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Every nation has its great past-time. For the USA, it’s baseball. For the UK, it’s football (soccer). Getting people to pay attention to a new sport is a tall order – and that’s why Formula 1’s recent success is so stunning.

On ESPN, 548,000 people tuned in to watch Formula 1 in 2019. In 2021, that figure raced to 934,000 viewers.

It’s really hard for a sport to broaden its demographic. People tend to get stuck in their ways, and sports are rarely able to diversify their fan bases. And yet Formula 1 did, and I want to talk about how.

I’m a new fan of Formula 1 myself. I took no interest in it until I sat down and watched it with a mate. This resulted in me falling in love with the sport. It’s exhilerating and something about it really clicked with me.

By Jerry Lewis-Evans, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

If you’re not familiar with Formula 1, the basic concept is simple: people drive open-wheel single-seater racing cars around a track. Sometimes the tracks are built for racing, and sometimes they’re on closed-off city streets. Either way, drivers and teams have one goal – win.

It’s a thrill!

That’s why I want to talk about why Formula 1 is growing in popularity. What is about Formula 1 that keeps people watching in suspense? How do they make money? And how does marketing factor into the whole picture?

I’ll discuss these questions and more in this post.

How Formula 1 Makes Money

Formula 1 dates back to the year 1950, with its first race on the fabled Silverstone Circuit. It’s said that 100,000 people attended, including the royal family, most notably King George VI.

But you could argue that Formula 1 in its modern form started in 1968, when a cigarette company called Gold Leaf sponsored Lotus. It was in 1968 that the iconic practice of sponsorship liveries began, or – in laymen’s terms – that’s when we started slapped corporate logos on cars. Fast forward to now, McLaren cars now come with Google Chrome rims and a whole-car color scheme to match.

This bad boy can fit so many sponsors *slaps car*
By John Chapman, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Sponsorships are an integral part of Formula 1. The kind of sponsors that end up on the cars say a lot about what matters to society at that moment. In particular, it tells you what companies really need to brand themselves as “cool.” Because what’s cooler than having your name on a race car?

For a long time, the tobacco industry had the most sponsorships in Formula 1, but that trend is starting to fade. This is for the better, since we are all familiar with the dangers of tobacco use. But even as recently as 2020, Formula 1 saw total annual revenue from tobacco companies tally up to $115 million.

You know what else is a big sponsor in Formula 1 these days? Cryptocurrency. As many as 8 out of 10 teams this year have a cryptocurrency sponsor. Crypto is even more lucrative for Formula 1 than smoking, as crypto company, Bybit, reported an insane $150 million partnership with one of the top 3 teams in Formula 1 – Red Bull. This is $35 million more than the annual spending from all tobacco companies.

That’s a lot of Bitcoin.

Who are Formula 1 fans?

A total of 445 million people can call themselves Formula 1 fans, as that is the number of people who watched it on TV in the last 12 months. As many as 2.69 million fans attended races in-person throughout 2021.

Formula 1, in other words, in not an obscure sport. So it might seem difficult to try to describe its demographic in further detail, but there are ways we can learn more.

The average Formula 1 fan is 32, which is fairly young to begin with, but Formula 1 has clearly been targeted Gen Z recently, which has been pushing this number down. Formula 1 knows they have a lot of younger people watching them, as four-in-ten men ages 18 to 29 (43%) have traded, invested, or used crypto – and crypto is a major sponsor of the sport.

Though men dominate the Formula 1 sport itself, women are getting into it too. The female demographic as a percentage of overall viewers has grown a solid 2% every year, from 10% to 18.3%, pretty much doubling in 4 years. There’s no telling how high this could go.

Overall, Formula 1 has seen a massive increase of passionate fans from 12% in 2017 to 34% in 2021. The increase in women fans is definitely part of this. But the bigger question is: where did all these new fans come from?

How Formula 1 Grew Its Fanbase

You might think that big personalities are more common in sports like wrestling than in Formula 1. But that’s not exactly true.

Formula 1 is made up of individual drivers and the teams they race with. You take out the drivers and the teams, and Formula 1 would be a fairly dull sport. But as with any modern sport, there’s a ton of drama and fighting behind the scenes. And people love that.

Right now in 2022, the Ferrari team is in the spotlight. They are currently winning this season fighting against Red Bull, whose winning streak ran from 2010-2014 until Mercedes snatched it away.

These teams are all great, but if you want to see why Formula 1 fans really love the sport, you need to look at the one team that stands above them all.

