Life, Liberty and the pursuit of F1
For years many of us have worried about Formula 1’s future after it was sold by Bernie Ecclestone and CVC Capital Partners. Most people expected the worst possible deal for the sport but in fact it appears that Ecclestone has sold F1 to the best possible suitor in John Malone and Liberty Media.
Malone is a longtime serious player in the media business. He was CEO of cable and media giant Tele-Communications Inc (TCI) from 1973-96 and is now chairman and majority owner of Liberty Media, Liberty Global and Liberty Interactive as well as owning 49 per cent of Starz Inc and 29 per cent of Discovery Communications.
A mark of Malone’s cojones and tenacity is that he once battled with Rupert Murdoch for control of the News Corporation. Malone accumulated 32 percent of the News Corporation’s shares in 2005 before Murdoch ousted him from the company.
The 75-year-old is also the largest individual private landowner in the United States, owning 2.1 million acres of land, most of it in the state of Maine, and owns Humewood Castle in Ireland. He is also a renowned philanthropist giving more than $70 million to Yale University and donating more than $90 million to the John Hopkins Engineering School to construct a building in his father’s name. He has also donated $42.5 million to Colorado State University for stem cell research and operates the Malone Family Foundation which provides scholarship endowments to 38 private schools across the United States.
It’s believed that Malone and his new F1 boss Chase Carey will substantially expand F1’s TV presence in America and around the world. It’s also said they will find ways to broaden and monetise F1’s social media platforms, a riddle that Bernie Ecclestone admits he’s been unable to solve.
Some people believe Liberty will launch its own Formula 1 TV channel in America. Certainly F1’s American TV show needs to be completely reinvented. Ratings in America are poor, drawing about half a million viewers for most races. This is better than IndyCar, but that’s not saying much.
Over the past 10 years US auto racing as a whole has been losing TV market share. NASCAR remains by far the biggest form of American racing, but it too has been suffering a constant decline in recent years, steadily losing crowds and TV ratings. Even NASCAR has tallied record low ratings this year with three to four million viewers for most races.
Another thing Malone must tackle is bringing some American talent to F1. If F1 is to become more popular in the USA it’s essential to have an American star such as Phil Hill and Dan Gurney in the Sixties or Mario Andretti in the Seventies. Hill, Gurney and Andretti were true international stars racing all types of cars around the world, and there was huge US media coverage of F1 and long-distance sports car racing in the decades they were active.
But since Andretti’s departure from F1 in 1982 American fans and media have had little or nothing to cheer for or cover. It’s stunning to record, in fact, that Mario scored the last Grand Prix win by an American driver at the Dutch GP in 1978 – that’s thirty-eight years ago. And the last time an American team won an F1 race came the year before when Alan Jones won the Austrian GP aboard a Shadow.
Over the last three and a half decades America has been largely absent from F1. Michael Andretti half-heartedly tackled F1 with McLaren in 1993 but failed to finish the year. He made the podium but once, finishing third at the Italian GP in what proved to be his last F1 race. Twenty-three years have passed since that day without another American coming close to an F1 podium.
Without doubt the most talented young American open-wheel racer of the moment is Josef Newgarden who has won IndyCar races in the past two years. Newgarden raced in the UK and Europe in 2008, ’09 and ’10 in Formula Ford and GP3 cars before returning home to win the Indy Lights championship in 2011. He’s shown tremendous ability in the past two years with Ed Carpenter’s small but very effective team fighting with Penske and Ganassi’s four-car superteams in many races and occasionally beating them. Malone must do everything he can to get Newgarden into a top F1 team.
He must also develop a young American driver scholarship system similar to Red Bull’s in Europe. Jeremy Shaw’s Team USA scholarship program does a great job of getting young drivers early opportunities to race in Europe, and Malone should embrace and expand Shaw’s effort to sponsor young American talent all the way up the ladder from GP3 and F3 to GP2. Without a well-planned system and strong commercial backing there’s no hope for young American drivers in
Europe, or Formula 1.
Another matter for Malone is that F1 needs to put on a more competitive show if it’s to thrive in America, which means fielding more quality teams and cars. Like it or not, NASCAR sets the standard with a thundering field of 40 cars and more than 20 teams. F1 will have to head more in that direction if it’s to build a serious following in America.
It will also be interesting to see if Malone can use his clout to establish an additional American F1 race or two on the east or west coast. Ecclestone has always dreamed of races in Las Vegas and New York City, but many people believe a race will never happen in New York thanks to the thicket of local politics and the immense costs of putting on such an event.
“I think this is a very good move for Formula 1 and particularly for those of us in the USA,” said Long Beach GP founder Chris Pook. “Liberty in my opinion was very smart to keep Bernard in place for the three years so they really can understand the details and difficulties of the business. Liberty has bought into a very strong and partially undeveloped asset. Being the smart business people they are, they will want to understand the business a lot better before they make any substantial moves. The bottom line is that this is good for F1 and good for F1’s prospects in the USA.”