F1’s UK audience figures rise in 2021, but series sees worldwide dip

Formula 1’s UK audience figures rose to their highest level in around four to five years as the titanic battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton came to a climax, however, audience figures dipped worldwide, analysis from Motorsport Broadcasting shows.

The consolidated UK 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.

A small number of historical data points are missing; however, these are not statistically significant enough to impact the overall trajectory.

In addition, this analysis excludes the Russian Grand Prix, as Sky’s figures for that weekend are unavailable, but does include the shortened Belgian Grand Prix.

Sky’s figures rise to highest ever level…

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.

Across a mix of Sky Sports F1, Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Showcase, an average audience of 1.59 million viewers watched the 22 races live on Sky during 2021, their highest ever audience for Formula 1.

Year-on-year, Sky’s figures increased by 25.7% from 1.27 million viewers in 2020, the fourth consecutive year that Sky’s F1 audience has increased.

For the first time, over 2 million viewers watched an F1 race live via one of Sky’s television channels. The season started well in Bahrain, with an average of 1.94 million viewers watching the race, peaking above the 2 million mark.

Later in the year, 2.11 million viewers watched a dramatic Saudi Arabian Grand Prix unfold, with 2.30 million opting to stay with Sky for the season decider in Abu Dhabi. The latter figure excludes those who decided to watch Sky’s broadcast on Channel 4.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Dutch Grand Prix was Sky’s lowest rated of 2021, averaging just 1.12 million viewers.

Competition from other channels was easier than usual, with no Premier League football, however the race followed the farcical Belgian Grand Prix one week earlier, which may have invertedly caused a dip.

Sky’s wrap around programming felt the benefit of the championship battle, with their pre-race build-up increasing by 13.9% year-on-year, while their post-race analysis increased by 31.1%, both double their 2018 averages.

Unsurprisingly, both Britain and Italy saw larger post-race audiences, thanks to Hamilton and Verstappen’s on-track incidents, with 407,000 viewers sticking around for the Silverstone post-race analysis and 448,000 viewers sticking around for the Monza debrief.

The new F1 Sprint format also performed well, with an average of 739,000 viewers watching Hamilton charge through the field in Brazil, the figure including Sky’s extensive wrap-around programming.

Sky gained an extra competitive session because of the change, with the displaced Friday qualifying session performing strongly. Both the Italian and Brazilian qualifying programmes averaged 470,000 viewers, comfortably above Sky’s usual practice average.

…as Channel 4’s audience continues to drop…

While Sky benefited from the intense championship battle, Channel 4 saw no obvious benefit, outside of the Abu Dhabi decider.

Highlights of 20 races on the free-to-air broadcaster (excluding Silverstone and Abu Dhabi) averaged 1.50 million viewers, down 14.4% of the 2020 average of 1.75 million viewers.

Including Silverstone and Abu Dhabi, the 23 races on Channel 4 averaged 1.63 million viewers, down on the equivalent 2020 figure of 1.80 million viewers. An average of 3.36 million viewers watched the season decider live on Channel 4.

The return of USA and Mexico to the F1 calendar hurt Channel 4’s average, both bringing in less than a million viewers after 7 days of consolidation, in part thanks to their late night time slot on Sunday.

Channel 4’s weak average was compounded by the fact that five of the European based races (France, Styria, Belgium, Netherlands and Turkey) averaged under 1.50 million viewers compared with one race (Abu Dhabi) in 2020.

Nevertheless, there were some positive numbers in amongst the overall decline for Channel 4, with the Emilia Romagna, Hungarian and Italian rounds drawing in close to 2 million viewers for their 150-minute highlights packages.

An average of 1.97 million viewers watched as Hamilton and Verstappen collided for the second time in 2021 at Monza, a slight increase on an equally dramatic 2020 Italian Grand Prix, which brought in 1.88 million viewers.

…but the overall UK picture is positive…

Unsurprisingly, Hamilton versus Verstappen drew in the viewers in 2021.

3.22 million viewers watched across Sky Sports and Channel 4, an increase of 5.1% on 2020 average audience of 3.06 million viewers, bringing audience figures back to a level last seen in 2016 and 2017.

