Bernie Ecclestone, Interlagos, 2016

Only one thing mattered in the Ecclestone era

CommentPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Bernie Ecclestone’s attitude to Formula One was probably best summed up by one of the men now charged with the immense task of replacing him. “He certainly doesn’t like other people making money out of Formula One,” remarked Ross Brawn last year.

This is true and so its corollary: that Ecclestone very much enjoyed being the one who made the most money out of Formula One.

This week’s news that Ecclestone is stepping down as F1’s commercial chief was not unexpected but was no less immense for it. Many of us have never experienced F1 without Ecclestone at the top of the pyramid.

Reams have already been written in the wake of Ecclestone’s exit. More ink will be spilled on his entrepreneurial savvy, his fastidiousness, his controversial quotes, his work ethic, his impish sense of humour and the rest.

‘Like him or loathe him, he made Formula One what it is’ goes the most banal and obvious assessment of Ecclestone. But did he make F1 something better than it would have been? By organising and professionalising Formula One, did Ecclestone improve it?

To ask such questions is to miss the point. To Ecclestone, making more money out of F1 was the only way to improve it. Any other metric, be it television audience figures or crowd numbers, were secondary to the all-consuming goal of raising revenue.

Bernie Ecclestone, Interlagos, 2016
“Life’s a game and money keeps the score”
For most of us, earning money is a means to an end. We do it so we can live our lives the way we choose to. For Ecclestone, making money is an end in itself. “Life’s a game and money keeps the score,” is his philosophy.

That pursuit of money has driven him since he started out selling cakes he’d bought from a local bakery to his fellow schoolchildren seven decades ago to flogging multi-year race contracts to governments for nine-figure sums. Viewed this way it becomes easy to appreciate how Ecclestone first worked towards F1’s benefit, then worked against it.

In the seventies and eighties Ecclestone made F1 more profitable by improving its organisation and making it more professional. Sid Watkins was brought in to improve safety standards. The F1 we recognise today emerged from the haphazard grouping of races which previously formed the world championship.

A lot of people got rich. But Ecclestone made sure he got richer than everyone. “No profit, no fun,” goes another Ecclestone mantra.

Not unreasonably, Ecclestone pointed out that he was getting his due for takings risks others did not. Sometimes this was true: his attempt to set up a digital television service in the late nineties was a rare example of him getting ahead of the curve.

If he’d adopted the same attitude to the internet he would have been hailed as a visionary. But to Ecclestone there was no tangible bottom line. As always, money was the deciding factor.

So it was no surprise that Ecclestone was unable to recognise when his pursuit of ever-greater riches was no longer aligned with F1’s best interests. The CVC deal was the ultimate expression of that: the holding company sucked billions in profit out of Formula One but to Ecclestone as long as he remained in charge nothing was amiss.

Start, Hungaroring, 2001
Ecclestone threatened ‘scorched earth’ if he was replaced
“If anyone ever tries to grab Formula One I’ll do a ‘scorched earth’,” he said in the early 2000s. “I’ll make sure there’s nothing left after I’ve gone.” Followers of the sport would be forgiven for thinking this is exactly what he was doing by secretly pricing all but the wealthiest teams out and inflicting disastrous rules changes which provoked howls of protest.

The point at which Ecclestone’s money-making pursuit and F1’s interests were no longer aligned clearly passed long ago.

Of course Liberty haven’t spent $8 billion on F1 to be charitable. They want to make money too. But they at least seem to realise the shortest route to cash isn’t always the best one.

What next for Ecclestone? He is now 86, one year younger than his father was when he died. Ecclestone’s life has been the pursuit of money and Formula One has been that life from his departure from the car trade in the seventies until January 23rd, 2017.

There are still some waiting for Ecclestone to pull one final trump card out of his pocket, swoop back in and regain control. But maybe this time it isn’t going to happen.

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75 comments on “Only one thing mattered in the Ecclestone era”

  1. The Blade Runner (@)
    25th January 2017, 9:44

    A great article, Keith.

          1. +1

    1. +1 yes it is, anyway I think people forget that money is the metric of human society. What way to rule f1 if not for money? Sure I earn money to live by, but what defines me, gives me value in this society? What am I worth, if not money.

      1. !!!
        If you only worth your money, so you’re the most unworthy man in the world…

        1. i think donald trump feels the same way. all the absurd things he’s trying to do can be explained by money. sad!

      2. Money is not the “metric of society. ” … Power is. While it’s true that money can make the path to power easier, great wealth is no guarantee of power. And power, misused, is no guarantee of greatness.

