To imagine Formula One without Bernie Ecclestone was far-fetched. However, the last few weeks have shown that nothing is beyond the realm of possibility in the sport, as Mr. E was gently nudged out of his post as chief executive of the Formula One Group by Liberty Media, the new owner of F1.
In the last few months, Formula One has seen some unexpected turn of events, from Nico Rosberg’s retirement to Felipe Massa’s U-turn after calling time on his career, but the exit of the diminutive Englishman will have a great effect on the sport.
For close to four decades, Ecclestone ran F1 with an iron fist, transforming what once looked like a leisure sport with a bunch of amateurs turning up on weekends to race, to a hugely successful, multi-billion-dollar global sport watched by more than 600 million people each year.
After failing to make a mark as a driver — Bernie failed to qualify for the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix — and later managing two drivers, including the 1970 champion, Jochen Rindt, Ecclestone came to the centre stage in the early 1970s when he bought the Brabham team from its co-founder Ron Tauranac.
It was as a team principal and head of the Formula One Constructors’ Association — a union for racing teams — that Ecclestone laid the foundation for his riches, and the ultimate takeover of the sport’s commercial rights. With most team bosses busy running their teams, he took charge of negotiating commercial deals on their behalf. In a sense, Ecclestone was a visionary. He saw the potential of television and sold the F1 TV rights as a package for a season instead of the prevalent practice of selling the rights race-by-race.
Ecclestone, with his negotiating skills, and his legal advisor Max Mosley, who later became the president of FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), the governing body of motor sport, brought some professionalism to the sport with the signing of the first Concorde Agreement, which ensured that a minimum number of cars and teams participated in every race of a season. This helped F1 enhance its commercial value through TV rights and sponsorship, thereby bringing more income to teams and Ecclestone himself. Eventually, Ecclestone managed to buy the F1 commercial rights from the FIA for 100 years for a paltry sum of $313 million.
Ecclestone gradually sold off his shares in the sport, making a lot of money in the process. This also saw the ownership of F1 changing a few times, with the most recent being Liberty Media taking over from CVC Capital Partners for $8 billion.
Though Ecclestone is known for his role in the commercial side of the sport, an area where his influence has been downplayed is with regard to safety. He was instrumental in getting Prof. Sid Watkins on board as the medical delegate to improve the safety standards of F1. The move saved the lives of so many drivers over the past three decades. While the modern spectacle that is Grand Prix racing owes pretty much everything to the 86-year-old former used car dealer’s business acumen and his exceptional deal-making skills, Ecclestone has to also be held responsible for the poor health of the sport whose audiences are dwindling every year. In its quest to make the shareholders happy, the commercial rights holder, headed by Ecclestone, has done little to invest in the sport, be it in the feeder series or promotions. It has also failed to ensure equitable distribution of wealth among the teams.
In a bid to increase the profits of its shareholders, the F1 management (read Ecclestone) even legitimised questionable regimes across the world by awarding Grand Prix rights to them in exchange for exorbitant race hosting fees.
For someone who united the teams to fight for better revenues, Ecclestone has, time and again, been successful with his divide-and-rule method, creating a two-tier structure with a few teams taking away the bulk of the revenues and the rest battling for crumbs.
Another area where the octogenarian has been found wanting is embracing social media and promoting the sport through different mediums at a time when the manner in which content is being consumed is rapidly shifting away from television to mobile devices. Digital media offer the easiest way to promote the sport in the United States — the world’s largest consumer market where F1 is still struggling to build a sizeable base.
Ecclestone’s refusal to anoint a successor wasn’t a wise decision, for when Liberty Media took charge of F1, it decided to act on it immediately. However, it is to Ecclestone’s credit that his job had to be split among three people — Ross Brawn, MD, Motorsports, Sean Bratches, MD, Commercial Operations, and Chase Carey, the CEO — by the new owners of F1.
Though there have been reports of Mr. E trying to form a breakaway series, he would be better off retiring peacefully. In sport, whether it is players or administrators, what really matters is in knowing when to bow out, and Ecclestone has lingered for so long that the F1 fraternity is now happy to see the back of him.
To borrow one of the most popular quotes from the movies, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
THUS SPAKE BERNIE
As much as Bernie Ecclestone is good at making money, the former chief executive of the Formula One Group is also known for his notorious quips. Here is a sampler.
“In a lot of ways, terrible to say this I suppose, but apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people, able to get things done.”
“He should be running Europe. He does what he says he’s gonna do, he gets the job done. I mean people don’t understand exactly what he wants to do ... He wants to put Russia back to what it was.”
Some A-grade misogyny
“Women should be in the kitchen, shouldn’t they? They should wear white, like a domestic appliance, and they shouldn’t be allowed out. You don’t take the washing machine out of the house, do you?”
More on women drivers
“I don’t know whether a woman would physically be able to drive an F1 car quickly, and they wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
“I think Europe is finished — it will be a good place for tourism but little else. Europe is a thing of the past.”