The IZOD IndyCar Series 2013 season will not be shown on Sky Sports in the UK, after the broadcaster announced that the exclusive television rights to show races had gone to rival network ESPN.

"IndyCar has been signed up by ESPN, so all races will be on there from March," Sky Sports announced as a reply to an enquiry on their Facebook page on Thursday. The same source added that there was also no deal in place for the channel to continue showing NASCAR Sprint Cup highlights in 2013.

Keith Huewen, who has fronted Sky Sports' coverage of IndyCar for 15 years, confirmed the news on his own Twitter feed.

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"Finally, ESPN UK is the new home of IndyCar. Having covered IRL since '97 I will feel the loss! Thanks to fans that have been so supportive," he posted. "And thanks to the dedicated teams of people at Sky Sports who have done their best every round to make it the best show possible.

"Hopefully IndyCar fans will get what they want from the new deal here in the UK. I will be shouting for DF, JW, JJ etc. the same as before!" Later he added: "Many thanks for so many positive comments, I'm stunned by the reaction! IndyCar might be minority sport TV... but it's got passion!"

Sky Sports' disclosure of the IndyCar situation seemed to catch ESPN UK itself by surprise, as there was no immediate official announcement or press release concerning their new acquisition except for a brief post on Twitter.

"Confirmed: We will have IndyCar action on ESPN UK from the first race in St. Petersburg on March 24th," the channel's official Twitter feed posted on Thursday afternoon.

There was no further information forthcoming, so it's unknown whether all races will be aired live or in full: ESPN UK also shows DTM races, but usually delayed by up to 12 hours according to other events getting priority. Asked on their Facebook page whether or not the coverage will be live, ESPN replied "It certainly is!" but didn't indicate further whether that would be the case for all 19 races, or how much of the race would be shown as it happened.

It's also unclear whether IndyCar will be shown on ESPN's main channel or on ESPN America instead. The difference is that only the main channel is available across all platforms in the UK.

Also unconfirmed is whether ESPN has also picked up the online streaming rights that would enable the network to show the series to subscribers of its ESPN Player service.

It's likely that Sky Sports did not try very hard to retain the rights to the US open wheel championship for another year, after details showing how poor the ratings were in 2012 emerged over the winter following an analysis of the situation by The F1 Broadcasting Blog.

According to the assessment, the 15-race season won an average viewing audience of just 16,000 in 2012. That meant the races were generally watched by fewer people than even the qualifying sessions (let alone the races) of both the GP2 and GP3 Series being shown on the new Sky Sports F1 channel.

This may have had something to do with IndyCar routinely being tucked away on one of the minor Sky Sports channels; the one race where IndyCar was itself switched to the Sky Sports F1 for Sao Paulo in April, figures shot up to the highest of the year with 39,000 watching.

By contrast, the Indianapolis 500 managed just 29,000 viewers, and the season hit a year low with the Milwaukee event that was held on the same day as the Le Mans 24 Hours in Europe and managed just 3,000 viewers. The IndyCar viewing figures are hardly likely to improve when broadcasts are switched to an even more niche channel in 2013.

Even worse, there are also strong rumours that ESPN's owners, Disney, are considering pulling the plug on the UK arm of the sports network after spiralling cost of securing sporting rights for ESPN impacted Disney's global corporate profits in the past year. ESPN UK failed to get any of the rights to exclusive premiership football matches next season.

If Disney did pull the plug on the UK market, then British fans might be without IndyCar coverage altogether from the middle of 2013.

The network also shows basketball, baseball and hockey games from the major US leagues as well as US college football, but it lost its final foothold in the NFL market when the most recent season was divided up between Sky Sports, the BBC and Channel 4 instead.

ESPN UK is available in the UK on the Sky satellite and Virgin cable platforms in various subscription packages. The main channel (but not ESPN America) is also available on BT Vision and on Top Up TV, which broadcast over the Freeview network until 4am in the mornings.