Just when F1 thought that Nico Rosberg’s shock departure was as high profile as it gets, we’ve been proven wrong. Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s supremo for the past 40 years, was dismissed by the new owners, Liberty Media (now renamed as the Formula One Group).
It is the end of an era – Bernie has been a constant through the undulating path of F1 history. In fact, the one element that has been constant in the ever-changing ‘formula’ of Formula 1 is Bernie Ecclestone.
A tribute to Mr E
Bernie makes for an unlikely figure – only 5 feet 3 inches tall, bespectacled and diminutive (I personally think he resembles Andy Warhol). He’s also had the same haircut since 1980 and is usually spotted around in his trademark white shirt and black trousers attire. That said, Bernie, or Mr E as the paddock calls him, has been the single most important person in Formula 1, running the sport as his own fiefdom. No wonder then that Chase Carey, Ecclestone’s replacement, has labelled him a 'dictator'.
What was it like to work with Bernie? It was always about the deals he was working, pretty much. He has been known to be direct and blunt, sometimes obtuse but always eager to learn. Bernie was notorious for the cheapness he exhibited in his personal life – he once famously said that he didn’t know the price of drinks at hotels, because he refused to buy them. His controversial reputation followed him throughout, including his views on Adolf Hitler and women (who he had compared to domestic appliances).
Motor-racing per say is not new to the world – but what Bernie did was to elevate the status of Formula 1 beyond just the racing. Formula 1 became synonymous with its own brand heady glamour and aspiration, something not many sports in the world have been able to match.
He ensured that the biggest automobile brands raced in Formula 1, from Ferrari to Mercedes, BMW and Renault. In addition, Bernie was able to forge strong relationships with global leaders (case in point is his closeness to Vladamir Putin and his endorsement for Donald Trump) which allowed the sport to find high profile supporters while expanding to new markets.
Bernie’s biggest contribution to Formula 1 has been his foresight and vision for the sport. Thanks to his astute business sense, Bernie was able to turn Formula 1 from a rich man’s pastime to a globally aspirational, commercially profitable sport. In the recent years, he’s done well to take Formula 1 from its traditional stronghold of Europe to new markets in the Middle East & Asia (did someone say Azerbaijan?!)
Admittedly, the last few years have not been the best for Bernie. Liberty Media claim that replacing Bernie was essential because the sport hadn’t grown of late. Viewership has been falling and fans are missing the actual racing spectacle. Ploys like ‘Double Points’ and the elimination based qualifying format were doomed to fail from the start.
Instead of a long-term fix for the sport’s problem, it seemed like Bernie was only focused on fixing issues through a myopic lens, by often resorting to gimmicky methods. He also continued to focus on a television-based business model, even as the world moved to newer digital platforms. Ironically enough, Bernie’s retirement saw #Ecclestone trend world over!
While news of Bernie’s departure has been in the offing, we were surprised by the low-key, almost meek exit that the sport’s most towering personality made. There was no grand farewell – in fact, it seems like Felipe Massa had a grander farewell at his 'fake retirement'.
A new F1 order
Bernie will be replaced by a three-member committee. There’s Chase Carey, with his magnificent moustache, who will function as the CEO. Ross Brawn is the MD, focusing on sporting matters, and Sean Bratches (former ESPN) the Commercial Chief.
Bratches’ appointment is particularly interesting because he comes from a content/digital background, a space that Formula 1 desperately needs leadership in. It’s funny to note that 86-year-old Bernie will now be replaced by three much younger men – Carey (aged 63) and Brawn (aged 62). We hope they are ready for the job at such a young age and for a sport that is desperately trying to appeal to younger audiences.
Bernie himself will remain Chairman Emeritus, though it remains to be seen how much of the role is only on paper. There’s also likely to be a full army of sponsorship and marketing people being hired – shockingly enough, F1 currently has only one person working on sponsorship acquisition and nobody dedicated to marketing.
We have some clues about what work lies ahead for the new committee. For starters, they have spoken extensively about making Grand Prix a Super Bowl kind of event, bringing together sport and the spectacle – the ‘Americanisation’ of Formula 1?
More races in America are likely (hello Las Vegas!) as is increased focus on the European heartland, possibly at the cost of some of the newer circuits in Asia. The prize money structure is tipped to change (Ferrari could lose their historic team tag and preference!), and F1 could soon be leveraging digital media better. Brawn has also spoken about having a long-term plan for the sport and moving away from knee jerk reactions.
Perhaps the biggest task that the new leadership has is strengthening the entire ecosystem of Formula 1, and not just the sport itself. Specifically the smaller teams and circuit owners, who have gotten a raw deal in the past, while the so-called iconic teams made merry. As for the fans, a move towards a more competitive field will certainly be appealing. We hope the days of single-team dominance will leave Formula 1 for good.
Updated Date: Jan 26, 2017 12:34:48 IST