International racing

Bernie loses his grip on F1

A look back on Bernie Ecclestone's extraordinary rise to power and the legacy that he leaves behind

So it’s happened. Bernie Ecclestone is no longer running F1. Liberty Media’s Chase Carey takes over with immediate effect and Bernie has an honorary title that Liberty surely hopes will keep him from making mischief. But who knows?

It concludes one of the most remarkable sports or business stories ever told, over three decades running the show and transforming it from a minority interest activity into a global phenomenon. He did it so successfully, in fact, made it so commercially devastating that it eventually fell out of his hands. 

But not before he’d bought and sold it several times over. His ideal customers each time were people who just wanted in on the gravy train, who thought they could afford a stake, but without having any real knowledge of the sport behind it or the slightest intention of trying to run it. Thereby leaving Bernie in the driving seat. 

Credit to Bernie, he kept finding them. Some went bust trying to hang on, banks took over the assets, a banker went to jail, Bernie found others to buy the creditors’ slices and the whole thing just kept ballooning. CVC, the private equity company, did a brave deal in buying the commercial rights a decade ago when there wasn’t a legal company to be found that was prepared to state categorically that the 100-year duration of those rights was legally sound. It decided to risk it anyway and made one of the all-time great business deals. 

Bernie wasn’t the villain in those rights being leased out to him by the FIA for such an outrageously long period and drastically under-valued fee. But once it was done, the worst of the commercial excesses followed. He was simply a businessman – and a brilliant one – being a businessman. 

Had the original plan of floating F1 on the Singapore stock exchange after a few years played out, Bernie would probably still be in charge. But the old-school way of doing 21st-century business caught up with him. There’s never a good time to be on trial for bribery but in the midst of the attempted float was particularly unfortunate. This left CVC a few years to find a purchaser, which duly came along in the form of Liberty. But a media company was always going to be buying with the intention of developing the business, with its own very clear ideas of how it was going to do that. That was an ill fit with the one-man entrepreneur model. 

So the inevitable has played out. At 86 years old, you still wouldn’t want to negotiate a deal with him and he can look back on what he has achieved with enormous pride – but that’s not in his nature. He needs a task, a target, needs always to be moving towards the next one. Off the scale intelligence, not the slightest trace of vanity and a totally left-field character, some of his deals have lessened the sport in recent years, but he leaves having overseen far more that’s positive than negative. And even when he was intimating threats to you as a journalist – he suggested he might like to see me imprisoned without trial once – you still couldn’t help but like him and be amused by him. 

Ross Brawn was a man that Bernie never warmed to. Too clever perhaps, too unmoved by his implicit menacing threat? The feeling was mutual, as Ross makes clear in his recent book. But Ecclestone’s departure has paved the way for Brawn to officially take up the role that it always looked like he was made for – to run the sporting arm of F1. His title is Managing Director, Motorsport and there isn’t anyone more savvy, strategic, intelligent and well-intentioned. He doesn’t replace Bernie – no one person could. But the sport is in vastly safer hands than it was just a few months ago. Very exciting times.

Life after Bernie the new power structure

John Malone 

Chairman, Liberty Media

Nicknamed Darth Vader on Wall Street due to his cut-throat tactics, Malone, 75 is a reclusive billionaire and the largest land owner in America. He has a doctorate in operations research – the use of advanced analytical methods for decision-making – and uses it to simultaneously bamboozle rivals and maintain control over his business empire. He should fit right in with F1 – of which he is now the ultimate owner.

Chase Carey 

Chairman and CEO, Formula 1 

The luxuriously moustachioed sports fan is a tough negotiator who was entrusted by Rupert Murdoch to successfully land a $1bn NFL rights deal for 21st Century Fox where he was vice president. The 63-year-old has replaced Bernie Ecclestone as CEO and is now responsible for the overall direction and running of the sport, while reporting directly to Malone.  

Ross Brawn

Managing director, motorsport, F1 

One of the most brilliant engineers and strategists of his generation, the ex-Ferrari technical director has played a part in 20 world titles and knows the inner workings of the sport better than anybody. Universally respected by the teams Brawn, 62, will be responsible for conceiving new ways to make F1 a better spectacle on the racetrack and ensuring that it is financially viable for smaller teams.  