However, the 2021 average dropped slightly at end of season compared with the mid-season figure of 3.24 million viewers.

As referenced both the USA and Mexican rounds performed poorly on Channel 4, with Sky’s live audience failing to offset the Channel 4 drop. The lack of increase may also suggest audience fatigue crept in as the season progressed.

For example, the Qatar Grand Prix averaged 3.15 million viewers, 1,000 viewers fewer than the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, despite the championship battle having stepped up considerably by that point.

The season finale in Abu Dhabi was the most watched race of 2021, with 5.66 million viewers watching live across Channel 4 and Sky Sports, this figure including some of the pre-race build-up and post-race wrap-around.

Overnight data showed that a peak of 7.4 million viewers watched as Verstappen overtook Hamilton to win the F1 title.

Saudi Arabia, Britain and the season opener in Bahrain also drew strong audiences. The inaugural race in Saudi averaged 3.88 million viewers, F1’s highest average at that time since the 2018 US Grand Prix.

Channel 4’s and Sky’s F1 audiences continued to converge, with a 49:51 split between the two broadcasters.

Assuming Sky’s audience figures remain strong this season, it is increasingly likely that they will become the dominant F1 broadcaster, from an audience share perspective, in the UK moving forward.

…as F1 faces a worldwide audience dip

While Formula 1’s audience increased in the UK thanks to the championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen, worldwide the sports average audience dropped significantly.

An average of 70.3 million viewers watched each race, a decrease of 20% on 2020’s average of 87.4 million viewers, and down on the 2019 figure of 91 million viewers.

F1 says that the decrease is due to a change in broadcast rights in Germany and Brazil. For markets where broadcast rights have remained identical, audience figures increased by 13% to 60.3 million viewers, which F1 says is the best figure since 2013.

Taking the figures at face value, this implies that where broadcast rights changed hands between 2020 and 2021, F1’s average audience dropped by 24.1 million viewers, from 34 million viewers in 2020 to 9.9 million viewers in 2021.

SeasonCumulative Audience% y-o-yAverage Audience% y-o-yRaces Held
20181.76 billionn/a83.7 millionn/a21
20191.92 billion9%91.5 million9%21
20201.49 billion-23%87.4 million-5%17
20211.55 billion4%70.5 million-19%22
Source: Formula 1 press releases / Motorsport Broadcasting analysis

The drop is significant for F1, but unsurprising in some ways. F1 themselves highlighted in their 2019 data release that Brazil and Germany were two of their top markets, a statistic that will have since changed two years later.

While not impacting the whole of 2021, it is likely that the closure of Fox Sports in Asia also dented F1’s average across the season. F1 needed to find new homes in territories such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia after Fox closed its doors in early Autumn.

The fact that F1’s figures have increased for territories where the TV rights have stayed the same is good, but it fails to account for the overall worldwide drop that F1 has experienced. Like Formula 1, Formula E also used their cumulative audience data to hide a race-by-race drop.

Over on F1’s digital platforms, analysis by this site shows that the amount of people watching F1’s race highlights packages on YouTube has increased by 41% year-on-year, from an average of 5.24 million viewers in 2020 to 7.38 million viewers in 2021.

Both the cumulative TV audience and unique audience increased by 4% and 3% respectively year-on-year to 1.55 billion viewers and 445 million viewers, reflecting the longer calendar compared with 2020.

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Falling in love with WRC’s hybrid era through All Live

A new season of the World Rally Championship began last month, as a titanic battle between the two Sebastien’s unfolded. Loeb battled Ogier, with Loeb eventually coming out on top.

All the action aired live on WRC’s over-the-top platform All Live for the fifth season running.

One avid watcher of the weekend’s events, Carl Dolan, who works on F1 as a TV Sound Supervisor and himself a former national rally driver, sent in his thoughts on how well All Live worked…

If you, like me, think the greatest drivers in the world have names like Seb, Ari, Colin, Walter, Carlos or even Malcolm, then you probably know that a new era has just started in the World Rally Championship.

