Anyone attending a Formula One race today will notice that the profile of fans has changed dramatically since Liberty Media took over. They are a lot younger and more female than five years ago. Research and audience data bear that out; the average age of an F1 fan is 32 years, younger than sports series like NFL and NBA. The Netflix Drive to Survive series is widely credited with this transformation, but is that the whole story? How should F1 speak to its young female fans? And are these new fans in for the long haul, or is there a risk that they will drift away?
For an event at Soho House in Austin we brought together four figures to debate this. Former F1 team principal Otmar Szafnauer, F1 broadcaster and face of Drive to Survive Will Buxton and female content creators Toni Cowan-Brown and Cristina Mace.
Szafnauer first spelled out the building blocks of the Liberty revolution that brought us where we are now: “Number one, putting the sport and the backstories on Netflix really, really helped. The sport has always been the same, but under the Bernie era was a well-kept secret. Netflix exposed the sport and what it’s about to everybody. I think the other thing Liberty did, which was a stroke of genius was to introduce the cost cap, so that the wealthiest teams didn’t have such a big advantage. And we can compete. That really helped and it will help in the future. There’s a cost cap coming in 2026 for the powertrains as well, which should help get the field closer together. And the third thing is the money distribution is a bit more even.”
Photo by: Carl Bingham / Aston Martin
Lando Norris, McLaren signs autographs for fans.
When it comes to Drive to Survive, Buxton explained that it was a series of fortunate accidents that created the phenomenon, “I went through school, none of my mates liked F1. And now it’s cool. It’s cool to like F1, people are talking about it. It’s not a niche thing anymore. I think the key with Drive to Survive was a perfect storm of mistakes that led to it being so brilliant. The first was year one Mercedes and Ferrari wanted nothing to do with it. So the producers had to look for other stories. They found Gunther Steiner, Daniel Ricciardo, Otmar and all these great people who weren’t fighting for the world championship, but had unique, fascinating stories. Then COVID-19 hit, and everyone’s sat at home, and they’re watching Netflix, and there were two series to watch. Next Liberty and the FIA somehow managed to get the Championship up and running in July (2020). So it was the first international sport that got itself running.”
Toni Cowan-Brown argues that Drive to Survive was important, but was only the spark for F1’s explosion of popularity, not the fuel. “The flip side was we had a Season One of Drive to Survive in 2019 that was barely watched. Then the pandemic happened (in March 2020), we all were lacking live sporting events, stuck at home, dying for good content and we discovered it and we binge watched Seasons One and Two. But then came the content creators and the creator economy boomed in large part due to the pandemic and then Tik Tok arrived.
“I first went to a race in the Schumacher era with my Dad. I fell in and out of love with the sport many times, mostly because I never felt like this was a sport that was geared to me. I wasn’t being talked at in the way I wanted. Cue the creator economy that lowers the barrier to entry. Anyone can pick up a phone and do content for their own community in the way they want to do it. The incredible thing about young women, which Taylor Swift has very clearly described, is they will self-organise, they will create word of mouth, they will shout from the rooftops. But more importantly, they create relevance. And they are a huge economic power. And yet they are still disregarded, discredited and not respected. I find that absolutely fascinating. The sport of F1 is so lucky to have them because they are the ones that are creating all that relevance; they’re buying your tickets, they’re attending your GPs, buying merch, they’re tuning in, they’re buying F1 TV, they’re bringing in their friends. How can we not respect that group, that demographic?”
Cristina Mace, a fast growing influencer who posts as Cristina.fastcars on TikTok, explained what she finds interesting about F1 and seeks to communicate to her fans.
“It’s curiosity. This is a sport where you’re constantly learning, the cars are constantly changing, and we’re changing the regulations every couple of years. So there’s just always something new to learn. There are always people asking questions and wanting you to answer them. And so you have to go look more and more. And it’s those little details that make Formula One really unique. Because yes, we’re designing a car. Yes, the drivers need to have that general understanding of physics and be able to give good feedback. And you kind of get captivated by not just the drivers, but all of the people that are in F1, and how clever they are, how they manage all of these problems travelling around the world. It’s really captivating to learn about their stories; where they’re going, where they started. And I think that’s the key; it’s about the stories that Formula One brings into your mind.
“I have a science degree,“ she continued. “And I also have a Performing Arts degree. So I know how to tell good stories and I know how to tell the science aspect of it. And that means that I spend time paying attention to the science and being able to explain it correctly for people who are just confused, all the while curating it well enough that people don’t get overwhelmed. Because that’s the big thing about engineers and anybody who knows physics, chemistry: They get really bogged down in their specific vocabulary. The goal of my content creation is that I view myself a bit as a curator of ‘What are people going to be most curious about that popped up on Twitter today?’ ”
Going deeper to analyze what it is about F1 and what content creators like Cristina are generating that draws in this huge female audience, she identifies it as a community thing.
“We, as girls, as women, we love doing things together and enjoying it together. And it’s a lot less daunting to enter into the climate when we’re doing it as a group. And so you feel just less isolated. And we also enjoy things differently. We make the friendship bracelets, we talk about jokes, and we think about particular songs that make sense as the drivers’ personalities. There are all of these very particular girl culture things. And when you’re enjoying them together, that’s really what it’s about. In the case of Formula One, we’re all watching the same show; your friend recommends something and you of course end up having to watch it with her because she’s obsessed with it. It’s one of those things where we just work together and we enjoy things together. And as long as you make sure that there’s a good safe space for us to enjoy it together, we’ll just take it from there.”
Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
Fans await the arrival of the drivers Fans await the arrival of the drivers.
While all of this looks incredibly rosy for F1, Cowan-Brown introduced a note of caution. “I think we’re in a moment, we’re in this bubble. And I think it’s just the cusp, but I also think we’re going to start seeing a plateau and even a risk of a decline in the sport, for a myriad of reasons, but particularly that as a sport, we’ve put too much focus on the hype and we need to figure out what the funnel is to get the fans who are hyped about it to stick around and stay for longer.
“F1 has this global, more female and younger audience; 32 years is the average age, the NFL is 50. And I think the NBA is 42. We have such a vibrant and young audience. And I don’t think we are catering to that audience. And I go back to this idea of the young female fandom. But I think the truth is we pat ourselves on the back that we bring in this new core of people, but we don’t cater to that audience.”
Buxton had the final word: “The interest level, the viewing figures that exist here in America now we could only dream of 10 years ago, 20 years ago when we were broadcasting the sport,” says Buxton. “It has gone through a purple patch. But I agree that when you hype something and you sell it on the basis of the dream, you then have to deliver that. And I think the way in which the sport is delivered here in the United States in particular, could be ripe for a change if we want to see that market share not just plateau but increase because F1 should be competing with NASCAR with college sports, with NFL, with basketball. That’s the goal.”