Spectators watch the German Formula One Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring racing circuit in Hockenheim, southern Germany, on July 20, 2014. Mercedes-AMG's German driver Nico Rosberg won the competition, Williams' Finnish driver Valterri Bottas placed second and Mercedes-AMG's British driver Lewis Hamilton placed third. AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ (Photo credit should read PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Empty chairs: spectators watch the 2014 German F1 Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring

In an era that has seen international electric racing series, driverless cars and ever more stringent safety regulations on the roads, Formula One — which has itself improved both safety and energy efficiency— is seeing a decline in audiences.

Has removing much of the fun out of driving damaged F1’s attempts to expand its audience?

The International Automobile Federation (FIA), is both the governing body in charge of F1 and the organisation behind improved safety standards for all road users. Efforts to improve driver safety in F1 go hand-in-hand with FIA’s work supporting the UN’s Decade of Action for Road Safety, its own Action for Road Safety programme and its role as a founder member of the European New Car Assessment Programme.

“F1 focuses on road safety, because it understands its role in entertainment,” says Matteo Bonciani, FIA F1 head of communications. “On track, we achieve safety at speeds above 300kph, while showing fun, adrenalin and boundary-breaking. We are not divorced from reality, we are extreme reality. The FIA’s Action for Road Safety campaign, which is a cornerstone of Jean Todt’s presidency, uses racing heroes to demonstrate how exciting safe can be.”

For many of the sport’s fans, both casual and committed, part of F1’s appeal is in its escapism. Approximately every two weeks the sport moves to a new location, and the far-reaching calendar offers a mixture of the historic and the glamorous; backdrops for the multimillion-dollar technological marvels and the millionaires who race them.

As F1 has moved to a subscription broadcast model in recent years, providers such as BSkyB have begun to offer dedicated channels, resulting in hours of airtime to be filled. Where their free-to-air predecessors started the ball rolling in terms of extending pre-race coverage into feature-length entertainment, dedicated broadcasters have more hours to devote to a weekend spent providing local colour and atmosphere to the audience watching from home.

For Andrew Pepperrell, a long-time fan of the sport, the real world has little bearing on his enjoyment of F1. “I think quite the opposite,” he says. “I feel F1 is a bit of escapism; the traditionally raucous nature is extremely divorced from the real world but I don’t see that as a bad thing.

“Trying to shoehorn F1 into something that represents real life runs the risk of spoiling the sport — just take a look at last year’s engine sound debacle. We want fast, noisy cars!”

Thanks in part to the reallocation of TV contracts in 2013, including a move away from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, F1 started the 2014 season having lost 10 per cent of its global audience, from 500m down to 450m. This year started with a similarly bleak picture, viewing figures released in January for 2014, revealed a 5.6 per cent fall in 2014, making for a total global audience of 425m.

Where 2013’s decline could largely be explained by the audience lost in China, 2014’s decline paints a bleaker picture: in a season won by a British driver, in which the title fight went down to the wire, F1 lost 5.2 per cent of its British audience.

Across Europe — traditionally the home of F1’s largest and most dedicated fan base — free-to-air broadcasters have, since 2012, either lost F1 entirely or been forced into sharing deals with subscription channels, airing a handful of races live and broadcasting delayed highlights of the rest of the season. The sharing model began in Britain and can now be seen in Italy, Germany and Spain. France has lost all its terrestrial F1 coverage.

When explaining the fall in numbers, seen both at circuits and in the broadcast data in recent years, F1’s heavy hitters — including Bernie Ecclestone and senior team personnel such as Red Bull’s Christian Horner and former Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo — often put the blame on the wide variety of entertainment choices available, rather than their own product or model.

Former F1 driver and now non-executive director of the Mercedes F1 team, Niki Lauda, last summer used this tried and tested explanation in an interview with Die Welt. “Formula One is seeing serious cultural change,” Lauda said.

“The audience wants to watch sport in a different way from before, because of the rapid growth of new means of communication . . . The problem is that today, there is no alternative. You can’t just sit on the beach and watch the race highlights on your smartphone.”

Currently, the race highlights produced and released by Formula One Management are not available until several days after the race.

A further problem is the cost of live race attendance. British Grand Prix host Silverstone has this year introduced a £99 general admission ticket, but recent years have seen entry level tickets priced about £140. Once accommodation, parking and food costs are taken into account, fans are faced with the choice of a weekend’s racing for a family of four for the same cost as a week-long bargain break.

Entry costs vary from circuit to circuit, but the contracts between the race hosts and the Formula One Group restrict the racetracks’ income to ticket sales, with FOG controlling merchandising, hospitality and trackside advertising. For those tracks operating without government support, it is the fans who have borne the cost of hosting a race.

Speaking to some of the sport’s more committed fans, the solutions to the audience expansion problem are glaringly obvious. Jeff Benham has been a volunteer official at the Australian Grand Prix for more than a decade. “The escapism that F1 offers will always give it the opportunity to expand the audience,” he says.

“In my opinion, the greater hurdle that the sport must climb is that of communicating with the younger audience it desperately needs to continue growing.

“The popularity of social media is a missed market that management has underutilised. Interaction with the next generation is vital to see the sport continue to succeed. As a sport that promotes and thrives on escapism, road policies and vehicle advancements are not the reason F1 struggles to grow its audience.”

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