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Formula One, fueled by Netflix and ESPN, revs up courtship of U.S. fans

Haas F1 Team's Mick Schumacher goes through a practice session on Friday ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Miami. (Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post)

KANNAPOLIS, N.C.— Behind a gated office park off Interstate 85 just a few exits south of Dale Earnhardt Boulevard sits the headquarters of Haas F1.

It’s an unlikely location for a Formula One team, squarely in the heart of NASCAR country, where four generations of Earnhardts were reared to turn left. But the presence of Haas, the only American-owned F1 team, is one of many data points that explain the country’s growing interest in the world’s most sophisticated form of motorsports.

Another data point: Sunday’s sold-out, inaugural Miami Grand Prix, the first of two American F1 races this year, to be followed by the U.S. Grand Prix at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas in October. F1 will add a third American race, in Las Vegas, in 2023.

Tickets to Sunday’s race, which will be broadcast on ABC and staged on a purpose-built circuit in the shadow of the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium, sold out in 40 minutes, according to the Miami Herald, and are trading on the secondary market for well over $1,000.

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Several factors are driving what has become a full-blown courtship between Formula One and American fans and promoters.

Expanding the sport’s U.S. audience was among the goals of Colorado-based Liberty Media when it bought the F1 series for $4.4 billion in 2017. Under Liberty’s direction, F1 ramped up its social media presence to better reach the young consumers U.S. advertisers covet.

It also sanctioned the Netflix reality series “Drive to Survive,” now in its fourth season, which pulled back the curtain on the intense personalities, political squabbles, driver feuds and relentless pressure to perform in the top tier of international racing.

“ ‘Drive to Survive’ was not possible before Liberty Media came,” said Guenther Steiner, 57, Haas F1′s Italian-born principal (the equivalent of a team president), who has been involved in F1 for more than 20 years. “Before, we tried to almost keep people away. But [Liberty Media] knows the landscape here [in the United States] and opened the sport up. People now understand the politics and how much goes on outside of the racing. They understand who the drivers are and are saying: ‘Wow! This is not only a car which races around a circuit; there is a lot of drama behind it.’ ”

ESPN has also played a major role in growing F1’s U.S. audience since signing on as the sport’s broadcast partner in 2018 — a contract its executives are negotiating to extend once it expires at season’s end. ESPN doesn’t produce the F1 races but carries the established British Sky Sports broadcasts that avid fans prefer. It also airs the races without commercial interruption.

John Suchenski, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions, believes the lack of commercials and F1’s strict two-hour format hold particular appeal for American audiences.

“The product itself is very consumable,” Suchenski said. “It’s hard to dedicate time to three-plus-hour games, so the nature of how condensed F1 is, in that two-hour window, is another element we feel has helped us retain viewers longer.”

According to ESPN, 2021 was the most-watched F1 season on American television on record, averaging 934,000 viewers per race, which was a 54 percent increase over 2020. Through four races this season, ESPN’s F1 ratings are up another 22 percent, Suchenski said, with teens and 20-somethings accounting for a notable percentage.

He also tips his hat to Netflix for piquing the interest of American viewers.

“While there’s no way to quantify how [‘Drive to Survive’] has helped grow F1, we have been a direct beneficiary,” Suchenski said. “Behind-the-scenes access is what everyone craves in all of those types of programs — ‘Hard Knocks’ for football, ‘Drive to Survive’ for this. What Netflix has done has caught on, and now they’re going to be doing that with the PGA Tour and tennis majors.”

Finally, F1’s competition is the primary draw — the technical sophistication of the cars, the skill of the drivers, set against the backdrop of some of the world’s more glamorous locations.

In the view of Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., which owns the IndyCar series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, F1’s American expansion is a boon for all forms of motorsports.

“We view their growth here as complementary to our growth,” Miles said. “It’s good for the motorsports industry and for open-wheel racing.”

Steiner believes the U.S. expansion will be a boon for all 10 F1 teams as well, including Haas.

Haas became the first U.S. F1 team in 30 years when it launched in 2016, and it remains the sport’s smallest team in terms of employees (roughly 200 full time and 50-70 contractors). It is no small achievement that it has proved a viable competitor and business going head-to-head with powerhouses such as Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull that employ four times the staff.

Credit the business plan Steiner developed years ago, after moving to the United States in 2006 to launch Red Bull’s NASCAR team. The idea was to contain costs by buying as many parts as allowed by F1 regulation and outsourcing much of the work via partnerships with Dallara and Ferrari.

Industrialist Gene Haas, co-owner of NASCAR’s Stewart-Haas Racing team, signed on.

“When we got into it, we saw a lot of struggling small teams in F1,” Steiner recalled. “They were not stupid people; it is just a very difficult sport to enter, especially if you want to beat people who have been doing it more than 50 years. So, we thought, ‘How can we do it differently and not race until we go bankrupt or until maybe Gene loses interest?’ ”

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Haas driver Romain Grosjean scored points in the Haas team’s debut race, but not every season since 2016 has been as successful. Steiner, who is fluent in German, Italian and English, is well suited to weathering the sport’s highs and lows, with an engineer’s knack for problem-solving. He splits his time between the team’s Kannapolis headquarters and its race shops in Banbury, England, and Maranello, Italy, where the cars are designed and constructed.

His personality, which blends disarming directness and laughter, was well captured in “Guenther’s Choice,” a third-season installment of “Drive to Survive” that chronicled the team’s struggles in 2020 and Steiner’s decision to replace both drivers, Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, at season’s end.

The team faced another challenge on the eve of the 2022 season, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Haas and Steiner, who were having breakfast together at a test track when the news broke, responded swiftly, cutting ties with their new sponsor, Russian fertilizer producer Uralkali, which in turn meant releasing driver Nikita Mazepin, whose father runs the company.

With one phone call, Steiner coaxed Magnussen back to fill the empty seat and pair with the team’s second-year F1 driver, 23-year-old Mick Schumacher, son of seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher.

Steiner is bullish about the road ahead, convinced the sport’s first budget cap, introduced in 2021 to rein in the seemingly limitless spending of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, has F1 pointed in the right direction.

As the F1 season turns to Miami International Autodrome’s 19-corner, 3.36-mile circuit, which winds around Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen have split the four victories to date.

For Haas, Magnussen is 10th in the standings with 15 points and Schumacher is 19th. And Steiner, an underdog with an indefatigable spirit, is in the market for a sponsor to replace Uralkali.

“Obviously the next plan is to replace them, but we are not in a hurry to replace them tomorrow. We want to make the right decision,” Steiner said. “Now, to own an F1 team is quite an asset because there are only 10 and because the popularity worldwide has risen.”

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