Formula 1 might be as lost without Bernie Ecclestone as it would without Ferrari, but it’s a reality the sport has to face – and perhaps sooner than the former second-hand car salesman would like.
The confirmation that German prosecutors have indicted Ecclestone on a charge of bribery should, by any other measure, already have made his position untenable. But this is F1. CVC Capital Partners, the private equity group that is the majority shareholder of F1’s commercial rights and by whom Ecclestone is employed, doesn’t have the expertise to run what it owns.
It needs the unique knowledge of its chief executive if it is to continue creaming from the top of its significant investment.
CVC has admitted, “The Board of Formula One Group (Delta Topco Ltd)… will continue to monitor developments” in the case. Its tacit support for Ecclestone remains, but the door for Bernie to leave the building is now ajar.
Ecclestone faces a charge of bribing jailed German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to the tune of $44m (£28m) during the sale of family shares in F1 to CVC in 2006. He has already admitted making payments, but claims he was being blackmailed over false UK tax allegations. Rather than face the difficulties of an Inland Revenue inquiry, he says it was easier to pay off the banker. Ecclestone could face prison, if found guilty.
But the more pertinent point for F1 is who will take over the reins of a sport that, in terms of all-important global TV viewership figures, is second only to football. Even if Ecclestone is cleared, he’ll be 83 in October. The burning question grows hotter by the week.
We continue to be amazed that a business of F1’s size can float along without an obvious succession plan. Speaking of floats, CVC’s already-postponed stock exchange ambitions will have to go on hold until the case is resolved. Above that, the teams still have no influence over their own destinies. The saga of the long-delayed new Concorde Agreement continues with no apparent end in sight. Without a binding document of governance, the constructors – including three of the world’s leading car manufacturers – remain powerless over a sport in which they make by far the most significant contribution. That, of course, suits Ecclestone very well.
The consensus in F1 is that Bernie is irreplaceable and, whenever he does go, F1 could find itself run by committee. There might be a frontman, a captain of industry rather than a motor sport insider, but he or she won’t carry the power and influence of a man who has personally negotiated and signed every major deal in F1 for more than 30 years.
As IndyCar found to its terrible cost in the US, motor racing run by committee tends to be a disaster. So, better the devil you know than no devil at all? In the short term, very possibly. Privately, one team boss admits he’s never known F1 to be in such an anarchic state as it is right now – a remarkable statement given the turmoil during the final stages of Max Mosley’s reign as FIA president.
At the outcome of this court case, perhaps CVC will take the opportunity to cash in its chips and sell its remaining shares – but probably only to another financial group more interested in revenue than the sport’s welfare. In an ideal world, it could be time for the teams to claw back some influence. If together they could gain some leverage, a democratically elected leader, serving the sport with no financial stake and on a fixed term, would surely protect their interests and those of Grand Prix racing so much better.
But the failure of the Formula One Teams Association, a body that held genuine influence before Red Bull and Ferrari withdrew, is definitive proof that in-fighting and self-interest will always scupper genuine cooperation between these competing entities. The teams cannot be relied upon to lead F1 with a single voice.
So who can? Certainly not the FIA, which – lest we forget – sold off the commercial rights to Ecclestone for 100 years and for a fraction of what they were worth back in 2000, thus starting this sorry state of affairs. As Jean Todt would remind us, he’s at the head of a regulatory body that has no remit for commercial responsibilities. Not his problem, apparently. What a disappointing president he is turning out to be.
So… the teams are facing the economic burden of the biggest rules shake-up in F1 history with the advent of the new turbo powertrains, and find themselves in the hands of faceless financial institutions that have anything but their best interests at heart.
When you step back and think about it, the situation is desperate.
What a month it’s been. The 90th anniversary Le Mans 24 Hours kept us gripped, as promised, but was overshadowed by tragedy. We pay tribute to Aston Martin GT driver Allan Simonsen on page 22. Then, as Nigel Roebuck discusses on page 50, F1 ‘dodged a bullet’ at the British Grand Prix with exploding Pirellis that threatened to halt the race. Aside from the alarming tyre failures, it was good to see the old airfield track bathed in sunshine on race day after the debacle of 2012. When the weather plays ball during the British GP, Silverstone is a fine place to be. If it rains, watch on TV!
The 20th anniversary Goodwood Festival of Speed was as good as any we can remember, the highlight for Motor Sport being the special podcast recording in the drivers’ club. You don’t often hear Nelson Piquet and Emerson Fittipaldi interviewed together, but you can if you log on to our website.
While you’re there, I’d like to invite you to take part in a reader survey. Last summer we invited Motor Sport readers to tell us what they think about every aspect of the magazine, and the findings were invaluable as we began to plan the changes we’ve introduced this year. Now you can tell us directly what you think of them! I can assure you, we’ll read every response. And for an added incentive, those who take part will be entered into a draw to win a pair of tickets to our summer barbeque with
Sir Stirling Moss. For more details on the event at the Hurlingham Club, turn to page 120.
Duke Ellington aficionado Mike Doodson has been covering Formula 1 since the world was a more informal place. He once had to knock on the door of a soon-to-depart aeroplane to be allowed on board. The cabin crew opened it, too. Adam Cooper’s passion for the sport is no secret, but his interest in music and film is extensive, too. When he received the offer of an advisory role on the Hunt/Lauda movie Rush, he didn’t need asking twice. Anthony Peacock has worked in both F1 and the World Rally Championship in recent years – and in the latter role has got to know Sébastien Loeb better than most. It shows, as you’ll find out on page 108. And, yes, Andrew Frankel’s mush appears here yet again. It’s hardly a surprise, when people keep offering him beautiful cars to drive…