Bernie Ecclestone says he wants to tear up the Formula 1 rule book and start again. He can’t do it, of course, which is why these things are being said in public, to create impressions. It’s true that he does want change, but this is only because the mess that he created does not currently work the way he wants it to work.
In truth, the ZDF TV interview that he did with Max Mosley really exposed the fact that he can no longer force solutions. He is still powerful in lots of ways, but he has allowed himself to become ensnared in the very thing that he doesn’t believe in: democracy. He gave away his powers in exchange for deals that have kept the money flowing in, but he is now paying the price for them. The teams have chipped away at the money and the governance and Bernie has his hands tied. CVC knows that and wants out. The bonanza is over. They want a huge price to pass on the baton, but the buyers need to be wary and understand exactly what they are taking on. Perhaps that is why Bernie is pointing it out to them – to drive them away. He doesn’t really care who owns the sport if he’s still in charge. That is his game.
It is important to say that there are solutions to all these problems, the problem is that the solutions are not to Bernie’s taste. There are still plenty of ways for the sport to develop financially, with a little investment, here and there, but above all with the cooperation of the teams. If they all worked together in a business sense, they would all make more money. That works in NASCAR. They race on the track and work together off it. They are not divided and conquered, they work with the owners in a constructive way. They work like a corporation. They also work with the circuit owners, rather than simply exploiting them.
The F1 rule book is fine, it just needs a few tweaks. The engines are exactly what F1 needs. They are relevant and the research is useful for the industry. Car manufacturers need to reduce emissions, not just to “save the world” but also to meet stringent government standards. F1 is still cheap when one looks at the R&D spending in the automobile industry. The problem is that there need to be rules that can be policed about engine supplies to customers, and price caps on engine bills. More manufacturers would come if the sport changed its image.
For the teams an overall budget cap would be sensible and a redistribution of revenues would be wise. And if Ferrari and others rattle their sabres and say they will leave, let them. They know they won’t. It makes no sense. There is no alternative.
Perhaps there is a case for an independent engine supplier, but someone has to pay for that. If F1 will not do it, who will? It is possible, but only if the owners stop taking every penny out of the sport. Yes, people say that these people exist to make money. I’m sure that’s right, but let them make money in pipe factories and dog food manufacturing, rather than ruining the sport that millions love.
In the end, when you boil it all down, it is not the rule book that needs tearing up, it is the commercial and governance deals that Ecclestone, Jean Todt and some of the teams have struck. They have to go. The governing body should govern and stay out of the commercial side of the sport. If the FIA wants to be a road safety body, fine, let them do road safety, but they should create an independent sporting arm to look after the sport. The teams should accept that it is wise for them to properly share the revenues. Yes, perhaps there should be some bonuses for good results, but the belief that the sport should pay Ferrari because of its “star” value is simply flawed. The “star” value will generate revenues elsewhere, from sponsorships, from merchandising and from car sales.
And the commercial rights people, they should have a smaller share but be contracted to promote the sport, looking at ways for the growth to be sustainable in the long term and not simply ripping cash out of the back door. New revenues from other things could mean a switch back to free-to-air TV, or at least to sensible content bundling on popular cable networks, it could mean lower race fees that would allow cheaper tickets and more money to invest to improve stadiums and make fan experience better. It could also means that the races would go to where they should be from a strategic point of view, rather than to places where the governments will pay huge sums to try to buy whatever it is they think they are buying.
To achieve all of this will not be easy, it will require executives with vision and energy, not yes-men who are frightened of their own shadows. The European Commission could help the sport to achieve these goals, but a new owner with vision is probably the right answer, so long as they understand what they are doing…