Formula One makes its return to American shores at the Austin Grand Prix on Sunday, and it faces stiff competition for the lucrative American television audience.
This Sunday marks the same day as the NASCAR Sprint Cup finale at Homestead Speedway in Miami. The American motorsport juggernaut is riding on a wave of publicity after two of its star drivers Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon got into a massive off-track brawl after Gordon wrecked Bowyer in the closing laps of last week’s race in Phoenix.
Sprint Cup championship leader Brad Keselowski also captured much attention in the sports news cycle for a profanity-laden response he gave during the post-race press conference.
Speed TV, who owns the broadcasting rights to both series in the U.S., is dedicating almost 30 hours of programming throughout the weekend for its Sprint Cup coverage. In contrast, Formula One will receive less than 4 Hours of coverage come race day.
Speed’s long-time F1 commentator David Hobbs remarked during Wednesday’s FOTA fan forum that despite F1’s long established tenure as the world’s “pinnacle of motorsport”, ratings in the United States remain low.
“Since I’ve been working for Speed, the numbers they give us – Our ratings – Are pretty poor. I mean, they are very low numbers – A lot lower than you’d think.”
Despite the disappointing metrics however, Hobbs remains optimistic for the sport’s prospects, saying “there’s a much stronger following of Formula One in this country that the powers that be think.”
In a wide ranging Q and A session with Jalopnik, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh acknowledged F1 still has a ways to go in retaining the interest of American audiences.
“F1 has to crack the USA this time around,” said Whitmarsh. “We’ve got to accept that we need America more than America needs us and we’ve got to have a degree of humility and a degree of creativity because we’ve done it badly in the past.”
In light of NASCAR’s overwhelming popularity in the U.S., Whitmarsh said there is much to learn.
“We compete poorly with NASCAR at the moment,” admitted Whitmarsh. “We haven’t yet properly engaged the American market and this weekend is hopefully the start of this challenge.
“They’ve been better at commercializing and marketing their sport. We’re a different product. We can learn from them.”
British IndyCar driver Alex Lloyd concurred with Whitmarsh, saying the key to Formula’s One’s success in America lies with its ability to appeal to the general public.
“The problem is, outside of our motor racing bubble, no one else cares,” Lloyd opined on the relevance of the Austin Grand Prix. “There is little (if any) sign of F1 on SportCenter and other mainstream news feeds probably don’t even know what a Formula One car is.
“I’d love for this to change and, of course, the hope was (and is) that an F1 race at a racetrack like COTA will be the catalyst to ensure people pay attention.
“On the bright side, F1 needs America far more than the U.S. needs F1. Many of the manufacturers and sponsors involved in the series do large portions of their business in America, so for them, being here is a must.”
Sunday’s Austin Grand Prix is set to commence at the Circuit of the Americas at 1pm local time.