It may not appear to some to be anything other than stating the obvious, but from all my years in F1, the current malaise appears to be a crisis beyond that anything the sport has faced previously.
Yes – historically teams have come and gone in the triple digit numbers, regulation changes have caused uproar, changes to points scoring systems have incensed Formula One fans and bitter public fights to defend self interest have a rich and well catalogued history.
But something is changing. After thirty plus years watching and being involved in Formula One, I can assure you there is an intangible sense of something new in the air.
Ecclestone is more vocal then ever, and even at times is being overtly publicly defensive, which again is something most unusual.
In a strange way, the F1 commission has made Bernie more impotent than ever before. In times of yore, a fire starts and Bernie is able to move quickly to put it out. This may have required him to be authoritative and pull some strings and issue favours, but the job got gone and on we moved.
This was all actioned without a particular forum for democratic expression and maybe it was a case of sitting down with Luca de Montezemolo and giving in a little to Ferrari’s demands to gain support from Formula One’s most historic and powerful team.
The next move would be to persuade Max Mosley of the need to act. Again, Ecclestone may have had to give a little go get what he wanted, but with the FIA and Ferrari on board – the job got done.
Now, Bernie and FOM have an official seat at the table on the F1 Strategy Group, which we may have thought would add strength and legitimacy to Ecclestone’s elbow, but in actuality, it appears the effect has been the opposite.
Instead of being able to strong arm F1’s most powerful team and gain the consensus of the regulator to act, now everything ends up back with the strategy group. The result is impasse after impasse and he death of reactive action, by committee.
Ecclestone has made some interesting confessions recently, which have the resonance of a desperate man. Following the threatened boycott in Austin, Bernie admitted maybe he was in part culpable for the way Formula One distributed its income.
However, he was quick to mitigate his position and point the finger at the current system.
In days gone by, Ecclestone has dipped into the coffers of F1 to save teams on the brink of extension – notably Jordan. However, the demise of Marussia and Caterham invoked criticism from Eddie Jordan, who questioned why Bernie had not acted now in a similar manner as he had done with Jordan.
Ecclestone responded by explaining the recent commercial deals signed following the previous cessation of the Concorde agreement, and the inequitable distribution of income is not a path he alone chose to walk.
“If the company [FOM] belonged to me I would have done things in a different way because it would have been my money I was dealing with.”
Ecclestone then pointedly commented. “I work for people who are in the business to make money.”
We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of this split or division between Bernie and CVC. After all Donald McKenzie attended Bernie’s trial in London and before Judge Newey he declared if his CEO was ever found guilty of corruption charges, Ecclestone would be dismissed.
Following this civil law suit, CVC clipped Ecclestone’s wings. He was forced to resign as director from a plethora of the FOM group companies, and McKenzie publically stated, the final decisions on most F1 matters previously handled unilaterally by Bernie, would now require he seek approval from the CVC board.
Worthy of note is that, since Ecclestone’s ‘acquittal’ from the subsequent criminal corruption case in Munich, he has not had any of his previous directorships reinstated.
During the course of 2014, we have heard repeated and scathing criticism of the new Formula One engines from FOM’s CEO, to the point that he has commented on more than one occasion, that the race promoters ‘signed up for something they’re not getting’. This occurred most recently in Austin, live on SKY and with promoter Bobby Epstein by his side.
In fact the scale of Ecclestone’s negativity toward Formula One’s current iteration has been epic by proportion with that of any other CEO of a global organisation.
As was suggested in the TJ13 DN&C yesterday, we probably have to go back to the early 1990’s to find a CEO who was capable of damaging the brand he represented so substantially when Gerald Ratner described his companies products as “crap”.
It is inconceivable that any CEO of a global operation in this day and age could criticise and belittle their own organisation to the extent we have seen from Ecclestone – and the shareholders not have voted overwhelmingly to remove their executive.
Speculating as to why CVC are putting up with this scorched earth policy from their CEO, only leads us in one direction. The reasons why this behaviour is tolerated can only mean one thing, CVC fear what Ecclestone may do should they remove him.
