As F1 TV viewing figures continue to fall globally, is there a solution to the problem?

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The current financial crisis that is engulfing Formula 1 has been debated to and fro over the past few months, with the collapse of Caterham and the uncertain future faced by Marussia giving many cause for concern about the future of the sport.

As things stand, we are set for a nine-team, 18-car field racing in F1 in 2015 – a quarter less than we saw just three years ago.

Will a lighter grid make much difference to the spectacle though? After all, the backmarkers rarely enjoyed a great deal of TV time, so perhaps having four less cars will mean very little in terms of the casual fans viewership from his or her armchair at home.

Even with 22 cars, F1 TV viewing figures have been falling for some time, losing a grand total of 175m in the past six years. 2015 saw 425m viewers tune in across the world, with a number of broadcasters seeing a fall in their numbers.

This has been the big dilemma for F1 over the past few years. TV figures have plummeted, so a remedy needs to be found. This was used as a factor when criticising the new cars introduced in 2014, saying that their reduced sound and look would only prompt fans to turn off.

It was also the reason behind the ultimately futile double points rule for 2014, intended to make the championship race last longer and therefore keep viewers tuning in. It has thankfully been scrapped for 2015, having firstly had no impact on the championship race whatsoever, and secondly not prevented a further fall of 25m in global viewership from 2013 to 2014.

So are people simply going off Formula 1, or is there a bigger reason behind the fall?

The quality of the racing is important, yet it is not the problem here. 2008 was the ‘peak’ in terms of viewership, booming at 600m. However, this was a year dominated by McLaren and Ferrari, and arguably less exciting than the recent clashes between Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. There is little reason for less fans to be watching because they simply don’t like what they see.

Accessibility is better than it ever has been, also. The majority of broadcasters offer some kind of online streaming service, meaning that fans can watch F1 wherever they may be on their phone or tablet. However, the flip side of the internet revolution is that many may choose to opt for illegal streams instead of paying for a TV contract.

And here lies the crux of the ‘problem’: money. The only correlating variable in the fall in TV viewership is the rise of pay-per-view contracts for the sport. In a bid to increase the sports revenues – which is, of course, good business sense – the F1 Group has been chasing more and more pay TV contracts. Broadcasters who get their viewers to pay for services have more money to offer for the broadcasting rights, thus increasing the sport’s revenues. The F1 pie grows bigger.

It is simply a case of looking at the facts. In 2013, there was a fall of 50m that prompted many a well-documented concern in the F1 community. However, less well-documented was the fact that 46m of this fall was in just two markets where the sport had switched to pay TV. The move away from free-to-air (FTA) cost the sport 30m viewers in China and 16m in France – so a relative fall of 4m is far less concerning.

The same is true of the falling British F1 audience in recent years. For 2012, the BBC gave up its exclusive rights to show F1, with all of the races moving onto pay-TV Sky Sports. The BBC shows half of the races each year live, with highlights for the remainder. Unsurprisingly, there was a decline in the audience in one of the sport’s most important markets, but it was self-induced.

Interestingly though, the United States has been bucking the trend in this area. According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, the F1 audience in the U.S. grew for the second year in a row, increasing by 10.1% to 12.6m. Clearly, the market that the sport has tried to crack for so long is coming around.

A constant global decline is not something that the sport can simply accept, though. Instead, efforts must be made to combat the fall whilst also aiding revenues. FOM has recently begun a crack-down on those sharing illegal streaming links on Twitter, and it is likely that more and more of these websites will be targeted to get more tuning in on TV.

There could yet be another fall in 2015 though, with rights in Australia now being shared in a similar deal to that of the UK. Fox Sports will show all of the races live, with half of them also live on FTA Channel 10. With Daniel Ricciardo leading the sport’s charge Down Under, many may lament the fact that they cannot watch every race live and free.

So what does the man at the top of the F1 pile think of the situation?

“[It] is working alright,” Bernie Ecclestone told the WSJ. “We are still getting very good TV coverage. It just means that we are getting more coverage from the pay people now.”

The decline may have been sizeable in recent years, but it is not without reason. If the F1 pie is continue to grow, steps such as these must be taken.

However, if the sport can continue its recent drive to harness new technology streams via the F1 App and greater Twitter interaction, the decline may be limited and perhaps even reversed. It is not a trend that can persist, but the reasons behind it are clear.

F1: Lewis Hamilton chases history at US Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton is closing in on the F1 championship. Getty Images
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — From New York to Texas, Lewis Hamilton returned to the United States this week with yet another Formula One championship ready for the taking.

Finish off Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel once and for all at the U.S. Grand Prix this weekend and the British driver would climb another step among racing’s greatest drivers. A fifth season championship would tie him with Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio for second all-time behind only Germany’s Michael Schumacher, who won seven.

Hamilton storms into what could be a chilly, rainy Texas weekend with a commanding 67-point lead over Vettel heading into the last four races of 2018. If Hamilton wins Sunday, Vettel has to finish no lower than second to keep the championship going another week to Mexico City. Any Hamilton finish that leaves him eight points or more clear of Vettel clinches the title.

Yet facing constant reminders of what’s at stake, Hamilton refused to get dragged into talking about his place in F1 history.

“None of us are saying how cool it would be. We are not focusing on `ifs.’ We are focusing on making sure we deliver,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We expect Ferrari to punch back hard here this weekend.”

Others were happy to do it for him.

McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, sitting next to Hamilton in the drivers’ news conference, ranked Hamilton among his top five champions in F1 history, no small compliment considering Alonso won championships in 2005 and 2006.

“Lewis showed talent from day one fighting for the championship his rookie year, then winning in 2008,” Alonso said. “He was able to win races when the car deserved to win it, but he was able to win races in seasons when the car wasn’t in top form … It’s impressive.”

If he’s feeling any pressure about the weekend, Hamilton isn’t showing it.

He spent the first part of the week in New York with an appearance on “Good Morning America” and a trip to Times Square to see his image on one of the towering video boards. On Thursday, he cracked jokes about fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby from the movie “Talladega Nights,” quipped about his love of American pancakes and talked up a Circuit of the Americas track that brings out his racing instincts.

“They really don’t make tracks like they did in the old days. Some of the new tracks really aren’t that good. This is one that is,” Hamilton said. “You can actually race here. I’ve had the chance to race here. Real races.”

Hamilton has dominated this track since it opened in 2012, winning five times and starting from the pole or second each time he won. He won the inaugural race with McLaren and his victory in the rain with Mercedes in 2015 clinched the season championship (his third). He comes back to Austin having won six of the last seven races this season, a streak interrupted only by Vettel’s victory in Belgium back on Aug. 26.

With 100 points still available, Vettel is still mathematically alive in the championship but would need a run of Ferrari victories and a historic collapse by Hamilton and Mercedes to win it. And it has to start this week.

The German is the only driver to beat Hamilton in Austin. That came in 2013 during his dominant season with Red Bull that won Vettel his fourth championship. Last year, Vettel led after the start but Hamilton easily reeled him in and passed on lap 14 and the Ferrari never threatened an easy Hamilton victory.

The circuit won’t quite be the same. Race officials installed new kerbs on turns 1, 16 and 17 to keep the cars from running off track. Vettel snatched the lead at the start last year when Hamilton forced him left but he was able to cut the corner and head downhill.

The 2017 race ended in controversy when Red Bull’s Max Verstappen passed Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen around turns 16 and 17 on the final lap to finish third. Race officials determined it was an illegal overtake because all four of Verstappen’s wheels left the track and a 5-second penalty knocked him off the podium.