Over a decade ago, many would argue Formula 1’s greatest relevance in American pop culture was Talladega Nights’ portrayal of fictional French F1 driver, Jean Girard. The same cannot be said in 2023: the sport is surging in popularity with record U.S. viewership and fan engagement. Thanks to factors like Netflix's Drive to Survive docuseries and enhanced marketing strategies, F1 is netting a new generation of American fans with a genuine interest in the sport. F1 isn’t the only beneficiary here: by leveraging F1’s new American audience, brands and athletes are taking advantage, too. Let’s examine F1’s expansion into the United States and the key figures with a stake in its success.
Liberty Media Takes Over
When U.S.-owned Liberty Media purchased F1 back in 2017, they bought an underdeveloped asset with no marketing team. Their immediate aim was to infuse F1 with the entertainment value so crucial to gripping American audiences. Through marketing research, they realized fans wanted a more immersive race experience and an open channel of information, both of which were limited under the strict regulations of F1’s former leadership.
As a result, F1 took to social media to improve fan access. By incorporating behind-the-scenes coverage, interviews, and allowing previously restricted team content, fans forged a more personal connection to F1 teams and drivers. On YouTube, for example, F1 posts an annual Secret Santa video series. Ever since the Christmas of 2017, Popular F1 drivers like Kimi Räikkönen and Charles Leclerc exchange sentimental, outrageous gifts and attempt to guess their source. Fans have embraced the personal element of this content, which showcases the friendships and light-heartedness within the sport. Prior to Liberty Media’s takeover, fans had no way of experiencing these moments up close. Due in part to these efforts, the organization now experiences a 30% year-on-year social media growth.
Drive to Survive Hooks American Audiences
Partnering with Netflix, Liberty Media used the Drive to Survive docuseries to bring F1 closer to the forefront of American pop culture. According to The New York Times, it’s the show that “made Americans fall in love with Formula 1.” And they’re not so far off: when the series first premiered, ESPN averaged only half a million viewers per race. Three years into the show and those ratings nearly doubled. In 2022, ESPN renewed its F1 media rights contract for a figure between 75 to 90 million dollars. That’s a 1300% increase in the last contract’s valuation, largely credited to the show’s impact on American audiences.
Coming into its 5th season, the series continues to capture intense races, rivalries, and friendships among F1 drivers and their teams. Drive to Survive finds its success in humanizing F1, frequently following drivers off the track to depict their relationships with family and friends. In an episode entitled, “Man on Fire,” the show captures Sergio Perez's final race of the season as he comes from last in the field to clinch the Sakir Grand Prix. His in-car camera films him sobbing in elation upon the P1 finish, then breaking down once more as he calls his wife and children with the good news. Capturing emotional narratives like this is what the show does best, and it’s why American audiences are so hooked. Even people who do not understand the sport’s nuances tune in to witness the high-stakes, emotionally compelling stories which revolve around it.
F1 Drivers Leverage Newfound U.S. Fame
Many F1 drivers have benefitted from the sport’s newfound U.S. awareness. Charismatic drivers like Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo have become motorsports figureheads, with Ricciardo now boasting 7.9M Instagram followers and counting. He’s leveraged this newfound popularity in the States to forge partnerships with American sponsors like Beats by Dre and EA Sports.
At 10M Instagram followers, Monocan driver Charles Leclerc is even more popular than Ricciardo. More and more brands who typically favor NASCAR’s Americana are now beginning to see drivers like LeClerc’s stateside appeal. Celsius, for example, has been a NASCAR staple since 2016 with sponsorships between drivers like Justin Haley and Corie Lajoie. This month they announced their new venture into F1, sponsoring Leclerc’s car at Team Scuderia Ferrari. Leclerc and his teammate, Carlos Sainz will sport Celcius’s logo on their cars beginning at the Miami Grand Prix in May. Collaborating with the drivers through social media and activation appearances, Celsius is one of many brands looking to capitalize on F1 drivers’ growing American audience and pre-established global reach.
American Brands Capitalize on Popularity of U.S. Races
While the U.S. is no stranger to hosting F1 races, recent races have experienced an unprecedented rise in attendance, greater media rights value, and an influx of unique brand opportunities. The Grand Prix in Austin, TX has been held since 2012, but in 2021 it set the largest three-day attendance record of any Grand Prix, drawing crowds of more than 400,000 people. The stateside buzz has led F1 to add another American race to this year’s circuit with Las Vegas joining alongside Austin and Miami. Experts suggest the race will generate a 1.3B economic impact from ticket sales, food and beverage, media rights, and hospitality. The 2024 Super Bowl, which is also to be held in Las Vegas, is projected to accrue just half that.
This is all good news for American brands who are quickly positioning themselves in the F1 space. In 2022 alone, American brands made 161 deals with Formula 1. That’s a 66% increase from 2020! Major players include U.S. tech company, Oracle, who inked a blockbuster 5-year deal as the title sponsor of Red Bull. Oracle’s move has led the charge in a new wave of American brand partnerships. McClaren followed with a Google deal, and the sole American-owned F1 team, Haas, partnered with Dallas-based MoneyGram. Just last week, Paramount+ became an official multi-year partner of the league with plans to place advertising in F1’s Fan Zone areas. While many of these brands are familiar with the sports sponsorship space, partnering with F1 is a new endeavor. As the sport continues to expand its U.S. market, the brands that jump on board are sure to grow alongside it.
Ever since Liberty Media’s takeover, it seems F1 is living out its American dream. Fully developed American motorsports properties like NASCAR will need to evolve their strategy in response. Only time will tell if the market can be shared, or if F1 could surpass it in long-term U.S. growth. But one thing’s for sure: we’re now living in an era where F1 is celebrated in American culture. It’s no longer misunderstood; it’s a point of interest for U.S. fans and brands alike, and its future in the States is full of promise.