F1 has become an industry that provides entertainment, develops new technology, creates jobs and attracts millions of fans of all ages and from all parts of the world.

Formula 1 got its groove back

In just a few years, F1 has transformed from being a closed world into a global phenomenon. Thanks to the Netflix series Drive to survive, and drivers who have become influencers, a new young audience has discovered the sport.

It all began as a duel of man against man and car against car in 1950. After 67 years, Formula 1 seemed to be on its knees. But now, just a few seasons later, the sport is more popular than ever – and has become an industry that provides entertainment, develops new technology, creates jobs and attracts millions of fans of all ages and from all parts of the world.

The drama was unnoticed

To find out how it happened, we need to turn the clock back to December 2016. Nico Rosberg, son of the former world champion Keke Rosberg from Finland, had just won the world championship title in Abu Dhabi. After an intense battle with his childhood friend and team mate Lewis Hamilton, he managed to win the title in the final race of the season. The entire season was like something out of Star Wars, full of tension, collisions and internal conflicts, but all the drama went unnoticed by the general public.

Only the hardcore fans saw the fireworks display that lit up the night skies as Rosberg crossed the finish line. It was a telling moment; one of the most exciting F1 seasons for many years was over, but the audience were failing and Nico

Rosberg couldn’t really care. He was done.

Formula 1 got its groove back

Nico Rosberg was tired of competing

A few seconds after crossing the finish line, he decided that enough was enough; his ten-year career in the F1 circus was over. Pre-season included, the season, lasted for eleven months. A life of travelling between race tracks on five different continents and in different time zones, combined with fulfilling sponsor commitments and having a factory based in England and a home in Monaco, took its toll both physically and mentally on a sportsman who had to perform his best every time he got into his car.

A Formula 1 driver who is not completely focused not only loses sight of his professional goals; he also risks his life. Nico Rosberg was tired of competing and wanted to spend more time with his family.

“If you ask me, ‘When did you decide to retire?’ That was the moment, two metres after crossing the finish line. There was about USD 100 million going down the drain ? but shit happens,” said Rosberg to Squaremile, the British lifestyle magazine.

Poor viewing figures

At the time, Mercedes had been dominating F1 for two seasons, and several markets, including the United States, were delivering poor viewing figures. There were doubts as to whether the US Grand Prix, scheduled to take place on the relatively new track in Texas, would be financially sustainable, and there was a lot of talk of how F1 had yet again failed to win the US market.

As it turned out, it was not F1 that drew audiences to the US Grand Prix, but singer Taylor Swift, performing her only concert in the country that year, and the fact that the USD 150 concert tickets included admission to the F1 race. This helped increase the number of spectators compared to the previous year, but the question is how many ticket holders actually stayed around to watch the race, which was billed as the main event.

NBC, which had held the F1 rights since 2013, reported that the race in Austin, Texas drew fewer viewers than the figure skating championship broadcast prior to the Grand Prix and the national Nascar truck series. For F1’s part, the US market seemed to be hopelessly lost, but somewhere along the line, things took a turn, one that was as unexpected as it was decisive for the future of F1: the sport managed to conquer not only the United States, but the whole world, and attract a whole new audience.

Formula 1 got its groove back

Ecclestone made an exit

The explanation may sound simple, but it had to do with F1 boss and guru Bernie Ecclestone’s exit from the sport. Ecclestone was born in 1930 and was already involved in the sport in the 1950s. He gained an increasingly tight grip on Formula 1 as the sport grew in popularity in the 1970s.

While stars like Niki Lauda, Ronnie Peterson, James Hunt and Emerson Fittipaldi risked their lives competing, Ecclestone gained control of the TV rights and, together with Max Mosley, later president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), laid the foundations for the modern Formula 1.

They created a world championship that raked in huge sums of money, became high-profile public figures, and expanded into new markets, particularly in Asia.

The sport became closed

Simultaneously, Formula 1 was becoming increasingly closed, media access was increasingly restricted, the drivers were hidden behind their helmets and Ecclestone got involved in a string of dubious business deals at the same time as he controlled the championship with an iron hand. During the 2000s he made headlines by praising dictators and Adolf Hitler and talking about his friendship with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

As the times changed, the problems began to pile up, he was indicted for bribery and faced growing criticism. In 2016, the same year that Rosberg won the championship for Mercedes, Ecclestone sold Formula One Group to the US company Liberty Media. By that time he was 86 and had controlled the commercial rights to F1 for 40 years. Even though he still held a formal role in F1 for a further season, he had lost his power base.

Formula 1 got its groove back

A new era

Liberty Media, a media company owned by millionaire John Malone and whose portfolio includes baseball team Atlanta Braves, has a strong interest in the US market. An organisation was quickly set up with people like Chase Carey, who had experience from Fox Corporation, ESPN’s Sean Bratches, and the former team boss Ross Brawn, who won F1 world championship titles with three different teams. As social media became an increasingly important marketing platform, the new owners looked for new ways to increase awareness of the sport and let the public see more than just helmet-clad drivers and cars swishing past.

They looked for a totally new way of bringing fans behind the doors which Ecclestone had fought hard to keep closed. After a conversation between marketing boss Sean Bratches and Paul Martin, a film maker who had made several sports documentaries, an idea for a whole new concept was born.

Brings the fans into the garage

“There was an idea about whether it would be possible to do a behind the scenes with just one F1 team across the season. Sean really liked the idea, but just felt like he wanted to do something that was bigger, that focused on as many of the teams as possible, that was going to show Formula 1 in a completely different light and introduce it to a completely different fan,” says Martin, executive producer of Drive to survive, for Formula1.com.

