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  • Tanush Guha

The Rise of Racing: The Digital Reinvention of Formula One

David Croft’s now famous “Lights out and away we go!!!” has a special place in the annals of sports commentary, arguably on equal footing with Kevin Harlan’s “Is this the Dagger?” or Mike’s Breen numerous “BANG” calls in the NBA. The line, and with it Formula One, has seemingly risen from the basement of a niche fandom & mainstream irrelevance to capture the world’s attention. How did we get here?

Status-quo in 2016 and The Acquisition

F1's meteoric rise to mainstream popularity began with Liberty Media’s acquisition of the series from CVC Capital Partners, Bernie Ecclestone, and other shareholders in late 2016 for $4.4 billion [$8 billion including outstanding debts] in late 2016. At the time of its acquisition, F1 was a loss-making entity, with negative operating income. More worryingly, it was sinking further and further into irrelevance.

F1 had 600m eyeballs on it in 2008 - at the height of Ferrari & McLaren’s duel for supremacy. Those numbers fell by 40% over the course of the next decade. Cord-cutting was in full swing and combined with the move towards paywall TV vs. Free-to-Air (FTA) options in a move to bolster revenues were a few reasons that can be attributed to this downfall. The biggest growth inhibitor in the face of these challenges was the then head honcho - Bernie Ecclestone. Ecclestone, who was at the forefront of bringing F1 to the masses via television in the 80s, retained no interest in promoting the series to younger audiences in the 2010s.

F1 unique viewership data

Additionally, Ecclestone maintained a tight grip on F1’s social media and digital presence, which ranged from sparse to non-existent in 2016 - preventing further avenues for expansion. The series’ on-again & off-again relationship with the United States of America was also being viewed from the lens of an uncaptured opportunity. F1 had re-entered the nation in 2012 - but was yet to grab the attention of the masses there - especially after the circumstances of its last exit post-2007 [2005 US GP Tire Fiasco].

The irrelevance of F1 in the US is magnified by comparisons to American Sports Leagues’ revenues from 2017:

National Football League (NFL): $13.6 billion

Major League Baseball (MLB): $10 billion

National Basketball Association(NBA): $8 billion

Formula 1: $1.8 billion

The Renaissance

At this juncture, Liberty Media - owners of MLB team Atlanta Braves - sniffed an opportunity and stepped in. Utilising their experience in the American sports and media market, they sought to transform F1’s digital media presence, with the critical aim of getting younger viewers hooked on the sport. Specifically, 18-34 years olds - a previously untapped viewership, who were likely to become dedicated fans and enable Liberty to count on them as repeat consumers.

Liberty adopted a trident to achieve these goals

Liberty Media relaxed the harsh restrictions on online F1 media engagement and utilised the unending supply of races and complementary content. This kicked off with a dramatic expansion in YouTube content - which was earlier restricted to just a single Highlights video per race.

A slew of new content tailored to YT emerged: increased highlights, driver-team radio compilations, and top 10/top 5 listicle-type videos. Pre-race parades and post-race analysis segments, which weren’t televised earlier, were now being broadcast for free. Combined with the launch of Grill the Grid (a series of fun quizzes and challenges involving the drivers), there were now more ways for viewers to engage with their favourite drivers than ever before.

A thumbnail of a Grill the Grid YouTube Video

F1 also adopted a more relaxed attitude on Twitter and Instagram, wherein sharing memes, having live Q&A sessions with drivers, reposting fan-generated content, and orchestrating driver takeovers of the accounts among other initiatives became common.

All these moves signalled an appetite for innovation and experimentation, shining the light on the people behind the machinery and exposing their personalities, while having fun along the way.

The appetite for innovation was on full display with the debut of the first season of“Formula 1: Drive to Survive” in 2019. Drive to Survive (DtS) was a collaboration between Formula One and Netflix - a behind-the-scenes docu-series providing unique insight into the world of F1. The series was a complete reversal of the secretive attitude that created an air of mystery around F1 but also restricted audience access to the dynamics that played out between & within teams.

