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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ITV’s F1 archive to be activated in deal with Racing Past Media

ITV’s Formula 1 archive is to be activated over the next three years following a research deal reached between the broadcaster and Racing Past Media, led by presenter Steve Rider.

The archive being explored covers live coverage of F1 races from the 1960s and 1970s, including coverage of the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, as well as ITV’s coverage of over 50 races via the European Broadcasting Union.

RPM says that the agreement “will help organise and activate a significant volume of material held by ITV from the first 30 years of the Formula One World Championship.” The agreement does not cover ITV’s later F1 coverage from 1997 to 2008.

In their press release, RPM says that “the ambition of the project to make this exciting content available to a much wider audience.”

Although the release does not list any outlets, the deal will open the door for the ITV archive to be made available to stakeholders, such as Formula 1 themselves for usage on their over-the-top platform, or Sky Sports F1 more easily than what it currently is.

Joining Rider at RPM is Robert Foster, who spent 25 years in production, rights and archive management at the BBC before becoming vice-president at the European Broadcasting Union.

Steve Rider said “It is not just the race coverage but the documentary and feature material being unearthed that is so exciting.”

“This is the first step in a project that, along with the co-operation of other archives and rights holders, will help provide a complete and accessible archive of the formative years of the Formula One World Championship.”

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Tracking the social media fortune of motor sports leading championships

Motor sport has successfully navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, with leading championships managing to put together championship seasons throughout turbulent times.

Off the track, each individual series has fought for the attention of viewers around the world, some more successful in others.

Across social media, the battle for followers has intensified, with real-world championships turning to eSports to try to hook the next generation of fans.

This writer has followed the battle every step of the way, and can now present a deep-dive into each series, including who is hot, and who is not…

Methodology

Since March 2017, Motorsport Broadcasting has collected and analysed metrics on 14 of the world’s leading motor sport series, dissecting their performance across the leading social media platforms.

The data gives us a greater insight on which championships are increasing their social media following the most comparatively speaking against their rivals, and which entities risk slipping out of the limelight in the years ahead.

The metrics focus on the number of followers for each series, across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, aggregating these totals together to form a wider view, as this is easily accessible data within the public domain.

The championships covered are:

  • British Superbikes
  • British Touring Car Championship
  • Formula E
  • Formula 1
  • Formula Two
  • IndyCar Series
  • MotoGP
  • NASCAR
  • Roborace
  • W Series*
  • World Endurance Championship
  • World Rally Championship
  • World Rallycross*
  • World Superbikes
  • World Touring Car Championship

* Added in September 2019

By analysing international and domestic series within the same time series, we can see what the natural ‘floor’ is, and whether any international championships are performing worse than anticipated against their rivals.

As thus, the surprise is not when the British Superbikes or British Touring Car Championships are at the back of the pack, but rather when someone else is.

By comparing multiple data points, we can analyse how much a championship has grown over a given period, ranking this data to see which series is the best and worst performer within the data set (1st means fastest growth of the championships tracked within the period, 15th means slowest growth).

The methodology is imperfect, but helps us identify how championships are performing over a longer period against their rivals in the marketplace.

Formula Two and W Series rises show benefits of current F1 support package

The chart above shows how Formula 1, Formula Two and the W Series have performed in direct comparison to their rivals recently.

As expected, Formula 1 has led the way, only briefly dipping behind their nearest rival twice. Formula E overtook F1 in the back end of 2018, with MotoGP doing the same two years later.

More interestingly is the consistent rise of Formula Two since Liberty Media purchased F1 and their subsidiary organisations.

In early 2017, Formula Two was lacklustre in the social media space, ranking 13th (and last) in the series that Motorsport Broadcasting is tracking. To put it simply, Formula Two was growing slower in terms of raw volume than its key rivals.

Since then, Formula Two’s reach on social media has risen faster than its rivals: gradually increasing to 8th in July 2018 and 3rd in Autumn 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Formula Two’s rise has not matched the dazzling heights it saw last year (a statistic supported by Sky’s UK audience figures for the series year-on-year), however we can attribute this to the poor calendar format as opposed to any misstep on the social media front.

Social media figures have grown for the leading feeder series by 748% in the past four years: from 156,000 followers in May 2017 to 1.33 million followers at the end of October, a massive achievement.

It shows not only how well Liberty Media have treated the series across their platforms, but also how much of an afterthought Bernie Ecclestone’s F1 treated the feeder championships.

