F1 preview: Gearing up for life after Bernie

Matt Majendie 10:00 22/03/2017
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Bernie Ecclestone

The curtain has closed on the Bernie Ecclestone years and a new era dawns for Formula 1 in Australia.

There is uncertainty quite what direction the sport will go in partly because the sport’s new owners, Liberty Media, have kept their cards close to their chest since paying $8 billion to buy the product that is F1.

Initially, the man tasked with heading Liberty’s operation, Chase Carey, intimated that Ecclestone would be integral to the sport going forward in the near future at the very least.

But working closely with the octogenarian as the purchase edged ever closely, he realised ties had to be severed entirely – and quite brutally – with F1’s long-term supremo, some would say dictator.

Carey admits he still talks to Ecclestone once or twice a week, which is understandable considering the puppet strings he held over the sport for so long from the minutiae of allocating paddock passes to the big-bucks race deals.

Ecclestone still intends to attend half the races – although Australia won’t be one of them in his role of chairman emeritus – although he does not take too kindly to it.

In the build-up to the first race of F1’s new era, Ecclestone said: “The last thing I am is an ambassador. I’d be a bad one actually,” and he makes clear that the new owners wanted “to get rid of the Bernie era”.

Instead, he will stir from the outside looking in, as he already has done, likening his time at the helm to “a five-star Michelin restaurant” and, with a dig at the new US bosses of the sport, “not a hamburger joint”.

Quite what the future lies in store for F1, no one really knows, some critics even suggesting that is the case for Liberty Media too.

Carey is not an F1 aficionado. Whereas Ecclestone climbed through the ranks of the sport, Carey only attended his first F1 race in September but he is business savvy having formerly worked as Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man.

But the 62-year-old with the bushy moustache has at least given some hints to what lies ahead in terms of what happened during F1 testing in Barcelona in recent weeks.

There, teams were permitted to use social media to reveal clips of their cars and pit crews in action – a monstrous no, no of the Ecclestone years. It indicated greater freedom for teams and drivers alike but also backed up a previous pledge by Liberty that they would push the digital platform much more.

Such an approach is understandable. F1 wants a younger audience and that is the appeal of a business which globally has seen television viewing figures fall by 200 million since 2008.

Liberty want to make their own mark on the sport, as Carey said in a recent interview, “we clearly want to run the business in a different way”.

F1’s new hierarchy testifies to just that. Instead of just Ecclestone at the top, Carey will be CEO but flanked by two right-hand men: Sean Bratches as managing director of commercial operations, and Ross Brawn, the former Mercedes team principal, as managing director of the sport. In addition, there are plans afoot to double F1’s workforce from a fairly meagre 70.

F1’s most iconic brand, Ferrari, have bought into it – quite literally by buying Liberty Media stock, and other teams have been invited to buy into the same model.

The brief noises that Carey has made in public are partly of evolution, partly revolution.

This week, he told The Times newspaper: “The top line I’ve heard multiple times is that the racing needs to be more exciting and less predictable. The rules have become very complicated. Engineers have overtaken the drivers, so we need to push the drivers back to the forefront.”

More broadly, he adds: “We’re not just shifting ten degrees. We really want to create a new way of doing business and a new culture with a broader universe we deal with.”

One assumes amid the soundbites, Carey has a master plan for F1 for Melbourne and beyond.

The former team owner Eddie Jordan said “goodbye and good riddance Bernie” in a jokey take on the end of the Ecclestone era last week before pointing out the work Ecclestone had done in making Jordan and other’s rich from the sport.

But Jordan also echoed the sentiments of many others: “Thank you Bernie for everything but the sport needs a change.”

What the change proves to be will come clearer from one race weekend to the next.

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