DtS shone a light into the lives of drivers, team principals, and the internal affairs of every team (Ferrari and Mercedes declined to participate in Season 1 but came onboard later). Comprising 10 episodes, the cameras usually follow one team at a time, while tracking season-long storylines - capturing the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It has brought midfield teams into the spotlight and enabled the rise of personalities such as Guenther Steiner, Haas F1 Team Principal, whose freewheeling way with words has endeared him to fans. Other fan favourites include Daniel Ricciardo aka ‘The Honeybadger’ or the bromance between Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris as teammates at McLaren (2019-20), dubbed ‘CarLando’.

Similar series such as ‘All or Nothing’ (which tracks various European Football or NFL teams for its seasons) or ‘Sunderland ‘til I Die’ existed before/launched around the same time as the launch of DtS Season 1. Yet, DtS marked a seismic shift in sports coverage.

Partnering with Netflix allowed F1 to tap into new audiences. At the time of Season 1’s release, the service had ~120 million subscribers, a number that has now ballooned to ~230 million worldwide. Much of this audience is in that critical age bracket of 18-34 i.e. Gen Z and later. They want compelling stories that are presented in an episodic, bingeable format.

Drive to Survive hooked this audience onto F1. Every season of DtS has been released to a bang - staying at the top of Netflix's viewership charts for weeks. The effect was augmented by COVID-19 - viewers stuck at home were open to exploring new content categories, and DtS leveraged this. The pandemic-related postponement of the F1 season also kept new audiences anxious for the start of the 2020 season (which was also devoid of at-track fan attendance due to health protocols).

DtS became the primary audience growth driver for F1 and prompted other sports leagues to follow F1’s path and create similar docu-series. It also helped to achieve a goal that Liberty Media desperately wanted to achieve: audience penetration and relevance in the United States of America.

As per a survey by Morning Consult in 2022, 28% of American adults identified as F1 fans - up from 21% in a similar survey conducted just before the pandemic. Over 50% of those identifying as F1 fans said Drive to Survive played some part in their becoming a fan of the sport. 42% of fans in the 18-34 bracket said that they had become fans of the series in the past year. Race viewership in the USA ballooned from an average of about 500,000 eyeballs per race before the pandemic to 1.28 million per race in 2023. It has also had an impact on at-track attendance, with previously lacklustre numbers transforming into 440,400 fans at the 2022 US Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) - a then-record for weekend attendance. Tickets for American rounds are now sold out months in advance of a race.

Focusing on the global aspect, a 2021 survey by Motorsport Network (in partnership with Nielsen & F1) revealed the average age of an F1 viewer was 32 years old - down by 4 years from the 2017 survey and also far lower than MLB (57), NFL (50), NHL (49), and NBA (42).

Female participation also doubled in that 4-year period - signalling the inclusive nature of new audiences that were captured due to DtS. There was also a doubling in survey responses from participants in Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Middle East regions.

To keep pace with the global shift towards streaming, Liberty Media slowly moved towards non-exclusive broadcast deals and over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms in many nations, launching F1 TV in 2018.

The service allows subscribers to watch coverage of all F1 sessions (and any other categories like F2, F3, etc. supporting the series on a race weekend), both live and on-demand. F1 TV introduced a variety of innovative ways to consume racing content: live-timing data, live track maps, F1 Insights (racing analytics) and onboard camera feeds from all 20 drivers - all ad-free.

While separate viewership figures for the service were not released, F1 has felt confident enough in the popularity of the service to move away from exclusive deals with broadcasters in several markets, in order to direct audiences towards using F1TV - making it their main source of online revenue.

Liberty also pursued a split strategy in some markets like USA: A new model of non-exclusive & ad-free broadcasting deals [ESPN in USA] to attract the casual sports fan, while positioning F1TV as an enthusiast offering. Subsequently, average race viewership on ESPN has more than doubled between 2018 & 2022, leading to a new 3-year one lasting through 2025 between ESPN/Disney and F1, for $75-90 million/year.

What’s Next?

Liberty’s bold steps in the digital content & sports media landscape have paid off, catapulting F1 into the ‘hot topic of conversation’ territory once again. It has created the ‘101’ guide on maximizing social media engagement with fans, tearing down countless walls along the way, and revolutionizing sports-media consumption [reflected in 40% rise in revenues since 2017].

But attention is a fickle commodity, with a bazillion competitors for the same set of eyeballs. How does one monopolise that? How do you become unforgettable? A movie starring Brad Pitt, directed by Joseph Kosinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer [the latter duo of Top Gun: Maverick fame] might just be the answer.

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