Will F1’s UK audience recover from its 2012 slump?

2013 F1 season

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Melbourne, 2012F1 viewing figures in the UK grew for five consecutive seasons until last year, when they slumped back to their pre-2009 level. @DavidNelson, who writes the F1 Broadcasting blog, takes a look at what the data says about the success of F1’s move towards pay TV.

Last year’s abrupt reversal of F1’s recent growth in popularity in the UK came as half the live races vanished from free-to-air television. For the first time, the whole season was only available to watch live on Sky’s subscription service.

This is part of a Europe-wide trend which has seen Formula One move from primarily a free-to-air model to one which has half of the races exclusively live on a pay TV station.

Evidence from the first year of the plan in the UK shows that the move has turned viewers off. UK television audiences dropped to their lowest level since 2008. Furthermore, audience levels decreased an average of 12.7 percent compared with 2011, the last season broadcast live only on BBC:


1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Millions of viewers 4.51 4.87 4.55 4.07 3.93 3.59 3.5 3.07 3.08 2.75 3.61 4.01 4.38 4.41 4.62 4.1

As the graph shows, audiences for Formula 1 hit a low in the mid-2000s in the UK before recovering. Audience levels continued to rise as BBC became the Formula One broadcaster.

The 2012 season marked the first fall in viewership since 2006. Even so, average audiences remained above 4 million viewers for every race, showing that the appetite for Formula One is still healthy.

But a repeat of this drop in 2013 – and a similar trend in figures in other markets where the pay TV model is appearing – would set alarm bells ringing.

2012 versus 2011

Here’s how the UK’s viewership figures (in millions) for 2011 and 2012 compare race by race.


Australia Malaysia Bahrain China Spain Monaco Canada Turkey Europe Great Britain Germany Hungary Belgium Italy Singapore Japan South Korea India United States Abu Dhabi Brazil
2011 4.093 4.4738 4.8337 4.7496 5.1473 6.2063 3.8534 3.9289 4.9398 4.4119 4.7599 3.9025 4.2322 4.46 4.3763 4.1619 5.6084 4.6898 4.9435
2012 3.2492 3.9997 4.81925 5.1841 4.27595 3.96765 3.7863 4.63275 3.75451 3.5277 4.6741 3.2935 4.64145 4.09445 2.88145 3.25341 3.6714 3.5737 4.68095 6.0319

An interesting pattern emerges from the figures. When BBC have the race live, the average audience for both channels is 4.38 million, only 240,000 lower than in 2011, or a 5.5 percent drop. That number in isolation is a very good number, when you consider other factors, such as last year’s Olympic Games and Euro 2012 football torunament.

However, when you look at the races that Sky broadcast exclusively live and BBC show in highlights form, the average television audience is 3.88 million, nearly one million down on the 2011 average figure, or a mammoth 19.1 percent drop.

To put it simply – nearly one in five people are not tuning in when the race is covered exclusively live on Sky Sports. In addition, only one of the ten exclusive live races that Sky covered increased compared with on 2011 (Italy), the rest dropped significantly.

Unsurprisingly, the race that fell the most was Canada. In 2011, it recorded an average of 6.21 million viewers across BBC One and then BBC Two, compared with 3.79 million on Sky Sports F1 live and BBC One for their highlights show.

The figures for Canada and USA show that Formula One needs a terrestrial television presence, and more importantly, for those races need to be live on both BBC and Sky, as they bring in the casual audiences. It is the casual audience that they need to exploit, as they will be the ones that could turn to dedicated fans in the future, bringing in the big numbers to Formula One.

Elsewhere, Japan, India and Australia recorded significant drops, as the graph above shows. The 3.25 million viewers recorded for Australia was the lowest for a season opener since 2006.

Other circumstances

Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Melbourne, 2012Whilst the new broadcasting model goes some way to explain the drop, it must be noted that the decrease in viewing figures was also affected by external events. In 2012 competition for sports’ fans eyeballs in the UK came from the Olympics, Euro 2012 and Andy Murray making it to the Wimbledon final.

All of those events peaked at some point over 15 million, the Olympics bringing together nearly half of the country. Even if Formula One remained on BBC for every live race in 2012, in my opinion, figures would have still dropped.

