My Matters of Moment column in the July issue of Motor Sport includes a few curt observations on the subject of leadership in Formula 1 – or more specifically its alarming absence. The impotent, divisive F1 Strategy Group – oh, how we snort at that name – cannot be trusted to form a coherent framework for the future of Grand Prix racing. Thankfully, as headlines in recent weeks have attested, this fact now seems to be accepted by the majority of sentient beings in the paddock. Hallelujah.
But what is the alternative? After writing my column and seeing the July issue off to press, I mulled the options as I jostled among fellow commuters on the train journey home.
Democracy, as we have seen, lacks conviction. A new Bernie? Well, there isn’t one and there couldn’t possibly be – thankfully. And anyway, F1 these days is ‘owned’. It’s a commodity with shareholders, including a private equity company that demands a sizeable return. No, the feudal era is long gone, as Ecclestone – to his frustration – understands only too well.
But as my train trundled south, from red light to red light as usual, an idea started to ferment. For once, I didn’t resent the grind of the daily commute as the old grey matter toiled away at a structure that might combine the effectiveness of dictatorial control, while respecting the democratic interests of the stakeholders – namely the teams, the promotional rights holder and the regulatory governing body. Here’s what I came up with.
The stakeholders who make up the F1 Strategy Group agree to devolve power to pave the way for a new ‘executive committee’.
As the majority shareholder of Formula One Management, CVC Capital Partners has to be represented – whether we like it or not. But instead of a Donald Mackenzie-type character taking a chair, FOM puts forward a new frontman with a direct relationship with motor racing. I should mention at this point that ‘my’ committee exists in a post-Bernie world…
Under Ecclestone, FOM has been an austere organisation accused of being increasingly out of touch. It’s remained largely analogue in a digital era, if you like, and many a sponsor or switched-on marketeer has been frustrated by the cast-iron constraints within which they must work.
But ‘my’ FOM would be a fully functioning global marketing agency, negotiating race contracts and sponsorship deals as Ecclestone does now, while also freeing up those who invest in the sport to gain a greater return via TV, the internet, traditional print media and directly at the tracks. And at its head, CVC would place a recognisable motor racing figure with a sharp business brain.
Gerhard Berger’s name sprung most quickly to mind, although others have also cropped up. Jonathan Palmer, who has done wonders with his group of circuits in the UK, would be brilliant. So would Prodrive boss, Aston Martin chairman and former World Rally Championship promoter David Richards. Then out of leftfield, how about the Earl of March, the man with the Midas touch at Goodwood? Given what we’ve seen over the years in West Sussex, he’d surely bring a fresh and creative approach to F1, and he understands all too well how to make a bob or two…
Such men would need some prising away from their day jobs, as Lord March made it clear to me with a smile when I asked him directly whether he’d consider such a thing. But with the right staff and structure at ‘my’ F1 agency, perhaps this Chief Operating Officer wouldn’t necessarily need to be full-time.
Along with FOM, governing body the FIA would obviously need representation on the committee. That would have to be the president, Jean Todt. Alongside him would be Charlie Whiting, his technical delegate (now there’s a man who will be hard to replace when the time comes. In F1, his fingerprints are everywhere).
But my next key suggestion is that, while Whiting or his successor would have a role in the framework of technical regulations, others would share the load. A new, independent advisory body would be formed, paid for jointly by the FIA and the promotional rights holder. This would be made up of an elite group of engineers with F1 previous. Names that spring to mind include Gary Anderson, Peter Wright, Patrick Head, John Barnard, Frank Dernie, Alan Jenkins, Sam Michael and Gordon Murray – if he can spare the time from rejuvenating TVR. I’m sure there are others.
This panel would be commissioned to conduct research with a brief to evaluate how F1 can assert itself as the pinnacle of motor sport in terms of performance, while also offering a racing spectacle to match. Heading up this panel would be its chairman – Ross Brawn. He would take his place on the executive committee beside the FIA and FOM representatives.
And the teams? Yes, they would be there, too – but with each team principal taking his/her turn to be their single spokesperson. They would each serve a fixed term – perhaps six months or a year – before handing over to the next. Unlike the F1 Strategy Group, all the teams would take a turn in the chair, not just the ‘grandees’ – and even more significantly, their place on the committee would be non-executive: they wouldn’t have a vote.
This would clearly be the most problematic part of my idea. Individually, the teams admit their self-interest is at the heart of the Strategy Group’s failure – but when push comes to shove, would they really agree to such meaningful devolution? I’d argue it’s time for the FIA and FOM to force their hand and make the decision for them. Again, we return to the question of leadership.
The engine manufacturers and tyre supplier(s) would also take non-executive positions on the committee, sharing the responsibility of representation in the same manner. Their voices should be heard, too, even if they can’t directly influence the regs.
And then we come to the final piece of my structure: the chief executive, who would head the committee and become F1’s frontman. This would be a role of substance, requiring charisma, authority, political acumen and a proven business pedigree, a person with the ability to galvanise the varied interests (and egos) that would sit around the table. I’d argue for a man such as Sepp Blatter…
Sorry, couldn’t resist. I was actually thinking of former Diageo boss Paul Walsh (not the ex-Liverpool and Spurs midfielder), who not so long ago appeared to be in line to succeed Ecclestone. Whoever took the job would need the support of his committee – and bundles of patience. It would be one hell of a job to take on.
Like our ‘F1 manifesto’ of April 2014, the above is intended as a kicking-off point for debate. It’s easy to complain, but it’s tougher to offer a constructive alternative. Let’s begin the conversation.
At Motor Sport we often find ourselves wondering what Jenks would think of modern F1. I can only speculate because sadly I never met Denis Jenkinson, our illustrious former Continental Correspondent, who walked the Grand Prix paddocks and wrote as he found so memorably for 40 years.
I was just starting out when Jenks died in November 1996, and it is a profound regret that I missed the chance to know him. I suspect from what Nigel Roebuck, Alan Henry, Doug Nye and Gordon Cruickshank have told me over the years that most aspects of modern F1 would be abhorrent to the little bearded wonder. But not all – despite his deep knowledge and understanding of racing history, he liked to live in the present and I suspect he’d have been amazed at the intricacies of the modern hybrid.
Unlike most of us who write about the sport, Jenks transcended his position as an observer because of what he’d achieved himself, firstly as Eric Oliver’s partner in world championship motorcycle-and-sidecar glory in 1949 – and most famously as Stirling Moss’s significantly active passenger on the 1955 Mille Miglia.
Their shared feat on the great road race and Jenks’s subsequent report remain the defining episode in this magazine’s 91-year story. It was a long time ago – 60 years – and I like to think we’ve had more than a few high points since then. But let’s face it, none of us can ever hope to top what Jenks experienced and reported in the summer of 1955. That’s why we celebrate an anniversary once again in our latest issue.
We chose not to reprint the famous article this time, largely because it’s readily available at a few clicks via our website. But our package of stories brings fresh perspective and greater context to a magnificent achievement that today can barely be believed. Read Doug Nye’s story taken from Jenks’s diaries, the memories of the female friend who enjoyed an unsung role in the victory, and the additional colour and detail we offer around these accounts: 1000 miles, on wild Italian roads, in little more than 10 hours at an average of almost 100mph… no wonder Grand Prix drivers always cared what Jenks thought, even at his most contrary.
The Mille Miglia story is the context by which we frame everything we report on today. It must never be forgotten.