After years of American growth, has F1’s U.S. fandom plateaued?

After years of American growth, has F1’s U.S. fandom plateaued?
After years of American growth, has F1’s U.S. fandom plateaued?

As Donny Osmond sang the opening notes of “Star-Spangled Banner,” wearing a Las Vegas Grand Prix letterman jacket, the Sphere illuminated red, white and blue against the night sky.

Formula One was minutes away from its third race of the year in the United States, following Miami and Austin. As Osmond’s voice built to a crescendo, the sport’s powerbrokers stood proudly at the front of the starting grid, the 20 cars and hundreds of VIP guests behind them.

Not long ago, the sport’s future in the United States had looked bleak; even one race a year seemed a stretch for a market that F1 had tried repeatedly and failed to crack. Now it was about to race down the Las Vegas Strip.

“I couldn’t fully understand when I went to NFL and NBA games, seeing how passionate the Americans are about sport, how they hadn’t yet caught the bug,” Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time world champion, said.

“It’s been really, really amazing to see a large portion of the country is now speaking about it.”

F1 has rocketed in the United States over the last five years. It has three American races, an American driver and an American team. For the city of Las Vegas to invest so heavily — and tolerate so much disruption — to host a grand prix is indicative of F1’s heightened relevance.

But as F1 bet big on America for 2023 and beyond, there were signs that growth has plateaued.

Prior to Liberty Media’s acquisition of F1 in 2017, the sport’s history in the United States had not been an especially happy one. It made repeated attempts to capture the sports-mad market, establishing races in Watkins Glen, N.Y., Phoenix, Long Beach, Calif., and even the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Each time, it failed to take hold. Fans were passionate but small in number, never reaching heights that could be sustained. Even races at the heart of American motorsport, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway between 2000-07, couldn’t offer the long-term home F1 craved.

And when F1 appeared to secure that footing from 2012, with its first permanent U.S. facility at the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, uncertainty grew with funding cuts and dropping attendance. By the mid-2010s, an America-free F1 calendar was a very real prospect.

From 2017, things quickly changed. Liberty, an American company that also owns MLB’s Atlanta Braves, placed a fresh focus on growth. Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” fueled a renewed hunger for F1 in the United States. When the Austin race returned in 2021 after two years away due to Covid-19, COTA drew a record crowd of 400,000 amid the height of Hamilton’s title fight against Max Verstappen. That grew to 440,000 in 2022.

AUSTIN, TEXAS - OCTOBER 20: Fans look on from turn 1 during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of United States at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The three U.S. races now have solid foundations and their own identities and are locked in for the long term. (Mark Thompson / Getty Images)

“Even just going to your son’s football practice or your nephew’s baseball game, people are actually talking about F1 now in the stands, as if it’s another American sport,” said Renee Wilm, the CEO of the Las Vegas Grand Prix.

“Five or 10 years ago, I don’t know that your average sports fan in America could have named three drivers in F1,” added Tom Garfinkel, the CEO of the Miami Dolphins and managing partner of the Miami Grand Prix.

“What’s most exciting about it to me is there are a lot of young people in the United States falling in love with the sport. That’s very positive for the future of the sport in America.”

But Wilm said F1 had to maintain a balance, “creating that newfound loyalty between our new fans while also continuing to embrace our legacy fans. Because I don’t want our legacy fans to get lost in this new narrative that we’re building around North America.”

Las Vegas in particular, the first race to be promoted and organized by F1 itself, drew criticism for high ticket prices that effectively limited access to the wealthy. Fans who attended Thursday night’s sessions were left with a sour taste when they were forced to leave before the delayed second practice had begun, in some cases spending over $1,000 on a ticket to see only eight minutes of action. They received a $200 merchandise voucher as compensation.

While attendance at live events stayed relatively strong in 2023, American TV ratings tumbled a bit. According to ESPN, which broadcasts the races, 2023 ended as the second most-watched F1 season on U.S. TV, drawing in an average of 1.1 million viewers over the 22 races. While that’s almost double the 554,000 average recorded in 2018, the final season before “Drive to Survive” debuted in spring 2019, it marked a 9.1 percent drop from 2022.

The US Grand Prix at COTA also recorded a small fall in the attendance, from 440,000 to 432,000. Miami reported an increase from 240,000 to 270,000 over its weekend after increasing its capacity, claiming both races sold out. It plans another small rise for the 2024 race as a result. Las Vegas reported a crowd of 315,000 over four days, including the opening ceremony.

A plausible explanation for that apparent drop in interest was the lack of competition at the front of the grid. Verstappen’s record-breaking domination, winning 19 out of 22 races, while spectacular, was an understandable source of frustration for fans. Those who fell in love with F1 through 2021, a championship that went down to the final lap of the final race, haven’t experienced anything close to that since.

By emphasizing driver personalities over the details of what happened on the track, “Drive to Survive” helped American fans connect with a European-heavy sport in a way that doesn’t rely on fantastic racing action. It has also led to more diverse F1 fan demographics, far younger and more female than ever before. A 2021 global survey of F1 fans reported that more than 18 percent of respondents were women, up from 10 percent in 2017.

“We have, more than ever, fans of the drivers themselves and the personalities, all the way down the grid,” said Bobby Epstein, COTA’s chairman.

But no matter how invested fans are in the people, they still want a good sporting show. “We have to continue to work on making sure we’re having close racing,” said Hamilton, once Verstappen’s title rival. “Because I think you’ve seen the social engagement drop a huge amount this year. It’s obviously heavily impacted (by) competition. People want to see that.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 18: A general view of the national anthem prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Las Vegas at Las Vegas Strip Circuit on November 18, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images for Heineken)

The Las Vegas Grand Prix capped off a banner year for F1 in the U.S. (Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images for Heineken)

Domination is commonplace in F1. Between 2014-20, Hamilton won six titles in seven years for Mercedes. Before that, Sebastian Vettel won four straight championships for Red Bull. In the early 2000s, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari swept five straight years.

