Scheduling: The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

This post will be updated on Thursday with details of Channel 4’s live broadcast (info here).

Verstappen versus Hamilton. 21 races down. 1 to go. The 2021 championship fight is going down to the wire, in one of the most intense Formula 1 seasons in years, as both drivers go into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix level on 369.5 points.

If Lewis Hamilton beats Max Verstappen, he will become an eight-time Drivers’ Champion, breaking the record set by Michael Schumacher in 2004.

If Verstappen wins, he will win his first Drivers’ Championship, becoming the 34th person to win the championship, and the first from the Netherlands.

As of writing, the season finale will air exclusively live on pay-TV across Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event.

Speaking to Motorsport Broadcasting last week, a Sky spokesperson said it was “unlikely” that the season finale would be made available on a free-to-air basis.

Sky will air special programming throughout the weekend, with specials on Friday and Saturday, and an extended race day broadcast on Sunday.

Highlights of the race will air on Channel 4 in an early evening time slot, with qualifying airing at 18:55 on Saturday, with race at 17:30 on Sunday, three hours after the chequered flag has fallen.

Radio coverage airs across BBC’s online platform, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, with updates also during the race itself on BBC Radio 5 Live.

The weekend could be BBC’s last for covering F1 on radio, with no formal announcement yet on who will be covering F1 from 2022 onwards.

All F1 sessions are available to listen live via BBC’s F1 website

Thursday 9th December
15:00 to 16:00 – The F1 Show (Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event)
16:00 to 17:30 – F1: Drivers’ Press Conference (Sky Sports F1)
20:00 to 21:00 – F1: Preview (BBC Radio 5 Live)

Friday 10th December
07:35 to 08:20 – F2: Practice (Sky Sports F1)
09:00 to 10:45 – F1: Practice 1 (Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event)
12:45 to 14:25 – F1: Practice 2 (Sky Sports F1)
=> also BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra from 12:55 to 14:05
14:25 to 15:05 – F2: Qualifying (Sky Sports F1)

15:05 to 15:35 – Countdown to Abu Dhabi (Sky Sports F1)

Saturday 11th December
08:10 to 09:15 – F2: Sprint Race 1 (Sky Sports F1)
09:45 to 11:10 – F1: Practice 3 (Sky Sports F1)
12:00 to 14:40 – F1: Qualifying (Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event)
=> also BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra from 12:55 to 14:05
14:40 to 15:40 – F2: Sprint Race 2 (Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event)
15:40 to 16:40 – F1: Champions Special (Sky Sports F1)
16:40 to 17:10 – Ted’s Qualifying Notebook (Sky Sports F1)
18:55 to 20:25 – F1: Qualifying Highlights (Channel 4)

20:30 to 21:30 – IndyCar Season Review (Sky Sports F1)

Sunday 12th December
08:50 to 10:10 – F2: Feature Race (Sky Sports F1)
11:30 to 17:00 – F1: Race (Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event)
=> 11:30 – Grand Prix Sunday
=> 12:55 – Race
=> also BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra from 12:45 to 15:00
=> 15:00 – Chequered Flag
=> 16:30 – Ted’s Notebook
17:30 to 20:00 – F1: Race Highlights (Channel 4)

Full scheduling details for the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Scheduling details correct as of Tuesday 7th December and are subject to change.

If scheduling details do change, this article will be updated.

Updated on Tuesday 7th December at 17:50.

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Sky “unlikely” to make potential F1 title deciding season finale available on a free-to-air basis

Sky Sports are “unlikely” to make coverage of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix available on a free-to-air basis if the F1 championship battle goes down to the wire, current plans from the broadcaster indicate.

8 points separate Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at the top of the Drivers’ Championship, with two races remaining.

If Verstappen does not clinch the championship at the next round in Saudi Arabia, it will be the first time since 2016 that the championship has gone to the final race of the season.

In 2016, the season finale aired live across Channel 4 and Sky Sports as part of the UK F1 TV rights agreement that was in place at that time.

Now, apart from the British Grand Prix, every race airs exclusively live on Sky Sports, with highlights on Channel 4.