        In the past decade, we’ve seen two very rich, very powerful men end-up dead, one at the end of a rope and the other shot dead in the back of a truck. With those two, at least, their wealth and power couldn’t save them from the consequences of their actions.

        And while I don’t really expect Bernie’s end will be anywhere near as dramatic, I do know that his actions have made F1 a hell of a lot less interesting for many of us.

    2. +1 thank you!

  2. Well said. I thought I’d have moved on from this today but I still find myself sat in work with a huge grin on my face thinking “He’s actually gone…. We’ve finally got rid of him!!!”

    1. The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades… :)

  3. We do not know what has been agreed between the FIA and Liberty re rule making. Is the F1SG dead (hopefully)?
    What of Delta Topco? Is it dissolved? Or still there but owned by Liberty?
    What of FOM? Who also run other formulae (making them also ultra expensive)
    What of the tv setup with Tata? Biggin Hill?

    Here is Ross wanting to change things, he works for the commercial rights leaseholder, not the FIA, which takes me back to my first point above.

    1. What of FOM? Who also run other formulae

      This has been interesting me too, in particular respect to GP2 and GP3 of which little has been said regarding the forthcoming season (including a calendar!).

  4. That final paragraph is a bit frightening, Keith. Suppose he suddenly revealed a clause that he’d secretly inserted into the contract that allowed him to keep the money AND retain control of F1 . . .

    1. @nickwyatt I’m waiting for Chase Carey to pull off his mask and reveal himself to be Bernie Ecclestone again…

      1. @keithcollantine
        And he would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids !

  5. True, just follow the money and you see all that is wrong with f1.

  6. Who’s Bernie Ecclestone?

    1. One of the hobbits from the Lord of the Rings, right?

      1. Not far fetched!

        The Ring’s malignant influence twisted his body and mind, and prolonged his life well beyond its natural limits.

        from wikipedia

        1. Everything always boils down to the Nürburgring, doesn’t it?

  7. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
    25th January 2017, 11:07

    @keithcollantine Your commitment to independent coverage is truly admirable. The fact that the comment thread is the anointed space for opinions, and the article is the objective fuel for that debate is probably the greatest charm of this blog. But when you do succumb to the urge to express an opinion, whether it be on DRS, Bernie or political malaise more broadly, you smack it out of the park. Nail on head.

    The fact that by comparison AUTOSPORT has produced a fairly flimsy portrait of a deal-maker and a “contradictory” character, is telling of the editorial standards of the blog bold enough to paint Bernie as his true self: as a man whose affections for the sport got overtaken by his affections of its capacity to line his pockets. As a man who fell in love with idea of his own political sovereignty. As a man increasingly indifferent towards the long-term health of the sport beyond its role as a piggy-bank. As a man who didn’t care about young fans, free-to-air coverage or the livelihoods of the backmarking team personnel under constant assault from an agenda indifferent to their plights.

    Tremendous article.

    1. Great article, great comment.

    2. You need autosport plus for that.. not worth it i guess ;)

      But agreed, a balanced and fair article: good work Keith!

      1. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
        25th January 2017, 15:17

        @seth-space Whilst I have been disappointed by their rather tentative reflections on Bernie, on the whole I am happy with my AUTOSPORT Plus account. They are content to write increasingly bold and colourful comment pieces, but still often a bit unforthcoming when it comes to criticism of particular drivers and teams.

        Some of their features are free to access so you can read them and decide for yourself. If you like WEC they have an excellent sportscar writer.

    3. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
      25th January 2017, 14:23

      Yeah absolutely spot on. This article is perfect and the best I’ve read via any media all week.

    4. You’ve said it all, Keith Collantine.

      We owe you a very great ‘thankyou’ for keeping our spirits
      up during some very dark F1 days. Perhaps, from now on,
      we’ll see and hear F1 people talking seriously and honestly
      in open debate about the future of F1. Telling us what matters
      to them without fear of terrible retribution.

      Even hear them making critical remarks without having to
      glance over their shoulders to be sure every word they
      said was being recorded and used as a weapon against them
      at a later date. It was like living in the kind of police state
      of the kind that a certain BCE so much admired and openly
      courted.

      Let us hope that those days are gone forever, and that
      people like you and your blog are honoured in everyone’s
      memory.

  8. @keithcollantine
    “The point at which Ecclestone’s money-making pursuit and F1’s interests were no longer aligned clearly passed long ago.”

