Di­eter Rencken on Lib­erty Me­dia

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - DI­ETER RENCKEN @F1rac­ing _mag face­book.com/ f1rac­ing­mag

The Ital­ian Grand Prix al­ways has an ele­giac qual­ity, and not just be­cause of the all-per­vad­ing sense of his­tory wo­ven into Monza’s fab­ric: it’s here that the cur­tain comes down on the Euro­pean sea­son, the team’s mo­torhomes are packed up for their win­ter hi­ber­na­tion, and we brace our­selves for the on­com­ing rush of fly­away races that trans­port us to the sea­son’s de­noue­ment seem­ingly in the blink of an eye. Monza is the be­gin­ning of the end, if you like.

It was in the wake of last year’s Ital­ian Grand Prix that news broke of Lib­erty Me­dia’s for­mal of­fer to buy F1’s commercial rights. Twelve months on, what has ac­tu­ally changed in F1? What have we lost? What have we gained?

Os­ten­si­bly, much has changed, par­tic­u­larly in terms of the cast: in Monza 2016, F1 tsar Bernie Ec­cle­stone an­nounced he’d been of­fered a three­year deal to stay at the helm. Within four months the man who built F1 into the global en­ter­prise it is to­day learned that he was to take the non-job of ‘chair­man emer­i­tus’. He was last seen wan­der­ing the Spiel­berg pad­dock, no en­tourage in sight.

Ec­cle­stone was re­placed by no fewer than three heads: Chase Carey as chair­man/ceo, Sean Bratches as head of commercial ac­tiv­i­ties, and Ross Brawn as head of sport­ing op­er­a­tions. Each cre­ated departments manned by spe­cial­ists, some pro­moted in­ter­nally, oth­ers new­com­ers to F1, com­ple­mented by ex-team folk (or FIA staff) re­cruited as their con­tracts lapsed.

F1’s once-om­nipo­tent pad­dock po­lice­man Pasquale Lat­tuneddu was briefly spot­ted at Sil­ver­stone in civvies. The same can be said of most former mem­bers of Bernie’s in­ner cir­cle: seen here or there, but no longer in po­si­tions of author­ity, even if still with For­mula One Man­age­ment, F1’s pri­mary op­er­at­ing com­pany.

Apart from some reshuf­fles and a dou­bling of the pay­roll, a slot-car set in the pad­dock, some zip­wire rides and in­creased two-seater ac­tiv­i­ties, what has re­ally changed in F1 since the ar­rival of Lib­erty? Fun­da­men­tally the an­swer is: noth­ing.

Next year’s cal­en­dar has much the same feel to it. Any de­vi­a­tions, such as the demise of Malaysia and the re­turns of Ger­many and France, are Ec­cle­stone lega­cies. Cru­cially, two of F1’s great­est ills, its in­equitable rev­enue and dys­func­tional gov­er­nance struc­tures, re­main on the ‘to do’ list. True, dis­en­fran­chised teams are now per­mit­ted to at­tend Strat­egy Group meet­ings, but as ob­servers only.

Week­end for­mats re­main, few en­hance­ments have been made to broad­cast pro­duc­tions, and ticket prices are still sky-high. Im­prove­ments to the sport­ing spec­ta­cle – an area in which there has been wel­come change – are down to con­tentious reg­u­la­tions forced through by the FIA, not through Lib­erty’s in­volve­ment.

Much has been said of ‘Su­per­bowl’ takeovers of city cen­tres; again, not much has been seen of such as­pi­ra­tions – not in Barcelona, Mon­tréal or Bu­dapest, all metro ar­eas close to the ac­tion. Much was made of the re­cent Trafal­gar Square pa­rade: F1 hosted a sim­i­lar road show in Re­gent Street back in 2004, un­der Bernie.

Sooth­say­ers point out that just eight cars strut­ted their stuff 13-odd years ago, whereas all ten teams were present at F1 Live Lon­don in July. How­ever, the prin­ci­ple re­mains the same, with only de­tails vary­ing.

The stock re­sponses to re­quests for de­tails of fu­ture plans go along the lines of: “We’re work­ing on a plan, we would rather be judged on our achieve­ments than prom­ises…” or “Such mat­ters are bet­ter dis­cussed be­hind closed doors…” None of which fills a fan base with en­thu­si­asm.

Clearly Carey and co are tem­per­ing tra­di­tion and in­no­va­tion, weigh­ing up the ef­fects of stag­na­tion ver­sus the risks of whole­sale change. The al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble pace of change sug­gests they are mea­sur­ing their de­ci­sions care­fully, seek­ing a path that will let them ful­fil their man­date of grow­ing F1 (and, by ex­ten­sion, its rev­enues) with­out alien­at­ing F1’s ex­tant – and pas­sion­ate – global fan base. A del­i­cate bal­ance, in­deed.

Is it un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect Lib­erty to im­pose swinge­ing changes on the world’s most com­plex sport within a year of tak­ing con­trol? Ab­so­lutely. Would it be re­al­is­tic to ex­pect more than a spruc­ing up of the front door, a change of locks and repa­per­ing of in­te­rior walls in that time? I think so.

New heads of state are tra­di­tion­ally granted a 100-day pe­riod of grace af­ter as­sum­ing of­fice be­fore the op­po­si­tion, elec­torate and me­dia pass judge­ment on their com­pe­tence. Lib­erty have now been in F1’s hot seat for thrice that, and, while the omens re­main good, de­ci­sive ex­e­cu­tion seems strangely lack­ing.

Brawn, Carey and Bratches are the new faces of new-look F1. But what has ac­tu­ally changed?

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