The 2022 season started with the introduction of the exciting new Rally1 hybrid cars during last month’s Rally Monte Carlo. I was glued to my device all weekend watching Sebastien Loeb’s masterful display live as he swept the field aside in his beautiful looking Ford Puma.

Rallying – or ‘rally’ as some would now seem to say – is a notoriously difficult sport to cover, with its own very special set of challenges. If the action is constantly on the move, then how do you follow it?

You could send the cars round a special side-by-side track, or let them race around a loose surface circuit, but then it becomes racing or rallycross. To do this belies the very essence of what rallying is about, as the drama really takes place in the remote forest tracks of Finland, or on the tight, twisty roads above a Principality, and not on a synthetic race track.

The revolution, televised

For years the technology has not existed to do rallying justice on the small screen. Trailblazing the coverage was down to legendary filmmaker Barrie Hinchliffe. Starting in the late 60’s, Barrie produced some amazing, evocative films that captured the sport perfectly.

He was a cinematographer who understood that he was telling stories about people and that the cars were just a vehicle for that. He knew that running around a forest with only a single 16mm camera meant it was difficult to directly cover the actual sporting contest.

For instance, watching a Ford rally mechanic take the axle of an unsuspecting holiday maker’s Capri is a golden piece of TV.

Slowly technology moved on but even on BBC’s Rally Report in the 80’s & 90’s – getting the pictures back to Chester, editing them and getting it on-air in time was a logistical nightmare. What we needed was live coverage from inside every car, in those days a distant dream!

But now the technology is well and truly here. WRC’s over-the-top (OTT) All Live coverage has finally captured what we always wanted to see. Cutting live between multiple on-board cameras, helicopters, stage side cameras; mix that in with live splits & stage times and follow that with immediate driver reaction interviews at the end of each stage and you have yourself a great recipe. Now the action really does unfold in front of you.

> How All Live is changing the face of rallying (foundations, planning, production)

Not since I listened on my scanner to stage times crackling in from the plane above me in Wales on the RAC, have I felt so in touch with what is happening on the ground. And you are there for everything. Seeing Gus Greensmith’s reaction live when teammate Loeb failed to beat his stage time and so grabbing his first WRC stage win was fabulous TV, capturing the human side of the sport again!

With Becs Williams and Julian Porter offering enjoyable and insightful commentary, the two really helped capture the weekend’s action.

Re-thinking the basic concepts

Going forward, I think it is time to rethink even some of the basic concepts. For instance, centralised Service Parks and clover looping stages were brought in to help TV coverage but maybe it is time to go back to longer events; or chase cars fettling cars live by the side of the road?

Rallying’s popularity declined a little when the sport became TV friendly, but if you change a sport for TV then the very sport itself can suffer. Television should cover a sport not control it.

However, rallying’s ‘of the moment’ nature means it is perfect for modern day social media and OTT content. The event unfolds over a weekend, so people with busy lives can dip in and out as they wish. With stage times arriving minute by minute, data hungry platforms, such as Twitter work well during the weekend.

The World Rally Championship has a bright future with the new hybrid era. The cars look and sound amazing, the backdrops are beautiful and now we have the delivery platform to enjoy it on.

Currently only three manufacturers – Toyota, Ford & Hyundai – are fully committed to Rally1 but others must surely be watching with interest. For me, rallying represents the most direct link from motorsport to road car technology and with rallying taking the lead with hybrid technology, the future looks more sustainable here than elsewhere.

It will also be interesting to see how much influence the new FIA president, himself a former rally driver, will have on the future of the series.

Now I must ring up my Toyota dealer and find out if there is any news on when my own WRC inspired Yaris GR4 is being delivered!

The next round of the 2022 World Rally Championship season, Rally Sweden, takes place across the weekend of February 24th to 27th. Live coverage of every stage airs via WRC’s All Live platform and BT Sport, with highlights airing on ITV4 on Wednesday 2nd March.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal. If you wish to reproduce the contents of this article in any form, please contact Motorsport Broadcasting in the first instance.