternatively, fans can watch bite sized highlights on F1’s YouTube channel, something that has only been available during the past few years.
Only F1 knows the true scale of how many fans in America are accessing this content, as F1 does not release these figures publicly.
But, given that F1 has seen slight increases via the traditional, yet declining, linear platforms, it therefore is an accurate statement to say that F1’s popularity in the US has increased, and more so with younger audiences.
With two more series of Drive to Survive on the horizon in the pipeline1, and a new race in Miami, things will only improve further for F1 stateside, as F1 begins to take off in the US.
Can F1 break through the glass ceiling and cut into the mainstream conversation in America? Only time will tell…
Also joining F1 for the new season are renowned technical experts Albert Fabrega and Craig Scarborough, both of whom will be working alongside Sam Collins on F1 TV’s Tech Talk programming.
Sky F1 shakes up commentary team for practice
Fans watching Sky Sports F1’s coverage of the first practice session from Bahrain were treated to an unusual commentary line-up.
Natalie Pinkham led the commentary team, with Jenson Button and Karun Chandhok joining her.
Pinkham made history from a broadcasting perspective, as it was the first time ever that a female had led an F1 commentary line-up for a UK TV broadcaster.
The main take away for me from the commentary itself was that it felt more like a radio commentary, but for practice, that is no bad thing.
Credit as well should go to Sky for trying something different – this was an experiment that I personally would like to see repeated throughout the season.
The feedback on social media was broadly positive to the change. Writing on Twitter immediately following the session, Pinkham said “THANK YOU for all the support and lovely feedback on my debut in the comms box. Still buzzing!”
“Karun Chandhok and Jenson Button were (as ever) the perfect teammates. Normal service resumes with Crofty back in the hot seat for the rest of the weekend.”
Over on F1 TV, Rosanna Tennant led their line-up for the F1 sessions, comprising of Alex Brundle and Matt Gallagher, Tennant succeeding Jacques in the role following Jacques’ move over to Channel 4.
F1 makes significant progress towards sustainability targets
Formula 1 has made significant progress towards their sustainability targets, in part an indirect result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The series had a long-term objective to move to a remote operation, as part of their wider Strategic Plan, to ‘minimise the amount of equipment and people sent to each race’.
Speaking on Formula 1’s YouTube channel, Formula 1’s Director of Broadcast and Media Dean Locke noted that F1 executed the “multi-year project in just over 7 weeks under lockdown conditions, something we’re very proud of.”
“Going remote has allowed F1 to reduce its travelling freight by 34%. The number of travelling staff has also reduced by 37%, and we now transfer over 160 terabytes of data to Biggin Hill during each race weekend.”
F1’s Biggin Hill base now plays host to the Remote Technical Centre, which was previously transported worldwide for each race weekend.
“Acquisition of the data and media is still done at the track, but curation of those products is now done here at the Remote Technical Centre,” he says. “We have 53 operational positions, over 400 screens, thousands of computers to drive this system.”
“Formula 1 prides itself on innovation, and we feel F1’s move into remote operation is a really good example of that,” Locke added.
Channel 4 production team member tests positive for COVID-19
In the lead up to the Bahrain weekend, a member of the Channel 4 production team tested positive for COVID-19.
The positive test, first reported publicly on the Press Association’s news wires, forced the production team to go into quarantine, with new staff flown out to the Sakhir circuit as a result.
As thus, Alex Jacques made his Channel 4 commentary debut from Ealing alongside Billy Monger, with David Coulthard on location in Bahrain.
Jacques also commentated on Formula Two remotely from Ealing, with Alex Brundle alongside him, but a 75-minute drive away at F1’s Biggin Hill headquarters.
Spot anything else during the weekend worth noticing? Have your say in the comments below.