Sebastian Vettel’s dominance of Formula One, which has provoked jeers from Belgium to Singapore, isn’t eroding television audience ratings, according to series Chief Executive Officer Bernie Ecclestone.
Vettel, who won the last five races with Red Bull Racing, can secure a fourth straight championship on Oct. 27 in New Delhi with a top-five finish. After Michael Schumacher clinched the 2002 title with six races left, TV ratings fell by one-third in parts of Europe and Formula One changed rules on qualifying and point scoring.
There is “four to five times” as much overtaking in Formula One today compared with Schumacher’s era, and its average global race audience of about 50 million has had only a “very marginal” fall this season, according to Kevin Alavy, managing director of New York-based Mediabrands’s Futures Sport + Entertainment. Fans are continuing to watch in case Vettel loses, according to Ecclestone.
“It’s a bit like with Roger Federer or Muhammad Ali,” Ecclestone said in an interview. “Vettel is the best there is and people want to be there when he gets beat.”
Formula One, which gets about one-third of its $1.4 billion annual income from television rights, has maintained steady ratings over the past decade as other sports like tennis and golf “looted” themselves by adding too many events and suffered audience declines, Alavy said. There are 19 Grands Prix this season, compared with 17 in 2002.
To be sure, the series has struggled to win new fans outside its European heartland. It had falling television audiences in China, Russia and the U.S. last season, according to Formula One’s internal broadcast report.
Vettel, 26, is seeking to join his fellow German Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina in winning four championships in a row, and he’d be the youngest to achieve the feat. Schumacher won a record seven titles during his career.
Some fans jeered Vettel’s victories at the Belgian and Italian Grands Prix. After spectators did the same at the next race in Singapore, which he won by more than half a minute, Vettel blamed a group of Ferrari loyalists supporting Fernando Alonso, his nearest challenger for the championship.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton said after the Oct. 6 race in South Korea that he felt sorry for fans because Vettel’s supremacy reminded him of when he used to go to sleep during races that Schumacher led from start to finish, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Vettel said four days later in Suzuka, Japan, that his dominance this season isn’t close to Schumacher’s: his Red Bull car’s “cushion” during the Korean race was between three and six seconds, and an error causing a locked wheel would have blown his advantage, he said. Schumacher’s 2002 Ferrari was able to build a lead of as much as 1 minute, according to Vettel.
In the most recent race, Vettel recovered from third at Suzuka to secure his ninth victory in 15 Grands Prix so far this year. After starting in second place behind teammate Mark Webber, he slipped back as Romain Grosjean of Lotus catapulted into the lead. Vettel passed Grosjean on the 40th of 53 laps and took the lead when Webber made a pit stop.
Ecclestone said Vettel may be better than Schumacher and Brazil’s Ayrton Senna, the three-time champion who died in a 1994 racing accident.
“It’s difficult to be sure who is the best,” Ecclestone said. “People don’t know how many titles Senna would have won, but Vettel is probably the best we’ve had. People complain about him winning everything but the racing is good.”