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Has F1’s U.S. fanbase reached a plateau after years of growth?

As Donny Osmond sang the opening notes of “Star-Spangled Banner,” wearing a Las Vegas Grand Prix letterman jacket, the Sphere illuminated red, white and blue against the night sky.

Formula One was minutes away from its third race of the year in the United States, following Miami and Austin. As Osmond’s voice built to a crescendo, the sport’s powerbrokers stood proudly at the front of the starting grid, the 20 cars and hundreds of VIP guests behind them.

Not long ago, the sport’s future in the United States had looked bleak; even one race a year seemed a stretch for a market that F1 had tried repeatedly and failed to crack. Now it was about to race down the Las Vegas Strip.

“I couldn’t fully understand when I went to NFL and NBA games, seeing how passionate the Americans are about sport, how they hadn’t yet caught the bug,” Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time world champion, said.

“It’s been really, really amazing to see a large portion of the country is now speaking about it.”

F1 has rocketed in the United States over the last five years. It has three American races, an American driver and an American team. For the city of Las Vegas to invest so heavily — and tolerate so much disruption — to host a grand prix is indicative of F1’s heightened relevance.

But as F1 bet big on America for 2023 and beyond, there were signs that growth has plateaued.

Prior to Liberty Media’s acquisition of F1 in 2017, the sport’s history in the United States had not been an especially happy one. It made repeated attempts to capture the sports-mad market, establishing races in Watkins Glen, N.Y., Phoenix, Long Beach, Calif., and even the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Each time, it failed to take hold. Fans were passionate but small in number, never reaching heights that could be sustained. Even races at the heart of American motorsport, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway between 2000-07, couldn’t offer the long-term home F1 craved.

And when F1 appeared to secure that footing from 2012, with its first permanent U.S. facility at the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, uncertainty grew with funding cuts and dropping attendance. By the mid-2010s, an America-free F1 calendar was a very real prospect.

From 2017, things quickly changed. Liberty, an American company that also owns MLB’s Atlanta Braves, placed a fresh focus on growth. Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” fueled a renewed hunger for F1 in the United States. When the Austin race returned in 2021 after two years away due to Covid-19, COTA drew a record crowd of 400,000 amid the height of Hamilton’s title fight against Max Verstappen. That grew to 440,000 in 2022. The three U.S. races now have solid foundations and their own identities and are locked in for the long term. (Mark Thompson / Getty Images)

“Even just going to your son’s football practice or your nephew’s baseball game, people are actually talking about F1 now in the stands, as if it’s another American sport,” said Renee Wilm, the CEO of the Las Vegas Grand Prix.

“Five or 10 years ago, I don’t know that your average sports fan in America could have named three drivers in F1,” added Tom Garfinkel, the CEO of the Miami Dolphins and managing partner of the Miami Grand Prix.

“What’s most exciting about it to me is there are a lot of young people in the United States falling in love with the sport. That’s very positive for the future of the sport in America.”

But Wilm said F1 had to maintain a balance, “creating that newfound loyalty between our new fans while also continuing to embrace our legacy fans. Because I don’t want our legacy fans to get lost in this new narrative that we’re building around North America.”Las Vegas in particular, the first race to be promoted and organized by F1 itself, drew criticism for high ticket prices that effectively limited access to the wealthy. Fans who attended Thursday night’s sessions were left with a sour taste when they were forced to leave before the delayed second practice had begun, in some cases spending over $1,000 on a ticket to see only eight minutes of action. They received a $200 merchandise voucher as compensation.

While attendance at live events stayed relatively strong in 2023, American TV ratings tumbled a bit. According to ESPN, which broadcasts the races, 2023 ended as the second most-watched F1 season on U.S. TV, drawing in an average of 1.1 million viewers over the 22 races. While that’s almost double the 554,000 average recorded in 2018, the final season before “Drive to Survive” debuted in spring 2019, it marked a 9.1 percent drop from 2022.

The US Grand Prix at COTA also recorded a small fall in the attendance, from 440,000 to 432,000. Miami reported an increase from 240,000 to 270,000 over its weekend after increasing its capacity, claiming both races sold out. It plans another small rise for the 2024 race as a result. Las Vegas reported a crowd of 315,000 over four days, including the opening ceremony.

A plausible explanation for that apparent drop in interest was the lack of competition at the front of the grid. Verstappen’s record-breaking domination, winning 19 out of 22 races, while spectacular, was an understandable source of frustration for fans. Those who fell in love with F1 through 2021, a championship that went down to the final lap of the final race, haven’t experienced anything close to that since.

By emphasizing driver personalities over the details of what happened on the track, “Drive to Survive” helped American fans connect with a European-heavy sport in a way that doesn’t rely on fantastic racing action. It has also led to more diverse F1 fan demographics, far younger and more female than ever before. A 2021 global survey of F1 fans reported that more than 18 percent of respondents were women, up from 10 percent in 2017.

“We have, more than ever, fans of the drivers themselves and the personalities, all the way down the grid,” said Bobby Epstein, COTA’s chairman.

But no matter how invested fans are in the people, they still want a good sporting show. “We have to continue to work on making sure we’re having close racing,” said Hamilton, once Verstappen’s title rival. “Because I think you’ve seen the social engagement drop a huge amount this year. It’s obviously heavily impacted (by) competition. People want to see that.” The Las Vegas Grand Prix capped off a banner year for F1 in the U.S. (Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images for Heineken)

Domination is commonplace in F1. Between 2014-20, Hamilton won six titles in seven years for Mercedes. Before that, Sebastian Vettel won four straight championships for Red Bull. In the early 2000s, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari swept five straight years.

But what sets Verstappen’s domination apart (along with the record-breaking numbers) is that it was not supposed to be possible.

F1 has made big changes to its rulebook in recent years to create closer competition between teams, including the $145 million cost cap introduced in 2021 and the car design changes for 2022. While there was intense competition through the rest of the grid — six teams finished a race in the top three last year, and Mercedes and Ferrari’s battle for second went down to the final race — Verstappen’s strength gave each weekend an air of inevitability.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ team principal, thought F1’s viewership numbers were still “strong” and pointed to most races being sold out. But he acknowledged the importance of competition at the front to stop fans turning away, and said the onus was on Red Bull’s rivals to make it happen.

“If the spectacle is not good, our fans are going to follow us less,” Wolff said. “Of course, there is the risk that people are going to say, ‘Well, I know the result anyway,’ like it happened to us with Lewis. We’ve just got to do a better job.”Red Bull doesn’t expect to have a clear run for too long. Its chief, Christian Horner, warned the team already has “diminishing returns” with its car design going into 2024, and said its 2023 success will not be repeated in our lifetimes.

“History dictates that with stable regulations, there will be convergence,” Horner said. “And we’re acutely aware of that.”Even if Mercedes, Ferrari and others make the gains to create an open, compelling championship fight, fans will be watching with keen interest.

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