How much they would have dropped by is impossible to say for certain. Looking at the evidence presented, the average would have been nearer 4.4 million than the 4.1 million it was in reality.

The first seven races of 2012 began arguably one of the most exciting seasons in recent times. Despite this, the average for those seven races was 4.18 million, compared with 4.77 million when Sebastian Vettel was dominating in 2011. Those races took place before the ‘Summer of Sport’, and their poor ratings cannot be attributed to competition from other big events.

Moving away from the traditional model

While the facility for viewers in the UK to time-shift F1 broadcasts and watch them on computers, phones and other devices has been around for several years, those in F1 claim last year’s television ratings drop was due to an increase in these other forms of viewing:

“I think we’re recognising that the world has changed,” said McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh. “The viewership of all conventional, live television is declining because people select it, record it, view it through different media. And we’ve got to be alive and alert to that.”

“The traditional sport was based on terrestrial TV but I think if you just focus on that then I think you’re missing lots and lots of opportunities,” he added. “We’ve still got a sport that on a fortnightly basis, March to November, has more than 100 million people watching it on TV in 140 countries around the world.”

“So those numbers are still large, we’d like them to be larger, but I think nowadays people watch television, they watch their computers, they watch their phones, in all sorts of different applications.”

Whitmarsh admitted that the move to pay television was “a threat to our conventional viewing audience” but believes F1 needs “to reach out through all different media outlets and make sure that it continues to make a very substantial impact as the third-largest sporting spectacle in the world.”

2013: Fewer free-to-air races, higher price

More downward pressure will be applied on UK audience figures for Formula One races this year as the number of free-to-air races shown on the BBC falls from ten to nine.

The BBC will broadcast the Chinese, Spanish, Canadian, British, Belgian, Italian, Japanese, Indian and Brazilian Grands Prix live.

Meanwhile the cost of a subscription to Sky’s F1 channel is set to rise by over ??160 to ??510 per year.

Over to you

Why do you think F1 television audiences fell in the UK last year, and what do you expect to happen this year?

And how will you be watching F1 in 2013? Have your say in the comments.

Share your thoughts on the BBC and Sky’s coverage throughout the season in these threads:

If you can’t watch all the races live and would like to find somewhere you can, join the F1 in Pubs group:

Notes on the data

All figures are official from BARB. Figures have been adjusted to take into account the longer airtime of Sky Sports’ F1 programmes in 2012 versus BBC F1’s coverage in 2011.

A look at the viewing figures show that Sky’s average programme figures from 11:30 to 16:15 for a typical race were 35% lower than their 12:10 to 15:15 average, which was the normal slot duration for BBC’s programmes. The non-adjusted average is 3.89 million viewers, lower than 2008 but higher than 2007.

This has been done to give a fair and representative comparison between the 2012 figures and those of previous seasons.

2013 F1 season

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Images ?? Red Bull/Getty, Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo

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150 comments on Will F1’s UK audience recover from its 2012 slump?

  1. Timothy Katz (@timothykatz) said on 13th March 2013, 12:43

    Well, the Sky figures are going to drop by at least one more as I’ve just cancelled the entire Sky package. Partner and I watch about ten hours TV in total each week – we both hate soaps and rubbish like dancing shows. So at £60+ per month, Sky was probably costing £1.50 an hour for what we actually watched. Too expensive!

  2. John H (@john-h) said on 13th March 2013, 12:46

    “The traditional sport was based on terrestrial TV but I think if you just focus on that then I think you’re missing lots and lots of opportunities,”

    Everything that Whitmarsh says makes angry these days. I wonder how he himself got into F1?… probably by watching it on terrestrial TV no doubt as a child. What about the millions of children missing lots and lots of opportunities to get interested in F1 themselves Martin… ever think of them? Do you remember the 2005 ashes cricket series on channel 4 that inspired a nation to go out in the park with a cricket bat to play with their children? Has that been sustained when cricket was sold out to Sky? Of course not.

    Go away Whitmarsh.

