This weekend either Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen will be crowned the Formula One world champion. Either way, the sport won big in 2021.
This year’s success starts with a boom in the sport’s fanbase that can be pinned to Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” docuseries.
The show is a crash course on the 10 teams, the 20 drivers, the rivalries between them and the race competition structure. A word-of-mouth campaign for the series along with short, easy viewing episodes made it a perfect pandemic-time binge watch for millions around the world.
The series’ intimate interviews combined with the best action from races and the high level drama is a strong pitch for the real-life spectacle of Formula One.
The multifaceted storytelling lets fans focus on the aspects of the sport that most appeal to them. And most importantly, “Drive to Survive” primed fans for an easy transition to the track when the 2021 season started.
The popularity of the Netflix program, notably in the US, has paid dividends. ESPN says its race viewership in 2021 is up 56% over 2020.
There was record attendance at the US Grand Prix in Austin this October — drivers also credit the docuseries for the sport’s growth, including Hamilton himself.
Title race enthralls
New fans are important but getting them to stick with the sport is critical.
This year’s constant action on the track anchored by the Hamilton-Verstappen title fight has satisfied the second part of that equation.
Eyes across the globe will be on all 58 laps in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, the final race to determine who takes home the title. Up until the last lap, every second of the season has been and will be a nail biter.
All the variables that brought the two drivers to tally the same exact score heading into the finale is what kept fans’ attention throughout the season.
Think Verstappen’s car perched on top of Hamilton’s after the crash in Monza or the smoke rising forebodingly from Hamilton’s brakes seconds before the restart in Baku.
The best racing is when the two are at it, wheel-to-wheel, like they were through the opening laps of the British Grand Prix.
Sprint Qualifying, a format introduced to three weekends this season was seen across the community as a controversial addition to the sport. Despite that, it provided something new for fans who welcomed the extra racing.
F1 still has improvements to make on several fronts that would make the sport and viewing experience more inclusive.
There is still an obvious need for greater diversity behind the wheel and in the institution itself. The league’s first full-time driver from China, Guanyu Zhou, will be a much-welcomed addition to the track when he makes his debut next season.
However, it is hard to ignore just how White and male dominated the sport is.
The FIA, the governing body of the sport, also has some work to do to make rules more transparent and easier to follow.
Commentators do their best to make sense of the calls being made by the stewards, but sometimes, even they are left scratching their heads — driver and team penalties often seem totally arbitrary or ill-explained.
Fan accessibility will remain a challenge. Part of that is built-in because F1 is a global sport with just over 20 events a year.
Those constraints make attending a race weekend expensive. For American fans eager to make it to a race, there is some good news: a race in Miami next season means two races in the US for the first time since 1984.
After the exciting culmination of this season comes the anticipation for the next, with new car designs and some changes in the driver lineup.
Season four of “Drive to Survive” is imminent too. All of that adds up to a feeling that there is so much more to come from the sport.
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