The way Stefano Domenicali sees it, there are two races this weekend. One on the track, and one in the VIP section.
“All the VIPs, the singers, actors, stars,” who will appear at the inaugural Miami Grand Prix.
Domenicali, the Formula 1 CEO and president, doesn’t know who will win, but he’s aware of the overall winner come Sunday evening.
“The winner for sure will be Formula 1,” Domenicali told USA TODAY Sports on Friday, about an hour before the practice session at Hard Rock Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
The race’s debut, the course itself and the natural celebrity attachment in a place like Miami (technically Miami Gardens) are signs of how fast Formula 1 has moved in the past two and a half years, Domenicali said.
“We were still disputing. Are we going to make the breakthrough here in the US?” Domenicali said. “Suddenly, for many reasons of course, now it seems that the interest in Formula 1 has never been so high.”
To borrow a line from “The Godfather,” Formula 1 and its owner, Liberty Media, believed in America. A small audience found it on weekend mornings on ESPN. Netflix took it mainstream with the “Drive to Survive” series in the United States, where a younger, passionate fan base emerged. Embracing social media seems to have heightened the attachment.
According to ESPN, the US rights-holder, 963,000 viewers tuned in to the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final installment of the 2021 season and the Max Verstappen (Red Bull) vs. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) battle. Verstappen prevailed – but not without controversy. The network also revealed it averaged 934,000 viewers per race throughout the 2021 season.
“You can really feel it. You go around the city, everyone is talking about Formula 1,” Domenicali said. “We are international. And that’s the beauty between the connection of the American community and Formula 1. We bring that together, and this is something that is super-positive.”
Another positive is the “spectacle” of Miami, an event worth celebrating, but also exactly what Formula 1 saw in America.
Storylines like the ‘Real Housewives’
Stuart Taylor helps Formula 1 fans under the technical side of the sport, but the longtime Formula 1 fan who has 525,000 subscribers on YouTube said the reason for growing American awareness has a lot to do with the drivers themselves.
“Formula 1 has always had these interesting storylines going through it. And I think that’s the biggest thing in any sport. You can enjoy a sport for the athleticism, or in terms of motorsport, the technical prowess, all manner of things – but I think the thing that keeps everybody hooked is the storyline part of it.”
“Ongoing soap operas” among athletes, team bosses and even the media intrigue people, Taylor said.
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“(Drivers) are no longer professional sports people. They’re not just athletes. They’re soap stars, too. These are the ‘Real Housewives of Monte Carlo,’ ” Wall Street Journal sports reporter Josh Robinson said on “The Ringer F1 Show” this week. “Netflix has taken them to a different level and created a secondary persona for them that’s kind of overtaken the fact that these guys drive cars really fast for a living.”
That’s something Formula 1 didn’t realize for a long time. Under previous ownership headed by Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One Group had little interest in broadening its audience.
“His opinion was, we’ve kind of locked in the people we want watching this, which is essentially old, rich people,” Taylor said. “People who buy Rolex watches.
“A bit mad considering you have to keep the sport going.”
Liberty has concentrated efforts on the youth market, Taylor said. A large part of that was playing up the entertainment attached to the sport. Domenicali said he doesn’t like hearing people say, “but that is not Formula 1.”
“Sometimes it feels like F1 is going a little hard on the entertainment side,” said Taylor, who added that the entertainment factor is still necessary. This is a period of transition, he believes, in which figuring out the proper balance is still being managed.
“We’re living in a really interesting and exciting time,” said Taylor, who has been an avid Formula 1 fan since the 1990s. “We know that they’re pushing very hard to plant strong foundations there.”
For much of the 20th century and until this year, Formula 1 had only scheduled one Grand Prix in the United States — and it will be historic for one year. The Las Vegas Grand Prix is on the schedule in 2023.
Since 2012, the previous Formula 1 racing presence had been in Austin, Texas (with the exception of 2020 due to the pandemic). Mercedes driver George Russell said he’s laser-focused during race weekends, but noted that the 400,000 fans who attended race weekend events in 2021 left a mark.
“That’s just unheard of,” Russell, 24, said.
He added: “You can see how upbeat and excited everyone is in America… I personally feel very grateful and lucky, fortunate, to be in Formula 1 in this era.”
Maximizing the moment the right way is always at the top of Domenicali’s mind. Developing sports and business together, “while we generate fun for our sporting audience,” will always be the goal – whether Formula 1 is planting its flag in the United States or elsewhere.
“We need to create a spectacle,” Domenicali said.
Judging by the look of Miami leading into the weekend, mission accomplished.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.