Aspects of Covid travel were bliss. Other bits were hellish: the extravagant form-filling, and, in my case, more than 250 Covid tests, mostly timed to comply with the jurisdictions you were travelling to.
Sometimes three tests a day, up your nose or spitting into tubes, occasionally administered by a burly Russian who tended your nostrils as if he was ploughing a field. Then there was hoping a positive result wouldn’t mean spending Christmas in Abu Dhabi.
But the blissful part was empty airports, no queues at security and a large chunk of an aeroplane to yourself. That is how it was going to Formula One races in 2020. Compare and contrast with 2022.
Drive to Survive has been one of Netflix’s biggest hits since starting back in 2019 and has now drawn more people to the sport
For Formula One is in the grip of a boom like never before. Airport queues are back to normal, and you can barely find a hotel room to stay in as the biggest crowds the sport has seen populate every race venue.
Take the next round in Belgium at the end of the month. Can you find digs within 15 miles of the Spa track? Almost impossible and, if you do alight on a late cancellation, it’s so expensive that you need a mortgage adviser on hand.
A few facts. Across the first 11 of the 13 races, using the latest collated figures, a total of 2,481,031 people attended races, up 22 per cent on the first 11 races of 2019, the last Covid-free yardstick. The average TV audience for Saturday and Sunday’s main sessions is up 11 per cent on 2021 numbers.
Silverstone welcomed 401,000 fans over the weekend compared to 345,694 in 2019
The US TV audience has accelerated to 39 per cent beyond the 2018 figure. Silverstone welcomed 401,000 fans over the weekend compared to 345,694 in 2019; Melbourne was 420,000 versus 351,000.
Even if we raise an eyebrow at the neatly rounded numbers that Formula One Group supply, anecdotal evidence massively backs up the general thrust.
What is happening? ‘There are three things Chase Carey got bang right,’ said Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer of the moustachioed American who took control of the sport from Bernie Ecclestone on Liberty Media’s buyout in 2017 before handing over control to Stefano Domenicali last year.
‘First, getting the season started in lockdown, as the first international sport to do so. Secondly, the budget cap, which has let the smaller teams compete and thrive. Thirdly, Netflix. Can you argue with those three?’
Even as a sometime critic of Carey, partly because he was allergic to journalists, I can’t.
Melbourne also experienced a great volume of fans – 420,000 versus 351,000 previously
Netflix, and the Drive to Survive series, has taken the sport to new audiences. A younger one (average age down from 39 to 37 in 2017) and a more female one (40 per cent, up eight per cent points since 2017). You now see a girl in her teens going to races with her dad.
Netflix has showcased all the behind-the-scenes drama. It has sometimes been over-revved but is largely rooted in authenticity.
It is an echo of what Ecclestone, on whose shoulders the new guardians stand, did in another era. In his case, he put F1 on TV.
The other major reason for the boom is the drama of last season: Max Verstappen versus Lewis Hamilton, and the last-day shenanigans. This season has been lively, with some good races and a couple of big accidents, even if we have been denied for now the Max-Lewis rematch. Maybe next year.
Netflix has taken the sport to new audiences. A younger one (average age down from 39 to 37 in 2017) and a more female one (40 per cent, up eight per cent points since 2017)
Then there is America, which has at least been half cracked. The existing Austin race is blooming. This year’s new extravagance in Miami was a roaring success, complete with its glitzy grid cast. Las Vegas joins the roster next year.
Yet, there is a balance to be struck, as old goes up against new. This month’s race in Spa may be the last staged in Belgium if plans to return to South Africa for 2023 come good (50/50). Monaco, of all places, is in a semi-worrying renegotiation. That should stay, even if the Automobile Club blazers there need to adapt.
But for now it is mostly good in F1. If not at airport security.