The Abu Dhabi race could be the first F1 race in around 40 years where the Drivers’ Championship has gone down to the wire, without live coverage airing on free-to-air television in the UK.

Speaking to Motorsport Broadcasting, Sky said “The race is unlikely to be free to air on December 12th. Highlights will be available on Channel 4 as always.”

Current Channel 4 schedules show that highlights of qualifying will air at 18:55 on Saturday 11th December, with race highlights airing at 17:30.

Sky’s schedules show that the broadcaster will simulcast their race day offering across Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event, but not via Sky Showcase, as they did last month for coverage of the US Grand Prix qualifying session.

The 2021 season continues on Friday 3rd December with coverage of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

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Scheduling: The 2021 United States Grand Prix

With 6 races to go in the 2021 Formula One season, just 6 points separate Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton as the championship returns to Texas for the United States Grand Prix!

For UK viewers, the weekend offering from both Sky Sports and Channel 4 looks a little different to usual – hence why Motorsport Broadcasting has opted to publish a full schedule for the weekend.

F1 – the coverage

Channel 4’s offering is the weakest from a free-to-air broadcaster in decades, partly by choice, and partly inflicted upon them.

With qualifying starting at 21:00 UK time on Saturday, Channel 4 have opted to air qualifying on Sunday morning instead of a late-night Saturday slot, as they did in 2019.

Meanwhile, the race edit begins just after midnight on Sunday, the earliest Channel 4 can contractually air the race.

Channel 4 have trimmed both shows back compared to usual: a one-hour qualifying show airs on Sunday with an 85-minute programme covering the race. Expect limited commercials, and a weekend featuring primarily World Feed content.

The actual race edits should be the same length as usual, except without the usual bells and whistles that production company Whisper usually provide.

Given the closeness of the championship race, one wonders whether Channel 4 should have negotiated with Sky to bring the free-to-air highlights package forward, even by an hour to 23:05.

Doing so would unlikely deplete Sky’s live audience, but boost Channel 4’s figure significantly, resulting in a net gain overall. Thankfully this is not a championship decider, because having the F1 title won at 01:00 on free-to-air television is not in anyone’s interests.

By way of comparison, 30 years ago, the BBC aired a 50-minute highlights package of the US Grand Prix from Phoenix in a late night time slot on BBC Two.

Sky have seemingly reacted to Channel 4’s qualifying conundrum by opting to simulcast their live coverage on their new Sky Showcase channel, enabling more viewers to watch qualifying across Sky, Virgin Media and BT TV.

F1 – the team and W Series

With a reduced offering comes a change in presenter, as Lee McKenzie steps into Steve Jones’s presenting shoes for Channel 4.

Martin Brundle returns to Sky’s coverage after missing both the Russian and Turkish rounds, with Jenson Button also joining the team out in Austin.

For the first time, IndyCar and NASCAR star Danica Patrick joins Sky’s offering. One person not with Sky is Ted Kravitz, Kravitz part of the W Series team during the US Grand Prix weekend.

Live coverage of the W Series airs across More4 and Channel 4, the Saturday race airing on More4 with the season finale airing on Channel 4.

All F1 sessions are available to listen live via BBC’s F1 website

Thursday 21st October
21:00 to 22:00 – The F1 Show (Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event)
22:00 to 22:30 – F1: Preview (BBC Radio 5 Live)
23:00 to 00:30 – F1: Drivers’ Press Conference (Sky Sports F1)

Friday 22nd October
17:00 to 18:45 – F1: Practice 1 (Sky Sports F1)
20:45 to 22:30 – F1: Practice 2 (Sky Sports F1)

Saturday 23rd October
18:45 to 20:10 – F1: Practice 3 (Sky Sports F1)
=> also BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra from 18:55 to 20:05
20:30 to 21:00 – Hamilton vs Verstappen: The Season so Far (Sky Sports F1, Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Showcase)
21:00 to 23:45 – F1: Qualifying (Sky Sports F1, Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Showcase)
=> Sky Showcase until 23:15
=> also BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra from 21:55 to 23:05
23:05 to 00:25 – W Series: Race 1 (More4)