Motorsport Broadcasting has not tracked Formula Three’s figures, but expect a similar pattern to have emerged in that space.

Pleasingly, the W Series is also performing well on social media, rising at a faster rate than some of their bigger rivals this season, including F2, as the chart shows.

The championship has doubled their following in the six months to October: rising from 165,000 followers to 331,000 followers. The total volumes are still small, but there is reason to be hopeful that W Series is about to break out on social media.

An expanded calendar, to give the championship more ‘growth opportunities’ would help in that regard as we head into 2022.

Formula E and IndyCar’s stats show mixed results

While Formula Two and W Series have generally seen a positive swing in momentum, Formula E and IndyCar have experienced turbulence in recent years.

IndyCar’s social media movement has fluctuated in recent years, with a strong 2017 and 2018 followed by a sharp slump in 2019, possibly influenced by Fernando Alonso’s first Indianapolis 500 appearance in 2017.

The series recovered throughout the pandemic, but failed to reach their earlier heights, in comparison to its rivals at least.

Whereas international championships such as MotoGP and F1 have increased their calendar length, IndyCar’s typical season lasts six months, the season beginning in March and finishing in September.

The result, from a social media perspective, has been a much sharper ‘off-season decline’ compared to their rivals, thanks to the length of their off-season. There is some evidence in the data that a long off-season hurts IndyCar to gain momentum at the start of the following season.

IndyCar’s trough came at the start of the pandemic, a surprising statistic considering how successful their eSports Series was in attracting attention, with McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris to the party. Evidently, Norris’s appearance in the video world had little impact on IndyCar overall.

Formula E’s trajectory is well supported by their decline in audience figures through the pandemic. At one point, in late 2018 at the start of the Gen2, Formula E was growing faster than most of their rivals, but has since slipped down the order. Although Formula E retains a higher reach (for now), the likes of Formula Two are currently growing at a faster rate than the electric series.

Reigning champion Antonio Felix da Costa acknowledged in an interview with The Race recently that the series has “took a few punches” recently, something that the championship needs to rectify heading into season 8.

World Superbikes performs well

The leading two-wheel championships have generally performed well in recent years. MotoGP sits behind Formula 1 as expected; however, the bigger surprise is World Superbikes.

Despite Jonathan Rea’s dominance from 2015 to 2020, the series has always been there or there abouts, consistently in the top six for social media growth since the start of 2019.

2021 has built on the strong foundations, with Rea’s time at the top of the series halted, for now at least, by Turkish rider Toprak Razgatlioglu, helping push World Superbikes into a top three spot for social media growth, only behind F1 and MotoGP.

MotoGP will be hoping that the impact of their new Amazon Prime documentary series, alongside the rest of their product offering, will help not only their social media offering, but also the broadcasters too.

“We’re not the target of these new products,” Manel Arroyo, MotoGP’s Managing Director told me earlier this year. “The purpose is to bring in a new audience of people that are normally visiting different platforms.”

“And then, they find these kind of products and documentaries, discovering us in the process. Our main target with our platforms is to create new audiences and to bring these audiences to our broadcasters, whether in Spain, Italy, Germany, UK, everywhere.”

“It’s not just about social media growth, but looking at how we deliver the growth as well to our broadcasters.”

Another consistent performer is the World Rally Championship, with the All Live platform helping. However, a poor Summer saw the series drop to 7th in the social media standings, its lowest ranking in three years.

The overall picture

What does this mean when all the data points are crunched together into one chart?

Highlighted are some of the series with the biggest fluctuations referenced in this article.

IndyCar’s standing has not necessarily declined from 2017 to 2021, but what has happened is that both it, and Formula E, have encountered competition from what an unlikely source in Formula Two.

This makes it more difficult for both IndyCar and Formula E to stand out from the crowd, with Formula Two now on the social scene. 2022 is critical for the latter, who have now fallen behind the likes of the World Endurance Championship on social media.

Overall, it shows just how important it is to have momentum on track, and how that then translates into the social media metrics.

Statistics last updated on October 31st, 2021.

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36 years apart: how F1’s broadcast from Zandvoort has changed

This weekend sees Formula 1 return to Zandvoort in the Netherlands for their first race at the circuit since 1985.

In the 36 years since, much has changed for Formula 1, for Zandvoort, and for broadcasting overall.

But some of the Zandvoort circuit remains intact from the layout F1 raced on in 1985, allowing us to compare how F1, and its camera angles, have changed since McLaren’s 1-2 back then.

