How Formula 1 finally conquered the USA thanks to Netflix

With more than 400 million viewers, Formula 1 is one of the most popular sports in the world. But for many years it was virtually unknown in America.

But reality TV changed all that.

Ever since the Netflix series Drive to Survive – which features behind-the-scenes footage of the usually secretive racing teams and the sometimes contentious relationships between drivers and team leaders – debuted in 2019, American audiences for Formula 1 have skyrocketed.

Netflix doesn’t release viewership data, but the audience for ESPN’s coverage of Formula 1 racing has nearly doubled since the show premiered — up to 1.5 million views per race.

According to a recent Nielsen study, Formula 1 is on track to surpass one billion global fans this year, with 77 percent of those new fans being under the age of 35.

“Without Drive to Survive, there would be no American F1 boom,” Ringer’s F1 show host Kevin Clark told The Post. When his podcast started, the idea was to round up episodes of the binge-worthy show and provide previews of each of the 22 races of the sports season. However, the success of the podcast surprised him and the staff at The Ringer, a popular sports and pop culture website.

Drivers like Lewis Hamilton (from left), Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly (with Honda F1 General Manager Masahi Yamamoto) have become stars in America.
Drivers like Lewis Hamilton (from left), Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly (with Honda F1 General Manager Masahi Yamamoto) have become stars in America.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“When we saw the numbers, we saw the reaction,” Clark said. “We knew this wasn’t going to be a part-time job. We tapped something.” According to the Chartable Podcast Rankings, The Ringer F1 Show is consistently ranked in the top 50 sports podcasts in the United States.

Formula 1 has grown so big that on Sunday, May 8, the inaugural Miami Grand Prix will be held at Hard Rock Stadium – complete with a makeshift Monaco-style yacht marina built just for the occasion was – and ticket prices has rivaled that of the Super Bowl.

“You look at Formula 1 and it’s healthier than ever. We’ve been selling sold out tickets everywhere so far and I think we’ll continue to do so throughout the year,” driver Alex Albon – a Drive to Survive star – told Page Six during the Williams Racing launch party at the W Hotel South Beach on Thursday.

Another sign that Drive to Survive is fueling the new American Formula 1 fandom is the Miami Grand Prix Drivers’ Parade – a pre-race tradition of the sport where drivers drive out of their cars around the circuit to celebrate fans will be able to see them up close and in person – will for the first time include team principals, the executives who have become celebrities on the show.

Miami is actually the second American race: The US Grand Prix, held in Austin, Texas since 2012, saw a 15 percent increase in attendance in the first year of Drive to Survive, with 250,000 fans attending the race attended – a number more comparable to a typical Kentucky Derby crowd. By 2021, that number had grown to over 400,000, making it the largest crowd at any Formula 1 race ever in the world.

Drivers like Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris have a lot to celebrate and F1 is finally welcoming young fans.
Drivers like Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris have a lot to celebrate and F1 is finally welcoming young fans.
Formula 1 via Getty Images

Next year there are plans to add a third American stop and race cars on the Las Vegas Strip.

“I started watching ‘Drive to Survive’ three months ago and I’ve gone from an active dislike of motorsport to an obsession with F1. I read about it every day, I’m on Reddit every day, I text about it every day, I think about it every day,” television writer Travis Helwig, 34, told The Post. “As with most sports, the best part is the narrative, and Formula One lends itself well to drama and narrative. There are only 20 participants, so it’s easy to learn each participant’s story.”

US-based Liberty Media Group bought Formula 1 for $4.4 billion in 2016 and partnered with Netflix in a radical departure from everything the brand had done before.

“Drive to Survive” is unique even among sports reality shows, according to Clark. While HBO’s NFL reality series Hard Knocks gives the NFL final say over what airs, Netflix has no such agreement with Formula 1,

New fan Alexis Novak compares the 'Drive to Survive' drama to 'Real Housewives,' while Travis Helwig says he's become so addicted that he reads about the sport every day.
New fan Travis Helwig says he’s become so hooked he reads about the sport every day, while Alexis Novak compares ‘Drive to Survive’ drama to ‘Real Housewives.’

