Formula 1’s presence on free-to-air television in the UK reached its nadir in 2019 during the first year of Channel 4’s ‘highlights only’ agreement with Sky, new research by Motorsport Broadcasting shows.
Utilising data from a range of sources, including the Radio Times, this writer has analysed trends in the Formula 1 scheduling space in the UK spanning four decades, encompassing the BBC’s, ITV’s, and Channel 4’s offering.
The main aim of the research was to understand how F1’s free-to-air presence on race day had changed over time, as different rights arrangements came into effect.
In addition, the research helps us understand how the popularity of the likes of Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Lewis Hamilton impacted the commitment broadcasters gave to F1, and what might have happened in an alternative universe without their success.
BBC’s appetite for live Grand Prix grows into the 1990s….
Motorsport Broadcasting’s analysis began with 1982, four years after the BBC formally launched its Grand Prix programme. While the BBC covered various races in the decades before that, the decision to launch Grand Prix in 1978 allowed the corporation to put a proper wrap around its Formula 1 offering following James Hunt’s title in 1976.
The Grand Prix strand covered highlights of every race. Live coverage of races aired during Sunday Grandstand on BBC Two on Sunday afternoons, or during a standalone live Grand Prix programme on BBC One where other sport prevented the race from airing live on BBC Two.
Live coverage of the sport was still patchy in 1982. Of the 16 races that season, only 10 aired live in some form. Brazil, Long Beach, San Marino, Detroit, Canada, and the season finale at Caesars Palace aired later as highlights.
The season opener in South Africa took place on a Saturday, with roughly 45 minutes of the action airing live on BBC One. Otherwise, it was a long wait until 23:20 before a 35-minute highlights package aired on BBC Two.
In total, across live and first-run highlights, the BBC covered 21 hours of F1 during 1982 across 16 races, roughly 1 hour and 20 minutes per race, a figure that increased sharply as the years passed, parallel with Nigel Mansell becoming a championship contender and F1 taking television seriously. Some of the early data points are incomplete, so caution is required when analysing these figures.
The 1984 British Grand Prix saw the BBC begin to cover qualifying live, with a 30-minute slot during Saturday’s Grandstand programme on BBC One. However, no other races received the live qualifying treatment until a decade later.
As Mansell closed in on the 1986 title, the corporation opted to air some of the Mexican Grand Prix live. While not all the race aired live, it was a big step for F1 in the UK: the first time since the 1981 season finale in Las Vegas that live Grand Prix action had aired in primetime on BBC Two. Two weeks later, the season finale in Australia aired live.
1987 saw the initial peak in terms of F1’s free-to-air exposure: the BBC covered 33 hours of F1 during 1987 across 16 races, the sport receiving over two hours of coverage per race day for the first time ever.
However, the BBC’s commitment to Formula 1 turned as Mansell slipped back down the grid. While worldwide interest in F1 swelled thanks to Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the scheduling data would suggest that the Beeb became disinterested in F1 for a short period.
20:00 – On the Line
Tue 18th Jul 1989, 20:00 on BBC Two England
Ray Stubbs reports on what has gone wrong with Grand Prix racing. With McLaren Honda winning virtually every race because of the technical excellence of their cars, much of the excitement has gone out of the sport. Has the driver become merely a cog in the machine?BBC Genome
The Beeb covered ten fewer hours of F1 in 1988 on race day compared to the previous year, setting F1 back six years. Only seven races aired live in both 1988 and 1989, less than half of the season.
By this point, the BBC aired most of the European rounds live, any title deciders involving a UK driver, and any races that could ‘if the cricket or [insert another sport here]’ finished early.
Mansell’s fortunes improved for 1991, beginning a period of strong sustained growth taking them to the end of their contract in 1996.
While the BBC covered 43 hours of F1 during 1992 across 16 races (an average of 2 hours and 42 minutes on race day) during Mansell’s championship winning season, still not every race aired live.
