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.

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.

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.

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.

Scheduling: The 2021 Berlin E-Prix

18 drivers. 2 qualifying sessions. 2 races. 1 weekend. And 1 championship.

With 60 points still on offer, there are 18 drivers still in contention to become the first ever Formula E World Champion as the series heads to Berlin for a double-header finale.

From Nyck de Vries on top currently with 95 points, all the way down to Alex Sims in 18th on 44 points, any one of those could exit Berlin as champion

The chances of someone clawing back that margin are highly unlikely, but Formula E has proved this season that anything is possible.

Following Channel 4’s one-off deal for the London E-Prix, live coverage of the Tempelhof weekend airs across the BBC and Discovery.

The first race airs live on Discovery’s free-to-air station Quest, with BBC Two picking up coverage of the season finale on Sunday.

In addition, the BBC’s and Eurosport’s digital platforms, as well as Eurosport 2, will be covering the action from both races.

It is unclear if the BBC are providing bespoke wrap-around content from Salford, as they have done previously when races aired on BBC Two, or whether Formula E themselves are providing localised UK coverage, like they did in London for Channel 4.

Vernon Kay presents the English-language feed, alongside Nicki Shields, with Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti on commentary, the latter three having been part of Formula E’s content offering since the very first race in Beijing 2014.

Series organisers say that “over 40 broadcast and digital partners” will cover the season finale, with a “strengthened” free-to-air offering in place.

Outside of the UK, broadcasters including Sat.1 (Germany), L’Equipe (France), Channel 20 and Italia Uno (Italy), CBS Network (USA) and SABC Sport (South Africa) will be airing the E-Prix.

Saturday’s race takes place earlier than usual for a double-header, this to give organisers time to reverse the circuit layout ready for the season finale on Sunday.

Friday 13th August
15:55 to 16:55 – Practice 1 (YouTube)

Saturday 14th August
06:55 to 07:40 – Practice 2 (YouTube)
08:45 to 10:15 – Qualifying (YouTube / BBC Red Button / Eurosport 2)
12:30 to 14:30 – Race 1 (BBC Red Button / Quest / Eurosport 2)
=> Quest coverage runs from 13:00 to 14:30

Sunday 15th August
06:55 to 07:40 – Practice 1 (YouTube)
08:25 to 09:10 – Practice 2 (YouTube)
10:15 to 11:45 – Qualifying (YouTube / BBC Red Button / Eurosport 2)
14:00 to 16:00 – Race 2 (BBC Two / Eurosport 2)

Full scheduling details for the 2021 Berlin E-Prix. Scheduling details correct as of Saturday 7th August and are subject to change.

As always, if plans change, the article above will reflect the updated scheduling details.

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.

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.

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.

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.