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Imagining Formula 1 and Its Future After Bernie Ecclestone

Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2014

Imagining Formula 1 and Its Future After Bernie Ecclestone

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    Luca Bruno/Associated Press

    Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone has been involved in the sport since 1957, as a manager, driver (it's true!), team owner and executive. But he will (probably) not be around forever.

    He is currently facing a criminal trial in Germany and, if convicted, his reign at the top of the F1 world will end. He is also 83 years old, an age when most people have long-since retired, even if they are not worth $3.8 billion.

    Ecclestone is such a force in the sport, and has been for more than half a century, that it is difficult to imagine F1 without him.

    If you are wondering, though, here are five things that may change and questions that will need to be answered once Ecclestone is no longer at the helm.

A Return to Formula 1's Historical Home?

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    Ecclestone at the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix.
    Ecclestone at the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix.Associated Press

    In 1998, there were 16 races in the F1 season. Eleven were in Europe, two in South America, plus one in Canada, Japan and Australia.

    By 2013, there were 19 races. Only seven were in Europe and, with Ecclestone chasing ever-increasing race hosting fees, eight were in Asia. France, the birthplace of grand prix racing, no longer has an F1 race, but the desert along the coast of the Persian Gulf has two.

    Ecclestone has built F1 into a revenue-producing juggernaut, at least for the sport's shareholders, but it has often been at the expense of the sport's European base. 

    Some variety is good, and there have been notable successes in the recent global expansion—Malaysia springs to mind. Holding several races each year in front of half-empty grandstands in countries with no motor racing tradition but lots of cash rankles the most diehard fans.

    For 2014, the Indian and Korean Grands Prix have been removed from the calendar. The Russian Grand Prix has been added, with a new circuit being built in Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

    Even better, the Austrian Grand Prix returns for the first time since 2003. The track's exciting, high-speed layout is unchanged, although it has been renamed from the A1-Ring to the Red Bull Ring.

    The Mexican Grand Prix also seems to be on the way back, at least for as long as Carlos Slim is financing 10 percent of the grid or so.

    Will 2014 mark the beginning of a new trend, with the F1 calendar slowly shifting back toward Europe and the New World?

    That question will likely be answered by Ecclestone's successor. Speaking of which...

Who Is Ecclestone's Successor?

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    Ecclestone and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.
    Ecclestone and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

    Before the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix, there was a ripple in the F1 world when Ecclestone said that Red Bull team principal Christian Horner would make a good replacement whenever he decided (or was forced) to leave the sport.
     
    Many other names have been thrown around as well. However, the simple fact is that no one knows who will replace Ecclestone. Or whether he even can be replaced.
     
    Horner is an unlikely option. He is so closely associated with Red Bull that there would be an outcry from the other teams over the (apparent) conflict of interest if he were given Ecclestone's role. For the same reason, we can probably eliminate anyone else currently working within F1. 
     
    That fits with what Christian Sylt wrote in The Telegraph last July, when he quoted "a source close to CVC" as saying, "The business is too small to have a successor lurking in the ranks. The successor almost certainly has to come from externally."
     
    A more likely scenario is the one laid out by Mark Gallagher, a former executive at Cosworth, who told The Telegraph's Daniel Johnson:

    [F1] will be run much more by a collective management, and I can see it being structured quite differently. In five years’ time, you may well see a director of Formula One TV, someone for race organisations, someone for central marketing, and so on.

No More Handshake Deals

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    Ecclestone and FIA President Jean Todt.
    Ecclestone and FIA President Jean Todt.Vladimir Rys/Getty Images

    Ecclestone is well-known for sealing his contracts with a handshake. For example, when Paul Crowder, director of the recent F1 documentary 1, was pitching the film to Ecclestone, "He shook our hand after the meeting and said ‘I’m a man of my word,’ and that was it," Crowder told Motor Sport Magazine.

    Whenever Ecclestone does leave F1, the days of handshake deals will be at an end. It is not likely that one man will ever again wield the kind of power Ecclestone does in the sport, so future decisions will have to be approved at multiple levels.

    In many ways, this should be a positive change. Right now, Ecclestone decides what he thinks is best for the sport and has it implemented (see: final race, double points). Dissenting voices, including those of the fans, are largely ignored.

    In a less autocratic regime, without Ecclestone in control, changes to the sport will hopefully receive a more thorough vetting procedure, to the benefit of everyone involved.

Embracing New Media

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    Twitter

    Formula One may be one of the most technologically-advanced sports in the world, but you would not know it from its use of the media (and new media tools, in particular).

    Things are slowly getting better, but one cannot help but think that the process would be sped up without an 83-year-old, handshake deal-maker running the show.

    In recent years, the official F1 website has actually evolved into a very informative, user-friendly and content-driven site. However, if the sport is worried about attracting younger fans, it needs to go where they are—social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

    But F1 does not have official Twitter or Facebook accounts. The Twitter account attached to the above photo claims to be official, but is not verified and is not linked to from the official F1 website.

    That any global company in 2014 can be without even a basic social media presence is shocking. But Ecclestone is more worried about signing the next big TV contract or race-hosting agreement than he is about engaging the fans that pay for those deals.

    A post-Ecclestone F1 will almost certainly enter into the 21st century in terms of its online presence. The sport will have no choice if it hopes to engage the next generation of fans.

The Future of the Commercial Rights

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    Team principal press conference at the 2013 Canadian Grand Prix.
    Team principal press conference at the 2013 Canadian Grand Prix.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    In 2001, Ecclestone convinced the FIA to lease F1's commercial rights to his company, Formula One Management (FOM).

    FOM, as part of the Formula One Group, is owned by a number of shareholders, primarily large private equity firms (CVC Capital Partners owns the largest share).

    These shareholders are extracting every last dollar they can from the sport, at the expense of the teams. The Telegraph's Tom Cary reported that CVC, "took a $865 million (£538 million) dividend in 2012."  

    That is money that could have helped the many teams struggling financially. But the goal of the shareholders is the health of their portfolios, not the health of the sport.

    Last year, Joe Saward wrote that the FIA had been looking for a way to end the lease agreement early, but that a more likely option might be "for the FIA to create an independent trust-like structure to buy the rights back by borrowing money against future earnings."

    As long as Ecclestone is in the picture, he would probably oppose such a deal. He has built the sport into what it is today and would not willingly part with it.

    With him gone, though, the deal Saward proposes could make everyone happy. The shareholders would cash out with a big return on their investment and the FIA would have a big influx of cash to ensure the financial security of F1, as well as its other motorsport initiatives.

     

    Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert

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