Formula One F1 – Bahrain Grand Prix – Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain – March 20, 2022 General view during the race.
Thaier Al-sudani | Reuters
Formula 1’s 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix lured more than 1 million U.S. viewers for Sunday’s season-opener —making it the most-viewed F1 race on ESPN since 1995.
ESPN said the Bahrain Grand Prix attracted an average of 1.3 million viewers in the U.S. and peaked at 1.5 million viewers around 12:30 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. ET, as the race entered its final and most dramatic laps. Viewership for the race is up compared with same race on the 2021 schedule, which saw an average 927,000 viewers, according to ESPN.
The network used metrics from measurement and analytics company Nielsen to report F1 viewership in the U.S. Sky Sports owns the rights to air F1 races in the U.K.
Scuderia Ferrari and Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc won the Grand Prix, earning him 26 points to start the season. Leclerc beat Spanish teammate Carlos Sainz, who finished second and earned 18 points for a team total of 44 points in the first weekend. Mercedes driver and Britain native Lewis Hamilton finished third and claimed 15 points.
This season, Hamilton seeks a record eighth F1 World Championship after falling in the last race of the 2021 season to Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands.
The 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix drew more cable viewers to ESPN than any other since the 1995 Brazilian Grand Prix, which averaged 1.74 million viewers, according to the network. It’s the most-viewed race on any Disney-owned network since F1 returned to ESPN in 2018.
F1 popularity and viewership have shot up in the U.S. since the behind-the-scenes Netflix series “Drive to Survive” debuted in March 2019. The series’ fourth season, recapping the 2021 season, became available to stream on Netflix on March 11.
The racing company set a new viewership record last season when it averaged 934,000 viewers per event on ESPN channels and the ABC network — up 54% compared with F1’s 2020 races. F1’s 2021 viewership included an average 1.2 million viewers for the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, which aired on both ESPN and ABC.
The previous viewership record came in 1995 when F1 averaged 748,000 viewers per race.
In 2019, before the pandemic paused global sports and pushed more American viewers to F1, the sport averaged 672,000 viewers on ESPN channels. In 2018, after ESPN returned the races to its lineup, F1 races averaged 554,000 viewers on the network.
Formula One F1 – Bahrain Grand Prix – Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain – March 20, 2022 Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in action during the race
Thaier Al-sudani | Reuters
Liberty Media purchased F1 in 2016 for $4.4 billion, gaining access to a global fan base of over 400 million. It trades F1 as a tracking stock under the ticker “FWONA” on the Nasdaq. Tracking stocks are used by companies to gauge the success of a particular division in its portfolio.
Last month, Liberty reported the racing league generated $2.1 billion in 2021 revenue, up from $1.1 billion in 2020. And F1 should be in a position to increase revenue with a new race added to the North American slate.
In April 2021, F1 struck a 10-year deal to introduce a Miami Grand Prix, its second U.S. race on the schedule. The inaugural race in Miami is scheduled for May 10. Financials of that deal weren’t released, but CNBC reported motorsport insiders estimate the auto racing league netted between $17 million and $20 million per year under the pact.
F1 didn’t race in the U.S. from 2008 to 2011 but returned with the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin in 2012. The Miami Grand Prix brings four total races to North America as F1 also races in Canada and Mexico.
And F1 could expand in the U.S. again.
The racing company is reportedly seeking to return to Las Vegas, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. That could happen as soon as the 2023 season and would be the first time since 1982 that Las Vegas would host an F1 race.
F1 didn’t immediately return a CNBC request for comment on the possibility of a Las Vegas Grand Prix.
This season, F1 is scheduled to run 23 races, but long-time sports executive Chris Lencheski predicted that tally could expand to 25 or more with the addition of a Las Vegas race, another event in China, and a potential return to India and Africa.
Lencheski, the chairman of private equity consulting company Phoenicia, served as CEO of sports and entertainment marketing firm SKI & Company before selling the agency in 2008. The company formulated F1 sponsorships.
Lencheski said the Netflix series has boosted support for F1 races, and said two potential manufacturers — Audi and Porsche — are also stirring buzz.
“Both of them have global footprints across automotive performance. So if they come [to F1], that’s a tremendous amount of corporate investment that would allow Formula 1 to expand teams,” he said.
F1 has also expanded its partnership revenue in 2021, including a deal worth more than $100 million with blockchain platform Crypto.com.
F1’s next race – the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix – is slated for Sunday, followed by the Australian Grand Prix on April 10.
Disclosure: Comcast owns CNBC’s parent NBCUniversal and Sky.