Sunday 24th October
08:00 to 08:30 – W Series: Race 1 Highlights (Channel 4)

08:30 to 09:30 – F1: Qualifying Highlights (Channel 4)
16:30 to 18:00 – W Series: Race 2 (Channel 4)

18:30 to 23:00 – F1: Race
=> 18:30 – Grand Prix Sunday (Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event)
=> 19:55 – Race (Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event)
=> also BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra from 19:45 to 22:00
=> 22:00 – Chequered Flag (Sky Sports F1)
00:05 to 01:30 – F1: Race Highlights (Channel 4)

Full scheduling details for the 2021 United States Grand Prix. Scheduling details correct as of Friday 15th October and are subject to change.

Meanwhile, MotoGP heads back to Misano, the Emilia Romagna race filling the void left by the cancellation of the flyaway rounds.

With a 52-point advantage, Fabio Quartararo is odds on favourite to win his first MotoGP World Championship. As always, live coverage of every session airs on BT Sport 2, with highlights airing on ITV4.

Elsewhere in motor racing, the British Touring Car Championship concludes with all the action from Brands Hatch airing live on ITV4.

Friday 22nd October
08:00 to 15:15 – Practice (BT Sport 2)
=> 08:00 – Moto3
=> 08:55 – MotoGP
=> 09:55 – Moto2
=> 12:15 – Moto3
=> 13:10 – MotoGP
=> 14:10 – Moto2

Saturday 23rd October
08:00 to 15:00 – Practice and Qualifying (BT Sport 2)
=> 08:00 – Moto3: Practice 3
=> 08:55 – MotoGP: Practice 3
=> 09:55 – Moto2: Practice 3
=> 11:35 – Moto3: Qualifying
=> 12:30 – MotoGP: Practice 4
=> 13:10 – MotoGP: Qualifying
=> 14:10 – Moto2: Qualifying

Sunday 24th October
07:30 to 14:30 – Races (BT Sport 2)
=> 07:30 – Warm Ups
=> 09:15 – Moto3: Race
=> 11:00 – Moto2: Race
=> 12:30 – MotoGP: Race
=> 14:00 – Chequered Flag

Monday 25th October
20:00 to 21:00 – Highlights (ITV4)

Full scheduling details for the 2021 Emilia Romagna MotoGP. Scheduling details correct as of Friday 15th October and are subject to change.

If plans change, this article will be updated.

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F1’s UK audience figures rise to four-year high

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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Over 2 million viewers watch F1’s first Sprint in UK

F1’s new look format, trialled over the British Grand Prix weekend, helped audience figures improve in the UK, consolidated data released by BARB suggests.

The Silverstone weekend was Channel 4’s only live action of the season, the broadcaster sharing live coverage with Sky Sports.

The consolidated data accounts for viewers who watched within seven days of the original transmission.

New format draws the viewers…

Usually, Friday plays host to two practice sessions.

However, only one practice session took place on Friday at Silverstone, with the traditional three-part qualifying session moving to Friday evening.

According to industry website Thinkbox, which publishes BARB consolidated data, 1.08 million viewers watched the qualifying session on Channel 4 from 17:00 to 19:30.

An additional 530,000 viewers watched on Sky Sports F1, across a shorter time slot from 17:25 to 19:30. A caveat here that Sky’s figure includes those that watched on devices, whereas Channel 4’s figure is for the TV set only.

Nevertheless, with a combined audience of 1.6 million viewers, the British Grand Prix marked F1’s highest UK audience on a Friday since at least 2003, if not earlier. Back then, ITV aired highlights of Friday qualifying in a late-night slot.

On Saturday, a combined audience of just over 2 million viewers watched Channel 4’s and Sky’s Sprint programming, including build-up and post-session analysis.

1.40 million watched the Sprint across all devices on Channel 4 from 15:45 to 17:40, with a further 610,000 viewers opting for Sky’s programming across a slightly longer time slot.