    Many (including me) have said he WAS great for F1, but…………… This comment above Keith is probably the best and most simple way to put it!

  9. Reading many of the comments from various people in and around F1, it does seem that many of them are pussy footing around just in case bernie still has some power.

    1. Bernie Ecclestone was a believer in contracts, and we don’t know what contractual right Liberty Media have to sideline him. He said he had a three year contract with Liberty Media, so presumably he included an early termination clause in that contract which meant they could buy out him out, and it appears that is exactly what has happened. However, we don’t know if that is what has happened. If it isn’t what has happened then he might not have gone after all, it might be Liberty Media that somehow breached their contract.
      I can see waiting to make sure his sidelining has the approval of his lawyers is a good idea.

  10. This is one of the extremely rare times when my agreement with an article reaches 100%. An excellent piece that clearly denounces the school of thought that’s crippling F1 (and much more than that), and establishes a clear boundary between a time when Bernie’s greed was indeed good for F1, a time when there were both good and bad aspects, and finally a time when all he did was milk the life out of the sport.

    Oh, and I can’t help but notice that the word trump card suddenly has a much more ominous ring to it …

  11. Blimey, thanks very much for the positive feedback everyone!

    1. Thoroughly warranted positive feedback. This site has been without doubt the #1 place I go to for Formula One coverage since I first visited in 2008, and it’s articles like this (particularly your comments articles) that keep me so engaged in the sport. Excellent work.

    2. One of 3 destinations I use daily. The one I use for f1 news foremost. The rest is clicking links you provide in your coverage articles.

    3. fully deserved Keith.

    4. @keithcollantine very well written :)

    5. You are, as usual, smack on the target Keith.

      You should be deservedly proud of the articles you have put together on the man.

      Some of the glossy self serving rubbish elsewhere is painful.

      He was F1… And then he was not. If writers could not see things like the qualifying rubbish last year or cheese tyres amongst many other knee jerks over recent years were nothing other than scorched earth in disguise then they should get different work.

  12. Could not agree more with this article. We have all been waiting for him to step down for a while. But I would not be surprised to see him again.

  13. I wouldn’t make out much from the comment “He is now 86, one year younger than his father was when he died.”, it’s no indication at all.
    I’m 11 years older than my father was when he died.

    1. It just acknowledges Bernies mindset that at his 86, which is a good innings for anyone, he had to be pushed out of his role and there’s nothing to say he can’t keep going!

  14. @keithcollantine is there any risk that his “honorary chairman” position remains too powerful to let a real positive change happen? I mean, can he veto what Brawn is going to propose? Please, anybody answer. It’s the fear I still bear, and I need to either be relieved or confirmed on my suspicions.

    1. I take it he’s basically in a role like Niki Lauda. Has significant shares, can flabber his lips and make noise, give guidance and share his opinions. But when pen goes to paper it won’t be by his doing.

    2. @omarr-pepper – They probably need to keep him around while determining where as many skeletons are buried as possible…

    3. @omarr-pepper, Provided Bernie is prepared to continue to work for F1 without any power (interesting consideration, is he addicted to celebrity or will he just snipe from the sidelines) his main job will be to schmooze the basket of deplorables that fund many races, a role Bernie is already very comfortable with.

    4. @omarr-pepper I would say no – I suspect if he finds a route back it will be some other way.

      1. He’ll start Octogenarian F1…aka FOCT.

        Major sponsor?

        Depends.

  15. Well, excellent piece Keith, this should be made COTY, and a mandatory article for the new generation that has started following this sport in the last 10 years. With this information in perspective, It’s very simple to understand the reason for all the nonsense that F1 went thru since then.
    That’s why I love this blog, much better use of information, and unbiased.

  16. I’ve read somewhere someone suggesting he should buy Manor and become a team owner again. How interesting would that be?

    1. Nice thought.. Ron Dennis manager and Bernie team owner.

  17. Bernie rode a fine line between appearances and profits. Trying to make Formula appear to be the pinnacle of motorsports while at the same time raking as much profits out of the series as inhumanly possible. Without conscience who was shortchanged in the process, teams, suppliers, drivers, circuit owners, municipalities, promoters, sponsors and ultimately the fans all paid for his indulgences while the sport itself languished under his “care” or actually, lack of care.

    Whatever good Bernie has done for the sport will forever be overshadowed by the massive greed and utter contempt for all the blood, sweat and tears that others have given to Formula 1.

