F1’s new-season storylines are tantalising, but pay TV is limiting potential

Giles Richards
Photograph: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

As the new season draws closer, Formula One’s hip young gunslingers are ready to step up and challenge the sport’s undisputed champion. The prospect is tantalising, offering the possibility of a defining period of F1 in a spectacular generational tussle. Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc are two of the most exciting talents in the sport and six-time champion Lewis Hamilton is their target. F1 will want to make hay from a potentially gripping battle but just how they do so is a vital question as pay TV continues to dominate its dissemination.

Beating the 34-year-old Hamilton, with his vast talent and experience, would be an outstanding achievement for Red Bull’s Verstappen or Ferrari’s Leclerc, both still just 22 years old. For Hamilton, seeing off the next generation as his career draws near to its close would cement his place as a true great.

The Red Bull team principal Christian Horner eagerly awaits F1’s new wave as the vanguard of a new fascinating drama. “Especially exciting is the Max-Leclerc dynamic,” he said. “How that’s going to play out over future years, how Lewis can still go toe to toe with those guys. Because there’s life in him yet as well and I think he’s keen to gauge himself against the young wave that’s coming through.

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“I think for Formula One it’s fantastic to have the dynamics of the young guys, the challengers, coming through and some of the older guys that are the old dogs that know all the tricks.”

Hamilton has already he said he cannot wait to face a real showdown with the young pretenders. There is optimism at Red Bull and at Ferrari that both will have a car to challenge Mercedes this year, giving Verstappen and Leclerc the tools to take the fight to the world champion. F1 needs it.

This week the sport released its viewing figures from 2019. The top line looked positive. The cumulative TV audience in 2019 was 1.922bn, up 9% on 2018. It is the highest figure since 2012 and the third year in a row the number has increased.

Trebles all round then but it does not stand in isolation. The cumulative figure is reached by counting every time a viewer watches any F1 session, hence it reaching the billions with 21 races and five sessions across a weekend.

However for 15 years F1 has also measured unique viewers – a metric that is more comprehensible and illustrative. Each viewer is counted only once when they have watched at least three consecutive minutes of any session during the season.

Here the numbers were not quite as headline-grabbing. Across what F1 defines as its 20 major markets the numbers were 405.5m, an increase of 0.3%. Globally, however, the total was 471m, a fall of 3.9% from 490.2m in 2018.

This is seen as relative stability in a media market that is exceptionally competitive, as F1’s director of media rights, Ian Holmes, confirmed. “In the ever-fragmented media landscape we live in, achieving a flatline is a win,” he said. “So to have secured another increase is particularly satisfying.”

Holmes identified the competition last season as being integral to the numbers. “I think generally there was more compelling racing in 2019, more storylines, new and exciting drivers challenging for honours,” he said.

There was some great racing without doubt. The purple patch between Canada and Hungary (with the tedium of France excepted) threw up some fantastic spectacles. Yet Lewis Hamilton won almost at a canter, with neither Verstappen nor Leclerc seriously threatening him.

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If there is a three-way fight this season it might be enough to really put numbers on the major market unique viewers but it is going to have to grab people enough to make them reach into their pockets. Media rights are one of the three biggest sources of income to the sport. Owners Liberty Media have been repeatedly clear that they expect to move ever more towards pay to view platforms, as confirmed by chief executive Chase Carey last year.

Five markets have rights deals that end in 2020: France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Brazil. This week France’s pay TV channel Canal Plus extended its contract to 2022. The deal was announced just after France’s four-times world champion Alain Prost highlighted the cost of keeping the money rolling in. “We used to have eight million fans in France watching [the free-to-air channel] TF1,” he told Speed Week. “But now that it is on Canal Plus it is 750,000. That’s how it works when you move everything to pay TV.”

In the UK Sky’s exclusive deal with F1 extends to 2024. The racing might be exceptional, the narrative gripping and the rivalry between the upcoming talent and the grand master a compelling clash of characters, but F1 has to get it out there. How they do so with paywalls only increasing is perhaps their biggest challenge.

On the plus side F1’s embracing of digital and social media, ignored under Bernie Ecclestone, does appear to be bearing fruit. Their Nielsen assessment of the sport’s fanbase reported that 62% of new fans accumulated in the last two years were under the age of 35. There is clearly potential to inspire an entire new generation. Missing it would be bleak indeed when the long-term numbers are tallied up.

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