Is Formula 1 finally gaining traction in the US?

Formula 1 is one of the oldest and most storied racing organizations in the world, which hasn’t meant much in the United States over the years. But buoyed by surging ratings and a hit Netflix documentary, “Drive to Survive,” F1 is more popular than ever stateside. Last week, organizers announced plans to hold a race in Las Vegas in 2023, the first time the series has raced there since 1981-82. The race on the Strip joins Miami and the now-nearly decade old race in Austin, making the U.S. the only nation with three F1 races next year.

It’s been a slow burn, as F1 generally is a favorite of car enthusiasts but falls somewhere below NASCAR and IndyCar in sentiment among the general public. That appears to be changing. The first two races of the season scored the highest number of viewers on ESPN for any F1 race on cable since 1995, led by the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix’s average viewership of 1.445 million

Though it’s a small sample size, it makes a 47% increase from the 2021 season, which averaged 949,000 viewers. Even qualifying for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix averaged a respectable 631,000 viewers. By comparison, “Sunday Night Baseball” on ESPN averaged 1.456 million viewers per game in 2021. No one is suggesting F1 is as popular as baseball or any other established league in the U.S., but the sport has demonstrated growth and fan engagement this year.

“The Formula 1 audience has been growing in the U.S. since it returned to ESPN in 2018,” said John Suchenski, ESPN director, programming and acquisitions. “Even in 2020, with a shortened and shifted schedule that didn’t include any North American rounds or the Monaco event, F1 viewership was still strong for us and it was one of the few sports properties to sustain its audience during the pandemic year and come out of it stronger. 


“That momentum carried over into 2021 and this season. As always with ratings and viewership, there are many factors that play a part. Both reach and time spent viewing continue to grow, meaning more people are watching and people are watching longer. Young adults are tuning in at a significantly growing rate as are teens.”  

Three races in the United States seem like a lot when nations with fanatical bases only have one per year. Still, increasing the U.S. schedule would bring F1 to new markets and create new fans. People scoffed when F1 put a Grand Prix in Austin during football season, but last year 400,000 fans attended the race weekend. With Miami already on the docket this year, it would make geographic sense to try to add one in New York, California (though Vegas is an easy flight from L.A.) and somewhere like Indianapolis, Detroit or Chicago. Many of these regions already currently host IndyCar and have previously held F1 races.

Clearly, there’s enthusiasm for growth in the U.S. market. McLaren team boss Zak Brown called Las Vegas an “awesome addition to the F1 calendar that shows how much the sport’s popularity has grown in the U.S.” 

Just as important, now would be the perfect time for an American F1 driver to emerge as a star. There are no American drivers and only one American-backed team, Haas F1, out of North Carolina. Haas is run by Gene Haas, who also owns a NASCAR team. Michael Andretti is aiming to get cars on the grid in 2024, and would like to run a U.S. driver. Having an American could improve marketability, but ultimately the driver and the team would need to be competitive.

F1’s rise has been interesting given U.S. viewers have a range of other sporting options, including in motorsports. Simply having the races on ESPN (and sometimes ABC, where the sport first aired in 1962 in the U.S.) adds legitimacy, and the network’s cross-promotion of its TV properties means a football or baseball fan might notice a graphic reminding them of an upcoming Grand Prix. It’s intangible, but it clearly doesn’t hurt. It’s also hard to quantify, but perhaps the pandemic’s general upending of life created new viewing windows for Americans, who were intrigued and then finally found the time to get into F1. In general, the sport is growing, and Porsche and Audi are also eying opportunities to support entries on the grid, which can only help in the U.S.

Perhaps to state the obvious: Formula 1 has been interesting the last few years. Led by Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes won seven straight constructor’s titles before Red Bull and Max Verstappen took the crown last season. This year, Ferrari — the oldest and most successful team in F1 history with 16 constructor’s titles — leads so far.

Netflix and ESPN got behind a racing series that for most of its history had the profile of competitive bass fishing in the U.S. Week by week, that seems to be changing. This is either a moment when F1 will inch closer to mainstream (or at least mainstream for motorsports) status, or we’ll look back on this time as one of the series’ occasional peaks of popularity in the American public consciousness that couldn’t be sustained.

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