The primetime races, Mexico, Brazil, and Canada, aired on a delayed basis later in the evening on BBC Two, with an extended highlights programme covering action.
Slowly but surely though, F1’s presence on the BBC was increasing, aided by a wider package of motor sport which also included the British Touring Car Championship. Each Grand Prix during Sunday Grandstand received 25 minutes of build-up, with Steve Rider and Tony Jardine presenting coverage on-site.
The problem was, as the Beeb poured more resources into F1, it only served to fuel the fire over on ‘the other side’ further…
BBC TV was the unchallenged leader as far as sports coverage was concerned: they had pioneered, developed, and perfected Formula 1 on the box and they hadn’t put a foot wrong. Little did they know, though, that ITV were sick of being cut to ribbons by Grand Prix on Sunday afternoons and had decided that if they couldn’t beat it, they’d buy it.Murray Walker – Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken, page 217.
Every race aired live in 1995 for the first time ever, possibly a pre-emption for the bid that was yet to come from ITV. Over 57 hours of F1 aired on race day during 1995 across 17 races, a massive 3 hours and 23 minutes per race (including highlights).
In the space of 13 years, the amount of F1 on the BBC on race day almost tripled, a figure undoubtedly higher when factoring in qualifying. Their Grand Prix offering went out on a high in October 1996, with Damon Hill clinching his first Drivers’ Championship at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Coverage of qualifying also increased during the final years of the BBC’s contract, with regular updates airing during Grandstand on BBC One. Every qualifying session, including those during primetime, aired live in 1996, allowing fans to follow Hill’s and Michael Schumacher’s every move.
…and eventually ITV take the cherry…
ITV’s coverage began in earnest in 1997 with a raft of supplementary programming to support their offering, including The Clive James Formula 1 Show prior to the season opener in Melbourne.
Fans became acclimatised to new faces, a new trackside studio, and of most importance, commercial breaks during the Grand Prix itself, which caused controversy on more than one occasion (Imola 2005 the main offense). With no Grandstand support, qualifying became a standalone 90-minute live show for most of the 17 races, with build-up and post session analysis.
Later, Murray and Martin’s F1 Special, hosted by commentators Murray Walker and Martin Brundle, became a regular fixture in the early evenings following qualifying, giving fans a different take on F1. Outside of their F1 offering, ITV also covered Formula 3000 highlights through their 30-minute International Motor Sport programme.
ITV’s race day show increased in length year-on-year, partly to compensate for the commercial breaks, but also to allow the broadcaster to focus on the whole grid of 11 drivers and 22 cars rather than those competing at the front.
Despite no British contenders fighting for the championship, ITV dedicated 69 hours to F1 in 1997 on race day across 17 races, a little over four hours of action, encompassing their live broadcast, same day repeat and highlights offering.
At a glance – BBC vs ITV – San Marino Grand PrixRadio Times
Qualifying Live – 12:00 to 13:05 – BBC One
Race Live – 12:35 to 15:00 – BBC Two
Highlights – 18:40 to 19:30 – BBC Two
Qualifying Live – 11:45 to 13:15 – ITV
Race Live – 12:25 to 15:10 – ITV
Highlights – 23:05 to 00:00 – ITV
ITV remained the UK’s F1 broadcaster through Schumacher’s dominant years at the front of the field, covering every race and most qualifying sessions live. The exception: the 2000 United States Grand Prix which aired live on ITV2.
In addition, races that aired outside of Europe suffered from inferior treatment in ITV’s early years, with qualifying from races such as Brazil and Japan airing on tape delay, as well as some of these races (from 1999 to 2003) airing from ITV’s studio in London instead of on-site.
The low point in this regard was 2005, where both Japan and China aired on an 18-hour tape delay. Both sessions aired at almost midnight UK time on the Saturday, a situation thankfully avoided in following seasons when ITV began to utilise ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4 for live qualifying.