    • Alex (@alex-the-god) said on 13th March 2013, 13:09

      well said, I started watching F1 as a child and have followed it ever since but I can take it or leave it now and would never pay to watch

    • MazdaChris (@mazdachris) said on 13th March 2013, 13:15

      Do you genuinely believe that F1 was easier to watch in the 1960s than it is now?

      • Alex (@alex-the-god) said on 13th March 2013, 16:17

        It was much more exciting to watch in the 80s and 90s I was not born in the 60s so idk these days it can be very boring for most races it has improved with DRS and softer tyres I am looking forward to the Australian GP (my home race) I am lucky we get good live HD coverage on ONE. ONE also show NASCAR which I love except for the small oval tracks which are like racing around a clothesline they just go around and around.

    • mateuss (@mateuss) said on 13th March 2013, 17:22

      Come to think of it, I might have not become an F1 fanatic if F1 was not live and on free TV in 2008. The following year in Latvia F1 went to a pay channel with the recordings shown on free channel in the middle of the night with huge commercial breaks.

      So had this TV rights deal happened just one year earlier I’am pretty sure I would not become interested in Formula One.

      For me the interest to watch some sporting event that is not live goes down by considerable margin. And as for watching a sporting event that is interrupted once every few minutes – it is more of a pain than pleasure, so today I would never do it.

      I’am glad I did discover the wonders of F1 in 2008. And thankfully since 2009 I have been able to see F1 live on the BBC or Sky F1 trough internet streams, and on the rare occasion when I was not, due to some other on goings in my life, I torrent-ed them from the preferred channel without commercial interruptions or whatever.

      It is kind of sad that many young potential fans of the sport will never discover the excitement of F1. Honestly, I can not name a single friend or family member who has a subscription to the particular channel in question. I’ve only seen it once in a local posh hotel, and I would not pay a penny to watch such a rubbish production, that is if I could afford it, which I can not, even if I had a TV or a satellite dish, which I do not.

  3. Mr Prince said on 13th March 2013, 12:46

    Its a shame sky charge so much, £510 for all the sports channels when i only watch the F1 is unfeasable for me at the moment. I would quite happily for just the F1 channel if it were an option.

    As it is ill probably use torrent downloads for the races on sky (doubt that will be included in the viewing figures) and watch the BBC races live.

  4. MazdaChris (@mazdachris) said on 13th March 2013, 13:12

    I would say that those viewing figures are overwhelmingly positive. It was always going to be the case that this would affect viewer numbers, with many predicting fewer than half the viewers compared to previous years, and sponsors abandoning the sport in their droves. In fact, the numbers look incredibly healthy, and surely have to exceed all but the most optimistic of expectations.

    There’s more – the move to pay per view does, in some respects, represent much better value for sponsors. The most obvious reason being that people who are paying to watch the sport are more likely to be serious enthusiasts who are more likely to be interested in the kind of products and services they’re advertising. The ‘conversion rate’ of investment in advertising to increase in sales must surely be significantly improved when you have a reasonable understanding of your target demographic. In that respect, sponsors are getting a better deal. Better, of course, only if the viewing figures remain healthy, but that seems to be the case so far at least.

    The second reason this demonstrates better value for sponsors is because it increases their options when it comes to advertising. On the BBC there are no adverts whatsoever, so there’s no opportunity to advertise (unless you happen to be Shell..), whereas Sky does have adverts. Not during the race, but during the show, and of course at all other times on the dedicated F1 channel – a space which pretty much guarantees a certain ‘type’ of viewer, allowing for products and services to be targeted directly at them. And that’s not all. What Sky DO advertise a lot, during the show and immediately before and after the race, are all the other media outlets they run, including the website and mobile services, all of which are a brilliant space for advertisers. Web advertising is much more effective since the advertisers can gather metrics to measure their effectiveness, and the viewer can click through immediately to find out more information.

    All of which means that this is absolutely brilliant news for Bernie and his two tier TV model, and great news for sponsors. The only thing it does show, which I think is a little surprising, is that (aside from those who bumped up the numbers for Canada 2011) the vast majority of F1 viewers are dedicated fans who will make the effort to watch, rather than casual viewers who will only turn it on because there’s nothing else on the telly. This does imply that F1 is not doing as good a job as it should be doing of attracting new fans to the sport. They should consider whether this is more down to the image of the sport in general then anything to do with how the sport is shown on the screen.

