(Bloomberg) -- During a Grand Prix competition on an Azerbaijan track in June, Alexander Albon, a Formula One driver on the Red Bull Racing team, downshifted along a steep curve then accelerated into a straightaway. But something was wrong: His internet was lagging. “I can’t race like this,” he said to his engineer.
Albon took off his headphones. The 24-year-old driver stood up from the black gaming chair in his house and tried to fix the glitchy internet connection that was hurting his time.
Earlier this year, with the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the planet, Formula One canceled 10 races and moved the action online, launching an esports series called the Virtual Grand Prix. The pro drivers who chose to participate raced against each other on F1 2019, a popular video game made by the British publisher Codemasters, and streamed their gaming exploits live on Twitch, a video platform owned by Amazon.com Inc. More than half the F1 grid took part in the series.
Beginning on Friday, July 3, the popular motorsport will return to the actual racetrack, kicking off its delayed 2020 season with the Austrian Grand Prix, the first of eight confirmed races. According to Frank Arthofer, F1’s global head of digital media and licensing, the 2019 season had the youngest grid in the sport’s history. This year’s roster will likewise feature several young drivers, such as Albon, who are as comfortable live-chatting with fans on Twitch as they are blazing down roads in Monte Carlo.
All of which is by design. At a time of declining TV ratings, the virtual races are part of Formula One’s broader efforts to lure in a new generation of fans. “You’ve really seen the driver’s personality show through virtual racing,” said Arthofer. “That’s one of the really exciting elements of it. You get a feel for the characters behind the visor that you don’t get when they’re in Formula One cars necessarily.”
When billionaire John Malone’s Liberty Media Corp. acquired F1 for $4.4 billion in 2017, the sport’s TV viewership was already in decline. According to Goldman Sachs, Formula One’s overall TV audience shrank by two-fifths between 2008 and 2017. Last year, total viewers decreased by a further 3.9%, according to a study by Statista researcher Christina Gough.
To try to reverse the trend, Formula One is ramping up its outreach to fans on social-media networks and streaming services. Pivotal Research Group analyst Jeffrey Wlodarczak said that young, digitally savvy racers—such as Charles Leclerc, a 22-year-old driver for Scuderia Ferrari, who has 3.2 million followers on Instagram and 489,000 on Twitch—can attract new fans to the sport. Wlodarczak said the Netflix documentary series “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” which gives viewers behind-the-scenes access to all 10 F1 teams, has also helped the sport connect with a younger audience.
The online charm offensive appears to be gaining traction. Since March 16, the Virtual Grand Prix has generated some 94 million video views, including 22 million on live streams, according to F1. The sport’s overall social-media engagement is up 30% year over year.
Back on the virtual roads of Azerbaijan, after fighting through the technical difficulties, Albon finished in second place. On Twitch, fans sprinkled the chat zone with green “GG” stickers. Translation: “good game.”
Afterward, Albon jumped on Discord, an online platform popular with gamers, and spoke to George Russell, a 22-year-old British racer with team Williams, who would go on to win the entire Virtual Grand Prix. Last year, during his rookie season, Russell had finished in last place in the actual 2019 Formula One season.
Now, he is the motorsport’s virtual champion. “I mean, I got more publicity from winning an esports race than I got from any single Formula One race last year by coming around at the back of the grid,” Russell later told Sky Sports F1.
As the streaming session wound down, Albon proposed that he and the other drivers play another video game just for fun, even if had nothing to do with racing. But the virtual crowd wasn’t ready to give up the racetrack action just yet. Their suggestion: time for some Nintendo Mario Kart.
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.