F1 risks turning off fans in race for bumper hosting deals

30 January 2023

Tom Wild, Strategy Director

By Tom Wild  Strategy Director

It has been well documented that Formula 1 has seen a huge growth in interest recently. In simple terms, this resurgence is largely down to three key factors – the success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, coupled with a group of exciting young drivers, and the concerted efforts the sport has made to make itself more sustainable now and in the future.

Whether you were familiar with F1 or totally new to it, Drive to Survive offered viewers a different perspective of the sport, and one that added a huge amount of depth to the stories the sport can tell around the action on the track, especially with new personalities coming to the fore in the shape of previously unheralded drivers and team principals.

The cohort of fresh young drivers is drawing in a new generation of similarly young fans, breathing new life into what was a stagnating audience pool. The much needed move to introduce sustainability legislation in the sport in the form of hybrid engines and announcing the target to have net-zero carbon footprint as a sport by 2030 has brought F1 into line with the global conversation about the environment.

All of this points to a sport in the healthiest place it has been for a long time, making it a very valuable product. Inevitably this means that everyone wants a piece of the pie. However there seems to be no way to make the pie bigger, so F1 is left trying to conduct a very delicate balancing act. On the one hand, you have the sport’s core fan group, largely based in Europe where the majority of races past and present have taken place. Conversely, there is the new blood, both in global audiences and new interested investors, primarily based in the Middle East. The battle between the two is currently being played out most publicly in terms of representation in the race calendar.

There are upwards of 30 viable circuits that the F1 calendar could visit each year, but 30 does not go into 24, which is the number of races that the sport’s governors are adamant is the upper limit for a season. This constraint on the season length means there is intense competition for places on the schedule and strong demand coming from state-backed circuits to host race weekends.

Although the sport is regulated by the FIA (as governors of all motorsport), the key decision maker in the sport is Formula 1 (owned by Liberty Media), which is looking to capitalise in the recent surge in interest to futureproof the sport. Drive to Survive in particular delivered a huge amount of progress in cracking the US audience, one of the world’s richest sporting markets, and F1 has been keen to take advantage by introducing two new US race weekends, one in Miami (debuted in 2022) and Las Vegas (coming in 2023). Qatar has followed hosting the Fifa World Cup by securing a spot on the calendar for next season (which has done nothing to help the sport from a PR perspective, given the human rights issues associated with the country). There is also a view to revisit the African continent with a mooted revival of the South African Grand Prix in the near future.

A primary driver in the decision making is always going to be revenue into the sport, and these attractive new venues that pay big bucks for the right to host race weekends have inevitably sharpened the focus on older European venues that do not deliver the same level of revenues back to the sport. The French GP has already fallen off the calendar, and historically significant venue Spa (Belgium) is in the dangerous position of not having contracts in place past 2023. While the Monaco GP is world famous for its glitz and glamour, there has been friction bubbling between the organisers of the event and F1, due to independent sponsorship agreements and a perceived lower quality of TV production, which at one point threatened the future of the race before a three-year extension deal was signed to take it through the 2025 season.

There has also been worrying conversation around the Monza GP, home of Ferrari and their famous supporters, the Tifosi. Stefano Domenicali, president and chief executive of Formula 1, recently said: “Monza will be a celebration this year of the 100th anniversary of the Italian Grand Prix but as an Italian I always say to them: ‘History is not enough. We need to invest for a great future.’ Monza need to do their job, they need to update the structure, update a place that is iconic but there is a need to look ahead.”

This will hardly give fans of the historic race any assurance, given the same man recently proclaimed that “a ticket to the Las Vegas Grand Prix will be the hottest ticket in global sport”, highlighting the excitement around the new race coming to the 2023 season.

The concern is that in Liberty Media’s pursuit of rapid growth through global expansion and foreign investment into F1, it will lose sight of the soul of sport, the history that creates the exciting storylines and the core fan base that it has been built on for so long.

Fans of the sport worry that it will sell itself to the highest bidder and evolve beyond the point where it feels accessible to the everyday fan. Football fans know the feeling of losing control of the sport they love, having had the last two World Cups granted to controversial host nations for different reasons, and seen the threat of the European Super League which had the potential to change the club landscape forever.

While the future of Europe’s legendary F1 circuits is safe for the short term, the lack of clarity or guarantees provided by those in power at Formula 1 will do nothing to quell the concerns of its core fan base. In the sport’s golden hour, it looks like it is starting to turn its back on some of its rich history in search of new audiences and even bigger revenues.

For all the glamour of Middle East night races, drivers duking it out in the rain around Spa and avoiding the barriers along the tight corners in Monaco still get the crowds excited. F1 will do well to remember this and strike the right balance going forward to appeal to fans old and new.