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Analysis: Life after Bernie as dignified departure is confirmed by F1's new owners

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Analysis: Life after Bernie as dignified departure is confirmed by F1's new owners
Jan 23, 2017, 9:54 PM

Bernie Ecclestone is no longer running Formula 1.

Bernie Ecclestone is no longer running Formula 1.

The news - which we foreshadowed here a week ago - was confirmed on Monday night after Ecclestone had earlier in the day called his trusted journalist Michael Schmidt at Auto Motor und Sport to say that he had been "dismissed" and that Chase Carey was now in charge as CEO.

In an official statement on Monday night Ecclestone's tone was more measured and a dignified exit was described for the 86 year old, who has run F1 as a personal fiefdom since the late 1970s, beating rivals like Jean Marie Balestre, Luca di Montezemolo, Ron Dennis, Frank Williams and many others in his time.

But time catches up with everyone sooner or later and it was the right time to go.

F1 has gone down some wrong alleys in recent years and some poor decisions have been made. Bernie was regularly guilty of short term thinking, when F1 was crying out for long term strategy.

But the foundations and reach of F1 are very strong and in the right hands, there is huge potential.

There were two ways this could have ended for Bernie. One would be like the final scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, going out in a final blaze and bringing the whole place down with him, as the opposing forces gained unstoppable momentum. The other is today's more meek and circumspect approach; the corporate and professional statement issued on Monday night, which gives a man who did so many great things over 40 years a dignified way out.

Who knows, this way he may now finally get some recognition from his country, having brought billions of earnings into the UK for the industry and personally and corporately paid hundreds of millions in taxes to HM Revenue and Customs.

Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - Race Day - Abu Dhabi, UAE

Unlike Dennis, who was deposed by his own shareholders at McLaren last year, Ecclestone has been offered the chance to remain as 'Chairman Emeritus' which sounds like a hybrid of a corporate role and something out of an academic institution involving a silken gown. In reality one wonders how much advising he will actually do.

Ecclestone outlasted most of the 'big beasts' of F1 including Montezemolo, Dennis, Flavio Briatore and Max Mosley. Only Williams, who is quite frail these days and Jean Todt, still FIA president and now opening a new chapter with Carey and the Liberty media team, have outlasted him. The others all wanted to, but Bernie outfoxed them.

The £6.4bn deal that completes the takeover of F1 and moves it onto the New York Stock exchange as a listed company has now been concluded and Liberty has moved quickly to end Ecclestone's reign and move onto a new management team. With just over two months to the start of the new season there is much preparation to be done, passes to be issued, new protocols to be put into place.

Ecclestone had become very restrictive with passes in the last couple of years, keeping the levers of power in his hands. Many sponsors and guests were bemused and frustrated by this and the paddock in many glamorous venues seemed unglamorous and sparsely populated. The buzz was not there.

It will be interesting to see whether Liberty set an early target to bring back that buzz and whether Carey is more collaborative and collegiate when it comes to pass allocation for teams and sponsors or whether he too chooses to use them as a currency and a bartering tool.

F1 now enters a new chapter with new faces at the helm. Carey is very highly rated by people in the entertainment and media business and certainly knows what he is doing. One high-up Disney executive this website has spoken to in recent months expressed mild surprise that a man of Carey's experience and calibre would be involved in a car racing series.

But perhaps that reveals the potential that Carey and the Liberty management believe F1 has that it attracts someone like him to be the one to unlock it.

A crucial decision will be whether to pursue Ecclestone's strategy of taking the money but accepting F1 disappears behind a TV paywall, or whether to open it up and monetise it through streaming and other bespoke services.

Ecclestone

The men that Carey will negotiate with at the F1 teams are very different beasts too. The negotiations on the next steps of teams taking shares in F1, of the division of prize money and the regulatory and rule making process will involve the captains of industry behind the big automotive manufacturers, men like Zetsche, Marchionne and Ghosn.

But at the same time, there is a new administration to be bedded in with a commercial and sporting side beneath Carey. Former ESPN executive Sean Bratches has been lined up to run the commercial side. Zak Brown, now heading McLaren, had been identified for that role but took the McLaren job when Dennis was deposed.

