An­thony Rowl­in­son analy­ses For­mula 1’s change at the top

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Why did Bernie have to go? Em­pires de­cline, em­per­ors fall, and so it is with For­mula 1 and Bernie Ec­cle­stone.

His re­mark­able 40-year run at the helm of the world’s most glam­orous mo­tor­sport has come to an end be­cause the busi­ness prin­ci­ples on which it was founded had come to be viewed as out of step with a dig­i­tally driven age.

Un­der Ec­cle­stone, F1 was built into a busi­ness val­ued at $8bn (£6.4bn) on rev­enues gen­er­ated by a) lu­cra­tive tele­vi­sion con­tracts; b) pro­mo­tional fees charged to cir­cuits wish­ing to host grands prix; c) track­side ad­ver­tis­ing and d) ex­clu­sive pad­dock hos­pi­tal­ity.

While each of these has served Ec­cle­stone – and, lat­terly, the com­mer­cial rights holder CVC Cap­i­tal Part­ners – ex­tremely well, they were be­com­ing out­moded. Tele­vi­sion con­tracts, for in­stance, were be­com­ing less prized as live au­di­ences dwin­dled.

Host­ing fees have also be­come out of reach for all but gov­ern­ment-backed venues such as Azer­bai­jan, thus pulling F1 from ‘heart­land’ venues. Track­side ad­ver­tis­ing deals have sucked rev­enue away from teams, and pad­dock hos­pi­tal­ity pack­ages have be­come less ap­peal­ing to cor­po­rates, as tax laws re­lat­ing to ‘free­bies’ have tight­ened. In each of these ar­eas there was a grow­ing – though un­spo­ken – sense that the sport’s com­mer­cial model had be­come out­moded and had lost touch with its lifeblood: fans. When Ec­cle­stone spoke of want­ing to ap­peal only to those wealthy enough to af­ford a Rolex, he may have been mis­chievous. Yet such com­ments un­der­lined an un­com­fort­able truth: F1 was no longer con­nect­ing with its fan base in a way that it needed to in or­der to en­sure a healthy fu­ture.

With an am­bi­tious, ag­gres­sive and dig­i­tally savvy me­dia com­pany – Lib­erty Me­dia – wait­ing in the wings to buy a con­trol­ling in­ter­est (a process that be­gun last Septem­ber and was fi­nally com­pleted last week), Bernie’s days in con­trol were num­bered.

Will F1 miss Bernie, or can it pros­per with­out him? Yes – and no. While Ec­cle­stone, now chair­man emer­i­tus of F1, is un­likely to dis­ap­pear com­pletely from the sport he has held in an iron fist since the mid-’70s, the no­tion of him not be­ing the man call­ing the shots will take some get­ting used to. The most se­vere of head­mas­ters, Ec­cle­stone’s word was the law in For­mula 1, and for good or ill most would say they knew where they stood un­der his com­mand.

None­the­less, his de­par­ture gives rise to huge op­por­tu­ni­ties for Lib­erty to open up a sport that is fa­mously, of­ten de­lib­er­ately, in­ac­ces­si­ble.

Im­me­di­ately, new F1 sport­ing chief Ross Brawn has spo­ken of the need to make the sport sim­pler to un­der­stand, with bet­ter rac­ing and less com­pli­cated cars. Amer­i­can Chase Carey, mean­while, the new F1 CEO, has spo­ken of “huge po­ten­tial with mul­ti­ple un­tapped op­por­tu­ni­ties”. Top of his wish list are be­lieved to be greater so­cial me­dia en­gage­ment, more races on the cal­en­dar and the pro­tec­tion of heart­land events such as the Bri­tish, Ital­ian, Ger­man and Bel­gian GPS. He has also stressed how im­por­tant the voice of fans will be in shap­ing F1’s new fu­ture. “I have en­joyed hear­ing from the fans, teams, FIA, pro­mot­ers and spon­sors on their ideas and hopes for the sport,” he said.

Can Bernie be blamed for F1’s cur­rent fail­ings? It would be fool­ish, pos­si­bly even un­fair, to judge Ec­cle­stone harshly for tak­ing For­mula 1 to a place where as much time is spent dis­cussing its short­falls as its bril­liance.

For un­der Ec­cle­stone a sham­bling, slightly chaotic and pre­dom­i­nantly Euro­pean mi­nor-in­ter­est pur­suit has be­come one of the world’s most valu­able sport­ing prop­er­ties, courted by blue-chip cor­po­ra­tions, gov­ern­ments and celebri­ties for the lus­tre and al­lure it can con­fer. “He took a di­a­mond in the dirt,” said Gor­don Mur­ray, Ec­cle­stone’s one-time design ace at Brab­ham, “and made it shine.”

Yet in re­cent years, since the buy-in of CVC, Ec­cle­stone’s naked pur­suit of cash, on the spe­cific in­struc­tion of his rights-hold­ing pay­mas­ters, has been to the sport’s detri­ment. Multi-mil­lion dol­lar TV deals have been bro­kered with pay-per-view chan­nels at the ex­pense of free-to-air broad­cast­ing, dec­i­mat­ing TV au­di­ences (and ad­ver­tiser ap­peal) in many coun­tries. Gov­ern­ments in Azer­bai­jan, In­dia, Korea and Turkey to name but four, have paid hun­dreds of mil­lions for the priv­i­lege of host­ing a grand prix, only to find there are no fans to fill their glit­ter­ing grand­stands. And no show likes play­ing to an empty house.