Yet the party line from the establishment, which includes team principals and respected F1 journalists with decades of experience within the sport – is that only Bernie can keep the F1 show on the road, and without him there would be chaos.
Renewing existing race promoters deals, bringing on board new race venues and the associated cash together with negotiating TV and broadcasting rights – is in actuality the job of lawyers on the CVC payroll. This is not what makes Ecclestone apparently indispensible.
Where Bernie has hard earned his crust, is by smoothing troubled waters, finding solutions for the warring self obsessed parties and in his word’s, “putting out fires”, which is something he admitted in his extensive recent interview is almost a daily task.
However, Ecclestone is no longer able to do these things. His ‘innovative’ solutions are no longer possible, whether that be buying silence or agreement, manipulating key players to present a united front or simply demanding ‘order’ – to which the response was always compliance.
Further, the established and respectived figures in Formula One are masking Ecclestone’s weakness, by excusing his frequent banal and asinine comments – as ‘just Bernie’s sense of humour’.
It may well be that CVC are prepared to see the value of their investment in F1 disappear down the toilet due to Ecclestone’s rants; maybe they are pragmatic over the profits they’ve already made – and cannot act to prevent this due to a position of weakness.
However, what is certain is that Bernie can no more force the clock back – bring back the V8’s – resolve the gross inequality of the distribution of funds amongst the teams – negotiate a solution over the engine freeze war – or even keep the broadcasters happy.
Ecclestone knows as in other sports, the TV companies will not accept a season which is over well before the last scheduled event – hence double points in Abu Dhabi.
Yet Bernie never wanted double points for Abu Dhabi alone, he argued for the system to be applicable for last three races. This was on the back of Vettel domination during the final 9 races of 2013 and the associated loss of interest amongst the TV viewers.
Many sports now have artificial season ending systems, which deliver in most cases, a season finale where the annual winner is decided not to far in advance of the last event.
And this is what the TV broadcasters are demanding from F1.
There were a number of intensive meetings between Bernie and the teams in Brazil, and on the agenda was Ecclestone’s wish to see the double points extended beyond the final race of the season.
“One race is stupid”, he said, “but imagine if it was the last three races. It means that somebody would have to have a 150-point advantage minimum [prior to these three races which are the season’s finale] to be sure they will win. The teams have not accepted it because they are bloody idiots. They are all mechanics. They think of their team in the short term.”
To retain the double points system, Ecclestone now requires a majority on the F1 strategy group – and he is clearly not receiving their support.
Bernie in resigned fashion remarked, “I’m not going to propose the three races again. I’m going to let them get on with it. I don’t know what we’re going to do next year.”
The daily F1 news is filled with notions of 3 car teams, a GP1 and F1 series running side by side in the same races, customer cars, emergency changes to the engine regulations, a lack of communal responsibility, teams going to the wall, teams threatening race boycotts, diminishing TV audiences, a lack of sponsors wishing to associate with Formula One…. The list goes on and on…. And with no resolution on any front in sight.
This is all evidence of anarchy in Formula One, never seen on such a grand scale before. It points to the lack of a voice of authority, a visionary, a leader, and it has never been more starkly evident than it is now.
Ecclestone is not this person. He candidly described his modus operandi in the interview TJ13 reported upon yesterday.
“I run the business from day to day. I get up in the morning and I don’t really know what is going to happen I’m a firefighter. When fires start, I have to put them out and we’re always having fires”.
Ecclestone’s days are definitely numbered and a tipping point is imminent – within the next 12 months. Though what lies beyond is intriguing. Will Jean Todt step up to the plate and stamp his authority on the Armageddon being enacted? If so, it will be the first sign of leadership we have seen from the FIA since Todt’s election as president.
Maybe Le Presidente is waiting for the sport to teeter on the edge of the precipice, and then bring a range of powerful proposals to the World Motor Sport Council for enactment, that will radically change the way the sport is run. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
What is more likely is that the current malaise and the numerous impasses amongst the F1 players will find no satisfactory conclusion, and the delusion that ‘Bernie will sort it all out’ will prevail until the shockwave arrives – that this time – something changed for ever.
The day, the F1 music died.