For hardcore Formula One fans, the success of the Netflix series Drive to Survive has been a blessing and curse. As interest in the sport has skyrocketed, so has the price of seeing a race. But for Aston Martin and the nine other teams, the show’s success has accelerated the transformation of the sport into a truly global phenomenon.
Making its debut in March 2019, the action-packed, documentary-style series turbocharged F1 interest in parts of the world that were previously uninterested, particularly the United States. The changing of the landscape began right after Colorado-based Liberty Media Corp. bought F1 for US$4.6-billion in early 2017. The company’s stated goal was to expand the brand. Mission accomplished.
These days, celebrities from the worlds of film, television, music and sports are all up in F1′s grille. There’s a biopic about Enzo Ferrari, directed by Michael Mann, set to hit the silver screen this holiday season. Brad Pitt is currently filming an F1 movie, helmed by Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski and produced by driver Lewis Hamilton.
A documentary on the short-lived Brawn F1 team, hosted by Canadian superstar Keanu Reeves, premiered on Disney+ on Nov. 15. Another Canadian actor, Ryan Reynolds, has become an investor in the Alpine F1 team, along with golfer Rory McIlroy, National Football League stars Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes, and others.
Earlier this year, Forbes named F1 the most valuable sports empire assessing it at more than US$17-billion. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto FC, ranked 10th at US$6.4-billion.
According to Jefferson Slack, managing director of commercial and marketing for the Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant Formula One Team, these are indeed interesting times for the sport. Slack is a key lieutenant for Lawrence Stroll, the Canadian billionaire who owns the team.
“I tell Lawrence the popularity of the sport has just made the business harder,” he jokes, speaking at Q New York, the Aston Martin flagship location at 450 Park Ave. “But it’s actually made the job a lot easier. What helped most was the recognition that F1 is now a truly global market due to the success in America.”
Although it’s a bit tricky to pinpoint exactly when the Drive to Survive effect took hold, Slack figures it was some time in 2021.
“I think Drive to Survive was by far the biggest factor in rejuvenating the sport and shifting the demographic. It’s incredible if you think about the first season – Ferrari and Mercedes didn’t even want to participate [in the TV series.]”
He also identifies the pandemic as being instrumental in the growth of the sport. Looking back, Slack says Liberty Group did a masterful job of managing a rapidly changing situation and the facts bear this out. The 2020 season was postponed two days prior to the start of the first round, the Australian Grand Prix. Thirteen races were cancelled in all. The opening eight races ran without any spectators. But, incredibly, 17 races were staged by the end of the year.
All the juggling paid off. People were stuck at home for extended periods with fewer sports to watch. F1 broadcast ratings held fast as a result. In 2019, the global TV audience for F1 was 1.9 billion viewers. A year later, despite four fewer races, the audience was 1.5 billion, according to F1.
By 2021, there were 1.6 billion viewers across the full season, but the figures for digital growth exploded: 49 million followers across all platforms, up 40 per cent from the year before. Total engagement (fans interacting with one of the F1 social media channels) increased 74 per cent to 1.5 billion and video views were up 50 per cent to seven billion, according to F1.
As for last year, TV viewership held steady at 1.5 billion, but the racing series experienced record attendance at Grand Prix events. In 2022, more than 5.7 million people attended a race in person, an increase of 36 per cent compared with 2019.
Hardcore fans are now forced to battle it out for grandstand seats at any one of the 24 races in 20 countries – and pay higher prices for the privilege. According to an analysis by F1Destinations.com, a site the publishes travel guides for every F1 race, “it costs on average US$500 to buy a three-day Formula 1 ticket in 2023. This represents an increase of 56 per cent since we last ranked F1 ticket prices in 2019.”
This confluence of events has caused the value of F1 and that of the teams to skyrocket.
According to a Forbes magazine article from July, when Sauber Motorsport was looking to sell a stake in the Alfa Romeo Racing team in early 2021, the team was valued at US$350-million. When a deal was finally struck with Audi some 15 months later, the team was valued at US$650-million. Less than a year on from that agreement, the team is believed to be worth US$900-million.
The series’ top three teams – Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG Petronas and Red Bull – are valued at US$3.9-billion, US$3.8-billion and US$2.6-billion, respectively, according to Forbes.
In the same article, the Aston Martin F1 team was estimated to be worth US$1.375-billion. This, too, is a staggering amount, considering that its immediate predecessor, Racing Point F1 Team, was insolvent just over five years ago.
Slack joined the Aston Martin F1 in mid-2020 and estimates that commercial revenues for the team have increased tenfold since that time.
On the track, Aston Martin F1 has vaulted from seventh out of 10 teams in the standings in 2022 to an unassailable fifth this season with the final race to run in Abu Dhabi this weekend. Although the team has not won a race in 2023, it has enjoyed a number of top-three finishes.
“Companies want to be associated with winners,” Slack says. “The more successful you are on the track, the easier it is. By the same token, people come to the race [as our guests] and they have a great time, even though we haven’t won, which is a bummer. You can be commercially successful without winning, but it definitely would help over the long term.”
With the growing popularity of F1 around the world, every team on the grid is successful – even though just one, Red Bull Racing, has won 20 of the 21 Grands Prix so far. Slack says that’s because FI is a “big and growing pie.”
Regardless of how his team finishes the season or performs in the future, he’s confident that the commercial endeavour will flourish precisely because Aston Martin is Aston Martin, an iconic British sports car maker with an F1 team.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.