The headline figures

Unlike in 2021, where Sky Sports airs every session live, back in 1985, the BBC covered only the race live.

The 1985 race formed part of BBC Two’s Grandstand offering in late August, with Show Jumping, Swimming and Athletics also featuring on the bill. In addition, a 35-minute highlights package aired late on Sunday evening.

Back in the 80s and 90s, local broadcasters typically produced the World Feed, this long before the World Feed was centralised in-house within F1. For the Dutch round, public broadcaster NOS produced the feed in 1985.

To show how much motor sport broadcasting has evolved, NOS utilised just 8 trackside cameras to produce the Grand Prix.

Now, Formula 1’s in-house team uses around 25 external trackside cameras to produce the action, this figure excluding all of the additional pit lane and on-board cameras that the team has access to.

Although the Zandvoort circuit configuration has changed in the past 36 years, the circuit length has remained the same. So, how has the number of external cameras tripled over the past three decades?

With the help of Formula 1’s television images and motor sport digital producer Chain Bear, we analyse the lap…

Tarzan (turn 1) to Hugenholtz (turn 3)

The lap starts with the run down the start-finish straight into a 180-degree hairpin, commonly known as Tarzan. Out of Tarzan, the cars head through a left-hand kink before a right-hand bend named Gerlach.

A comparison between 1985 and 2021 – comparing the main angles used on the start-finish straight for the Dutch Grand Prix.

From an advertising perspective, the start-finish straight has radically changed. The 1985 angle features a few small BMW boards heading towards turn 1, whereas the 2021 angle features prominent Heineken advertising, making it impossible to ignore.

The overhead gantry has its disadvantages though: the gantry can block the banked final corner, which means F1 cannot cut to the above angle too early, otherwise they may miss any overtakes at the start of the straight.

Back in 1985, the director had just one choice of camera heading into Tarzan: a high up camera (seen in the image above) covering the start-finish straight and all of Tarzan.

This weekend, F1 has five different camera options for the director to play with. Pointing up the start-finish straight towards the final bend, F1 has a choice of a high and medium-level angle.

Two lower cameras bring viewers closer to the action: the first positioned towards the end of the start-finish straight when the cars are at top speed, with a second camera positioned on the exit of Tarzan.

Furthermore, F1 has a remote camera located at the apex of turn 1. The camera, positioned on the pit lane barrier, tracks cars as they sweep into Tarzan, the director heavily using this angle during the first Formula Three race.

With thanks to Chain Bear, a visual comparison between 1985 and 2021, focusing on sector 1. Cameras, quite literally, everywhere! Use the slider to compare the two.

Both the 1985 and 2021 iterations of Zandvoort have cameras located at Gerlach, although the 2021 version also has a camera positioned on the short straight between Tarzan and Gerlach.

Out of Gerlach, the cars brake for the Hugenholtz hairpin. Now banked to aid overtaking, F1 has placed four cameras around the hairpin, a justified decision based on the weekend’s action so far.

A high camera, reminiscent of the hairpin at Suzuka, is the traditional World Feed shot. Supplementing the high angle is a Jib camera on the inside of the hairpin, while there are two ‘ground level’ angles on entry and exit respectively.

The exit camera worked beautifully on Friday, capturing W Series driver Fabienne Wohlwend’s accident in slow motion from a very close distance, while F1 captured Carlos Sainz’s smash on Saturday morning from a variety of external angles, helping to tell the story to the viewer.

In contrast, the 1985 version of the broadcast featured… zero camera angles at Hugenholtz. Instead, the broadcast focused on the hairpin from the preceding camera at turn 2 and turn 4, known as Hunserug.

The closest viewers would get to the Hugenholtz hairpin in 1985.

NOS used the higher angle to track the cars through turns 5 and 6. One camera angle covered 15 seconds of action per lap, a common feature of F1 broadcasting back then, but such a trait would be below 2021’s broadcasting standards.

Hondenvlak / Master (turn 8) to final corner

Following the fast decline right hander at Scheivlak (turn 7), the 2021 circuit deviates from its 1985 counterpart. The 2021 circuit heads right again through Master, while the 1985 straight continues a little longer before heading through a left-right chicane.

Showing how few cameras there were trackside in 1985, there were no external cameras positioned at turns 6 or 7, the 1985 director relying on the cameras at turns 4 and 8 respectively to cover this section.

Although the track layout changes at this point, the comparison between these angles is still valid, and shows again how much sports broadcasting has moved on from an advertising perspective.