The commercial broadcaster switched things up from 2004 onwards, leaving their studio behind and moving closer to the action in the paddock, a set-up that has remained through various broadcasters ever since.
Despite Schumacher’s continued stranglehold on F1 and a barren spell from a UK perspective, ITV covered F1 for 80 hours in 2004 on race day across 18 races. It would have been easy for ITV to have ‘fallen out’ with F1 at this stage, nevertheless their overarching commitment to the sport remained.
As audiences dropped across the continent, including in Germany and Italy, the emergence of Lewis Hamilton fuelled a surge in UK interest back at home.
Lift Me Up by Moby became the sport’s signature soundtrack from 2006, ITV’s F1 offering given a refresh by North One Television, with Steve Rider returning as presenter. Focus on F1 gradually increased, which made it even more puzzling when the commercial broadcaster opted to pull the plug on the sport in 2008.
But the explanation when it came was cold and brutal. At ITV, overall advertising revenue had taken a dive as the recession drew closer, and in terms of sports rights, the company had to prioritise its targets. [..] In order to pay for the [Champions League football] bid, something had to go. Formula One.Steve Rider – My Chequered Career, page 218.
Like in 1996 when the BBC increased their offering before exiting the sport, ITV did the same in 2008 with an expanded qualifying programme.
Their live qualifying shows were regularly two and a half hours long, leading into live GP2 coverage on ITV4, with their race day programme regularly exceeding three hours, a sign of things to come back on the Beeb.
Part of the increase, while down to increased interest in the sport, was also down to an increase in advertising minutage, the length of advertising breaks increasing during ITV’s tenure covering Formula 1 from 1997 to 2008.
Nevertheless, during their final season, ITV aired over 84 hours on race day in 2008 across 18 races, an average of 4 hours and 40 minutes per race, an increase of 15 percent per race compared to 1997.
The figures may not be as dramatic as the BBC’s sizeable increases in the early 1990s, however this is more a reflection on how ITV’s figures were near the highest possible peak from the outset, and how the F1 broadcasting product was mature by this point.
ITV’s highlight was their final ever race, as a peak audience of over 13 million viewers watched Hamilton become World Champion in dramatic style in Brazil 2008, winning the championship with a last lap overtake on Timo Glock.
…but the recession bit back twice
Multi-platform was the name of the game for the BBC. The Beeb were gifted F1 when ITV opted to exit their contract two years early, and rightly exploited their new toy given the bargain they got.
There was a period from 2009 to 2011 where it was increasingly difficult to avoid F1 on the BBC, no matter how hard you tried. An advertising campaign, dubbed ‘The World’s Greatest Car Chase’ greeted viewers heading into Melbourne in 2009, as the familiar bass riff hit screens once again.
Live coverage of qualifying and the race aired on BBC One, with practice and an extended post-race show called F1 Forum airing via the BBC website and BBC’s Red Button. Highlights of each race aired in a primetime slot on BBC Three. Fans also had the option of alternative commentary, coming from either BBC Radio 5 Live or CBBC.
Fans could enjoy the action uninterrupted for the first time on free-to-air television since 1996, the broadcaster covering every minute of Jenson Button’s dominant 2009 season in the Brawn.
Broadcast lengths remained like that of ITV, and increased between 2009 and 2011. In 2011, the BBC aired 92 hours of action on race day across 19 races, nearly five hours of coverage on their linear outlets!
The figure excludes the F1 Forum, as well as Friday’s and Saturday’s programming. Including the F1 Forum would increase the race day average to near six hours, an astonishing figure, and an increase on their predecessor.
The forum style show allowed fans to have their say, as well as giving a chance for the team to focus on those teams typically out of the limelight following a Grand Prix.
