Chase is on to bring back F1 thrill fac­tor

F1 chief Chase Carey wants to mod­ernise the sport but re­dis­cover the race drama and com­pe­ti­tion of old

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Formula One - Tom Cary

On the wall of one of the up­stairs meet­ing rooms at For­mula One’s flash new of­fices in St James’ Mar­ket hangs an old black-and-white pho­to­graph of Spa-Fran­cor­champs.

It is a won­der­fully evoca­tive im­age. A throng of fans, some of them stand­ing un­com­fort­ably close to the ac­tion with only a hay bale or two for pro­tec­tion, watch as the ma­chines thun­der down the hill to­wards Eau Rouge. Drivers’ heads pro­trude from open cock­pits, old-school hel­mets and gog­gles per­fectly vis­i­ble. Not a ‘halo’ in sight. Mar­tini and Ferodo ban­ners adorn the track­side.

In front of the pic­ture, wear­ing a crisp white shirt and pur­ple tie, sits For­mula One’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Chase Carey. The mous­ta­chioed Amer­i­can, who has been run­ning the sport for just over a year, is busy ex­pand­ing on his vi­sion for the fu­ture. Or at least he is try­ing to. “We want com­pe­ti­tion,” Carey says. “We want drama and un­pre­dictabil­ity. Great races with un­ex­pected things hap­pen­ing. Great mo­ments. We had some last year. Un­for­tu­nately, it was a bit too much of a com­pe­ti­tion just be­tween two [teams]. It would be nice to get some un­der­dogs up there. But we’ve got to, you know … put a struc­ture in place that, you know … al­lows that to hap­pen …”

Can they, though? Can Lib­erty Me­dia get For­mula One back on track? Can they make it com­pelling again? That is the bil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion. Or $8 bil­lion dol­lar ques­tion, which is the price Bernie Ec­cle­stone ex­tracted from the US me­dia con­glom­er­ate when he sold the sport to them in 2016. There are some in Mel­bourne – where the first race week­end of the 2018 sea­son is in full swing – who are be­gin­ning to won­der about the man be­hind the mous­tache.

Who is Carey? It would be dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of some­one less like his pre­de­ces­sor, that is the first thing to say. To take just one ex­am­ple, his in­ter­view­ing style. Where Bernie Ec­cle­stone was a man who liked to put his in­ter­roga­tors off their stride with a sharp one-liner, or even a blunt “Yes” or “No”, Carey talks and talks, of­ten with­out say­ing an aw­ful lot.

He does ap­pear to be try­ing, though. When Lib­erty Me­dia ar­rived last year, it made an im­me­di­ate im­pact. “One of the things I said – and it was true – is that we want to say yes to a lot more things,” Carey in­sists.

He was as good as his word. Peo­ple in and around F1 will tell you the pad­dock is def­i­nitely a friend­lier place th­ese days, more re­laxed. Guest passes are no longer used as bar­gain­ing chips to be with­held from teams. More em­pha­sis has been placed on the fan ex­pe­ri­ence. Lib­erty has can­vassed a lot of opin­ions – too many? – spent a small for­tune re­design­ing the F1 logo (in­tended to “re­po­si­tion F1 from a purely mo­tor­sport com­pany to a me­dia and en­ter­tain­ment brand”), re­fined ticket prices, scrapped grid girls, an­nounced a new dig­i­tal platform. Some of th­ese changes have been cos­metic, some over­due. All of them re­flect a de­sire to mod­ernise, to move with the times, to at­tract a new, younger fan­base.

Ev­ery­one is still wait­ing for the over­ar­ch­ing vi­sion, though. As Carey ad­mits: “At the end of the day, there is a lot we’d like to build around F1, but it’s all built on hav­ing great rac­ing.”

The na­tives are get­ting rest­less. Fer­rari are mak­ing their cus­tom­ary pre-Con­corde Agree­ment quit threats. Bernie, out­ra­geously, is stir­ring the pot from be­yond the grave – or at least from his “chair­man emer­i­tus” po­si­tion, which is much the same thing – say­ing Lib­erty should take those threats se­ri­ously.

The sight of Red Bull’s Chris­tian Horner and Fer­rari’s Mau­r­izio Ar­riv­abene openly squab­bling in a press con­fer­ence in Mel­bourne this week was a mere taster for what is to come over the next few months as the sport gears up for its next big rule change in 2021. There are key de­ci­sions to be made on en­gines, on cost caps, on TV rights. Martin Brun­dle, the for­mer racer turned com­men­ta­tor, has de­scribed the next six months as the “most im­por­tant in the his­tory of For­mula One”.

Carey is adamant he can de­liver. He has brought in Ross Brawn, a se­rial win­ner at Fer­rari and Mercedes and a man who has mo­tor­sport in his DNA to over­see the tech­ni­cal over­haul. But Brawn’s first ma­jor move – propos­ing changes to the en­gine rules, stan­dar­d­is­ing cer­tain parts – met with fierce re­sis­tance from the man­u­fac­tur­ers. Fer­rari pres­i­dent Ser­gio Mar­chionne quite lit­er­ally threat­ened to pack up his toys.

“I’m not go­ing to get into hy­po­thet­i­cals,” Carey says of Fer­rari’s threat. “Fer­rari is uniquely im­por­tant to the sport, and we want them to be part of the sport.”

En­gines are just one area of trou­ble. A pro­posed cost cap is an­other. F1 has tried this in the past with­out much suc­cess. Again, though, Carey is adamant it can be done, say­ing there must be “con­se­quences” for those who refuse to com­ply. “From what I’m told about 2010, it was vol­un­tary. There were no con­se­quences,” he says. “That’s a pretty good in­vi­ta­tion to cheat.

“Look, I’m not say­ing there aren’t com­plex­i­ties to it. But I don’t think any­body would sit there and say that what ex­ists today makes sense for what’s be­ing spent.”

Ar­guably Lib­erty’s big­gest prob­lem, though, is the fact that F1 can never re­turn to the pic­ture be­hind him, to its thrilling past. All those things that ap­pealed to fans – the noise, the dan­ger, the sex ap­peal, the larg­erthan-life char­ac­ters – are slowly dis­ap­pear­ing one by one, mostly out of ne­ces­sity, some­times to pacify an eas­ily of­fended pub­lic. Many of F1’s core fans no longer recog­nise the sport they grew up with.

Can Carey find a way of keep­ing enough of those core fans on board, while at­tract­ing new ones, in a com­plex shift­ing me­dia land­scape, while ne­go­ti­at­ing with skit­tish teams?

He smiles. “Bernie and I used to have this de­bate,” he says. “He said, ‘This sport needs a dic­ta­tor’. I said, ‘I think this sport needs a leader’. I think the one thing you can’t do is freeze in time, though – try to freeze it, repack­age it and not change – be­cause the world changes.”

Be­hind him, the cars swoop down the hill to­wards Eau Rouge.

‘We want great races with great mo­ments. We have to put a struc­ture in place for that to hap­pen’

‘We’d like to do a lot, but it is all built on great rac­ing’

Driv­ing force: Chase Carey sees him­self as the leader F1 needs, to rec­on­cile con­flict­ing in­ter­ests and make the sport more at­trac­tive

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