    • Optimaximal (@optimaximal) said on 13th March 2013, 13:24

      As an aside, I believe the BBC charter was modified a year or two ago to allow advertising to appear on the BBC to make it more attractive to sports broadcasts etc. They’re just not allowed to specifically promote products without the hackneyed ‘other *INSERT PRODUCT HERE* are, of course, available’.

      • MazdaChris (@mazdachris) said on 13th March 2013, 13:35

        I believe that was simply a response to the proliferation of highly visible advertising at sporting events. It was becoming hard to justify showing feetball matches with giant glowing neon signs with ad sligans in the background, or interviews against corporate-branded backdrops. Not to mention being able to drop the name of the title promoter of a sporting event – like the ‘Betfred World Snooker Championship’ when it’s the title sponsor who is effectively paying for the tournament in the first place.

        What they can’t do, is take money to advertise directly. Which is where Sky has a huge edge over the BBC. Although this is something of a unique situation and not really applicable outside of the UK.

  5. William (@william) said on 13th March 2013, 13:17

    In Australia, its due to TEN not showing it LIVE in HD on ONE or it could mean separate figures for TEN which meant figures were down but ONE is really pulling figures around 350,000 which it rated high for the Australasia rounds. For Australia GP it rates significantly as it gets 1.4 mil on TEN

  6. Andrew VanderLei (@andrewvanderlei) said on 13th March 2013, 13:19

    When its on BBC i watch it live, when its on Sky i usually get the events off a torrent site. I think SKY is charging an outrageous amount of money to watch a select few F1 races.

  7. Tango (@tango) said on 13th March 2013, 13:51

    I already said it in a really long comment but I’ll shorten it this time. I think on a long term base, the idea is awful for the sport (especially when you have 100% of races on subscription ony tv as we will have in France as of this year).

    I became hooked on F1 when I was a kid by watching it when my parents were still asleep (I grew up in the West Indies, East coast time zone). Had it been PPV, this F1 fan wouldn’t be commenting here. I can see it being the same in Europe for kids on a dull rainy afternoon or while Nan & Grand Dad are having a nap..

  8. The Limit said on 13th March 2013, 14:38

    Interesting figures! Yet I think most of us predicted this when Sky took over F1 broadcasting, the simple fact is that a lot of people cannot afford the subscription fees. Lets face it, who can justify the cost just to watch twenty grands prix when you can watch them online via a computer. People with families, kids, they can’t afford to pay those kind of prices. I recently cancelled my sports package on my cable tv, one the cost and two I just didn’t have the time to watch it. What was the point?
    It was a mistake to take F1 off free to air tv. I am waiting to see what NBC are going to do in America and I am hoping that they do a good job. Its such a shame, but nowadays it seems we have to pay through the nose for everything. Even our hobbies.

  9. WarfieldF1 (@warfieldf1) said on 13th March 2013, 14:39

    As a slightly crazy motorsport fan who nowadays only attends Le Mans due to cost and family commitments; the Sky and Sky Sports package is a small price to pay for F1 considering I had it already for the football. However two things did occur to me last year:-
    1 I don’t like Skys coverage, their build up and post race is poor. The much hoped for testing coverage was appalling!! Hopefully they will improve this year with the demise of Georgie and (hopefully) the eternally dull Damon plus Simon who annoyingly refers to his pundits as “guys”. Where possible I was watching the BBC coverage and the talented Jake; how good Susie will be remains to be seen as I didn’t miss her when she exited MotoGP coverage on the BBC.
    2 My friends who don’t have Sky watched online for FREE!!
    That aside; will the subscription model work for Sky and more importantly F1? They need viewers to keep the sponsors happy and they don’t need F1 to “die” in the UK as has happened to WRC. With football Sky took something that wasn’t really on TV and made it expensively available; F1 is different as it had good coverage available already for £145.50 BBC fee I am still paying. WRC had a decent following in the UK when Channel 4 took it over but they expected too much and paid too much and it ended up going to ITV, ITV4 and Dave and in the end Eurosport / Motors. Now? NOTHING; for anyone other than the die-hard enthusiast it is dead and gone.
    Additionally, what happens when Sky loose the rights to BT, or someone else? Take for example NASCAR as I happily watched my 1hr highlight programmes last year; now they are on ESPN only and I need to add to my £60+ sky subscription for them!! Not happening for me; but what happens when BT or someone else takes F1 or if Sky make it additional to the Sports Package?? Costs soar and viewers will disappear to free online while it lasts
    In the meantime I will watch what I can and hope someone wants to show WRC in the UK soon .

