F1 waits to see how cards will fall on great American gamble

Sam Cooper
A rendering of the Formula 1 F1 Las Vegas Grand Prix.

A rendering of the Las Vegas Grand Prix.

In 2023, one country will host three Formula 1 races for just the third time in the sport’s history as Liberty Media’s American gamble waits to see what hand they have been dealt.

When Liberty Media acquired Formula 1 in 2016, two markets were put on the metaphorical target board – China and the United States. While the rise of COVID put a premature end to the former, it has allowed progress in the latter to proceed at breakneck speeds.

In 2016, the average number of American viewers for a grand prix was a little over 400k but a 2022 race was drawing an average of 1.21 million sets of American eyeballs, trebling the figure in just a six-year span.

Fans have flocked not only to their TV screens but also to the tracks themselves, with 240,000 in attendance across the inaugural Miami Grand Prix weekend and a record 440,000 in the stands for October’s trip to the Circuit of The Americas.

By almost every metric, interest is on the rise but this has not been borne out of pure coincidence. For as soon as the higher ups at Liberty had their feet under the Formula 1 desk, work began on reinventing the sport.

With their background in American media, Liberty had a strong understanding of what it is a US audience desires compared to a more traditional European one and it can be boiled down to one simple word: personality.

Think back to great moments in American sporting history. It is not the Patriots winning the Super Bowl, it is Tom Brady. The Chicago Bulls may have won six NBA championships in the ‘90s but it was Michael Jordan’s face that became the symbol of it. Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, the list of charismatic sports stars that captured the American attention goes on and on.

For a sport where the driver’s face is covered and two cars look exactly the same, the old way of things was not going to cut it.

Under previous owner Bernie Ecclestone, Formula 1 had transformed into a multi-million dollar industry but the times, they were a-changin’.

The social media boom had an impact far wider-reaching than solely sport but the advent of Facebook, Twitter and later Instagram opened the door to a new way of athletes communicating with their adoring fans.

Highlights of matches became 10-second clips of goals. GIFs and memes became the internet’s currency and athletes, clubs and competitions unearthed a new audience waiting to be captured.

Formula 1, though, was living in the dark ages. Videos of races were hit with copyright strikes and drivers were kept behind the safety of the metaphorical velvet rope that starts and ends at the entrance to the paddock.

That was just the way things were until one day, a Netflix camera arrived.

The influence of Drive to Survive has been felt nowhere more keenly that in the US. Stars such as Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton have been propelled to the status of household names with a spot on the sofa of any late night talk show permanently reserved for them. Almost overnight, drivers became more than a face behind a helmet and a combination of this new found freedom and a recalibration of copyright rules began to make the sport more accessible to a wider audience

While the drama on display in Drive to Survive may not have been to everyone’s taste, it achieved what it had set out to do, which was to change the way America looked at Formula 1.

At the same time the image of the sport was being changed through careful manipulation of the market, Formula 1 was laying the groundwork for expansion, preparing itself to cash in on this new-found interest.

COTA had served as a diligent flag bearer since 2012 but soon it was being sent reinforcement in its effort to wrestle attention away from the historically popular sports of NFL, NBA and MLB. Miami arrived in 2022 and Las Vegas is not far behind.

If residencies on the Las Vegas Strip are seen as the pinnacle of a performer’s career, there are few that can boast to have survived for 10 years but when Formula 1 put pen-to-paper on the Vegas contract in 2022, they cemented themselves as one of the everlasting bright lights on the brightest street of them all.

It is easy to see why 2023 can be taken as a victory lap following years of work. The American dream has been achieved. Formula 1 has risen from a niche sport one in 100 knows about to making stars such as Hamilton as recognisable as the Woods, Bradys and LeBrons of the world.

But all of this comes at a cost because as focus was set on America, Formula 1’s oldest audience began to feel left in the dark.

Frustrations within the European audience have been growing. More races at non-traditional start times, the threat of iconic tracks such as Monaco, Spa and Monza being dropped in favour of higher-paying clients, the tribalism that has been introduced as a result of the polarising environment that Drive to Survive has helped to create, tickets prices moving further and further away from the race enthusiast and closer to the members of the billionaire boys club.

Europe was the birthplace of Formula 1 and while that dedicated audience is unlikely to ever truly fall out of love with the sport, the sport’s owners have gambled a lot in the hope of conquering the new world.

As the Times Square ball signalled the start of 2023, Formula 1’s bosses must have wondered what the year ahead has in store for them. The sport itself is in the middle of a tug of war. On one side, there is the audience that has been with it through thick and thin and on the other, a new audience and all the alluring opportunities that promises.

A purchase of 39 acres of land for approximately $240 million in the centre of Sin City is a signal of intent but also a massive gamble should this venture not prove as lucrative as Liberty may have hoped and while all three American races will still be on the calendar in 2024, this year will prove if the effort has been worth it.

If COTA was blast-off and Miami the touchdown on the lunar surface, Vegas represents F1’s giant leap. Only come November will Liberty Media and Formula 1 know if it is mission accomplished.

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