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
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