  10. toddjamin (@toddjamin) said on 13th March 2013, 15:13

    Not having easy access to all the races, and especially the practice sessions (as bbcs highlights for race and qually were good) turned me off F1 last year. I avidly watched every moment of F1 i could get in 2010 and 11, even though vettell was dominating. Last year id forget about it, visit this site less and just generally be less bothered, which is sad and, if there are others like me, bad for the sport. There is no way i can afford £500 a year, and even if i could, i dont want to give it to sky anyway.

  11. BJ (@beejis60) said on 13th March 2013, 15:25

    Is that graph correct? There’s no data for the 2012 US GP, but apparently there was 3.5m viewers watching the non-existent 2011 US GP.

  12. Kimi4WDC said on 13th March 2013, 15:33

    When was the last time I watched F1 on TV? One time, Budapest – I was switching my internet provider. I watch every other race of the season on internet . 2012.

    If I had an option to get Sky’s F1 HD on my laptop (Australia) with on demand replays of ongoing season, I would.

  13. VoiseyS (@voisey) said on 13th March 2013, 15:50

    I don’t think it’s fair to call the BBC “free to air” TV. It isn’t. There is a licence fee which is payable to view the channels. Comparing the total package costs of the licen fee channels and Sky would be a better comparison.

    Of course the Sky package cost looks like it’s very expensive, but who would only buy the licence fee to watch F1 races exclusively. No-one. Which is why it isn’t fair to assume that the same is true of Sky viewers. The basic Sky package costs £21.50 per month (in Standard definition) and includes 40 channels, over and above any that exist on Freeview, where this obviously some duplication. It’s the cost of the Sky package across those channels that needs to be compared, as it does with the licence fee for the terrestrial channels.

    If you only watched F1 on the BBC you would pay £145.50 for 9 races. That is £16.16 per race.

    If you watched F1 on Sky (with the HD pack) you would pay £348 for 19 races. That’s £18.32 per race. This excludes all the content around Practices, the F1 show, replays of Classic GP’s etc.

    Puts a different perspective on the “value” of the BBC vs. Sky.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 13th March 2013, 15:58

      @voisey Your figures are wrong as you incorrectly assume Sky viewers do not have to pay the licence fee.

      Updated information on the minimum cost of buying a Sky F1 channel package can be found here.

    • braisim (@braisim) said on 13th March 2013, 16:08

      sorry, but your figures don’t stack up. I can’t think of one single Sky-commissioned programme that I would pay for. On the BBC on the other hand I have countless documentaries, at least a half-decent television news service, 9 live F1 races, etc., etc., for a fraction of the cost of the basic Sky package plus HD package/Sports package. It’s a no-brainer. Decent public-service TV is something that is done pretty well in the UK. I don’t see that Sky has offered anything in terms of original programming, on the other hand.

  14. Ian D said on 13th March 2013, 16:23

    Quicker analysis for you, ITV made a mess of F1 and viewers turned off, BBC improved things greatly and viewers returned (combined with Lewis being hyped into the sport), then viewers dropped off as BBC lost half the races and many not making the move to Sky that they predicted they would. It will continue to drop whilst it remains behind a paywall!

    • David Nelson (@davidnelson) said on 13th March 2013, 16:58

      I can’t really agree with that. What didn’t help ITV was Schumacher’s domination in the early 2000’s which sent figures to 3 million. It was only in 2007 with Lewis Hamilton’s emergence that figures rose again in the UK.

  15. Chainsaw (@chainsaw) said on 13th March 2013, 16:30

    The annual cost of TV subscription in India for ESPN-Star Sports watching F1 comes to 21 Euros a year..

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