    Formula 1 will never be perfect, nothing in this world is, but at least now it has a chance to survive and thrive if its new caretakers truly do care for the sport and do the best they can to make F1 the pinnacle of motorsport again. Some moves made already, including the arrival of Ross Brawn and the exit of Ecclestone, demonstrate a desire for change and a progression toward what F1 should be. Time will tell if this is a success, but the right steps are being taken now.

    Fine article, Keith. Thank you.

  18. The only way I see him pulling strings now is using his personal contacts with some of the local race organizers or in the FIA – not that I’ve any clear idea as to how or to what end, other than simply being a thorn. But all signs point to Bernie being well and truly gone. I think that the emeritus or whatever position they’ve offered him is very much a deliberate tactic to get him to walk away rather than accept something way beneath him, in such a way that everyone comes out smelling of roses.

    Ecclestone followed the same road as far too many other business people and organizations: suck the most you can out now, no matter how that affects the long term health of the business or product you’re selling. Arguments about how he made the sport ‘what it is’ are debatable on more than one level, not least because under someone else’s stewardship it could very well have been much better. Marketing is not an achievement in itself, although in today’s world you’d be forgiven for making that mistake. Good riddance, ciao, bye, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

    1. Marketing is not an achievement in itself, although in today’s world you’d be forgiven for making that mistake.

      Couldn’t agree any more…

  19. Perhaps first thing Liberty could do to show they’re committed to what they’re saying they’re going to could would be to do something to keep Manor on the grid.

  20. In my view there’s order, logic in pursuing a capitalistic approach to the business of f1, in particular the commercial aspect. As mentioned above Bernie’s view and f1 interest did misaligned as Bernie did fail as mentioned to understand the internet. On rules Bernie is not entirely responsible for them and I think people are mixing the sporting side with the commercial.

  21. Bernie is going to buy Manor GP, and use it to create havoc and sabotage the races from the back of the grid.

  22. Looking forward to a season of F1 where the most exciting high speed manoeuvres occur on track, not on Bernie’s dangerous political power circuit.

  23. What a great article.

  24. I think Ross and Chase Carey are going to have to block Monisha Kaltenborn’s number now

  25. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
    26th January 2017, 15:21

    I’ll add the following to this great article. I don’t know if Bernie saved F1 in the old days but I think in the recent days his greed has prevented millions from following the sport without a major financial investment around the world. I live in the States we get coverage through cable so we are relatively lucky. For me what he did in other countries amounted to criminal behavior as it made the sport prohibitively expensive and elitist for most fans. Following F1 on BBC meant that you could not afford to watch F1. He alienated so many fans that way and no amount of investment will get them back.

    Not every F1 fan needs to be as wealthy as George Lucas… At least his movies cost $10-$15 to watch and own.

  26. Could Bernie’s “trump” card be Ferrari? Can Ferrari maintain there somewhat privileged position without him?

    1. Miss Begotten
      28th January 2017, 5:55

      umm… nope

  27. Peter Windsor: “The response today when an F1 luminary was asked privately how Mr E was doing: ‘He’s setting-up a breakaway series’. Don’t laugh.”

  28. How good or bad this ( your choice ) article is ….why…… is it now Ecclestone is winged they can speak or write without any hasitation ????

  29. One thing that would be great to see is F1 LOWER the price it charges venues to hold events. If it changes its current business model, it can easily make up the lost revenue and then some in other ways. Bernie’s economic policy of charging venues to the hilt, coupled with the FIA’s track and safety requirements, has destabilized the sport and brought numerous venues to the brink of bankruptcy. It is not a sustainable business model to bleed the tracks and promoters dry. If F1 were to cut it’s fee to tracks and promoters by 50%, open up the sport to a wider demographic of live spectators, and air all the European races on free-to-air channels where they could take a portion of advertising dollars from commercials, they would see a healthier sport and a wider fan-base. I might be mistaken about this, but I believe in NASCAR it’s actually the complete reverse and tracks actually charge the series. And that sport seems to be pretty healthy…

  30. Excellent article.

    And good riddance to the despot. Over the least decade or so Formula 1 has survived despite Ecclestone, not because of him.

  31. Ever since I heard that Ecclestone was on his way out of F1, I’ve been trying to decide just what it was about his management style that I disliked so much.

    While he certainly was responsible for much of the dramatic growth and increased professionalism of the sport, I think that he has also managed to squeeze most of the drama, flavor and excitement from the sport.

    In a nutshell, what I hate is the fact that Bernie has managed, slowly but surely, to make Formula One dull.

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