Mean­time ‘clas­sic’ races such as the Ger­man GP have fallen from the cal­en­dar sim­ply be­cause pro­mot­ers have been un­able to find ways of at­tract­ing suf­fi­cient fans to pay the high ticket prices levied to off­set host­ing fees. Equally per­ni­cious has been the grossly in­equitable dis­tri­bu­tion of the sport’s rev­enues be­tween teams. Sim­ply put, F1’s in­ter­nal re­ward struc­ture al­lows the rich to get ( vastly) richer, while poor min­nows, such as Manor, have been al­lowed to wither on the vine.

This is an F1 econ­omy gone mad and Ec­cle­stone has paid the price.

Who’s in the hot seat(s)? Re­plac­ing Ec­cle­stone in day-to-day con­trol are three wise men.

Ross Brawn, is too fa­mil­iar to need in­tro­duc­tion and he takes a role over­see­ing all sport­ing mat­ters re­lat­ing to For­mula 1 as he comes back to the sport for the first time since his de­par­ture from the Mercedes F1 team at the end of 2013.

“It’s fan­tas­tic to be re­turn­ing to the world of For­mula 1,” he says. “I’ve en­joyed con­sult­ing with Lib­erty Me­dia these past few months and I’m look­ing for­ward to work­ing with the rest of the For­mula 1 Team to help the evo­lu­tion of the sport. We have an al­most un­prece­dented op­por­tu­nity to work to­gether with the teams and pro­mot­ers for a bet­ter F1 for them and, most im­por­tantly, for the fans.”

In­creas­ingly fa­mil­iar is new CEO Chase Carey, the mous­ta­chioed ex-lieu­tenant of Ru­pert Mur­doch, who brings with him a rep­u­ta­tion as a tough op­er­a­tor with balls of steel. The speed with which he despatched Ec­cle­stone to an ad­vi­sory, chair­man emer­i­tus, role is in­dica­tive of his ap­proach to busi­ness, though he was ef­fu­sive in his praise of Ec­cle­stone’s vi­sion and drive: “I would like to recog­nise and thank Bernie for his lead­er­ship over the decades.

“The sport is what it is to­day be­cause of him and the tal­ented team of ex­ec­u­tives he has led, and he will al­ways be part of the F1 fam­ily. Bernie’s role as chair­man emer­i­tus be­fits his tremen­dous con­tri­bu­tion to the sport and I am grate­ful for his con­tin­ued in­sight and guid­ance as we build F1 for long-term suc­cess and the en­joy­ment of all those in­volved.”

Fi­nally, Sean Bratches, also Amer­i­can and with 27 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence as a se­nior mar­ket­ing and sales ex­ec­u­tive for US sports net­work ESPN. He’ll be the man lead­ing the drive to take F1 closer to its fan base and in­crease its ap­peal to spon­sors and ad­ver­tis­ers.

“I’m very ex­cited to be join­ing For­mula 1 and con­trib­ute to the con­tin­ued growth of this ex­tra­or­di­nary global brand and sport,” he says. “F1 is one of few truly global tier-one sports, and I am en­cour­aged by the man­i­fold op­por­tu­ni­ties to ma­te­ri­ally grow the busi­ness, work closely with cur­rent and fu­ture spon­sors, race cir­cuits, tele­vi­sion rights hold­ers as well as cre­ate next gen­er­a­tion dig­i­tal and on-site race ex­pe­ri­ences to best serve the For­mula 1 fans.”

What’s go­ing to change? It’s highly likely some changes will be felt im­me­di­ately for those at the heart of the sport.

Ec­cle­stone him­self has a new role and sev­eral of his clos­est aides at For­mula One Man­age­ment are likely to be won­der­ing if they’ll re­tain their po­si­tions un­der new man­age­ment.

Lib­erty will run F1 from a new London of­fice and is likely to be­gin a re­cruit­ment process to build a struc­ture ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing more me­di­alit­er­ate, dig­i­tally op­ti­mised feeds of ev­ery­thing it films, at and around grands prix (think apps, vir­tual re­al­ity, 360-de­gree cam­eras, fewer rights re­stric­tions, live dig­i­tal streams).

There is talk of cen­tral mer­chan­dis­ing and pro­mo­tion, closer col­lab­o­ra­tion with cir­cuit pro­mot­ers, and a bet­ter de­ci­sion­mak­ing process for all par­tic­i­pants (so ex­pect the laugh­ably ill-named ‘Strat­egy Group’ to be canned forth­with).

Cal­en­dar growth has also been tar­geted, as has a push for more North Amer­i­can races, even as heart­land grands prix are pro­tected.

Rules are likely to be sim­pli­fied, too, as are tech­ni­cal reg­u­la­tions (for 2018) and some mea­sure of cost-cap­ping is likely to be in­tro­duced, hand-in-hand with a re­vised cash-dis­tri­bu­tion struc­ture.

Over­all F1 can pre­pare it­self for an out­break of long-over­due san­ity– though this be­ing For­mula 1, any­thing can hap­pen… and it prob­a­bly will.

Euro­pean races will form a ‘foun­da­tion’ for the sport Chase Carey (left) and Bernie Ec­cle­stone Cur­rent For­mula 1 events have to be more fan-friendly

Pho­tos: LAT

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