This post was contributed by Rob Beltman, who has an incredibly insightful eye for racing matters.
Last weekend the British Grand Prix touted the highest ever attendance in F1 history, with a reported 480.000 visitors to the Silverstone circuit in just three days. An amazing achievement, given the prices went up very significantly (more than doubled from £180 for three day tickets to £349) and we’re in an era of Max Verstappen dominance, where a home win for a British driver seemed more unlikely than ever in the past decade. So…attendance is up. What’s up with that?!
Well, nothing much really. It is to be expected that at ‘The home of British Motorsport’ (some pundits forget to add ‘British’…) such a record might be broken. It’s a home Grand Prix to many racing teams and the number of people directly or indirectly making their living through professional motorsports around the Silverstone area is quite high. A real passionate, racing-savvy crowd has always enjoyed the races there. The track manager, Stuart Pringle, even believes the weekend should be expanded and cover not 3 but 4 days of activities. Maybe a way of increasing ticket prices even more, or a way to offer better value for the current money spent. Who knows.
What is clear, is that the record attendance was already announced pre-weekend and therefor it drew my attention a bit more than usual. Silverstone can be messy to get in and out of even with far lower attendance numbers and I was curious to see how the track would cope. Furthermore I was very curious to see how they would seat a crowd this size, having converted certain prime areas of trackside property into luxurious ‘oh-is-there-a-race-on’ multi-million pound penthouses for the happy few, rather than seating for the motorsport-mad many…
I’ve worked in the event industry and it’s clear that when a venue has a multi-day event it does not report the total number of unique visitors, but rather adds up the attendance from day one, two and three, counting the three-day attendees three times. That’s common practice. It’s not common practice to count everyone who has a ticket for the Friday or Saturday as an attendee, even if they only showed up on the Sunday. For a record attendance (not record sales!), you need people to actually show up on those days. And that’s where I feel the attendance of Silverstone is off and really highlights some serious issues.
If you have been watching on Friday, you will have noticed almost completely empty grandstands from early morning right up until FP2 of the Formula 1. If you watched on Saturday, sprint races for the F3 and F2 were in really low attendance and it’s only during qualifying that we saw the grandstands fill up. On Sunday, the F2 feature race had far less than 30% of grandstand capacity filled (See the view from Bearman’s car), with just general admission grounds packed because these people want to and have to pick a top spot for visibility, of course.
The answer to this ‘enigma’ lies largely in the build-up of ticket prices. Friday tickets cost £169, whereas Sunday tickets are priced at £299. But compare that to a 3-day weekend pass, costing £349. For just £50,- you get 3 day access. Better value for money and a great incentive to catch qualifying on the Saturday afternoon upon arrival to the track, spend just one night in the area and catch the race the next day. So many weekend-ticketholders will have just skipped on the Friday altogether and on the program right up to F1 qualifying as well.
The Friday is often criticized as an odd day out, because people have to work or go to school and there is no competitive session on a regular race weekend. This is true for many venues, although Austria last weekend showed that having your fans trackside on the campground works. They arrive on Wednesday or Thursday, so they are near the track on Friday. But even without that, just selling Friday tickets separately and far more cheaply can help too. The Dutch GP makes Friday a special day for people who likely can’t afford a three-day ticket, so they can go and see their heroes in action. They call it Super Friday and make prices accessible through a savings-deal with a major retailer. Regular weekend tickets for the Dutch GP are Saturday-Sunday.
In my view, Silverstone makes a mistake throwing these Friday tickets in with a three-day format and accepting that people will effectively not attend, since it will cost them another day of travel, stay and other expenses. Expanding to a 4-day weekend thus seems not to be what is needed. It’s far better to decide which audience you are aiming for on Friay versus the rest of the weekend.
In some way, to me, it is even more worrying that even on raceday, when many people will be eager to enjoy the day at the tracks as much as they can, there was no interest to arrive early to follow feeder series like F3 and F2. This may be due to the extremely early start of F3 on Sunday, after most fans will have enjoyed some partying the night before. Those who do want to arrive early are often confronted with congestion, or extra tight security checks for raceday. That also doesn’t help and it’s a programming issue, mostly.
The F2 an F3 drivers are however the next generation of talent. Racing in these series is often closer and purer. And they are currently being drowned out in all the content F1 is providing. They are not being given a stage. To me, the low attendance for the feature races was especially striking given the well-known passion of the Silverstone crowd for anything and everything having to do with racing. So I wonder; are Silverstone attracting a different demographic? Are they losing the old fans with their price hike? Is this becoming more a festival for the happy few or a place to spot some DTS celebrities, rather than enjoy the races, the roar of engines and the smell of rubber? I hope not. I do imagine some people around the British Grand Prix are more worried than they let on by sharing their record ‘attendance’ over the weekend.