Sean Bratches 

Managing director, commercial operations, F1 

A relative unknown in Britain, Bratches worked his way up the ranks at ESPN from account exec to executive vice president sales and marketing, helping transform it from a scrappy cable player into one of the world’s biggest sports media brands. A keen lacross player (it’s big in the States) he will be expected to upgrade F1’s archaic media platforms, making the sport more engaging for a digital audience. Both Bratches and Brawn will report to Carey. 

The Bernie we knew

Damon Hill

Formula 1 world champion and former president of the British Racing Drivers' Club

"My father always taught me not to say anything if I couldn’t say something positive. Fortunately, with Bernie, one can say many positive things as well as being critical. His style was Brutalist. If he was a doctor, Bernie would break bad news to you like this: ‘You’re sick. You’re going to die. Next!’ Similarly, his humour revealed a chilling Machiavellian view of life. But he was not above laughing at himself, if he thought it would win you over. Invariably, it did.

Being devoid of sentimentality enabled him to make decisions that most people would dither over for years. This was his brilliance. He was the fastest thinker in F1. His cleverness impressed all those who would otherwise resent his power over them.  And he had a vision of where he wanted F1 to be in 10 years time, when all the rest could do was argue over who got what and went nowhere. I know he won’t see it like this, thinking always of tomorrow, but he achieved all his goals and more. He actually crossed the chequered flag ages ago. 

Congratulations, Bernie. You won.”

Derek Warwick

Current president of the British Racing Drivers' Club and former Brabham F1 driver

"I drove for Bernie at Brabham in 1986 and I can tell you he was the same then as he is now: he demanded the best, he was stubborn, he drove a hard bargain and when he had agreed something he expected both sides to stick to it.  That has been difficult in recent years with the Silverstone agreement where he has been unsympathetic, but as a person I will miss him. 

He has been such a great driver of Formula 1 in this country and around the world. He has been an inspiration to everyone involved in the sport and made people up their game, whether that’s drivers, teams, hospitality
staff and even journalists. If you look at the high standards around the paddock in F1 a lot of that is down
to Bernie – he is almost OCD
about standards. 

It was the same in 1986: I remember going to Gordon Murray’s office at Brabham and Bernie had tilted all the blinds at exactly 45 degrees to let in just the right amount of sunlight – and removed the chains”.

David Richards

Chairman of Prodrive and former team principle of BAR and Benetton

"He will always have his detractors but nobody can dispute the fact that without Bernie we wouldn’t have Formula 1 as it is today. This country owes him an enormous debt of gratitude for making Britain the centre of the Formula 1 industry, and whilst his focus was always on promoting F1 the trickledown effect has benefited every other sector of the sport in this country, right down to karting.

On a personal level he can be most amusing and great company with a sharp wit, and he loves winding people up! I remember once having lunch with him, many years ago, when he had just sold a number of rather expensive cars to someone up north. As always, he had negotiated a very good price but just to wind up the buyer he arranged for someone to telephone and let him know that Bernie was so pleased with the price he would be sending his private jet to pick up the drivers who would be collecting the cars.”

Maurice Hamilton

Motor racing correspondent for the Observer between 1990-2010

"I – and many others – owe him a great deal. I would never have succeeded as an F1 journalist if Bernie hadn’t built the platform that made the sport such a compelling subject for media outlets. He was a scary man to deal with – the soft voice that somehow carried a hint of menace mixed with a ready wit and sharp mind – and yet I liked him a lot. 

Bernie used the powerful tool of having people in his debt – which is why I kept him at arm’s length and maintained what I hope was a professional relationship. I’d like to think he appreciated that; certainly he never came back at me despite the critical observations that were warranted from time to time. In fact, I got the impression he did certain things just for devilment, to see how you would react. But overall – and to use his favourite expression – he got things done, even if you didn’t always agree with his methods. 

The sad thing is Bernie will be remembered for some daft stuff in recent years. His contribution otherwise has been immense. I’m glad I was there to witness it because we’ll never see his like again. The man was an absolute one-off.”

Ginetta to build LMP1 car

Ginetta is the latest constructor to reveal plans to enter the LMP1 privateer ranks of the World Endurance Championship as interest grows in the category. 