The figures are higher than what a normal three-part qualifying session would have achieved in its usual Saturday slot.

Initial analysis from Motorsport Broadcasting suggests that F1 may have recorded its highest Saturday audience for the British Grand Prix since 2013.

Race day saw an audience of around 3.6 million viewers watch Channel 4’s and Sky’s main programming, an average that includes the extended red flag period, but excludes the extended wraparound offering.

2.34 million viewers watched on Channel 4 from 14:26 to 17:07, with 1.21 million viewers watching on Sky Sports F1 from 14:53 to 17:35.

Year-on-year, Sky’s race audience increased by 15%, with Channel 4’s decreasing by around 8.5%, reflecting the positive trajectory Sky’s F1 audience figures continue to take.

Both broadcasters benefited from the Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen collision, with 2 million viewers sticking around for the post-race programming until 18:30.

…what this means…

Although peak audiences are unavailable, we can use the average audience figures already in the public domain, along with programme lengths, to draw some conclusions.

Using the available data, it is likely that Friday’s qualifying session peaked with 2 million viewers, Saturday’s Sprint session with 3 million viewers, and Sunday’s race with 4.5 million viewers.

Having the weekend live on free-to-air television undoubtedly helps the audience figures, but even for Sky, the British qualifying session was their highest ever F1 audience for a Friday – including the plethora of evening practice sessions where they were the exclusive broadcaster.

In some ways, that is unsurprising, but it shows that fans tuned into the idea of having a meaningful session take place on a Friday evening.

Fans did not dismiss Friday qualifying, and instead felt that it was important part of the F1 weekend, and important enough to tune in to.

Whether the Sprint figures were higher than a typical Saturday because of the novelty of it remains unknown, and only something we will know when audience data for the Italian Grand Prix comes in next month.

But, arguably, the events of the Sprint contributed to what followed on Sunday from a sporting perspective.

Speaking to selected media, including The Race, on a conference call, F1’s CEO Stefano Domenicali described the response to the Sprint as “really positive”.

“After the first sprint event at Silverstone, the response that we have from the drivers, from the teams, the media, has been really positive, and also for the promoter,” said Domenicali, as quoted by The Race.

“The outcome of the first event has been dramatically positive. It’s great because that brought attention, interest on TV, and also partners. We have already seen the financial interest be positive.”

The audience data for the weekend, which F1 is no doubt digesting, backs up Domenicali’s statement.

…as W Series beats Formula E

But, Formula 1 was not the only beneficiary of the revised schedule.

The W Series race normally takes place after F1’s qualifying session. For Britain, the race remained on the Saturday, but aired in between F1’s single practice session, and before the Sprint.

An impressive average of 533,000 viewers watched on Channel 4 from 13:05 to 14:17, a figure which excludes those who watched on other devices.

Now in its second season, the all-female championship, retained around 66% of the F1 practice audience. The F1 session, which began at 12:00 UK time, averaged around 800,000 viewers across Channel 4 and Sky.

A week after the Grand Prix, Formula E’s London outing aired live on Channel 4 across the weekend of July 24th and 25th with a double header event.

The electric series reached a high of 382,000 viewers from 13:51 to 15:12 for its second race of the weekend, again excluding the ‘other device’ watchers.

The audience figures demonstrate how W Series benefited from being on the same card as Formula 1, whereas Formula E’s events are largely standalone with no wrap-around support.

W Series also benefited from added exposure through Channel 4’s live F1 coverage, the only weekend of the year that the free-to-air broadcaster covers F1 live.

Moving forward, W Series will not have the luxury of an F1 lead-in on the same channel.

In addition, Formula E faced the opening weekend of the Olympics across the BBC, which took attention away from the E-Prix. In that context, the Formula E figure is good given the lack of support the series has received from free-to-air stations in recent years.

Most importantly, The Race notes that Formula E “surpassed the expectations of the C4 management team,” which bodes well for a future rights deal between the two parties.

Motorsport Broadcasting will publish a full analytical piece looking at the UK F1 audience picture at the half way stage of the 2021 season shortly.

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.