Elevation is noticeable on both shots, but the 1985 angle features multiple advertisers, while the 2021 shot sees the Pirelli brand advertised to its fullest potential, with no other brands ‘interfering’ in the angle.

A comparison between 1985 and 2021 – looking back towards Scheivlak (turn 7) at the Dutch Grand Prix.

Wherever fans look during a race weekend, there is a ‘Heineken’ shot, a ‘Pirelli’ shot, an ‘Aramco’ shot, and so on, which is a better way of activating brands than the old school approach, even if it looks ‘samey’ on screen.

Throughout the second sector, 2021 reverts to the one camera per corner set up, with 9 cameras positioned from Hunserug at turn 4 through to the turn 12 hairpin, and an additional camera covering the straight between turns 10 and 11.

F1 has not given the turn 12 hairpin the same treatment of Hugenholtz earlier in the lap, a sign that F1 does not expect much action to take place at this section of track.

The extended gravel run-off area here and closeness of grandstands also limits F1’s options: there is unlikely enough room for a Jib camera on the inside of the hairpin.

As old re-joins new, both the 1985 and 2021 shots are in a similar position. As we see earlier in the lap, the 1985 angle is again higher to capture more of the action as the cars headed onto the start-finish straight.

The lower 2021 angle helps capture the elevation change as the machinery exits the banking to begin another lap of the 4.3-kilometre circuit.

With thanks to Chain Bear, a full visual comparison between 1985 and 2021. Use the slider to compare the two.

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How the BBC / Sky deal changed F1 broadcasting in the UK

Sebastian Vettel dominated the 2011 Formula One season, clinching his second Drivers’ Championship with four races to spare in Japan.

Although dominant up front, the 2011 season was competitive behind Vettel. One of the major talking points on-track was the frequent clashes between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, in what would turn out to be Hamilton’s penultimate season with McLaren.

Off-track, as the teams headed into the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend before the summer break, storm clouds began to emerge.

Hamilton may have topped a mundane first practice session in Hungary, but closer to home, a bombshell press release that landed just hours earlier sent shockwaves through the paddock and F1’s UK fanbase…

Here, Motorsport Broadcasting looks at the events that have unfolded since, and whether F1 is in a better place in the UK than what it was a decade ago.

The split

Ten years ago today, the BBC and Sky Sports confirmed that, from 2012, Formula 1 would air across both free-to-air and pay television as part of a new agreement between two of the biggest broadcasters in the UK.

2011 was the last season covered exclusively live, free-to-air by the BBC, the season becoming the highest watched in the UK on television.

BBC TV and Sky Sports have been awarded the live rights to Formula 1 ™ between 2012 and 2018.

The move will bring increased choice, innovation, and breadth of coverage to UK and Irish motor racing fans.

Press Release: BBC and Sky partner for live Formula 1 rights – Friday 29th July 2011

Since 2012, Sky Sports has aired every race live. The BBC’s programming supplemented Sky’s comprehensive offer, the free-to-air broadcaster airing half the races live and the other half in highlights form.

The previous Autumn, in October 2010, the government confirmed a licence fee freeze for six years which, in real terms, was a 16% cut to the BBC’s budget.

Cutbacks were necessary in some areas, and F1 was in the firing line.

The BBC’s original contract was set to expire at the end of 2013 and, writing at the time on the BBC website, their Head of F1 Ben Gallop said that the deal with Sky “extends the BBC’s commitment to F1 by a further five years.”

“Given the financial circumstances in which we find ourselves, we believe this new deal offers the best outcome for licence-fee payers,” Gallop said.

Some of the headlines following the announcement of the BBC and Sky Sports F1 deal in 2011. Headlines from The Guardian, BBC, RaceFans.net, Crash.net, Adam Cooper’s blog, Motorsport.com and Autosport.

At the time, the deal generated a lot of response from fans. The likes of Autosport described the deal as ‘controversial’ on their magazine cover, and it is easy to see why considering the magnitude of the change.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to look at the 2011 deal through a different lens.

What has happened since?

The BBC’s commitment to F1, which was meant to last until the end of the 2018 season, was short lived.

Another round of cuts was to come, and this time, BBC’s television coverage of Formula 1 was to disappear altogether.

Channel 4 succeeded the BBC as Sky’s free-to-air partner, retaining largely the same team both in front and behind the camera, as their coverage began in 2016.

