Triple world champion Max Verstappen wrapped up the Formula 1 season in style with a record-breaking 19th victory Sunday in Abu Dhabi, completing one of the most dominant campaigns ever.
Yet despite the Dutch driver’s success, it was a banner year for F1 in the U.S. as the global sport penetrated deeper into its top-priority market, with tantalizing hopes for the future.
This season featured three American races — a familiar race in Austin, a second-year race in Miami and the first-ever race down the famous Las Vegas Strip. The same three contests are on the calendar in 2024. By contrast, no other country hosted more than one race this season, and Italy is the only one slated to hold two next year.
Formula 1 and its American owner, Liberty Media, made a staggering $600 million bet on the Las Vegas Grand Prix weekend, which was widely seen as a success. After resolving a track snafu that left fans frustrated last Thursday, Las Vegas delivered one of the most thrilling races of 2023, with countless wheel-to-wheel battles, multiple fights for the lead, strategy gambles, safety car resets that shook up the order and a last-lap overtake for second place.
“In many ways [Formula 1] had been undermonetized. There was an opportunity to better market it, to better capitalize on some of the revenue streams, to go out and grow it in America,” Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei told CNBC. “America was always on our minds.”
Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands drives by the Sphere during the F1 Las Vegas Grand Prix on the Las Vegas Street Circuit on Nov. 18.Antonin Vincent / DPPI / Panoramic via Reuters
Hollywood takes on F1
U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who represents a Las Vegas-area district, attended the race. He told NBC News he wasn’t much of a Formula 1 fan before it came to his city — but he is now.
“I am proud that we will host Formula 1 through 2032 and know that it will continue to bring a mix of excitement, attention and, yes, business to southern Nevada,” Horsford said. “It was an honor to participate in the events this year, and I look forward to continuing our work with the organization as they look to have a positive impact in the greater Las Vegas region throughout the year.”
Netflix’s “Drive To Survive,” credited by many drivers and team bosses for fueling the American fan base, has been renewed for a sixth season expected to be released next year.
“It’s just obviously grown, the fan base, and mostly due to obviously the Netflix show. And the following has gotten bigger and bigger. And the interest in the sport in America has become much, much bigger,” Nico Hulkenberg, who drives for the U.S.-based Haas team, said in an interview. “It’s developed a lot.”
Hollywood is showing more interest in the sport, with Brad Pitt making a movie about Formula 1 and actors Ryan Reynolds and Michael B. Jordan buying a stake in the Alpine F1 Team.
In Austin, Williams Racing driver Logan Sargeant became the first American to score points in Formula 1 since Michael Andretti in 1993. Still, Sargeant has struggled during his rookie season and his team boss wouldn’t say whether they’ll renew his contract in 2024.
Logan Sargeant of the U.S. and Williams in the Paddock ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone Circuit in Northampton, England, on July 6.Mark Thompson / Getty Images file
After the race, Williams Racing team principal James Vowles said only that he’s “proud” of the improvements Sargeant has made when asked if he’ll race with the team next year.
“Look at the last five races, and how he’s been improving and stepping forward. I think you can see signs that he’s doing what we need to see. But we’re not in a position to confirm that at this point in time,” Vowles said on the F1TV broadcast.
The potential in the domestic market is growing, with American automakers getting involved. Ford has partnered with Red Bull Racing, the runaway constructors champions, to develop the team’s power unit in the run-up to the 2026 season. Andretti is making a bid for adding an all-American team to the grid in 2026, partnering with Cadillac on a bid that has yet to receive final approval.
TV ratings gold
Television viewership presents a more complicated story. The 2023 season has hosted three of the four most-watched F1 telecasts in U.S. history, according to ESPN, which airs the races along with ABC.
Overall, 2023 is “on track to have the second most-viewed season ever” at 1.12 million viewers on average, said ESPN spokesperson Andy Hall. “Last year’s record-setting season, which included the inaugural Miami Grand Prix that averaged a record 2.6 million viewers, averaged 1.21 million viewers.”
Still, that’s a big jump from the average of 554,000 viewers in 2018, when F1 returned to ESPN.
The context of 2023 may explain that. Unlike the more competitive recent seasons, this year has featured start-to-finish dominance by Red Bull’s Verstappen, who clinched his third world championship with six grands prix to spare.
Verstappen’s victory Sunday gave him a record 19 race wins out of the 22 this season. And he broke more records, including the highest percentage of wins, the most consecutive victories, the most points and most podiums in a single season.
Race winner Max Verstappen of Oracle Red Bull Racing, second-place finisher Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, third-place finisher George Russell of Mercedes and Jamie Meades, the head of supply chain operations at Red Bull Racing, celebrate on the podium after the F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Sunday.Clive Rose / Getty Images
“Did the Verstappen dominance hurt viewership? It’s possible and some feel it may have but we have no way to quantify it,” Hall said in an email. “But just a couple of weeks ago we set a viewership record for the Mexican Grand Prix, the eighth race this season to set a viewership record.”
Behind Verstappen’s dominance and Red Bull scoring its first ever 1-2 finish in the driver’s championship, the last race settled several neck-and-neck battles in the title race. Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso finished fourth in the championship, narrowly ahead of three rivals who had a mathematical chance of achieving that feat on Sunday. Mercedes just held off Ferrari for second place in the constructors race, which includes hefty prize money.
In the driver’s standings, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton finished third place and will try against next year to win an unprecedented eighth world championship.
Verstappen celebrated his achievements after he took the checkered flag for a final time in 2023.
“It has been an incredible year,” he said in a post-race interview. “It will be very hard to have another season like this.”
“But we’ll see.”
Sahil Kapur is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.