Bernie Ecclestone is the man who is credited with making Formula 1 what it is today. That is very true. Obviously the teams and drivers all played their roles – and the FIA, and the media. But it was Bernie who banged heads together and made things happen. If it had been left to others there would still be arguments going on now – and F1 would probably be as popular as hovercraft racing.
It must also be said that Ecclestone took advantage of the sport. He grabbed control of the commercial rights, with the assistance of Max Mosley, because others did not have the balls or the nous to see the potential. He turned F1 into a money-making machine. This was good for him, good for his investors, good enough for the teams, but it was not quite as good for the fans. He made a lot of people into millionaires, some even deserved it. But the fans paid… or got fed up and left.
Bernie never worried much about the fans. As long as there were promoters to pay the fees and TV companies willing to foot the bill, it did not much matter whether the grandstands were filled or not. He always said that empty grandstands were the fault of the race promoters. He did not care about merchandising. He was not “a teeshirt salesman”.
Race fees grew so much that no promoter could break even if they relied solely on the grandstand tickets sold. Those who pushed up ticket prices to try to balance the books were doing it wrong. The way forward was to get the local authorities to pay. They were the ones who gained most from races, but they were never keen on sinking public money into a what was seen as a rich sport. Offer these people an Olympic Games or a soccer World Cup and they would sell the family silver (and their mothers) to get one. This annoyed Bernie, and rightly so, because some would argue that F1 is far better way to promote a city or a region than a one-off two weeks of Olympic action. It is an interesting argument. A Grand Prix happens each year and so keeps the city/region in the spotlight, an Olympic Games is instant history, but it fades quickly.
Bernie was always a fast-mover. He did deals and moved on, and on, and on. He feathered his own nest along the way, but things got complicated when he did a deal with a bunch of over-enthusiastic Germans called EM.TV. They got their sums wrong and were swallowed by a bigger empire called Kirch. Leo Kirch also got it wrong and so F1 ended up being owned by a bunch of banks. That was no good at all. Banks generally lack imagination and entrepreneurial flair. Ecclestone worked a deal to win back control – the deal that is now being closely examined in Bavaria – and since he did that things have been pretty stable. Too much money leaves the sport, bound for the be-suited wunderkinds that Bernie had to jump into bed with to wrest control of the sport from the bankers. The suits have more or less let him do as he pleases, but as the Bavarian problem has loomed larger, they have begun to look at themselves in the magic mirror and the reply to the question of “who is fairest of them all?” is not “You are.” That has worried them. Ecclestone is not the Snow White that once he was and, although they would never admit it, they are now looking for a new princess. Bernie stood tall, but is there a replacement amongst the dwarfs in F1?
Although the troubles in Bavaria are foremost in their minds, the suits at CVC know that at some point they are going to have to deal with the problem. Having a CEO with 82 years to his name is not a situation that encourages longterm thinking… They do not really care, but only up to a point. A financier is a financier. Money always comes first and if they feel that the money supply is threatened then they will act. There have been hints for some time that CVC has been casting around for future CEOs for the Formula One group. Bernie Ecclestone is unique, so it is pointless trying to find someone to fill those boots, but who is say that the same boots must be filled?
A CEO needs only to have the charisma to control the divisions in a corporation. The divisional heads need to be the right people, but they must kowtow to the boss. There is no reason why a second superman needs to be found.
I don’t play golf with the CVC types, and I don’t know any journalist who does, but what I do know is that the time is coming when they have to face the mirror again. CVC wants to look solid and brilliant to the pension fund managers who give them money, and thus one can see them thinking that change is a good idea. From a financier’s viewpoint, it would be better to have Ecclestone step aside graciously before any potential trouble comes from Bavaria. That looks like good estate-planning, as opposed to post-crisis hand-to-mouthing.
It really all depends on whether they think that things will go bad in Bavaria.