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Bernie Ecclestone replaced as F1 boss
Liberty Media completes £6.4bn takeover of Formula One, while Ross Brawn returns
Nothing lasts forever. Not even, it seems, Bernie Ecclestone’s reign over Formula One.
Even seasoned F1 observers who know better than to write off the sport’s indefatigable CEO figured the game might finally be up when US entertainment giant Liberty Media announced its takeover plans last September. With the remaining financial and regulatory obstacles cleared, the £6.4bn deal is now complete, and Liberty’s battle plan for a new F1 is swiftly taking shape. Chase Carey, who spent the last few Grands Prix schmoozing team bosses and FIA grandees, has assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer, to go with Chairman. Bernie Ecclestone now rejoices in the job title chairman emeritus and will also act as an adviser to the board. In reality, this is the equivalent of a gold carriage clock.
Speaking unofficially to German magazine AMS, the man himself declared: “I was dismissed. This is official. I no longer run the company. My position has been taken by Chase Carey.” Officially, he had this to say: “I’m very pleased that the business has been acquired by Liberty and that it intends to invest in the future of F1. I am sure that Chase will execute his role in a way that will benefit the sport.” Read between the lines and you’ll find a gap the size of the Grand Canyon.
As part of a series of official statements from Liberty, the new boss commented: “I am excited to be taking on the additional role of CEO. F1 has huge multiple untapped opportunities. I have enjoyed hearing from the fans, teams, FIA, promoters and sponsors on their ideas and hopes for the sport. I would like to 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.”
That last point is moot, to say the least. At 86, and after almost four decades of, ahem, unique control, it’s difficult to see why Bernie would want to continue. Already wealthy from his time as a car dealer in London’s Warren Street area in the 1950s, Ecclestone’s entry into motor racing began as a competitor, then driver manager. By the late 1970s, he owned and ran the Brabham team, but as an inveterate wheeler-dealer he quickly realised that the golden path lay in parlaying F1 into a global television spectacle. This entailed the sort of deal-making he thrived on, but that the other, more racing-focused team owners found to be a distraction. By the mid-1990s, Bernie had secured the commercial rights to a sport that was riding high on sponsorship dollars, promoter interest, and worldwide TV audiences eclipsed only by the Olympics and football. He became astoundingly wealthy as a result, but was also careful to enrich other key figures in the paddock. As the good times rolled, who among them would complain at the more eccentric aspects of his leadership? For his part, Bernie never hid his admiration for some of history’s most profoundly unsavoury characters: dictators were people who got things done. He delighted in starting fires simply so he could put them out.
With his departure F1 bids farewell to one of the biggest personalities in global sport
He also found a willing partner in former FIA President Max Mosley, concocting a legal framework that both suited and perpetuated the deliberately engineered dysfunction of F1. This, most would argue, reached its zenith in 2000 when Mosley agreed to grant Ecclestone’s FOM organisation the commercial rights to F1 for 110 years for just £287m (an absurd period of time for a fraction of what it should have been). He also began to alienate fans by playing hardball with treasured F1 venues such as Silverstone, Spa and Monza, preferring to take the sport into well-known motor racing territories like South Korea, India, and Russia in return for huge stipends from central government. TG.com has also spoken to leading F1 figures who bemoaned the inequitable division of prize money: the big teams have thrived, but the days of an F1 ‘minnow’ winning or graduating to the top table are a distant memory.
This, not to mention the bribery scandal that led to a trial in Germany in 2014, is not the sort of thing that will have played well with F1’s new owners. Liberty Media is in the entertainment business, and the new CEO Carey has talked of improving the sport’s reach in the digital era, issued emollient statements about the importance of its European heartland, and is of course keen to do the one thing Bernie never truly managed: break F1 in the US.
We’ll see. Be under no illusion, though, this a big day for F1 fans. The return of Ross Brawn, who will oversee the racing side and knows better than anyone where F1’s problems lie – and how to fix them – demonstrates shrewd judgment on Liberty’s part. A former ESPN vice president, Sean Bratches, will handle the commercial aspects. It’s a new dawn. However, for those of us who met or did business with Bernie Ecclestone, it’s impossible not to feel at least a twinge of regret. There has never been a man like him, and we’ll certainly never see his like again. The modern media and business world wouldn’t allow it, and with his departure F1 bids farewell to one of the biggest personalities in global sport.
“I’m no teacher,” he told Top Gear in an interview last year. “And I think, you know, the way I do things would be difficult to teach somebody to do. They need to get another good used car dealer. That’s what they need. Find a good car dealer.”