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Formula One is a castle build on sand, and Bernie Ecclestone is to blame

by December 17, 2016 General

One reason why Bernie Ecclestone feels so ideologically wedded to Donald Trump lies in their shared devotion to the ‘art of the deal’ – even if the US president-elect owes the intellectual copyright for that concept, as with much else, to his ghostwriter. Deals are their elixir, their power-sustaining joy, often to the exclusion of any long-term thinking.

Ecclestone, indubitably, is the most prolific deal-maker in the history of professional sport, having signed contracts worth $25 billion AUD over his career. But it is time to ask whether Formula One, the empire that the 86-year-old has moulded into a one-man gerontocracy, is merely a castle built on sand.

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By degrees, the fabric of the sport is fraying. From 2018, the Malaysia Grand Prix will disappear, the country’s government having decided that it provides an inadequate return on a $91 million-a-year investment. Moneyed Singapore could soon follow suit. Before long, the only places prepared to bankroll these races will be Middle East plutocracies or despotic regimes, rather like Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijan, desperate for a fig-leaf of legitimacy from fast cars.

Often, for such a sophisticated enterprise, it is ineptly marketed. In the British Grand Prix, it has the best attended event on Britain’s sporting calendar, attracting up to 140,000 on race day. And yet outside Silverstone, it can be difficult to discern that it is even happening. It is testament to the deficiencies of the sport’s wider promotion that the National Football League makes a louder noise out of regular-season gridiron games, creating a miniature Mardi Gras on Regent Street, than F1 can manage with its greatest cash cow.

Enter Chase Carey. Privately, this charismatic American mogul with the twirly moustache looks askance at the byzantine business he has inherited, after Liberty Media completed its takeover of F1 for $8 billion. For example, he expects, as a former president of 21st Century Fox, to see slick digital presentation as a cornerstone of any major sport’s efforts to project itself to the world.

In F1, however, these attempts can be laughably amateurish. It was not until last season’s final grand prix in Abu Dhabi that the sport sought to galvanise a younger demographic by staging a Facebook Live event in the paddock, but even then three of the four drivers invited – Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button – left before the end, citing boredom. Only Max Verstappen, the teenage phenomenon who has recognised the imperative for his sport to broaden its appeal, engaged fully with the idea.

Reticent to change: Ecclestone has sought big money deals with countries for Formula One races, instead of marketing the existing races.

Reticent to change: Ecclestone has sought big money deals with countries for Formula One races, instead of marketing the existing races. Photo: Mark Thompson

Carey’s detractors claim that he is not a true F1 purist, that he does not know enough people, that he threatens to dilute the sport’s soul. Surely, though, he cannot trade off any more of its identity than Ecclestone already has by denuding the schedule in western Europe, its historic heartland, in favour of chasing the fattest cheques from Bahrain, China or any other government with a dubious human rights record.

Sold: Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone sold the sport to Liberty Media this year. Sold: Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone sold the sport to Liberty Media this year. Photo: Mark Thompson

Sometimes, it takes an outsider to show up F1 as the incestuous, self-serving world it is. Carey reflects that he was looking for a T-shirt for his son at last season’s Monaco Grand Prix but could not find one anywhere among the designer boutiques of Avenue Princesse Grace. Such is the lunacy of a sport that mollycoddles the millionaires but pays barely any need to the desires of the average consumer. The 21-race roster in 2016, which mandated a grand prix in Montreal seven days before the next one in Baku, nine time zones away, was one that respected only those who had a private plane to hand (namely, Ecclestone).

One truth unacknowledged for far too long in F1 is that a sport lives or dies by its personalities. At one of his receptions, Ecclestone declared that Lewis Hamilton was the finest world champion since James Hunt. You could see his argument: they share the same flamboyance, the same volatility, the same capacity for mischief, the same power to captivate audiences far beyond the hardcore petrolheads.

Carey is fond of using a comment by Bobby Epstein, chief executive of the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, that neatly captures this idea. “People connect with people,” Epstein said. “They don’t connect with metal.”

Would that F1 could find a way to channel such wisdom, to understand that younger fans care not about front-wing aerodynamics or the rate of degradation of Pirelli supersofts, but about the personalities of the drivers themselves.

Hamilton, in tune with modern youth to a degree that Ecclestone could never comprehend, knows this. In Japan, he flounced away from a press conference, having become so jaundiced by the exercise that he drew mock rabbit ears on himself and other drivers, using a mobile phone app. This was less a slight on the journalists present than a protest against the turgid structure of the traditional Thursday press briefing. “Could this interview be any more boring?” he wrote.

Man of the future: Chase Carey (right) will bring Formula One into the digital age.

Man of the future: Chase Carey (right) will bring Formula One into the digital age. Photo: Mark Thompson

The point is that he is right. Drivers detest these affairs because of their regimented format, while journalists find that the spectacle of six young men sitting like ducks in a row yields little penetrating insight. Still, F1 blindly persists, for no better reason that this is how it has always been done.

Ecclestone abhors any innovations he perceives as gimmicky. “I don’t know why people want to get to the so-called young generation,” he said. “I’d rather get to the 70-year-old guy who has plenty of cash.”

There, surely, is the perfect expression of his executive remoteness. By contrast, if Carey has his way, he will have the cars parading through London’s West End during Silverstone week and the music playlist on Hamilton’s iPhone streamed via social media.

Such ruses illustrate how the Ecclestone model of relentless short-termism has had its day. Carey, with his resistance to dictatorship and his dash of American verve, could yet be the man to drag F1 kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

The Telegraph, London