Broadcasters Drive For More Data To Boost Viewer Engagement For Formula 1

The dramatic climax of the 2021 Formula 1 racing season on 12th December gave a huge boost to TV viewing of the event around the world.

With the two contenders, Max Verstappen from the Netherlands and the UK’s Lewis Hamilton dead level, the final race became a winner take all shoot out and attracted unprecedented viewing numbers, especially in the UK where it was helped by a rights sharing agreement between the habitual live broadcaster, Sky Sports, and free-to-view Channel 4.

Average audience for the finale was 3.4 million, or 30.7% share of the total number of people in the country watching TV, while the 1-minute peak audience reached 4.4 million. But there’s the rub. Although such numbers are unprecedented for Formula 1 it is very much in the slipstream of soccer when it comes to total viewing. Being almost a second-tier sport for TV, it suffered from viewing being mostly confined to Sky as a paid channel, rather than being available FTA.

Indeed, the issue of keeping Formula 1 behind a pay wall has divided the field, in the UK especially ever since Sky started broadcasting the event there in 2012. In truth, TV audience numbers were already in decline on a worldwide basis, having peaked at 600 million unique viewers in 2008. There is little doubt though that a general shift to pay TV has accelerated the decline in viewing, down to 490 million in 2018, 471 million 2019 and 433 million 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic also had an impact by reducing the number of events. Concerns have continued to be expressed, with Hamilton himself as recently as May 2021 admitting that he did “understand for the people that can't afford to have paid TV or Sky or whatever it is. But it is the way of the world today and there is not a lot we can do about it."

At least in 2021, fuelled by an unusually exciting year of races generally, there have been signs of a pickup, while viewing has continued to grow in the USA from a lower percentage base amid a recent resurgence of interest. The average TV audience in the USA for Formula 1 through 2021 was 934,000, up 54% on 2020 and beating the previous record set in 1995.

It is against this background that broadcasters, as well as many among the car constructing firms, have been clamouring for access to more data to make viewing more immersive, aiming to capitalize on the groundswell accumulating towards the end of 2021. Formula 1 has long been a highly technical sport that has become increasingly data driven in recent years, as constructors seek to exploit ever finer margins while cars become faster with diminishing scope for further innovation. This has led all the constructors into partnerships with major providers of data storage and analytics capabilities over the last few years.

Mercedes, whose cars Hamilton currently races, now partners with mobile chip maker Qualcomm over initiatives focused on wireless communications and systems in the vehicles themselves, seeking small improvements in speed as well as operational efficiencies. The two are looking towards faster acquisition of sensor data during races and also wireless charging of on-board systems. Mercedes also has a longstanding collaboration with Pure Storage for unified storage infrastructure across its platforms, with emphasis on use of high-speed flash drives for their combination of performance and reliability providing the units are replaced reasonably regularly.

For analytics itself, Amazon Web Services (AWS) became an important partner for Mercedes in 2018, employing machine learning to help tune systems in line with evolving rules and constraints over engine design. Such tools help comply with impending rule changes for the forthcoming 2022 season, according to Mercedes.

Meanwhile, Mercedes’ arch rival Red Bull Racing, four-time winner of the Formula 1 constructors’ championship, in March 2021 selected Oracle as its cloud infrastructure partner and provider of analytics services. Red Bull too is exploiting machine learning and data analytics capabilities, in this case through the Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI) to optimize the way data is used in various areas, including on-track and customer facing activities.

Red Bull Racing, four times winner of the Formula 1 World constructors’ championship, picked Oracle as its cloud infrastructure partner in March 2021.

Red Bull Racing, four times winner of the Formula 1 World constructors’ championship, picked Oracle as its cloud infrastructure partner in March 2021.

Most recently, as the 2021 season approached its climax, there has been increased discussion about applying data and wireless communications to enhance the viewing experience. Various developments have already occurred, such as cockpit viewing cameras that bring home to TV audiences just how fast the drivers are going and the great variation in speed between straights and corners, while also bringing in statistics about drivers, events and cars.

But natural desire not to give valuable information away to rival constructors has inhibited liberation of a lot of data that could be of great interest to viewers. Some in the field, such as Mercedes’ race support team leader and test engineer Dom Riefstahl, have recently argued it is time for constructors to distinguish more clearly between data on say car modelling that is commercially confidential from a lot of other information, pertaining for example to unfolding outcomes during races, that could safely be made available and add value for viewers.

Riefstahl was quoted recently in suggesting that “there’s still a lot of data that we can provide to the fans and provide to the public, or to the people just doing the commentary and talking about the race, in terms of helping them make more out of the story and understand some of the background stuff that’s going on. If you have more of that data available, and you had somebody who understands how to read the data and explain it, you can just show so much better what is actually going on.”

Mercedes has been moving in that direction with AWS. As well as applying machine learning to computational fluid dynamics (CFD) in engine optimization, AWS has been providing pronouncements or predictions such as probability of a car overtaking its competitor, or the advantage one vehicle would gain over another as a result of a pit stop at a given time, or change of tyre. This could be extended through Augmented Reality (AR) by overlaying laps of leading drivers during the pre-race period that determines starting positions on the grid. That would allow viewers to see at which points one driver was gaining ground on another during this individual pre-race phase of the event.

With Red Bull, Oracle is similarly working on customer facing extensions, after initially focusing more on car technology. The primary focus was on ending seven years of domination by Mercedes, having last won the title in 2013. That target was narrowly missed as Mercedes clung on for the constructor’s title even though its lead driver Hamilton just failed to win the driver’s championship. Yet it will have been satisfied to narrow the gap so considerably.

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