Just over 70,000 people watched each Formula One race online in the UK last year according to official figures.

The F1 season is due to begin next weekend under a cloud of uncertainty as the coronavirus is threatening several races. F1 was already on track for an uphill struggle after beginning a new contract last year which made pay TV channel Sky Sports the exclusive live broadcaster of all but one of the races.

Channel 4 shows the British Grand Prix live along with delayed highlights of the other races and this led to UK audiences reversing last year by 13.6% to 54.8m, as The Independent revealed. It has now come to light that the number of people watching online is just a tiny fraction of that.

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Data from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) shows that across Sky Sports and Channel 4 a total of 1.5m people streamed the 21 races in 2019 giving each one an average of 70,680 viewers.

Even F1’s most-streamed race, the British Grand Prix, wasn’t even as popular as the England vs USA match in the women’s football World Cup, the Cricket World Cup final, the men’s final at Wimbledon and the Rugby World Cup final which was in pole position with 282,400 online viewers.

Rugby World Cup final (ITV) – 282,400
Cricket World Cup final (Channel 4 and Sky Sports) – 168,677
Wimbledon men’s final (BBC) – 128,731
Women’s World Cup: England vs USA (BBC) – 123,011
British GP (Channel 4 and Sky Sports) – 120,636

It was more than double the number who streamed the British Grand Prix as 75,971 people used Channel 4’s All 4 service with a further 44,665 watching on Sky. At the other end of the spectrum, a total of just 42,688 viewers streamed the Japanese Grand Prix which suffered from taking place at 6am.

The results are significant as they show that the public’s interest in watching F1 online isn’t as turbocharged as expected. F1’s American owner Liberty Media has put online streaming at the heart of its plans for the sport since it got the keys to it three years ago in a £3.7bn takeover. In 2018 Liberty launched F1 TV, the sport’s first-ever streaming service, but it was beset with so many bugs that it had to issue refunds.

F1 has never revealed how many subscribers the service has got but when it launched it gave an indication of the potential. Frank Arthofer, F1’s global head of digital, media and licensing, said “we have by our estimates around 500 million fans in the world, which is quite a number. If even, conservatively, one per cent of that customer base is a super avid hardcore fan, that’s a five million addressable audience to sell this product to.” If the UK is anything to go by, F1 is a long way from the finish line.

F1 TV isn’t available in the UK because the sport’s contracts with Channel 4 and Sky prevent it. However, unlike F1 TV, which costs £62.50 annually, Channel 4’s streaming service is available at no additional cost. Likewise, Sky customers do not need to pay extra to watch its shows online. Despite this, the number of streaming viewers comes to just 2.7 per cent of the total who watched F1 races on TV in the UK last year. There are two driving forces behind it.

Firstly, F1’s dramatic action is better suited to a bigger screen and, secondly, its fans tend to be older than those of other sports so they aren’t as used to watching TV online.

The streaming numbers come from the most authoritative source as BARB is partly owned by six TV stations, including Sky and Channel 4. Its data is considered to be the industry’s gold standard and is the official estimate that channels use to sell advertising.

Last year was the first full year that BARB reported streaming data and it covers the top 15 most-watched programmes every week. Several F1 races failed to get into that ranking so the data was not disclosed by BARB. Instead, it was supplied by Bristol-based Digital-i, which is one of BARB’s official data partners. The complete picture reveals a fascinating trend.

The most popular method of streaming across both channels last year was using a PC/laptop with 45.6 per cent of viewers doing so. This was followed by tablets, which accounted for 32.3 per cent, and smartphones at 22.1 per cent.

The trend reflects the size of the screens with the smallest ones attracting the smallest number of users. Larger screens appeal to older viewers so Liberty may need to drive down the average age of F1 fans if it wants to rev up interest in streaming the races online.

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