The result, Clark added, is a far more insightful and entertaining show that will draw in fans who not only have never seen Formula One, but have never watched sports.

“Reality shows — even if you think it takes away from the competitive element, even if you think it mocks the sport — it’s the easiest way to create superstars,” Clark said. “Tens of millions of people have seen ‘Drive to Survive’. And there are so many people who didn’t like sports and they watch it every single weekend now.

“The switch between how F1 markets itself as an entertainment product was a huge game changer in the sport.”

“I didn’t care about F1 at all. After watching Drive to Survive I will teach it now [future] Kids about F1,” said Alexis Novak, 31, founder of online clothing store Tab Vintage. “It made me dizzy and I wanted to follow my favorite riders and support them like I used to do with boy bands.”

Netflix has announced at least two more seasons "Drive to survive"
Netflix has announced at least two more seasons of Drive to Survive

For Novak, who says she’s always “disliked being active,” Drive to Survive made F1 feel different. “It’s not like other sports because you get to know the people in the cars, the people who work on the cars and the owners. You also see the politics behind the races,” she said. “It’s a perfect crossover of culture, wealth, fame, adrenaline and drama – like ‘Real Housewives’ meets the Super Bowl.”

Former Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has been known to be dismissive of younger fans.

“I don’t know why people want to reach the so-called ‘young generation’,” Ecclestone told Campaign Asia-Pacific magazine in 2014. “Why do you want to do that? To sell them something? Most of these children have no money. I’d rather go to the 70-year-old who has a lot of money.”

The effects of growing American audiences are also being felt around the world.

“40 per cent of our audience is now from the US and only 25 per cent from the UK,” said BBC radio presenter Richard Ready, host of the Formula 1 podcast Missed Apex. “So if people are going to get snooty about Drive to Survive fans, they have to realize that they’re a bit outnumbered now.”

Lewis Hamilton is a big star of the sport.
Lewis Hamilton is a big star of the sport.
Getty Images

Ready is referring to a growing concern, particularly among some European fans of the sport, that these new fans will “Americanize” it: placing an emphasis on personalities, exaggerating rivalries and petty squabbles, and fulfilling the American need for all sporting competitions to be dramatic and determined.

“Americans can’t stand a tie,” says Ready. “Sometimes Formula 1 is something special for me because nothing happens. And that could be a British thing or a European thing. In football, we don’t mind the odd boring draw… If you force the spectacular all the time, it’s like eating birthday cake every day. So when your birthday comes, is that so special?”

Fears of playing on the American public’s appetite for drama boiled over in last year’s final race in Abu Dhabi, where the top two drivers tied for the championship on points. After it looked like reigning champion Lewis Hamilton would win the race decisively, a controversial decision by race director Michael Masi allowed challenger Max Verstappen to close the gap and win on the final lap of the race.

The result was a thrilling head-to-head finish, but longtime Formula 1 fans cried foul, saying Masi broke the rules. An investigation by the FIA, Formula One’s governing body, found Masi’s decision was the result of “human error” and he was replaced as race director. Many fans wondered if this glitch was Netflix’s invisible hand guiding the race results.

A controversial decision by race leader Michael Masi allowed challenger Max Verstappen to close the gap and win on the last lap of a race.
A controversial decision by race director Michael Masi allowed challenger Max Verstappen (above) to close the gap and win on the final lap of a race.
Getty Images

“There was already a suspicion that there was a Netflixization of sport,” Clark said. “I think what you saw in Abu Dhabi was just general incompetence, but because there was already skepticism among die-hard fans, you saw more theories about it.”

“I don’t see that as a conspiracy theory,” Ready said. “I think that’s very plausible.”

Netflix has just confirmed two more seasons of Drive to Survive and producers have been spotted at Formula 1 races this season.

“I have to say, Formula 1 is an American sport now,” Ready admitted. “And as much as the things coming out of the US may shake us, F1 needed them.”

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