SportBusiness International was premature in predicting the end of Bernie Ecclestone's Formula 1 career as he become embroiled in a bribery scandal in 2014. However a series of features that we published at the time are relevant now the octogenarian CEO's reign over the sport has come to an end, writes Ben Cronin.
Like those obituaries pre-written in anticipation of the death of an elderly public figure, the sports press has often attempted to predict what would happen to Formula 1 once Bernie Ecclestone retired or was pushed out of the sport. Until now, however, rumours of the octogenarian CEO’s demise have always proved to be exaggerated.
SportBusiness International fell into this trap in March 2014 when, with good reason, it anticipated that Ecclestone’s embroilment in a German bribery trial would bring an end to his 40-year career. Although the valedictory tone of our feature was two years’ premature, most of the content is still relevant now that the sport’s diminutive statesman has finally stepped aside as a result of Liberty Media’s overhaul of the sport.
“You’d need three or four people to replace Bernie and do what he does on a day-to-day basis,” said one former team owner we spoke to at the time. “It could be a mix of people from inside and outside the sport.”
Formula 1’s new owners appear to agree with the sentiment. Soon after the news of Ecclestone’s departure filtered through, Liberty announced that three people would effectively take over the running of the sport. Insider Ross Brawn, former technical director for the Ferrari and Williams teams and founder of the BrawnGP outfit would deal with the sporting side of Formula 1, while outsider Sean Bratches, a former ESPN vice-president, would take on the commercial operations overseen by Chase Carey in the position of CEO.
But Liberty Media might find it trickier to follow the advice proffered by Ecclestone, in an exclusive interview conducted in the same issue, two years before he was deposed. When SportBusiness International asked the famously autocratic CEO to explain why he thought the sport should be led by someone who could ‘fly by the seat of their pants’, and not by a ‘collection of suits’, he argued that management by committee never helped any business.
“This is always the problem,” he said. “You have all these people in a company and they all have different ideas. It’s like getting in the car to go somewhere and one person says, “I’d rather go this way,” while the other passengers go, “no, no, no…my way is quicker.”
Speaking shortly after Ecclestone was moved aside, Chase Carey seemed aware of this argument and countered it by suggesting that it was Ecclestone’s failure to take the Formula 1 car in a direction marked ‘digital media’ that proved the dictatorship model no longer worked.
“The decision-making is not as effective as it needs to be. Clearly it has to be improved,” he said. “We needed a sport that while respecting what made it great has a sense of energy and innovation.”
As Ecclestone steps aside and is invited to become Formula 1’s ‘chairman emeritus’, it will be interesting to see how much of his legacy is respected and whether he will resist the temptation to pass judgement, or cause trouble, from his new position on the back seat.