We are absolutely delighted that F1 will remain on the BBC. The sport has never been more popular with TV audiences at a 10-year high and the BBC has always stated its commitment to the big national sporting moments. With this new deal not only have we delivered significant savings but we have also ensured that through our live and extended highlights coverage all the action continues to be available to licence fee payers.

Barbara Slater, BBC’s Director of Sport, speaking in 2011

If the 2011 bombshell was not big enough, a further bombshell was to follow.

Just one race into Channel 4’s new Formula 1 deal, Sky announced that they had secured the rights to air F1 exclusively live from 2019 to 2024 in a six-year deal.

Channel 4 would later secure free-to-air highlights, plus live coverage of the British Grand Prix from Sky.

By securing the pay-TV rights early, Sky fended off potential competition from rivals BT Sport, who were rumoured to be interested in F1 at the time.

The current Sky deal, mooted to be around £1 billion across the duration of the contract, or around £160 million per season, is significantly higher than what any free-to-air broadcaster could bid for the rights.

Let us rewind back to the 2011 deal and think about alternative scenarios. Had the BBC pulled out altogether, F1 may have moved on a full-time basis to Channel 4 or ITV.

With Sky lurking in the background though, it is difficult to imagine how many years such a deal would have lasted without Sky intervention.

The only alternative that could have had a material impact, even today, would be a joint BBC and ITV deal, like the current Six Nations rugby arrangements. On a 22-race basis, the BBC could air 7 races live, with ITV airing the remaining 15 races.

The two free-to-air broadcasters pay around £100 million per year for the Six Nations. The rugby tournament is a more attractive proposition to broadcasters than F1, with higher viewing figures and a higher proportion of action in primetime.

Any combined bid therefore would likely be under £100 million, even if you swap the BBC with Channel 4.

While it is a nice idea, the finances do not stack up when compared with the amount of money Sky have invested in F1.

The first BBC F1 forum at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Jake Humphrey (l), Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie (top r), David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan and Martin Brundle (bottom r).
The first BBC F1 forum at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Jake Humphrey (l), Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie (top r), David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan, and Martin Brundle (bottom r).

Did Sky walk through an open door when the BBC approached them in 2011? Absolutely. But the destination, and where we are currently in 2021, was always going to be the same irrespective of the journey taken.

The BBC’s deal with Sky in 2011 delayed the inevitable. It was not a question of if, it was a question of when.

The transfer of rights from free-to-air to pay in the UK has been gradual, in stark contrast to Germany where audiences have slumped by around 70% because of the ‘big bang’ rights change imposed on audiences.

The pros and cons of the UK F1 broadcasting arrangement

On and off-air, the UK F1 broadcasting arrangements over the past decade have helped talent step into the motor sport arena, who may never have had a chance had F1 remained solely on BBC television.

The likes of Rachel Brookes, Jack Nicholls, and Steve Jones to name a few have benefited over the past decade.

Brookes joined Sky’s F1 setup when their coverage started, while both Nicholls and Jones joined the F1 paddock on a permanent basis later.

Nicholls became BBC’s lead radio commentator in 2016, a role once held by David Croft; while Jones became Channel 4’s F1 presenter having never presented an F1 race!

This is fantastic news for F1 fans and Sky Sports will be the only place to follow every race live and in HD. We will give F1 the full Sky Sports treatment with a commitment to each race never seen before on UK television. As well as unrivalled build up to each race on Sky Sports News, we will broadcast in-depth live coverage of every session. Sky customers with Sky Sports will also be able to enjoy F1 across multiple platforms and devices, including Sky Go.

Barney Francis, Managing Director of Sky Sports, speaking in 2011

Having several broadcasters in the mix presenting their own bespoke output not only gives emerging talent more opportunities to break into the sport, but it gives viewers access to a broader roster of pundits.

From the BBC’s Jolyon Palmer, through to Channel 4’s Mark Webber and onto Sky’s Anthony Davidson, there should be something for everyone across the talent pool, across live and highlights.

The broadcasting arrangements since 2012 have resulted in every F1 session airing live, as well as the vast majority of Formula Two and Formula Three sessions.

Having multiple broadcasters air live F1 from 2012 to 2018 meant that the two could push each other to produce better content, with the fans watching at home benefiting overall.

I think it is important to emphasis at this point that Sky have an excellent team: Davidson, Jenson Button, Martin Brundle and Karun Chandhok to name a few, a rotating talent set helping to keep their coverage fresh race-by-race.

While Sky do produce excellent features (and I suspect the upcoming feature with Mick Schumacher in the Jordan 191 will fit into this category), including high-quality Sky Pad analysis, these sometimes feel isolated in amongst their lengthy pre-shows.

