Doom and Gloom in the World of F1
While Formula One gets down to the serious business of testing its latest batch of finely tuned chargers, behind the scenes things would appear to be not so rosy. Global viewing figures are down, the last few months have been dominated by headlines bemoaning an influx of “pay drivers” and HRT finally put its hands up in surrender and was carted off by a scrap dealer. Yet is the sport really in such dire straights?
Viewing Figures Continue to Fall
Last week, FOM released its own analysis of Formula One’s global viewing figures. While some markets, in particular Brazil continue to grow, a massive 34% drop in viewership in China alone fuelled the continued slide in viewers that has plagued the sport in recent years. Back in 2008, some 600 million people saw Formula One at some point in the season, and despite a small bounce back during 2010’s thrilling title chase there has been a steady decline and last year was down to around 502 million. This despite a strong season for Fernando Alonso and Ferrari providing a boost in Spain and Italy, otherwise the figures could have been worse.
Worse still, while the sport likes to bill itself as “the world’s most-watched annual sporting event” a similar analysis of the World Touring Car Championships returned a surprising figure of 512 million viewers which perhaps explains why Formula One hasn’t been particularly keen to reveal it’s total unlike previous years. However, it is worth noting that these figures reflect what is termed “reach” which measures the number of people to have watched 15 minutes of the sport throughout the season. Undoubtedly, WTCC has benefitted from the way it has been packaged by broadcasters, such as highlights piggybacking on F1 coverage or shown as part of motorsport shows at peak viewing times. What WTCC is unlikely to achieve is the total viewing figures of F1 at any particular moment and it certainly doesn’t achieve the same level of media coverage. Still, those are the figures that the FIA likes to run with and they can’t make pretty reading to sponsors.
Meanwhile, in the UK figures were down 3.8 million to 28.6 million, although I disagree with the quickly held view that the switch to a pay TV deal with coverage shared between Sky and the BBC was to blame. At the end of last year, I looked at the average viewing figures for each race which gives a more realistic appraisal of the effect of the broadcaster share. However, the “reach” criteria shouldn’t suffer so badly – afterall, in effect there was essentially twice as much Formula One on television in 2012 and therefore double the opportunity for casual viewers to catch 15 minutes at some point. If you want to point the finger anywhere, I’d point it at Sebastian Vettel, or at least Adrian Newey.
Auctioning Off Race Seats
Still, the World economy is suffering and motorsport isn’t immune – one only has to look at the shadow of a series, British Formula 3 has become for this year. However, if there is one thing that has really bothered me about Formula One over recent months it’s “pay drivers.” Or rather, the constant discussion of them. The reality is that all drivers are heavily funded at some point in their career and only the very best reach the point where teams are willing to pay them – and even then it has to be balanced against the financial benefits of employing them, most notably in terms of attracting those sponsors with the deepest pockets.
When Jaime Alguersuari branded Formula One an auction, my sympathy for him was a little muted: Here’s a man who was funded through Formula Renault, Formula 3 and Formula Renault 3.5 before getting his big chance at Toro Rosso. Simply because his sponsors also owned Toro Rosso, it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s been paid for and that they’ve now decided to put their money on a different horse.
Still, it’s unsurprising that those F1 drivers suddenly left without a seat should feel at least a little put out by having to make way for somebody with more money. However, Alguersuari had two and half years to convince F1 that he was somebody special. Timo Glock had six years but is best known for being passed by Lewis Hamilton at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. Heikki Kovalainen also had six years, including time with a Championship winning team and is probably best remembered for using a fire extinguisher! New talent coming in may or may not prove better but the harsh reality is that F1 is not a charity providing drivers with a thrill 19 or so weekends a year.
However, what is annoying is when people such as Martin Whitmarsh lament ‘the rise of pay drivers’ – or ‘blasts pay drivers’ as the tabloid press subsequently spin it. If there is anything wrong in Formula One at the moment it is the people that matter in the sport telling the world that the sport billed as the pinnacle of motorsport has substandard drivers behind the steering wheels. Even Whitmarsh has to take a balanced look at driver selection or McLaren would have just paid Lewis Hamilton whatever he wanted to stay.
What’s Going on at Marussia and Force India?
On the subject of drivers having to bring more than just their driving skills, the Brazilian press have been getting very nervous about Luiz Razia sitting out the second test at the Circuit de Catalunya this week. Max Chilton has enjoyed four days behind the wheel of the Marussia and despite the team claiming they wanted consistency to get the maximum benefit out of their testing programme, speculation is rife.
Meanwhile, Force India are still dragging their heels on making a decision as to who will partner Paul di Resta – not that they made a lot of fanfare about mentioning the Scotsman still had a place in the outfit. This week saw Adrian Sutil return from exile in what is now seen as a straight fight between himself and Jules Bianchi, although you have to wonder if the team are not simply milking the German for his experience during their testing programme. However, with Mercedes behind Sutil to some extent, and Ferrari keen to have Bianchi in residence somewhere, it is looking more and more like Force India are being forced into making an early decision on engine supplier for 2014 – it’s perhaps significant that Ferrari made a point of mentioning the need to supply engines on the same day that Sutil returned to the track.
The Good News
However, while HRT has finally died (in hindsight it seems a miracle that they survived so long) Formula One may not be in quite the unhealthy state the doom-mongers would have you believe. This week, Ferrari was named the World’s most powerful brand – a fact that underlines Marlboro’s commitment to being associated with the brand even if they have no visible presence at the races themselves. That was followed up by the announcement of a new sponsorship deal with UPS, speculated to be worth $24 million a year, while Williams have captured a partnership with global information services company Experian while extending and upgrading their deal with Randstad.
Undoubtedly, Formula One is facing tough times but then it is tough times for everyone. What will probably worry the sport more than money, however, is that continuing decline in viewing figures which gimmicks such as DRS have failed to arrest.
Credit: Red Bull Racing/Mark Thompson/Getty Images; Scuderia Toro Rosso/Peter Fox/Getty Images