Last Sunday, Sebastian Vettel became only the fourth driver in Formula One history to win four Drivers’ Championships. Only three drivers have now won four championships consecutively: Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher and Vettel. Arguably, if you are to look at the statistics, Vettel is now one of the greatest drivers’ this sport has ever seen. But, is what he has done so far enough to put him into Formula One folklore as a legend?
In my opinion, no. The simple answer is that Vettel needs to move teams and grow his wings. Break out from the Red Bull brand around him, and the familiarity of Horner and Newey. I would love to see Vettel in a McLaren or a Ferrari for example. Whether that will actually happen, I don’t know. But it is an interesting thought. I will always consider Schumacher above Vettel because he won two titles at Benetton, then moved to Ferrari and spent five seasons building the team around him before winning the title in 2000. It was a great story from 1996 to 2000 that led to that moment. Fangio back in the 1950’s won titles with multiple teams. I’d like to see Vettel do the same with another team. One day, I hope.
But the on-track circumstances surrounding Schumacher’s and Vettel’s dominance were extremely different. Schumacher’s Ferrari dominance was during an era of refuelling, where races would often be decided during the pit-stops in the middle of a fierce tyre war with Michelin debuting in 2001. Also, TV coverage back in the early 2000’s was not as good for the terrestrial television viewer, whilst there probably was a great battle for sixth position, the TV director chose not to focus on it, with F1 Digital+ leading the way. Compare that to now. Pirelli is the sole tyre supplier who are between a rock and a hard place and we now have fancy gimmicks (rightly or wrongly) such as DRS and KERS. There is no denying that, despite how flawed and frustrating DRS has been as of late, the Formula 1 of 2013 is more superior in most respects to that of the early 2000’s. The TV coverage undeniably helps.
The question you have to ask is: does one person’s dominance for a long period of time have a negative impact on the sport? On one hand, you could say that one man’s greatness and dominance should be admired. Which is true. But where Formula 1 is concerned, the casual audience simply does not care about those down the order. They don’t care about who finishes 8th on Sunday, for example. All they are tuning in for is to see who wins. And if the same person is winning week after week, then that is going to have a profound effect.This does not apply to all the casual viewers, I imagine there are some who thoroughly enjoy a battle down the field as much as a lead battle. But generally, I suspect most casual fans tune in for the scrap at the front. So, has Formula 1’s UK viewing figures dropped over the past few years, and if so, is this due to Vettel’s dominance? The early 2000’s in the United Kingdom with Schumacher seen an ‘F1 turn off’ with viewing figures plunging from 4 million to 3 million during Schumacher’s reign, to 2.5 million in 2006.
Throughout Schumacher’s championship winning years, the general trend was downwards. 2001 dropped from 2000, 2002 dropped from 2001 and 2004 dropped from 2003. 2003 was more or less in line with 2002, and is within the margin of error, as shown on the graph above. This should be considered no surprise given the raft of regulation changes between 2002 and 2003 designed to tighten the pack up. It worked, as the title race went to the final round, albeit it did not stop Schumacher from winning a fourth consecutive championship.
It was 2004 where figures plunged, like 2002, Schumacher dominated the year and the championship was wrapped up by the Summer. Between 2000 and 2004, ITV’s Formula 1 audience had shrunk by a quarter. The broadcasting hours that they were giving Formula 1 were relatively stable: an hours build-up with about fifteen minutes analysis on a good day. With that in mind, and you can see why the drop was purely due to the action on the track given that nothing had changed outside of the race itself in terms of coverage (aside from the crew moving to studio to paddock for the start of the 2004 season).
The above re-iterates my point about Formula 1 losing a quarter of its audience between 2000 and 2004, a significant amount. Interestingly, the decline did not stop there, Fernando Alonso did not reverse the UK ratings doldrums, only Lewis Hamilton could do that in 2007. Fast forward to 2010 and another young German emerges. This time, in a Red Bull, and now Formula 1 was live on BBC. More coverage, and more exposure across with coverage on radio, television and interactive. The result? Ratings in 2011 soared to a fifteen year high, despite Vettel emerging as the next big talent. Now, was the rise because of the racing or because of the coverage? A combination, in my view. The two went hand-in-hand. In this case, the casuals were interested, and they kept watching and coming back in their droves.
Inevitably the television deal with Sky Sports changed that, combined with the Olympics and Euro 2012, and viewing figures soon dropped. The first graph I think tells the whole story here when comparing with Schumacher’s dominance. The dotted line does not account for Sky’s longer air-time whereas the continuous line does. Figures dropped between 2011 and 2012 by half a million viewers, the same amount as ITV’s coverage dropped between 2001 and 2002 and then 2003 and 2004. Percentage wise the drop was slightly bigger, but concerning all the same. The 2013 season is not yet over, therefore it is impossible to say anything definite, however it appears that there has been a slight rise between 2012 and 2013, which I have put in the graph above.
The picture appeared brighter in the Summer. Unsurprisingly, Vettel’s dominance means that the audience has eroded slightly. We will only know the full picture at the end of the season. At this point in Schumacher’s championship winning years, Formula 1 had lost 15 percent of its audience between 2000 and 2003. In comparison, that compares with 5 percent (when taking into account Sky’s longer air-time) audience loss between 2010 and 2013. All in all, that is really not a bad state of affairs when things could have been significantly worse. It will be very interesting to see what happens with 2014. No doubt we will get the headlines “will rule changes stop Vettel’s dominance?” and the such like. Only time will tell.