The BBC’s commitment was unmatched, even during Sebastian Vettel’s dominance in 2011. The highlight of BBC’s second foray into F1 was the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix. The figures in this article are primarily for the billed slot lengths in advance, however the rain-soaked Montreal race saw the BBC remain on-air across BBC One and then BBC Two to cover the dramatic race.
Viewing figures were at some of their highest levels ever seen for F1 in the UK, the BBC’s sport department were happy, while fans watching at home were pleased as well.
But while the BBC’s F1 team, both on and off-air, were delivering high-quality coverage, the BBC’s licence fee settlement with the UK government, and the need to make efficiency savings, lurked in the background.
The BBC faced a choice of getting rid of Wimbledon, Six Nations or disposing of the F1. In the end, the BBC opted to ‘safeguard’ F1’s free-to-air future by negotiating a new, long-term deal directly with Sky Sports, taking the sport from 2012 to 2018.
Half of the races aired exclusively live on Sky Sports from 2012, with BBC airing those races in highlights form. For fans whose primary method of consuming the sport was via free-to-air, the decision was a retrograde step at the time, taking the sport back nearly twenty years.
Overnight, F1’s presence on free-to-air television had dropped by a third. In 2012, the BBC aired 63 hours of F1 action on race day across 20 races, an average of 3 hours and 10 minutes of action per race, including pre-race build-up and post-race analysis.
During this period, fans knew what they were getting, and the sport benefited in some ways from the new deal with extensive coverage across both Sky’s and BBC’s portfolio of outlets. The BBC retained their radio offering, with continued online coverage as well.
While the offering served up was by no means perfect, it was a happy medium, helping to keep F1 in front of the masses on the Beeb.
There was a growing inevitability as the years passed that the BBC would pull the plug on the sport as the purses continued to tighten. The corporation pulled the plug at the end of 2015, with the free-to-air element of the contract switching to Channel 4.
At a glance – BBC vs Channel 4 – Belgian Grand PrixMotorsport Broadcasting archive / Channel 4 Press
Qualifying Live – 12:10 to 14:30 – BBC Two
Race Live – 12:10 to 15:30 – BBC One
F1 Forum – 15:30 to ~16:15 – BBC Red Button
Qualifying Live – 11:55 to 14:30 – Channel 4
Race Live – 12:00 to 16:00 – Channel 4
Highlights – 00:40 to 01:40 – Channel 4
Channel 4 retained a similar offering to the BBC, with extensive live coverage during their live weekends. While the broadcaster had no Red Button style F1 Forum show, they made up for this with an extended post-race broadcast on their linear outlet.
Furthermore, Channel 4 committed to airing their live races without commercial breaks. Familiar faces, such as Ben Edwards, David Coulthard and Lee McKenzie moved over from the BBC, while Channel 4 faces, such as Steve Jones, joined the team.
In the first year of their contract in 2016, Channel 4 aired 71 hours of F1 action across 21 races, an average of 3 hours and 24 minutes, including commercials. On a like-for-like basis, this was the highest for F1 on free-to-air television since 2012, although does not account for the BBC’s F1 Forum.
Before Channel 4 could get comfortable with F1, however, Sky swooped in immediately, taking F1 exclusively from 2019, with live coverage of the British Grand Prix and highlights of every qualifying and race session airing via free-to-air.
Figures under the new contract hit their nadir in 2019, owing to a restrictive contract imposed by Sky on Channel 4, with just 53 hours of F1 action covered across 21 races, an average of just over two hours, the lowest figure at that point since 1991.
The restrictions on Channel 4 loosened the following year, but have not moved the needle significantly. Later start times for Canada, Mexico, USA, and now Miami, have hampered Channel 4’s offering further, the broadcaster opting to air shorter shows due to the late-night (or Sunday morning in the case of qualifying) time slot.
Other races, especially last season, have seen production company Whisper opt for a skeleton crew on-site. The 2022 Japanese Grand Prix saw just Steve Jones and Felipe Massa present on-site, with the remainder of the crew back at base in Ealing.