George Russell and Fernando Alonso analyse their practice laps from the 2021 Styrian Grand Prix with Anthony Davidson on the Sky Pad.

COVID has restricted what Sky can do, as Brookes outlined to this writer earlier this year. That combined with the number of races on the calendar now, dilutes the quality of programming on offer to the viewer.

Broadcasters want more races, as races attract viewers, but it means that their supplementary programming takes a hit.

Formula Two and Formula Three feel like an afterthought (not helped by the changes beyond Sky’s control), while Sky have failed to replicate the attraction of BBC’s post-race show, F1 Forum, in my view, where the team used to perch themselves in a motor home.

Despite the criticism, since Sky moved to the podium set up in the paddock, their post-race shows have improved, and is heading in the right direction.

Worryingly for Channel 4, their free-to-air highlights audience has slumped over the past two years, to the point where Sky is moving into a position whereby it has the lion’s share of the F1 audience, an unthinkable statement even two years ago.

The good news in totality for F1 is that Sky’s audiences are increasing rapidly, and are at their highest level yet (more to follow on this front over the forthcoming weeks).

Yes, television audiences have decreased compared with a decade ago, but fans have a much wider range of viewing options now.

Back in 2011, F1 did not upload highlights to YouTube, podcasts did not exist, and the F1 social media community was insignificant. Oh, and that thing called Drive to Survive was still eight years away.

Sky may have Bernie to thank for the initial deal signed in 2016, but they absolutely have Liberty Media to thank for maximising F1’s potential across the digital platforms.

If F1 is going to continue to sign exclusive pay TV deals, then they need an action plan on how they aim to reach fans that do not have pay TV. Otherwise, F1 will haemorrhage fans.

A Formula 1 only accessible behind a pay wall is not a fruitful Formula 1.

A Formula 1 that exploits social media, is available to fans at a reasonable price, and finds new, innovative ways to harness their audience, is a fruitful Formula 1.

Motorsport Broadcasting, writing in 2016 [pleasingly I think F1 currently aligns more into the second category. Not fully, but the second category resonates more with me].

A survey by The Race Media, which operates both The Race and WTF1, shows that most fans on both platforms watch F1 via pay-TV, with less than a quarter watching via free-to-air television.

It is plausible that F1 in the UK has lost older viewers over the past decade (‘lapsed fans’), thanks to the move away from the BBC, but gained some younger fans through the likes of Drive to Survive, thanks to Netflix and Liberty Media. It may still result in a net loss, but the picture is not as black and white as the headline suggests.

A major gripe for UK fans is that fans do not have access to F1’s premium tier over-the-top service, meaning that the only way fans can watch live F1 is through Sky Sports.

How open Sky are to this position changing is unclear. Suggestions last summer that Sky would offer F1 TV Pro through their TV platform have yet to come to fruition.

Nevertheless, for everything that has changed over the past decade, F1 remains king and is by far the leading series when it comes to motor sport in the UK, with no other form of motor sport eroding its dominant market position.

What is next?

While Hamilton may retire in 2024, the prospects of both Lando Norris and George Russell look bright, which should keep interest in the sport high, which is great news for Sky Sports moving forward.

We can reminisce about every F1 race airing live on free-to-air television all we want, but the chances of F1 returning to that position in the UK after 2024, when Sky’s current deal expires, is close to zero.

In a sense this partnership with Sky is another example of how the landscape of sports broadcasting has been transformed in recent years. There was a time when the BBC and other public service broadcasters could expect to televise all the big sports themselves. Now though we have a ‘mixed economy’, with some events on satellite while others are on terrestrial.

Ben Gallop, BBC’s Head of Formula 1, speaking in 2011

In my view, I expect Sky to renew beyond 2024, with confirmation to come within the next 12 to 18 months.

Such a renewal may seem far too early, but remember that Sky sealed the 2019 deal three years in advance. F1 is Sky’s second biggest sport, only behind football, and the earlier they can renew on a like-to-like basis, the better for them.

Furthermore, the economic climate post-COVID means that F1 is unlikely to see an increase in rights fees from the UK market. As thus, extending the current agreement with Sky may be in F1’s best interests too. Stability is in the interests of both parties.

When I outlined the above to someone close to the situation recently, what was their response? “I think you’re on the money, Dave…”

How have your viewing habits of Formula 1 changed in the past decade? Have your say in the comments below.

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