But what sets Verstappen’s domination apart (along with the record-breaking numbers) is that it was not supposed to be possible.

F1 has made big changes to its rulebook in recent years to create closer competition between teams, including the $145 million cost cap introduced in 2021 and the car design changes for 2022. While there was intense competition through the rest of the grid — six teams finished a race in the top three last year, and Mercedes and Ferrari’s battle for second went down to the final race — Verstappen’s strength gave each weekend an air of inevitability.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ team principal, thought F1’s viewership numbers were still “strong” and pointed to most races being sold out. But he acknowledged the importance of competition at the front to stop fans turning away, and said the onus was on Red Bull’s rivals to make it happen.

“If the spectacle is not good, our fans are going to follow us less,” Wolff said. “Of course, there is the risk that people are going to say, ‘Well, I know the result anyway,’ like it happened to us with Lewis. We’ve just got to do a better job.”

Red Bull doesn’t expect to have a clear run for too long. Its chief, Christian Horner, warned the team already has “diminishing returns” with its car design going into 2024, and said its 2023 success will not be repeated in our lifetimes.

“History dictates that with stable regulations, there will be convergence,” Horner said. “And we’re acutely aware of that.”

Even if Mercedes, Ferrari and others make the gains to create an open, compelling championship fight, replicating the staggering rise in interest since Liberty’s takeover will be difficult. It was growth borne of a unique set of conditions: “Drive to Survive” was new and novel. Covid-19 kept everyone indoors, allowing curious fans to binge the show and get hungry for the real thing. When fans could finally return to the races, F1 delivered one of the closest title battles in its history.

“We’re already at a good point, so a plateau would be great,” said Epstein. “A rise above (each) year would be even better. But I don’t think you’re going to see the meteoric growth continue until you have a couple more ingredients. I think one would be, certainly, a track battle with an American driver vying for first.”

Americans love a winner. And while there is now an American driver on the grid in Williams Racing’s Logan Sargeant, he scored just one point last year and finished 21st in the championship. An American has not won an F1 grand prix since Mario Andretti at the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix.

To have a leading American fighting for podiums, wins and championships could be a big evolutionary moment for F1. While the personality-led fandom has worked so far, marrying that with success on the track could be a major breakthrough.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - MAY 08: Fans occupy the track near the podium after the first running of the Miami Grand Prix on May 8, 2022 at the Miami International Autodrome in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Miami GP in May marked the start of Max Verstappen’s record streak of 10 straight victories. (David J. Griffin / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Americans — and maybe it’s like that anywhere, but more so in this sport — you’re going to root for your guy to win,” said Epstein. “You don’t build the same excitement and passion around not being competitive, simply because he’s from this country.”

Garfinkel was less certain what a winning American would do for F1. “It would certainly be a great thing, (but) I don’t know that it’s paramount to the success or the fandom,” he said. “The fandom has grown substantially without that, and there’s a lot of compelling stories.”

One thing he thought could spike interest in the U.S. would be a greater manufacturer presence. In 2026, Ford will return to F1 in a new partnership with Red Bull, whose power units will carry the blue oval badge. GM’s Cadillac also plans to build its own engine starting in 2028. “It’s certainly great that those companies are investing in F1 and see the value,” Garfinkel said.

Cadillac’s F1 plan hinges on another legendary name in American motorsports. Michael Andretti — Mario’s son — plans to form an all-American F1 team, joining the grid in either 2025 or 2026 with at least one American driver. Andretti’s entry bid has already been approved by the FIA, but requires a green light from F1 to go ahead. Thus far, the reception from F1 and the existing 10 teams has been lukewarm. They claim expansion could destabilize the current grid, and also question whether Andretti would boost F1 in America, given Haas already races under the American flag.

The buzz of the Las Vegas race, even after a rough start, gave F1 the mainstream reach it has long coveted with coverage in Vogue, a skit on Jimmy Kimmel, and even a story in The New York Times’ wedding section. The race itself drew an average of 1.3 million viewers on ESPN — 130,000 more than Austin — despite the 1 a.m. Eastern start time.

Zak Brown, McLaren’s CEO, said F1 has “a lot of room for growth” in the United States. He believes Las Vegas works globally and said the upcoming Apple film starring Brad Pitt, which is being filmed at grand prix weekends, should “have a big impact” in North America.

“I don’t see any reasons why the sport can’t just go from strength to strength,” Brown said. “If you look at the size of our TV ratings compared to the major sports in North America, there’s a lot of room for growth. So I’m quite bullish on Formula One globally, and specifically in North America.”

Hamilton is heavily involved in the writing and production of the Pitt movie, and F1 helped by setting up an 11th garage for the fictional team while allowing the car to complete laps during the race weekend.

“We do have to continue to grow, and I think the movie particularly is going to help do that,” Hamilton said.

A dip in TV ratings and a leveling off of grand prix attendance is far removed from F1’s previous boom-and-bust relationship with the United States. All three races have solid foundations and their own identities and are locked in for the long term: COTA until 2026, Miami until 2031, and Las Vegas for the next decade.

“If F1 wants to grow in the United States, you have to invest in it, which (Liberty is) doing,” Garfinkel said. “I would expect that investment to continue, which means I would expect (the growth) to continue.”

(Lead image: Getty; Dan Istitene-F1, Mark Thompson, Clive Rose / Getty Images; Design: John Bradford / The Athletic)