A year after Liberty Media took over the rights to Formula 1, the work began on creating the hugely successful Drive to survive, a reality-based series that is broadcast on Netflix and that takes fans into the garage and lets them hear the drivers’ stories and follow them both on and off the track. The series provides viewers with a close-up view of conflicts, contractual squabbles, tragic accidents and emotional wins, a series that not only brings fans into the pits but also behind the drivers’ visors, and gives a picture of all the different personalities that work in Formula 1.

All teams signed up

The series was first broadcast in 2018, but without the big teams like Ferrari and Mercedes. When the first season proved to be such a hit, however, all the teams signed up, and interest in the sport has snowballed ever since. At the same time as F1 managed to complete almost a full 2020 season despite the Covid-19 pandemic and introduced a new concept of sprint races in 2021 and a whole new set of rules in 2022, interest in the sport has only grown.

Aftonbladet, which in the autumn of 2020 decided to reduce its F1 coverage, changed its mind, and in the course of 2022 has built a brand new platform with live reporting from all practice and qualifying sessions and Grand Prix races, expanded its F1 blog and launched an F1 podcast. The same trend applied worldwide. In The Netherlands, interest in Formula 1 grew by more than 80% in 2021, thanks largely to driver Max Verstappen, who broke Mercedes’ Drivers’ Championship record of seven straight wins. Interest in the United States has grown by 58%, and in 2021 Formula 1 was the fastest-growing sport on social media platforms.

In the same year, the number of followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitch and Chinese platforms grew by 40% to 49.1 million, and three weekend races drew more than 300,000 spectators.

Weekend races drew 365,000 spectators in the UK (Silverstone) and 371,000 in Mexico, and a record-breaking number in the United States, where only four years previously it had depended on the Taylor Swift concert to help draw a crowd. More than 400,000 spectators attended the event in Texas, many of them for the first time. Compared with 2019, the number of spectators increased by more than 130,000 for the weekend race in the US alone.

Option to influence

This led to two Formula 1 races being staged in the US in 2022: one in Miami, which was attended by a host of celebrities and drew an average of 2.6 million TV viewers – the biggest ever TV audience the sport has attracted in the US – and the other in Austin, Texas. A new event will be added to the US programme in 2023 in the form of an urban race to be held on The Strip in Las Vegas, and interest is growing among other American racing teams to join America’s only F1 racing team, Haas F1, in what is known as the royal class of motor sport.

For Formula 1 this means a shift in its target market from the traditional European market towards the financially stronger US market. For the drivers it means that, as audiences grow, so will their possibilities to influence people on issues that interest them.

In recent years, seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton has spoken out on human rights, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel has spoken regularly on climate issues and the right for everyone to have the same right to love, and Lando Norris, a favourite among young fans, has talked publicly about mental health issues.

Moreover, the sport has shifted away from its fossil-fuel dependency towards setting a comprehensive sustainability strategy. By 2030, Formula 1 aims to be net-zero carbon, and from 2026 it will increase the proportion of engines powered by electricity and 100% sustainable fuel. The fuel used by F1 cars already contains 10% ethanol, and only 0.7% of the carbon footprint generated by the sport comes from the combustion engines used by the ten teams in the course of a season. On top of that, the cars contribute to developing an entire motor industry.

Advances and innovative

Formula 1 is one of the world’s most technologically advanced and innovative sports, optimising performance and developing advanced efficiency improvements that drive innovation forward, from racetracks to passenger car manufacturing. Together with engine partner Honda, manufacturers like Ferrari, Renault, McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull apply their know-how on the track while thousands of passenger car drivers benefit from their developments in their everyday life.

“AI and ML are big categories that are emerging and that are going to play a key role in the future,” says Red Bull team boss Christian Horner to motorsport.com.

“Data and the way that we operate, it’s our lifeblood. We just generate so much of it. And it impacts everything we do: the way we run a race, the way we develop a car, the way we even analyse drivers and driver selection.”

AI is an important tool

For a single F1 team with several hundred members working both on and off the track and in the factory, AI helps with everything from designing a car to deciding in which direction the car should be developed during a season, choosing the pre-race setup and planning the race strategy. This is even more important when F1 is now operating under a budget cap to limit the spending gap between the teams and boost excitement on the track.

“Making the best decision you can to develop your car cost efficiently, so cost-effective performance is absolutely crucial for us as we move forward with the lack of testing, says Horner.”

Twenty-three races are planned for the 2023 season, representing a new record. Several teams are lining up to take part, and Netflix has signed a contract for two new seasons of Drive to survive. Nico Rosberg’s comment about flushing close to a billion down the drain when he crossed the finish in Abu Dhabi in 2016 was likely an understatement; that’s how far the sport has come in the space of only five years.

This is Formula 1 Racing

Formula 1 is a world championship for single-seater formula cars built according to rules set by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Teams must construct their own cars in order to participate. The races are driven on asphalt tracks on five continents in the course of one season. The world championship first took place in 1950 and has been staged annually ever since. Nowadays, 10 teams and 20 drivers compete in a race weekend which usually consists of three practice sessions, one qualifying session that determines the starting order for the race, and one Grand Prix race. Two titles are awarded during a world championship: one to the best driver and one to the best constructor. The 2021 championship was won by the Dutch driver Max Verstappen for Red Bull, but British driver Lewis Hamilton and German driver Michael Schumacher have won the most titles, with seven each, for two different teams.

Anna Andersson
F1 reporter, Aftonbladet
Years in Schibsted: 26