Chase Carey, Ross Brawn, Sean Bratches

Ross Brawn has been working for Liberty as a consultant and his conditions were met, one of which was no doubt for Ecclestone to depart the scene, so he has come in to run the sporting side; among his tasks is specifying the F1 car and sporting spectacle of the future. Fans will be encouraged that Brawn is now back in F1 as part of what looks a very strong management team.

F1 moves quickly and within a few hours of the Ecclestone news, Brawn's return as F1's 'saviour' had become the story.

Liaison with the circuits and promoters is another crucial role and it was interesting to see Patrick Allen, former MD of Silverstone, in the F1 paddock at several races at the end of last season. He would not be drawn on what he was doing there, but one could imagine him effectively acting as liaison with promoters.

Bernie Ecclestone
A Photo Jessica Michibata posted of herself with Ecclestone puppet in Suzuka

Bernie's legacy

Many people who were not brave enough to take him on when he was in charge, will no doubt now come out and say all sorts of nasty things about Bernie. He had his own idiosyncratic way of doing things, old fashioned values in many ways. He was seen as an analogue businessman in a digital world.

Ironically he saw the rise of digital earlier than most, investing heavily in the first round of digital TV in the early 2000s, but the product wasn't right at the time and then he didn't see the internet and social media revolution coming nor did he understand it. Or rather, he didn't understand how to make money from it. How could a man like Mark Zuckerberg build a business like Facebook, worth many times what F1 was worth, so quickly and on so seemingly flimsy a premise?

His epitaph in that sense could be that infamous quote about not being interested in the youth market, but rather in 70 year olds as they can afford Rolexes. That line did nothing for him, for F1 or for Rolex. But it's too easy to default to some of his odder statements in recent years.

Ecclestone saw the opportunity to build a global TV sport on the back of a motor racing series peopled by enthusiasts. He pulled it off. As the movie Senna showed through the decade of the Brazilian's career, the quality and professionalism of the sport just kept growing incrementally year on year.

Today F1 is synonymous with excellence and ultra high standards and the impetus for that journey was Bernie.

Many fans will not see it this way and will be glad to see the back of him; they are frustrated by decisions he has taken, for example to take Grands Prix away from cherished venues in favour of bland tracks in countries with no heritage.

Also unpopular were his moves to take live TV coverage away from free to air platforms, making it harder and more expensive for millions of fans to follow the sport. It's popularity has declined as a result, there is no doubt about that and so far the reluctance to fully engage with new online platforms has meant that the younger fans are not coming in to replace those disenfranchised and disillusioned fans further up the age spectrum.

Liberty know how to reach them and a move towards greater fan engagement - albeit at a cost, as this is a listed business now - will be put in place.

Many great men have weaknesses that ordinary people find it hard to understand. One of the frustrations with Bernie was that he didn't seem to care about his legacy, nor sought to lay it out on his terms. Someone may one day erect a statue to Bernie, but he should have invested in an institution of some kind; something like an F1 Hall of Fame or F1 Museum in the centre of London, a world class magnet for fans from around the globe, full of legendary cars, personal driver memorabilia and exclusive items. Or something else that was permanent and grand.

Like anyone who has worked in F1 for 28 years, my own dealings with Bernie range from the sublime; an interview in 1993 about the threat from IndyCar in which in response to my line, "Who said life was fair?" he replied, "Exactly, I mean I don't exactly look like bloody Robert Redford do I?" to the ridiculous - a protracted debate about Brexit over lunch in Montreal last year (Bernie was pro, I was against).

Gordon Murray Bernie Ecclestone

He was tough and often unfair, but even when you were on the wrong side, there was usually humour.

The most impressive thing though was that he was a great listener. He was so successful, in my view, because he never stopped learning. He would watch the increasing number of Chinese and Asian gamblers in his favourite London casino and realise that he needed races in Asia as it was the emerging financial powerhouse.

He would summon you to his motorhome to learn about things he wanted to understand better. I once spent almost an hour with him on race day at Hockenheim on the subject of YouTube and social media. I must have done 70% of the talking. Many others have had the same experience.

How many 86 year old chief executives would be bothered to still be learning at that age?

Now he has to learn some new tricks and I suspect these will be the hardest of all to learn; what to do with yourself when you have retired from being at the epicentre of everything, in a world you created yourself.

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