Formula One has rocketed in the popularity stakes in recent years. Much of this is credited to the Netflix “Drive to Survive” series and Haas F1 boss Gunther Steiner whose direct and honest opinions are rarely seen live in most sporting arenas.
Last year’s inaugural Miami GP sold out in around half an hour and while the weekend race attendance grew this year by around 25%, there was an ominous indicator that American interest in F1 on the whole is fickle.
F1 in the America’s
F1 racing in the States has been a rather hot and cold affair, with a long motor racing history stretching back before the war, but also very long periods of little to no F1 interest, and often a complete lack of a Grand Prix in between. Having featured the Indy500 as a Formula 1 eligible race between 1950 and 1960, it wasn’t until 1959 that the USA had its first ‘proper’ Grand Prix in the Formula 1 calendar.
In 1959, F1 held its first sanctioned US race in Sebring, Florida. The race was also the season finale, with Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss or Tony Brooks being the recipients of the championship trophy.
Riverside, California, would host the race in 1960, but, as with Sebring whose American audience failed to ‘get’ F1, the World Championship would never return.
From ’61, Formula 1 found a permanent home in the USA with Watkins Glen near New York city, a pairing that lasted for two decades until 1980.
In the 80’s there was the odd short-term Grand Prix in places such as Long Beach, Detroit, Las Vegas & Phoenix, but by the 1990s the interest in F1 had waned completely, only to return briefly in the 2000s at Indy.
A bleak period & then catastrophe
The combination of the world’s most watched motorsport with America’s premier motorsport venue seemed a perfect fit. With a weekend attendance of 250,000 for the inaugural Grand Prix, F1 was back in the US in a big way and there seemed to be no stopping it. All the upward momentum changed with the 2005 United States Grand Prix.
With the Indianapolis circuit having resurfaced the banked Turn 13 with a more abrasive surface since F1 visited in 2004, driver safety became a primary concern following tyre failures from supplier Michelin. There was no unanimous agreement or workable compromise that could guarantee that drivers on Michelin tyres could run for more than ten laps without risk, despite attempts by the teams to change the race with various temporary solutions including a chicane.
Only six cars lined up on the grid after the 14 Michelin runners withdrew from the Grand Prix after the formation lap to the boos of the fans in attendance. The incident ruined the sport’s reputation in the USA, and two years later F1 left Indianapolis and America.
Tentative comeback in Texas
In 2010, Austin was awarded a ten-year contract to host the U.S. Grand Prix from 2012. Unlike the many street circuits from the 1980s or racing in the shadow of NASCAR and IndyCar as F1 did in Watkins Glen and Indianapolis, Austin would construct a new racetrack with F1 in mind.
The circuit was good, and the appreciation for F1 in the USA slowly gained momentum yet again.
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Ecclestone targets USA
F1 has wanted to “crack” America since Bernie Ecclestone began to expand the series from primarily a European based to a truly global sport. Starting with the sports ‘comeback’ in Texas in the 2010s, and now with a total of three US based Grand Prix this year, the initial signs are good.
However, there is also concern that the US sport’s audience will yet again fail to understand the intricacies of Formula One which are important sub texts when the racing is less exciting. A trait often seen over the last 70 years.
Having seen the popularity spike during the epic 2021 season’s battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, Disney owned sport’s channel ESPN upped their deal with F1 this year.
Having previously paid just $5m a year for the US rights to the sport, ESPN signed a new deal last season for $90m per annum with several races also shown live on mainstream channel ABC.
TV audiences already declining
In 2022 the inaugural Miami race was shown live on ABC and pulled an incredible 2.6 million viewers, the largest US based TV audience for a Formula One race.
However, this year the audience dropped by over a quarter leading to concerns for F1 bosses and ESPN that interest in the sport had peaked.
The New York Times speculates the drop in interest may be due to the “duller-than-usual” racing thanks to Red Bull’s dominant start to the season.
Other commentators opinions suggest that US audiences are fickle and it will be the inaugural Las Vegas GP that will grab American’s attention this year.
On a positive note, the demographics of the Miami TV audience revealed counter to the drop in city dwellers viewing was an increase in rural areas like North Carolina which is the home of NASCAR.
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Another ridiculous article – 1 GP with reduced numbers and you are speculating that 3x GP per year, one promoted by Liberty themselves, F1 is leaving the US
A new height reached!
It was a nice day … Too nice to spend inside watching F1. I wanted to go … But ticket prices were $1500+ for seats and $600 for a “campus” or walk-around pass. Crazy. Cheaper to fly to Europe for a race.