Formula 1’s audience figures in the UK have risen to their highest level in at least four years at the half way stage of the 2021 season, analysis from Motorsport Broadcasting suggests.
The consolidated data, released by BARB, includes viewers who watched the Grand Prix within seven days of the original transmission across TV, PC, smartphone, and tablet (defined by BARB as ‘four-screen viewing data’), the body no longer splitting these out into separate components.
With 11 of the 23 races completed, the data so far allows us to gauge how well F1 is performing in the UK, and whether the championship fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen is having any impact on audience figures.
A small number of historical data points are missing; however, these are not statistically significant enough to impact the overall trajectory.
In addition, analysis by Motorsport Broadcasting last year suggested that, while the make-up of the Grand Prix calendar has changed due to COVID with no races in the Asian or America territories, the two cancel each other out from an analytical perspective.
Asian races would typically rate lower than average in the UK due to their early morning time slot, with American races rating higher than average in a more lucrative prime time television slot.
Sky’s audience jumps…
On race day, Sky split their programming into three or four blocks, depending on weekend.
Their build-up normally lasts 85 minutes, with the race segment lasting 135 minutes. The ‘Chequered Flag’ programme follows the podium for 60 minutes, whilst Ted’s Notebook sometimes wraps up proceedings.
An average of 1.56 million viewers have watched each race on Sky this year, a sizeable increase of 27.8% on last year’s average of 1.22 million viewers.
Both figures cover the first half of their respective seasons only, allowing for a like-for-like comparison.
Audience numbers for Sky have accelerated in recent years, with their F1 audience now double what it was in 2018 – the last year where half the races also aired live on free-to-air television.
The season-opener in Bahrain remains Sky’s highest ever F1 audience. Airing live in an early evening time slot, an average of 1.94 million viewers watched the opener across Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event, peaking with over 2 million viewers.
Portugal also performed well for the pay-TV platform in early May, averaging a strong 1.80 million viewers.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix brought in 1.24 million viewers. The figure for Emilia Romagna is low in the context of the season so far, yet identical to last year’s Emilia Romagna race on Sky, showing how much their audience have jumped.
7 races this year have outrated the spectacular Turkish Grand Prix from last November, which averaged 1.51 million viewers and was Sky’s highest audience of 2020.
Sky’s post-race offering has mirrored the main attraction, increasing its audience by 24.8%, rising from an average of 243,000 viewers last year to 303,000 viewers this year.
However, the preamble has only increased by 1.2% year-on-year, with around 415,000 viewers watching.
One possibility is that the increase for the race and post-race segments is a result of some ‘newer’ Sky viewers opting to record the action to watch later in the evening.
In that instance, fans may choose to bypass the pre-show and skip straight to the race, catching up on the post-race analysis afterwards.
…but Channel 4’s audience dips…
While the championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen is bringing additional viewers to Sky’s live offering, Channel 4’s highlights offering is not seeing any positive impact.
An average of 1.69 million viewers have watched Channel 4’s race day programming so far this year, a decrease of 10.5% on last year’s halfway figure of 1.88 million viewers.
Removing the British Grand Prix figure, which Channel 4 aired live, brings both figures down to 1.62 million viewers and 1.80 million viewers respectively, a decline of 9.9% year-on-year.
Highlights of the French and Styrian rounds poorly against Euro 2020 competition on BBC One and ITV, averaging just 1.46 million viewers and 1.31 million viewers respectively.
Although peak figures are unknown, it is likely Sky recorded a higher peak than Channel 4 for both races.
The Emilia Romagna round performed well on Channel 4, averaging 1.92 million viewers, their highest highlights figure of 2021, while audiences did bounce back following the Euros, with Esteban Ocon’s shock victory in Hungary averaging 1.89 million viewers.
Live coverage of the British Grand Prix averaged 2.35 million viewers, excluding pre- and post-race analysis.
Their Silverstone audience was down on 2020’s figure of 2.56 million viewers, but marginally up on the 2019 audience when the race faced competition from the Cricket World Cup and Wimbledon finals. But the story remained the same: Sky increase, Channel 4 decrease.
Is Channel 4’s highlights programme suffering slightly from a lack of cross promotion from the free-to-air broadcaster?
Channel 4 have had the rights to F1 for six seasons, yet surprisingly the broadcaster has not presented magazine show Sunday Brunch on location from Silverstone during any of the British Grand Prix weekends.
F1 has only ever featured on Gogglebox once (earlier this year with Drive to Survive), and never had an F1 related guests on The Great British Bake Off celebrity specials.
You might not think that these are good cross overs, and that is fine. But the point is, Channel 4 are not using their popular strands of programming as effectively as they could be to promote F1.
Compare Channel 4’s approach to Top Gear between 2009 and 2011, who had the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher as guests, the latter unveiled as The Stig at one point!
These appearances only gave F1 positive publicity.
However, even cross promotion may not prevent a decrease.
The BBC’s Match of the Day staple on Saturday evenings has experienced an audience decrease in recent years, as fans have more options to watch the action immediately after the match has finished, but before Match of the Day starts. Sound familiar?
…as total audience rises to highest level since 2017
An average of 3.24 million viewers have watched Formula 1 so far in 2021, an increase of 142,000 viewers or 4.6% on last year’s half way figure of 3.10 million viewers.
The figures bring together those that watched Channel 4’s highlights package and those who watched the races live on Sky, excluding pre- and post-race analysis for the latter.
With a split of 48:52 in Channel 4’s favour, it is the closest pay-TV has come to overtaking free-to-air television in terms of the number of fans watching.
The swing is significant compared to even 2019 when the split was 37:63, again with Channel 4 winning out.
For Formula 1, it is the championship’s highest average based on this metric since at least 2017, possibly even further back than that, a pleasing rise considering the UK has been heading out of COVID lockdown over the past few months, with fewer viewers watching TV.
It is difficult to compare the 2018 to 2021 figures with 2017, as the structure of Sky’s race day programme was different to what it is now.
In 2018, an average of around 3 million viewers watched across a mix of Channel 4’s highlights and ‘race only’ segments from Channel 4’s and Sky’s live programming.
As expected, the British Grand Prix leads the way so far this season, bringing in an average of 3.78 million viewers (+4.8% year-on-year), followed closely by Bahrain (+20.0%) and Hungary (+17.8%).
Without having access to the underlying demographic data, it is unclear where Sky’s new viewers have come from.
Are they viewers who have migrated from Channel 4’s offering over the past few years, because of the Sky exclusive deal which came into effect from 2019, or are they actually new viewers to the sport, thanks to the likes of Drive to Survive?
As referenced on this site previously, a survey from The Race Media, which operates both The Race and WTF1, shows that most of their readers watch F1 on pay-TV, with less than a quarter watching via free-to-air television.
It seems likely therefore that, a fan watching Drive to Survive is more likely to jump either to highlights on YouTube or live coverage on Sky, bypassing Channel 4’s extended highlights package altogether.
That does not mean Channel 4’s highlights no longer serve a purpose: for 1.7 million viewers on average it clearly does, week in, week out. Whether it will still have a purpose in 5 years’ time, is a different question.
For now, the championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen, Mercedes and Red Bull is keeping UK fans engaged as the series returns to action following the summer break in Belgium.
Neither broadcaster responded to a request for comment at time of writing.
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