The Yorkshire-based company is developing a P1 car for the 2018 season and has recruited British design legend Adrian Reynard to lead aerodynamic development. It is aiming to have multiple cars on the WEC grid in the hands of works-assisted teams. The announcement follows the news late last year that BR Engineering, sister company to Russian entrant SMP Racing, has started work on a P1 privateer project for 2018 in conjunction with Italian constructor Dallara and the French ART team. 

The plans mean that Ginetta is on course to return to the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time since 2010 when it badged Zytek LMP1 and P2 chassis at a time when Ginetta boss Lawrence Tomlinson held a stake in the British engineering group.

Tomlinson said: “It is a great opportunity for us. LMP1 is an open category in terms of design, and that’s what motivated us. It is what prototype racing should be about.”

Tomlinson explained that he was also motivated to put a British prototype on the grid at Le Mans. The four- constructor limit in LMP2 means that Gibson (nee Zytek) will disappear from the WEC and leave no British-built cars in either P1 or P2. 

Ginetta had been evaluating a P1 project since it failed in its bid to gain one of the licences to build LMP2 cars to the new rules that come into force this season. Its unsuccessful tender followed its move into the new LMP3 class at the start of the 2015 season. 

“We’ve been working on this for a while and are quite a way down the road already,” he said. “It is a big deal to have someone like Adrian involved with all his experience.”

The aerodynamics of the new Ginetta will be developed at Reynard’s Auto Research Center facility in the USA, who helped in the development of the Ford GT that claimed GTE Pro honours at Le Mans last year. 

Reynard explained that he was motivated to get involved in the Ginetta project by the freedom allowed in the P1 regulations. 

“LMP1 is one of the last bastions of free enterprise in terms of design left in motor racing,” said the 65-year-old, whose Reynard Racing Cars concern built customer racing cars for a range of categories from Formula Ford to Champ Car from 1973 to 2001. “There is still sufficient scope for innovation, and that’s what I like, even though I’m credited with founding one-make formula racing with Vauxhall Lotus [introduced in 1988].” 

Ginetta has yet to make a decision on the engine that will power its first batch of six cars. Tomlinson revealed that he is in discussions with a number of suppliers, including Mecachrome and Honda Performance Development. 

Manor signs up

The Manor WEC squad – run by the former bosses of the Formula 1 operation of the same name, John Booth and Graeme Lowdon – has become the first team to outline plans to run the Ginetta in 2018 alongside a continued presence in LMP2.

“We believe that 2018 could be the right time to enter as a privateer,” said Lowdon. “We’ve been talking to Ginetta for some time and think that a P1 programme will play to our strengths as a group that has previously built its own cars [in Formula 1].”

Lowdon said the P1 plans were dependent on “making the P1 business model work” and on finding the necessary finance. 

Tomlinson claimed that there was “significant interest” from teams about running the Ginetta P1 car, which has yet to be given a type number. He said he was hopeful of having a trio of two-car teams on the grid in 2018.

Rebellion watching on

Rebellion Racing, the top non-factory P1 team in the five-year history of the reborn WEC, has revealed that it is watching developments in the class following its move to the LMP2 class for the coming season.  

“We’re keeping an eye on what’s going on,” said Rebellion team principal Bart Hayden. “We always said that we could go back to P1, but it depends a lot on the other projects being talked about coming to fruition and what happens with the factory cars. We’ve long supported the privateer P1 class and I do see us returning at some point.”

Rebellion’s move to P2, announced last October, leaves the German-based ByKolles squad as the only P1 privateer likely to be on the 2017 entry list when it is published on February 2.

WEC promoter and Le Mans organiser the Automobile Club de l’Ouest instigated a push to attract more non-factory teams in LMP1 between the 2015 and ’16 seasons. The drive followed a fall in the number of privateer P1 cars on the grid. There were only three in last year’s WEC, just half the number that started the relaunch season of the series in 2012. 

 ACO sporting director Vincent Beaumesnil, who described attracting more independents as his “top priority” at the start of last season, revealed that more announcements were expected for 2018. 

“The Ginetta news is another good sign for the LMP1 class and we are confident that we will have a good grid of privateers in 2018,” he said. “We believe that the rules we have put in place are having a positive effect.”