There is a battle royal raging in Formula One at present. Bernie Ecclestone is facing a collapse in the sport’s audience and his response is to blame the power unit manufacturers – particularly Mercedes. “The domination of Mercedes is so strong that a good number of people watch the start of a race and then switch off their televisions because Mercedes have made races boring,” Ecclestone told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
“It is not good for the sport. Fans don’t want to know before the start of a Grand Prix who is going to win. It’s a problem for us at the moment and one that we must resolve.”
And it appears many F1 fans agree with Bernie. In a damning verdict, 215,000 fans scored the pinnacle of motorsport as ‘boring’ in the GPDA backed poll earlier this year. F1 supporters also said the sport had gone from “exciting” to “boring” in just five years.
Speaking to the Xinhua news agency, Lewis Hamilton suggests Ecclestone’s rhetoric is questionable. “In the end he has to say something. But if he’s only bored now, he should look at what’s happened over the past 20-30 years”. Hamilton goes on to observe Formula One has seen periods of domination many times before, citing Ferrari, McLaren and Williams eras of success. Lewis also comments that some of these periods of domination were extended, and by comparison Mercedes has been at the top for just two years.
Ecclestone is pushing for a ‘budget’ engine in Formula One, which in reality would be more like the old V8’s the sport abandoned two years ago. Bernie believes the new hybrid engines are the cause of all the sport’s woes and apparently a ‘budget’ engine will get the fans tuning in again.
Yet is this really the case? Isn’t the advent of pay-per-view TV significantly responsible for the meteoric decline in TV audiences?
Despite Lewis Hamilton winning back to back F1 driver titles, the 2015 UK TV viewing figures hit an eight year low. According to the F1Broadcasting blog, Sky’s viewer numbers fell 20% from 2014-15, whilst the BBC’s suffered less with a loss of just 3.6% of their viewers over the same period.
These statistics in themselves tell a tale.
Ferrari have been fighting back hard this week to counter the ‘manufacturers are bad for F1’ agenda being pushed by Ecclestone, who suddenly appears to be a convert to the cause of cost control. “For decades, we have tried to limit financial operations to guarantee more competitiveness,” explained Ecclestone as once again he lobbied for a ‘budget’ power train.
Ferrari have written to the FIA about the recent mandate given to Ecclestone and Todt. This in effect means the duo can make whatever decisions they think ‘necessary’ without gaining agreement through the proper governance channels. Ferrari argue it’s “intention is simply to make sure that the governance principles” established by Ecclestone and the FIA and agreed with other stakeholders in F1 “continue to be duly complied with”
Ecclestone’s flippant response was as follows. “The only thing we could do is to ignore what Ferrari have said and carry on with it and say: ‘You’ve got a choice – you can leave or go to arbitration and see what the arbitrators think. I think if we went to arbitration, we’d win easy.”
Sergio Marchionne said at the weekend, if Formula One becomes like NASCAR, Ferrari will withdraw from the sport anyway – and probably take most of the current PU manufacturers with them. And in the latest thrust in the battle for hearts and F1 minds, Maranello’s latest offering comes from team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene. He believes F1 could learn a lot from MotoGP on ho0w the sport is run and how their manufacturers are treated.
“There is a great respect for manufacturers in the motorbike world so there is a different methodology. Things are agreed upon together, things are negotiated with all the relevant stakeholders, so decisions are fully shared and taken quickly.
“The federation then takes this on board.
“It is a different approach and attitude, so they really try and come up with quick changes in order to adapt to public taste. They are reactive to listen very carefully, to change and react quickly, involving the relevant stakeholders.
“There is also a great level of respect for the engine manufacturers.”
Sergio Marchionne also emphasised the theme of developing the F1 regulations in a coordinated fashion along with a thinly veiled threat during his Christmas address in Maranello. “It’s a choice that we obviously do not share, because we believe that the development of the regulations should be done in a coordinated manner. This view is also shared by the Mercedes and Renault. Here we spend hundreds of millions of Euros, so we are talking about decisions that should not be taken lightly.
“The problem is that in trying to create a power unit that is more affordable for smaller teams, we are in a way taking away from those organisations that are able to develop. And that is the reason why we go racing. We go to the track to prove to ourselves and to everyone our ability to manage the power unit. If we begin to undermine this advantage, Ferrari has no intention of racing”.
It appears if Bernie gets his way, F1 is set to lose its manufacturers and the unicorn budget engine will see 15 teams and 30 plus cars on the grid once more.
Then again, owning the rights to the F1 brand – but having a series that in no way looks anything like Formula One did before – may be worth even less than the current ‘new’ invisible F1 investors believe.