Dieter Rencken on Liberty Media
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?