BYE-BYE, BERNIE

Say what you like about Mr Ec­cle­stone, F1 did ben­e­fit from his lead­er­ship

Car (South Africa) - - COLUMN -

HE forth­com­ing sea­son is all about change in F1, but there is none greater, or more un­ex­pected, than the sud­den de­par­ture of Bernie Ec­cle­stone (86) after four decades at the helm.

Fol­low­ing the rst stages of F1’s ac­qui­si­tion by Lib­erty Me­dia last Septem­ber, it was sug­gested that Ec­cle­stone would stay on as de facto head of the sport, at least for as long as it took the Amer­i­can or­gan­i­sa­tion to nd its way around such a com­plex busi­ness.

But when Lib­erty’s rst de­tailed look prompted stark con­clu­sions, none of which matched Ec­cle­stone’s unique busi­ness model, it was clear his ten­ure as act­ing chief would be brief. A de­scrip­tion of F1 as “dys­func­tional” was just the be­gin­ning. In fact, the irony was that the same sum­mary could have been ut­tered by Ec­cle­stone when he rst ar­rived as an F1 player in 1972.

Pur­chase of Brab­ham had brought Bernie face to face with the sham­bling, piece­meal ne­go­ti­at­ing pro­ce­dure be­tween in­di­vid­ual F1 teams and Grand Prix or­gan­is­ers. He had lit­tle dif culty in per­suad­ing fel­low com­peti­tors of the bene ts associated with col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. This was to be the foun­da­tion of his power­base; Ec­cle­stone ex­tend­ing his in uence to tele­vi­sion by forc­ing broad­cast­ers to pay for an an­nual con­tract rather than cherry-pick­ing the more pop­u­lar races.

For his part, Bernie re­alised he needed to present a pro­fes­sional pack­age, and F1 was any­thing but. Race sched­ules were as var­ied as the qual­ity and quan­tity of the en­try, with teams stay-

Ting away if they were un­com­pet­i­tive. Ec­cle­stone’s eye for de­tail and per­fec­tion (Brab­ham was one of the rst teams to have me­chan­ics in uni­forms, colour-coded to each day) led to a strict timetable and a guar­an­teed en­try. Stan­dards and the sport’s pop­u­lar­ity rose in com­pany with in­creased ex­po­sure and in­come, with Bernie tak­ing his sub­stan­tial cut of the lat­ter. The team prin­ci­pals did not mind, as they too be­gan to en­joy pre­vi­ously un­told wealth.

By pulling F1 by the boot­straps from a sham­bling semi-am­a­teur col­lec­tion of car rac­ers, Ec­cle­stone was on course to turn it into one of the big­gest tele­vi­sion sports in the world, out­side the Olympics and the Soc­cer World Cup.

He may have had help along the way, but it was Bernie who or­ches­trated the tal­ent – and money – of oth­ers as he moulded his as­tute vi­sion into re­al­ity. You could ar­gue that other en­trepreneurs might have even­tu­ally done the same. But none would have achieved it with the same blend of air, au­dac­ity, cheek … and ruth­less­ness.

When nec­es­sary, Ec­cle­stone read­ily made en­e­mies. It was part of Bernie’s modus operandi that went back to the Fifties when he dealt in sec­ond-hand mo­tor­cy­cles and cars. Traders would be half­way home be­fore real­is­ing that in the in­tri­cate ex­change in­volv­ing sev­eral ve­hi­cles, they had ended with some­thing they didn’t ac­tu­ally want.

It would be the same decades later, as race or­gan­is­ers ne­go­ti­at­ing with Ec­cle­stone would nd, to their detri­ment, that he had deftly switched cur­ren­cies dur­ing a process de­lib­er­ately made

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