Channel 4 remain loyal to the sport, and will continue to air highlights of every race, plus live coverage of the British Grand Prix in 2023. Their relationship with Sky remains positive, the two coming to an agreement at the end of 2021 to air the championship deciding race in Abu Dhabi live on free-to-air television.
Where are we now?
It has been over a decade now since F1 began the transition to pay television in the UK, which has given others an opportunity in the motor sport sphere to make an impact and try to break through on free-to-air television.
It is an opportunity that will remain over the next seven seasons, given Sky’s recent extension to cover F1 through to the end of 2029.
Except, no one successfully has broken through. The prime candidate, Formula E, has struggled to gain momentum across each of its homes, having rotated around ITV, Channel 5, BBC and now Channel 4.
The free-to-air broadcaster shows some Formula E rounds live, however races that fall in primetime, such as the season opening Mexico City E-Prix on Saturday 13th January, do not air live on their linear platforms.
Elsewhere, MotoGP moved with F1 to pay television over to BT Sport, while the British Touring Car Championship has retained its presence on ITV4, while some races moved to ITV1 last season.
Extreme E has also had a presence on ITV1 recently, but the series has delivered poor viewing figures.
Unfortunately, television executives are simply not into motor sport enough to plough hours into it across the weekend afternoons, if they ever were at least. Let us not forget that the BBC are still covering a range of sport at weekends.
On Saturday afternoons on BBC One during 2022, the corporation aired live snooker, tennis, football, rugby league, rugby union, athletics, gymnastics, both male and female including the major events such as the Winter Olympics, Six Nations, Commonwealth Games, and the FIFA World Cup.
It is not that BBC do not have the space to cover it, it is that they simply do not want to because motor sport currently does not align with their strategic priorities.
Or, an alternative version of that statement is that motor sport is too expensive for the BBC to cover which, in the case of at least F1 or MotoGP, rings true.
World Superbikes is an interesting use case. Toprak Razgatlioglu and Alvaro Bautista have successfully challenged Britain’s Jonathan Rea dominance in recent seasons, with enticing racing, however the series has generated little in the way of additional coverage from a UK standpoint.
For F1, does it really matter that is not as accessible via the historical, linear free-to-air television route? Arguably not, otherwise commercial rights holder Liberty Media would not have agreed a new deal with Sky taking the sport to 2029.
What ‘success’ looks like for Formula 1 is changing. Once upon a time, it was the number of eyeballs watching a free-to-air broadcast, hence the sport benefited significantly from the expansive airtime that the BBC or ITV gave it.
Now, the sport has a much wider net to reach out to, across a variety of platforms, helping bring in a younger audience to the sport, instead of an aging audience that predominantly watches free-to-air television. The delivery mechanism has changed.
It makes measuring ‘success’ challenging to gauge from the outside beyond glorified media releases and PR approved quotes.
As well as looking at Channel 4’s and Sky’s audience data, F1, along with their stakeholders, will look at data from social media (Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram), combining that with data from the likes of Netflix to build a much bigger picture of their audience.
An 18-year-old watching highlights via YouTube is more attractive to F1 than someone age 60 watching linear free-to-air highlights on Channel 4. And, it is for that reason that, while it is sad to see F1’s free-to-air presence deteriorate over the years, it is also a sign of the times.
Because free-to-air, linear television for F1 is not the future, or even the present for F1.
It may just be the past.
If you enjoyed this article, the Lucky! series covers F1’s broadcasting evolution over the decades from episode five onwards, which this writer contributed to. Lucky! is an eight-part documentary series, telling the story of F1 through the lens of Bernie Ecclestone, and is available now worldwide, including in the UK via Discovery+.
In addition, consider contributing 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.
Minor amendment made on January 4th to clarify that the Caesars Palace Grand Prix from Las Vegas in 1981 aired live on BBC Two. Thanks to DennisFone for the heads up on this one.