Liberty Media's takeover and the end of an era - what now for Formula One?
With Liberty's takeover of the world's richest sport and the end of the road for its father figure, Bernie Ecclestone, what now for F1?
If anything close to an autocrat has ever existed in sport, you need not look further than the man who, over four decades, single-handedly turned an amateur Sunday racing series into a dazzling global phenomenon – Bernie Ecclestone.
Much of this success comes down to the vice-like grip the supremo has held over the sport, with a firm belief that the only way Formula One can be run is with complete and centralised control. He has never hesitated in making his views on this clear either, most famously declaring his support, as far as Formula One is concerned, for a “dictatorial” form of leadership.
However, the wealth he has amassed for Formula One, now valued at 8 billion USD, wasn’t just created under an iron fist. It isn’t surprising that Ecclestone’s humble beginnings in business dealings were in second-hand car sales, and even less so that those he dealt with were often left powerless by the exceptionally astute, frugal intelligence with which Ecclestone won deals, but somehow had the ability to never make those he did them with aware of it.
And even on a scale from rags to riches as remarkable as his, the DNA of a man doesn’t change. Ecclestone has rather emphatically shown that he is prepared to drop historic tracks (most recently Hockenheim and possibly Silverstone) for races in countries like Russia, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, who are willing to pay inordinate amounts for races.
This doesn’t bode well with many in Formula One, who feel the sport and its fans should come first, rather than decision making clouded in politics and the sole motive of adding digits to a pay cheque.
The widening cracks in Ecclestone’s methods don’t just end there. A one-person leadership model can only sustain itself for so long and with the sport’s rapid development, new organisations such as the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) and Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) have naturally diluted much of the control Ecclestone once had.
All this makes Liberty Media’s takeover a long time coming. Some say that after CVC Capital Partner’s acquisition of 63% of the sport in 2006, Ecclestone’s days at the helm have been numbered. Those in favour of the takeover feel laws in Formula One are far past their time.
At the forefront of the support for Liberty Media’s ownership of Formula One is the reigning world champion, Nico Rosberg. In a tweet just hours after Liberty’s public announcement of the takeover, the recently retired veteran declared his support for Chase Carey, the new chief executive, saying “a change has been overdue,” wishing “Mr. Carey, all the best in making our sport awesome again.”
So what makes so many excited about Liberty’s takeover of a sport that, as a company, they have so little knowledge of? First and foremost, the mass media empire couldn’t have hired anyone better to lead their new think-tank than Ross Brawn, the architect of some of the most dominant championship-winning teams (powering Schumacher to each one of his seven world titles and more recently laying the foundation for Mercedes’ current domination of the sport) in his illustrious career.
What particularly strikes out with Brawn is the clarity of his vision for the sport, and the extent to which he is prepared to go to bring these changes to reality.
Liberty have openly committed to making significant changes to the sport, most of which look extremely promising. This includes evening out the distribution of revenue (which sees teams like Ferrari and McLaren pocket a lion’s share over smaller teams despite no longer winning on track), making racing more competitive and most importantly, creating transparency and collaboration in decision-making.
These mark an important pivot away from Ecclestone’s reign over Formula One. Though these ideas may take at least a few years to come into proper effect, they represent a conscious effort to make the sport more progressive, thereby attracting new teams and the next generation of fans. As someone who genuinely loves the sport, I am most excited for this re-birth of Formula One.
But in the chaos of new owners and (hopefully) a transformed sport, we simply can’t afford to forget Ecclestone’s legacy. Following Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash in 1994 and Jules Bianchi’s freak accident in 2014, swift calls were made to ensure these could never happen again. And in any form of sport, safety has to be the first priority.
However, in recent times, even this appears to be changing. Despite Ecclestone’s veto of the Halo device last year (even after 95% of the drivers voted in favour of its implementation), some form of driver cockpit head protection in the sport is inevitable.
This seems to suggest that for greater rewards, the sport’s new owners need to be bold and make decisions that may go against Formula One ‘tradition’ that has arguably hindered much of Ecclestone’s decision-making.
Looking forward, the biggest concern for me is Liberty’s ability to manage the sport not just over the next five years, but also in the decades to come. Ultimately, as a commercial media company, they’re in the sport for the money and much like Ecclestone’s reign, there could come a time where Formula One becomes stagnant again, and it will be interesting to see how Liberty are able to handle this.
So far, though, signs from Liberty’s leadership look encouraging. But will they really be able to act on their long list of promises?
Only time will tell.