Today at Hockenheim less than 50,000 Formula One fans are expected to turn up to see Nico Rosberg start his and the Mercedes team’s home race from pole position.
That is 35,000 less than watched the Friday Free Practice sessions at Silverstone two weeks ago.
Yesterday, an even more sparse crowd took their places to see their home racer take his fifth pole of the year in a field which also contains a German four time world champion. And Friday’s crowd was more like that seen at races in F1 unfriendly outposts such as Korea in recent years.
On Friday afternoon the situation led Mercedes boss Toto Wolff to brand the poor turnout as “not satisfying”.
“If you compare Hockenheim Friday to Friday at Silverstone and Friday in Austria it’s a different world and we have to understand why that is,” he said comparing the poor figures forecast for race day in Germany to Silverstone’s full house of over 120,000 a fortnight ago.
“We have to analyse the phenomenon,” he added. “If the weekend continues like it does now, we need to think about it.”
Wolff’s Mercedes colleague Niki Lauda yesterday went a step further, however, blaming the low crowd numbers on Formula One’s failure to embrace new media.
“Formula one is seeing a serious cultural change,” the Mercedes non-executive director told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper. “The audience wants to watch sport in a different way than before, due to the rapid growth of the new means of communication.
“It is logical that the young people of today have other priorities,” he added. “Everything in the world is changing, but only Formula 1 is staying where it was.” Lauda went on to target Formula !’s broadcast and that model’s resistance to new media as a key issue.
While other sports have embraced online platforms, including live streaming, video on demand services and the free availability of broadcast material across web channels such as YouTube, Formula One has remained resistant, with commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone seeing no way to monetise such content. For Lauda that lack of access is contributing to the sport losing fans.
“Young people do not want to stay at home on Sunday when the sun is shining to sit in the lounge with their father for two hours,” he said. “The problem is that today, there is no alternative. You can’t just sit on the beach and watch the race highlights on your smartphone.”
The loss of fans due to lack of access to content was just one thread of Lauda’s argument, with the three-time champion also targeting the sport’s controlling attitude to its stars,
“We have a generation of drivers that, if they were not wearing their racing overalls, you would simply walk past some of them and not notice,” he said. “The ‘formula one system’ is to supervise, monitor, regulate. But we must again have the drivers, not the bureaucrats, in the foreground.
“If we continue like this, no one will be bothered about formula one anymore. It’s five minutes to twelve,” he concluded.
Those opposed to Lauda’s arguments might point to the huge crowds present at the three preceding races; Montreal, Silverstone and at Austria’s Red Bull Ring, where capacity crowds saw exciting racing throughout.
It should also be pointed out that the crowd forecast for Hockenheim this year, while a fall on the circuit’s recent appearances on the calendar, are in line with the circuit’s popularity or lack of it since the heady days of the Schumacher era. Indeed, when the Baden-Württemberg track last hosted F1 in 2012 it’s race day crowd was put at a disappointing 59,500. This is not sustainable financially.
The reasons, then, are not simple and cover a multitude of bases – from poor accessability and lack of personality, to the complex nature of the sport and undoubtedly to ticket pricing.
The cheapest grandstand ticket available for Hockenheim was this year priced at €99, while a weekend adult Category 1 ticket, granting accessa to the upper deck of the Motodrom section weighed in at an eye-watering €515. Even a race day only adult ticket for the Motodrom section cost €279, though the tickets do give you access to general admission areas as well. Three-day tickets at this year’s US Grand Prix range in price from $180-$1035. However, there, the race is largely sold out.
That translates to £220 or $377. According to figures compiled by the BBC in 2013, a face value ticket for Champions League Final came in at £60 (€75/$102), while a ticket for the British round of the MotoGP championship was £70 (€88/$119). Even an comparatively expensive sports event, the Wimbledon Men’s Final, had a 2013 face value ticket price of £130 (€164/$222). The discrepancy is clear.
Lauda’s warning of F1 being at “five minutes to 12 o’clock” might be sensationalist but the message is clear: F1 needs to change how it positions itself. Whether it can do that in time to secure its next generation of fans remains to be seen.