Formula 1 continues to be a growth property in the United States, and the viewership returns for Sunday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix are just the last example.
After a 2021 season that saw record viewership for a season that featured a tense championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and eventual champ Max Verstappen, the 2022 season-opener actually exceeded every 2021 race in terms of viewership. That includes a larger average audience than last year’s season peak, which actually aired on network ABC. (The Bahrain GP was on ESPN.)
From ESPN’s release:
An average of 1,353,000 viewers tuned in on ESPN as Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc won the season opener, the largest audience for an F1 race on any of ESPN’s networks since the championship returned to ESPN in 2018. The previous high was 1.2 million for the 2021 United States Grand Prix, which aired on ABC.
Viewership for the Bahrain race, which started shortly after 11 a.m. ET, peaked at 1.54 million between 12:30-12:45 p.m.
The race also was the second most-viewed on both cable and ESPN on record, exceeded only by the 1.74 million average audience for the 1995 Brazilian Grand Prix, and falls among the top 15 most-watched F1 races of all time in the United States.
In a related story, the newest season of Netflix’s Drive to Survive was released the weekend prior to Bahrain, and once again topped the streamer’s charts. As usual when a new season came out, there was an outcry that it wasn’t realistic, with Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez opting out of filming this year in response.
Most people, though, recognize how good the show is for the sport, and if you follow the sport closely it does still really capture the accurate spirit of the drama, even if it does play around with verisimilitude. Most people involved in the sport seem to be able to compartmentalize that and laugh about it while understanding how beneficial it is for everyone involved to have a booming American market.
In addition to whatever new eyes are being added by the Netflix show, ESPN deserves credit for how they’ve chosen to present the sport. Rather than attempting to Americanize the broadcasts or tweak the international feed by adding their own voices, they’ve simply gone with a straight simulcast of the Sky Sports coverage.
That’s a huge positive, and it actually helps emphasize the draw of a truly global sport. It’s not dumbed down in any way, recognizing that if some fans want to learn more they can easily educate themselves, even during a race. It lends a more exotic feel, too, and the production itself is fairly top-notch, aside from a few questionable choices by whoever is directing a given race in terms of which on-track battles they show or don’t show.
The fact that ESPN commits to showing commercial-free race broadcasts, and only having limited commercial interruptions during practice and qualifying sessions.
Where Formula 1 goes next, though, will be a big decision; Netflix itself has even hinted that the brand synergy might make it an appealing target for their first foray into live sports. The success of the sport means the next deal will almost certainly cost more, and will likely have much more interest. Considering ESPN’s role in the growth to this point (and their willingness to take such a beneficial hands-off approach to coverage), hopefully the next move won’t be a step backwards.