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.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”