For the second time in as many weeks, doubt is cast on data released by Formula One Management and according to Forbes this time it could leave team bosses hot under the collar.
It is a fact that statistics can be used to 'demonstrate' whatever it is the person providing them is seeking to prove, or "lies, damn lies and statistics", as Benjamin Disraeli so succinctly put it.
On Friday, Formula One Management issued a press release proclaiming that "Formula 1 TV and digital audience grows in 2017", the media duly repeating the claim at face value.
Two weeks earlier, following FOM's issuing of a similar press release relating to race attendance - again faithfully repeated by much of the media - Chris Sylt and Pitpass looked at the figures a little more closely.
Lo and behold - and ignoring the fact that organisers in Azerbaijan are at total odds with FOM over the attendance figures for 2016 - the percentages shown were wholly wrong. Indeed, the only figures that were correct were those races that showed a 0% percent increase.
Every other single percentage was wrong - in Azerbaijan's case 58.01% should have read 138.17%.
While FOM admitted to a "systematic error", which was really just a case of poor arithmetic, it looked wholly unprofessional.
Contacted by FOM within minutes of posting the story, we enquired when the TV viewing figures would be available, and were told that they were being worked on and would be made available to us when they were ready. Yesterday they were issued to much of the media - who again obligingly published the data verbatim, while Pitpass had to request a copy. Read into that what you will.
For the most part, the social media audience figures mean little. Ignoring the fact that Lewis Hamilton, despite wiping all his tweets, has 1.82 million more followers than the sport's official Twitter account, which benefits from the cross promotion of all ten teams and Pirelli, the figure means little in terms of monetary gain, unlike the TV figures, which give a fair indication of the sport's health.
Again, Chris Sylt and Pitpass spotted some interesting anomalies buried in the data.
At first glance everything looks rosy. "The TV cumulative audience - i.e. the aggregate of the average audience of all the F1 programs broadcast across the year - in the top 20 markets (based on ranking of TV audience) stood at 1.4 billion, which represents an increase of 6.2% compared to 2016," proclaimed the FOM press release.
"The top four markets - Germany, Brazil, Italy and the UK, ranked by absolute figures - all registered positive growth. The strongest was Italy (+19.1%), followed by Brazil (+13.4%), UK (+3.9%) and Germany (+0.9%). Other significant increases were registered in China (+42.2%), Switzerland (+14.3%) and Denmark (+14.1%).
"Cumulative viewing (live and non live) of the races remained at around 603 million, with a 1% increase of the live audience and improvements both in free practice and qualifying sessions cumulative viewing.”
Then comes the knockout. "During 2017, 352.3 million unique viewers have tuned their TV set into an F1 programming at least once. It’s the first time since 2010 that there was not a decrease in this specific number."
This raises questions because just last year F1’s owner Liberty Media claimed in a stock market filing (pdf) that in 2016, Formula 1 had a cumulative live television audience of approximately 390 million unique global viewers", a figure repeated in F1’s 2016 Global Media Report.
Writing in The Independent last year, Chris Sylt revealed that the 2016 figure was 2.5% down on 2015, marking the sixth straight year that the number of F1 viewers has declined. A further drop would paint F1 in a disastrous light but Liberty has avoided that in a way which is apparently more accurate.
Tellingly Liberty's filing and F1's 2016 Global Media Report both describe the total audience as being "global" whereas yesterday's press release does not use the same term in reference to 2017.
It is understood that the 2016 figure was based on data from ten countries and then extrapolated to give the 'global' figure of 390 million. On the other hand, data from 63 countries was used to derive the 2017 figure of 352.3 million and if this same measurement system was applied retrospectively to 2016 it would yield a similar total which is why the press release states that "there was not a decrease in this specific number."
So in the blink of an eye F1 wiped 40 million viewers off its audience. What of the sponsors who signed up last year on the strength of the 390 million audience? Would they have agreed if they had known the supposedly more accurate total of 352 million? It’s too late now for them to reconsider but team bosses may well be on the receiving end of tough questions from their sponsors as a result of F1’s recent decision.
It also raises questions about whether this kind of a revision will happen again which in turn makes one wonder what really is the 'actual' audience figure. Numbers which were officially released by the sport and were filed with the stock market have now been revised so the floodgates appear to be open.
The numbers relate to unique viewers, which is anyone who watched at least 15 non-consecutive minutes of F1 over the course of the year - whether you watched just 15 minutes of F1 or 150 hours, you are still counted as one unique viewer.
The viewing data comes from an independent company and while the unit being measured is still the same – the total number of unique viewers – the way it is calculated is different. As a result, while the end result can be compared year-on-year, as the units are the same, the driving force behind the change in 2017 is unclear.
Be it our own stats at Pitpass or direct reader feedback, it would appear that, despite a revival from Ferrari in 2017, another year of Mercedes domination, grid penalties, track limit rows and the failure of the new (for 2017) regulations to improve overtaking, took its toll, the sport is losing fans not winning new ones over.
Indeed, the positive news coming from FOM in terms of race attendance, social media and TV figures should have had sponsors signing on the dotted line at St James's Market, but this is not the case.
Furthermore, no matter how one dresses up the figures, in countries like the UK, where all live coverage will be subscription only from 2019, this will further impact audience numbers which will in turn hit teams already suffering a drop in prize money and further drops due to follow, combined with FOM's ongoing spending drive.