WAS BERNIE BAD FOR FORMULA 1?
Help or a hindrance? Bernie Ecclestone splits opinions of our writers
Forty years is a long time in anyone’s book. It is certainly an eternity in motor racing – but just look how far F1 has come in the time since Bernie Ecclestone took the helm.
F1 would barely muster a couple of lines in the back pages of the national press when I started following it in the 1970s. Sometimes, the tabloids would carry nothing at all. You would get a 30-minute highlights show at some ungodly hour on BBC2 on Sunday night. That was it.
Look at the sport now: it is massive. That success, like it or not, is down to the vision of one man. He made sure the teams presented a unified front and wrestled the commercial rights under his control, which gave him power over the entire show. For that alone, I am eternally grateful.
F1 has made many millionaires, including the team owners, and it has become one of the most watched sports on the planet. That has made heroes of its leading players. Is Bernie a bad man for doing that? There was a devil-may-care approach to making sure that F1 remained as the king of the hill too. When the World Sportscar Championship was attracting manufacturer interest and looked like it might begin to rival grand prix racing, Bernie’s dark arts were said to be at work slapping it down.
And look at how he has cautiously welcomed allcomers into his top-level single-seater orbit…an increasingly international Indycar Championship in the 1990s? Sorted. A1 GP? No problem. Formula E? Bring it on. Those are just a few examples, but what is the old adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?
No other series would get anywhere near the heights of F1 and Bernie as the undisputed pinnacle of the sport.
And I haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of the brilliant work he and Professor Sid Watkins did to improve safety in grand prix racing.
Sure, the sport’s migration to the Middle and Far East is perturbing for its European hardcore, but it is a sign of the times. Ecclestone has gone a long way to make sure the money keeps rolling in, and maybe this is his only failing. With European governments unable to match the funds of oil-rich rulers, this is happening in virtually every other international sport. World Cup in Qatar, anyone…?
Collecting the big bucks without a nod to the history of the sport, and the convoluted way in which it is distributed is a mystery wrapped up in an enigma, and Bernie has to carry the can for that.
No successful industry is run by committee. Each has a visionary and determined leader, and Bernie was that man for F1. I think we owe him a vote of thanks.
There is no doubt that Ecclestone is one of the key figures in motorsport history and, up until the early ‘90s, his early impact would have to be considered positive.
He professionalised Formula 1 and brought it to a much wider audience through his TV deals. Along with other key figures, such as Sid Watkins, he also helped to make F1 safer.
But his legacy will surely be tainted by some of his later deals. There was a strong feeling in the sportscar world that he was one of the key architects of the demise of Group C at the end of 1992, allegedly to get more manufacturers into F1.
As time went on, the desire to increase profits overtook the needs of the sport. The deal he and then FIA president Max Mosley put together – the sale/purchase of F1’s commercial rights for 100 years – has caused many problems and will probably continue to do so.
His reluctance to explore – or allow F1 to explore – modern media and fan engagement outside TV has also stifled the very sport he helped to grow.
And then there are the circuits. Quite apart from his deals that allowed politically dubious (but rich) regimes to host grands prix, Ecclestone has been ruthless with the traditional venues and, by extension, F1’s fan base.
The multi-million pound fees circuits have to pay to host races would be bad enough, but the conditions attached make it almost impossible for tracks to stay in business without the support of either government funding or super-wealthy private backers.
The sale of tickets is the only area where circuits can make money. When Silverstone still has to prop up the well-attended British GP with other activities, you know there is something wrong with the business model, particularly when the five per cent escalator – well above inflation – is applied year after year after year.
That approach has meant that the French, German, Italian, British and Belgian GPS have all been threatened, or fallen off the F1 calendar, during this century. Ecclestone has been known to step in and help on occasion – as though the enthusiasm that brought him to the sport is still there somewhere – but that hasn’t stopped the overall trend.
That’s why fan reaction to Bernie’s departure will likely be one of ‘about time’ and ‘good riddance’, rather than a more positive one that might have prevailed had he left earlier.