Kids in America drive boom in Formula One’s popularity

Attracting young fans was once dismissed as an irrelevance by Formula One, but now the sport seems to have finally accepted that the kids are alright. Formula One has enjoyed an explosion in popularity in recent years, unthinkable a decade ago. Attracting a swathe of fresh fans, the boom has been driven by the grid’s young guns who are connecting with a new generation and reinvigorating the sport.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the resurgence of interest in F1 in the USA, an audience it craved for decades. This weekend’s US Grand Prix is expected to be a sellout with 440,000 in attendance across three days, 10% up on 2021.

The US will host three races next season, this one at the Circuit of the Americas, Miami and a new meeting in Las Vegas. In Austin, the expectations are that the boom will only continue.

“We have already comfortably exceeded last year’s sales. We sold out our first round of tickets in April within 48 hours, which led to us adding several more grandstands,” says Cota chairman, Bobby Epstein. “The demand in the US right now is incredible and will absolutely support three races, and could support many more.”

Harrison Callaway, an 18-year-old from Westchester, New York, who attended his first race this year at Silverstone has been part of this sea-change in F1’s popularity.

“Maybe two or three years ago I don’t think people would have even known Lewis Hamilton,” he said. “At school they would have no clue but now everybody knows Lewis Hamilton even if they don’t watch F1.”

Callaway is typical of many new fans. He came to the sport during lockdown, was enthused by last season’s titanic battle between Hamilton and Max Verstappen and had his passion further fired by the Netflix series Drive to Survive. He cites Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo as favourites but also emphasises how important the younger drivers have been in provoking interest.

“I like George Russell and Lando Norris as well,” he said. “Lando is not much older than me, it feels like they are approachable. They seem funny and cool like you could hang out with them for a day, like someone you could be friends with.”

In 2014, with TV audiences in decline, F1’s former CEO Bernie Ecclestone famously dismissed trying to appeal to a younger audience or embracing social media. “Young kids will see the Rolex brand, but are they going to go and buy one?,” he said. Such short-termism was typical of the period when the sport was treated as but a cash cow by then owners CVC capital.

F1’s new owners have proven Ecclestone fundamentally wrong and ensured the sport’s long-term future by actively courting a new audience.

In Miami earlier this year that pursuit was validated given the audience was overwhelmingly young and clearly had money to spend with enormously expensive ticket prices.They were revelling in enjoying a sport they felt they could be part of. Speaking to them trackside, many cited Drive to Survive as what had piqued their interest but it was not what held their attention.

Jennifer Davis was attending her first race at this year’s Miami GP. “Once I started following F1 I was drawn in by the drivers,” said the 24-year-old from Boston. “The young ones are relatable, they’re changing things up. Max, Charles [Leclerc], George, Lando, they are my generation. They are on social media, TikTok; you feel like you know them and that through them you know the sport.”

In Miami this repeated refrain was something of a surprise. There were team allegiances, of course, but generally these fans were less encumbered by following nationality, or a team’s history. Personality mattered more. “I really like Alex Albon,” said Josh Wilson, a 27-year-old from Orlando, also at his first GP in Miami. “I know his car’s not great but he’s fighting with a smile on his face, having fun and he’s got real character. Drive to Survive is a drama but nothing beats the real competition on track and Alex’s generation are the ones me and my friends are here to follow.”

The bounty from this new audience has been large. F1 measures its global viewing figures across its 23 major markets worldwide. This season almost every race has been up more than 10% on the 2021 numbers. Silverstone had a 41% increase, Hungary and France 15%. The Miami meet attracted the largest audience for a live race in the US of 2.2m. After the opening seven rounds the average audience per GP was 22.9m, up 11% on 2021.

The growth is global but the demographics in the US reflect what fans said trackside, that F1’s expansion is hitting a very specific mark. The Miami race was run on the same afternoon as the Nascar Cup Series race at Darlington. That attracted 2.6m viewers, but of those only 517,000 were below the age of 50. ESPN’s F1 coverage had 735,000 in the 18-49 range, which for the sport’s future is what matters.

Detractors claim these new fans don’t have the staying power, the investment, to stick with the sport. But as Harrison said: “The Australian GP was at one in the morning and I had school the next day. But I still woke up and watched it. It made it more exciting in a way. Now I know the drivers and what it’s about, it’s engaged me more and more. I am more enthused than ever.”

Many fans clearly have every intention of sticking with F1.