Better the devil you know
Some day soon it's all going to change. The little but-very-big man who runs the show will have had enough. And Formula 1 had better start thinking ahead.
When in the mid-1970s Bernard Charles Ecclestone set out on his path to effective world domination I doubt future legacies were in his thoughts.
Transforming Formula 1 ’70s-style – a scruffy but enthusiastic bunch of garagistes who raced hard but had little time for politics, plans or marketing strategy – into today’s global behemoth generating billions of dollars and watched by half a billion fans was, is, and always will be down to the diminutive, silver-haired, workaholic Englishman.
Now in his eighties, even Bernie will find that time waits for no man. Whether it’s Ecclestone’s decision or not, when he packs his bags for the last time Formula 1 had better have a future strategy ready to get the green light.
Trouble is, no one seems to have a plan. Sure, there have been rumours as to who might want control: Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News Corporation is one; Turin-based investment company Exor (controlled by Gianni Agnelli’s scion John Elkann) is another; and Formula 1 is apparently also on the radar of the Mexican multi-billionaire Slim family.
Each and every time one or more parties is linked with purchasing the rights to F1, Ecclestone appears to either out-think or out-flank the suitors for his prize. As yet he has remained at least one step ahead of the game.
It’s not hard to see why some of the world’s wealthiest men are keen on owning the sport. F1 has an almost unparalleled global reach. With the 20 race weekends watched by an audience reputed to be in the hundreds of millions, only the Olympics and the (football) World Cup come close – and no-one can buy them, so the competition is only set to heat up.
Whoever’s billions of dollars wins the race there appears – throughout the F1 paddock – to be a completely misguided conception that the ‘new’ owners will rule with a more cuddly, kinder and convivial mindset.
Bernie – for his sins – is at heart a racing man through and through, competing behind the wheel long before he realised the sport’s commercial potential. Though he may appear cold, heartless and sometimes old-fashioned, just below the hard-edged exterior is a man who loves ‘his’ sport and (most of) those in it.
You’ve got a question for him, Bernie will listen. He may not always say ‘Yes’ but it’s a set-in-stone guarantee he’ll return a phone call or fax. Ecclestone doesn’t do emails.
No major investor – once the Ecclestone era ends – is going to care one iota about the sport and what it means to you and me. He, she or they will of course care about turning a rapidly realised profit – and a healthy one at that.
20 grands prix a year will seem like child’s play once we’ve got NASCAR-like 34- race schedules to enjoy… And don’t expect any of it to be on terrestrial TV.
So next time you hear F1’s (current) supremo sounding a little glib, possibly heartless or a trifle uncaring, be careful what you wish for. You may be wanting him back sooner than you think…
Better the devil you know…