McLaren – The Most Popular Formula 1 Team

Despite not winning a championship since 1998, McLaren the fan-favorite team charts with 29.5% of the vote. Their driver, Lando Norris, comes in second as a fan-favorite at 13.7%.

McLaren is the second-oldest team in the sport which makes it a well-known name with a history. But it has also had very memorable drivers over the years, giving them quite the pedigree.

Since I only got into the sport in 2021 so I asked the friends that introduced me what made McLaren so popular and what they told me was about legendary drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and the MP4/4 car.

1988 McLaren MP4/4. Morio, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The MP4/4 car is arguably the most successful in Formula 1 history driven by Senna and Prost who are arguably two of the best drivers of Formula 1. Given that Formula 1 fans are attracted to high-tech vehicles, speed, and driving skill – the fact that McLaren’s history is home to the most iconic car and the most legendary drivers make it an enduring fan favorite.

But McLaren is no backwards-looking team. It’s also a very modern team that knows how to use the power of memes too. And there’s no better example of that than their driver Lando Norris.

Lando Norris – A Modern Meme Marketer Meets an Old Sport

Lando Norris is frankly a loveable guy who embodies the Gen Z attitude. He’s 22 years old and has everyone fangirl/guying over him like he’s a K-pop star. Lando Norris is also the only driver to have a vlog and a Twitch channel, which is appealing to a younger generation.

It’s important to remember that if the average age of a fan is 32. Lando is helping Formula 1 pull in new fans, and he’s helping keep that average age demographic from getting any higher.

How does he do this? Put simply – he’s a memelord. He stirs up drama, creates great video moments and soundbites, and generally keeps things spicy. Here’s an example.

Now Lando is not the only one meme-ing his way to success. And memes are not the only reason Formula 1 is doing well, though Lando is a great case study.

Truth is, no amount of memes would help Formula 1 if it weren’t an intrinsically interesting sport to watch. And a lot of that can be chalked up to one simple fact.

Formula 1 is a dangerous sport, and that adds to the excitement

No sport is 100% safe. But Formula 1 feels extra dangerous. Its focus on high-tech cars and speeds of over 200 mph makes it really dangerous.

Formula 1 claimed a lot of lives in the 1950s-1970s. But it wasn’t until 1994 that the sport was shaken to its foundation by a tragic weekend.

If you ask any fan of Formula 1 today what was the worst year for the sport, most people would say 1994 due to the death of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. These beloved drivers died in separate crashes in the San Marino Grand Prix, and it cast a dark shadow over the sport.

Formula 1 vowed to change its ways. It beefed up safety regulations and changed some rules. Multiple safety precautions have been implemented like the addition of headrests in 1996, accident data recorders in 1997, wheel tethers in 1999, and 8 other safety features and changes intended to make the sport safer.

Until the 2014 crash at the Japanese Grand Prix, no one had died in a wreck.

A good example of this is to watch this devastating crash. Because of the new safety regulations, the driver was able to remain conscious (which is critical for survival without serious injury), and they got him out of the car. He was walking the next day. It truly shows they have gone a long way for safety.

Here is the crux of it – Formula 1 needs to feel dangerous to be fun. That’s why it’s exciting. But you can’t have a sport where your drivers are continually put at risk. Formula 1, through their safety improvements, has dramatically improved the safety of the sport without compromising what makes it awesome (like NASCAR did with the implementation of restrictor plates).

But the feeling of danger is nothing new. What really propelled Formula 1 into the mainstream was a docufiction series called Drive to Survive.

Drive to Survive on Netflix Massively Boosted Formula 1’s Fame

Formula 1 had everything it needed to go viral. It’s exciting, it’s got memeable stars, and it’s got a long history to draw from. But kindling alone doesn’t make a fire – you need a spark.

That spark was Drive to Survive on Netflix.

The Drive to Survive series started in 2019. It’s a collaboration between Netflix and Formula 1 to document the behind-the-scenes drama of Formula 1. After this series went live, the ESPN viewing numbers for Formula 1 jumped a whopping 55% from 547,722 viewers in 2019 to 2021, 934,000 viewers. That’s night and day – you can’t even chalk that kind of change up to the pandemic.

This is also backed up by a quote from the president of motorsport in the same survey:

“The success of Netflix Drive to Survive” documentary series has been to open the sport up to new, younger and more diverse audiences, making the sport more accessible.”

Clearly, Formula 1 is creating more fans – particularly younger fans – who are watching full races. This is a great sign because it keeps the median age low. And it’s working because now Formula 1 has “the greatest proportion of under 25’s of all global sports leagues, with the exception of the NBA” according to research and analytics director, Matt Roberts.

However, it’s not all good news. The series has declined rapidly in quality on Rotten Tomatoes, from 91% to an abysmal 14%. Even though the series is still doing its job to bring Formula 1 to a new fan base, it hasn’t done well consistently due to how Netflix is portraying its drivers and rivalries.

But at this point, it may very well not matter. The Drive to Survive series at its peak may have been enough to propel Formula 1 into the spotlight. Their social media presence has grown dramatically.

The Formula 1 Twitter page has 7.7 million followers right now, and the teams and drivers have a significant presence too. They share artwork of upcoming races, new helmet designs, and much more – including cats.

There are also heaps of memes that can be found on both Formuladank and posted directly from the Formula 1 team pages. These are brilliant because there are so many clippable moments and ridiculously easy things to meme both on and off the grid.

Even if the Drive to Survive series continues to jump the shark, Formula 1 has built up a powerful media presence of its own by now. That better positions the sport to keep up with changing times.

Speaking of which…

Formula 1 is changing with the times

Historically, Formula 1 has been white and male. As well as being a social problem, this is also a business problem. Formula 1 has been targeted the Gen Z demographic, which is very diverse.

But the sport is flexible, and is changing in ways that feel natural. For example, in June 2020, Mercedes opted to switch from a silver car to a black car. In keeping with the times, the move was said to be “a stand against racism and discrimination in all forms and a public pledge to further improve the diversity of our team and our sport.”

It’s not just symbolic gestures, too. The Hamilton commission researched the underrepresentation of Black people in UK motorsports, and has pointed out possible solutions. The playbook is there – and now it’s time to see how far Formula 1 goes with it.

The willingness to change is there. For example, consider the other representation problem Formula 1 has – the lack of women behind the wheel.

My friends, who have been Formula 1 fans longer than me, introduced me to the idea of Grid Girls. Basically, in 2008, a business was established to supply female exhibition models to sports like UFC, boxing, and – yes – Formula 1.

Formula 1 relied on Grid Girls to attract a male audience for a while, but stopped doing this in 2018 because “they no longer believe the practice is appropriate or relevant to Formula 1 and its fans, old and new, across the world.” In other words, they read the room and fixed a PR problem.

But they’re going beyond that too. Also in 2018, Formula W was launched. It consists of all women drivers, and is a good step toward bringing women back into Formula 1, where they have been absent as drivers since the early 1960s. And in 2021, Rosanna Tennant became the first female Lead Commentator on Formula 1’s Pit Lane Channel, which also made here the first woman to call a Formula 1 race start on TV – ever!

Still, there is a remaining issue that I hope Formula 1 finds a way to address. Namely, while phasing out Grid Girls helped reduce the appearance of sexism, it introduced an interesting dilemma. Some women worked their way from Grid Girl to prestigious jobs like reporters and presenters. I’m thinking of Milena Koerner, who started as a Grid Girl and climbed all the way up to team manager, and Amy Dargan, who is now a reporter for MotoGP.

For them, it was an entry-level position – a reachable rung on the corporate ladder. Phasing out Grid Girls removes that low, reachable rung on the ladder, and there doesn’t appear to be an entry-level gig as an alternative yet. Hopefully, Formula 1 – perhaps through Formula W – will find a way to make it easier for women to get jobs and be represented within the “good old boy network.”

Formula 1’s changes have not been without controversy, namely around their effectiveness at addressing underrepresentation and sexism. But they are certainly evidence of a willingness to do things differently. In the world of sports – which is so often steeped in dated traditions – that’s commendable.

Final Thoughts

Formula 1 has all the makings of a fantastically popular sport. It’s exciting, it’s dangerous, and it’s got stars who can draw attention to it. But what really pushed Formula 1 into the mainstream was the Netflix series Drive to Survive.

This old sport has been revitalized and reimagined in recent years, and it shows no signs of stopping. The stars are young, the sponorship money is rolling in, and the sport is fixing its old problem of being too white and too male.

It’s a good situation to be in. I’m curious to see what will happen in Formula 1 in the year 2022. Will the median age keep dropping as Gen Z fans get on board? Will the female viewership continue to rise?

Only time will tell. But no matter what – I can’t wait to see the next race!