So in the end it appears that Bernie went out with a fizzle rather than a bang, although I’m by no means alone in suspecting that there’s still a sting lingering in the tail…
But let’s assume that the man who shaped Formula 1 as we currently know it is no longer at the helm and that as of this week the new world order is overseen by three elderly white men in suits. Plus ca change, you might say.
The reaction to Bernie’s departure has been interesting. Figures within the sport: team owners, drivers and press alike, were measured in their response. Taking time to lay out all the good he did before outlining the failings of the later years.
For the fans it was cause for celebration. “Ding, dong the witch is dead!”. Although he was certainly not guilty of all their charges – introducing the hybrid cars (he hates them), taking F1 away from its traditional fan base (bang to rights), taking it off free-to-air TV (it was a bidding war, they didn’t bid enough. Welcome to capitalism).
For some of them this now presents the opportunity for some kind of nirvana, where the French Grand Prix suddenly returns, all F1’s video archive is instantly available for free, and tickets are the price of non-league football. And this will surely happen because Liberty have paid EIGHT BILLION pounds for something they intend to make less profitable. Hmm. OK…
But regardless of what Liberty’s forecasted figures are at the bottom of the balance sheet, there are some pressing issues that need urgent attention. And at the pace the world is changing, these aren’t five or 10-year plans, these things need to be tackled now.
The fact that the three men (and many dozens more behind the scenes) in charge of redefining the future of Formula 1 are all over 60 speaks volumes about the biggest challenge facing not just Formula 1 but motorsport in general. For the first time ever, the number of people applying to take their driving test in the UK is falling. And this is not just a British trend, this is being seen across the developed world. And the next generation view cars in a completely different way to the youth of the past, for whom a car represented freedom and independence.
The rise of Uber has all but negated the need for a car for city dwellers, and the exorbitant insurance costs that have been extracted from the young (well, someone has to cover the cost of pensioners driving the wrong way down the M42) has made this choice increasingly easy for them.
Even the ones that are buying cars are engaging with them in different ways. There are markedly fewer ‘suped-up’ Max Power type cars on the roads these days. Instead of performance and handling, many cars are now marketed on their connectivity and environment footprint.
The looming spectre of driverless cars means there’s every chance that driving will soon be a niche pursuit in much the same way horse riding is today. In a world were people aren’t interested in cars, what role does F1 play?
Another one of F1’s big problems is the age of its audience. It’s 50+ and getting older. And while these people probably aren’t about to pop their clogs any minute now, any sport that is failing to attract young fans is by definition dying.
The role of the switch away from terrestrial TV in this is a red herring. People under 17 hardly watch TV at all. Whether F1 is on BBC1 or Sky or Al-Jazerra makes no odds to them. What they do watch is a lot of internet broadcasting.
Bernie’s golden goose was TV broadcasting rights, and it’s impossible to leverage a multi-million pound TV deal if people are consuming the sport on a free stream…
Formula 1 was late to the party on social media, but has upped its game considerably over the past 12 months. It’s still a long way away from what it could be, but in the short term at least, the returns from developing a fully holistic digital strategy are going to be far less then bleeding the last drop of green out of the old school broadcasting model.
However, this is not the future. The rise of Netflix and other on-demand programming is going to change this sector forever. If F1 can get it right it will thrive in terms of numbers, which ought to pay dividends when they go to market for those big global sponsor deals.
Since time immemorial people have moaned that motor racing, F1 in particular, is boring. It took a full seven issues of the nascent Autosport magazine in 1950 for the first article lamenting the current breed of voiturette F1 cars and pining for the pre-war monsters of Mercedes and Auto Union.
Social media has only exacerbated this. But whenever solutions are suggested (reversed grids) or implemented (DRS) they are reviled. What some fans seemingly want is a system where by the cars line up in the order in which the fastest is at the front, but cars that were slower in qualifying magically become faster in the races (without this being the result of ‘cheese’ tyres) with overtaking aplenty. It can’t be done.
Formula 1 is a sport. And it needs to retain the integrity of that. No overtaking lanes, no sprinkler systems, no double-point joker races. But what it does need is a set of well-defined regulations that allow for engineering ingenuity as well as cars that are able to be run close to one another.
One area where all the press were united in their condemnation of Bernie was the unequal way in which the prize money was distributed among the teams. Whether it was the basic amount – simply not enough given the enormous profits the sport was reaping – but also its heavy bias, especially in favour of Ferrari.
While the Premier League is hardly a bastion of Marxist dogma, the way in which the TV revenue is split is transparent and fair. Manchester United are the richest club in the world because they have taken their exposure from the Premier League’s TV deals and monetised it perfectly. But such is the size of that funding a team like Leicester City was able to pay the transfer fees and wages required to tempt players like Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante to the club and it reaped the rewards.
A more fair F1 would give the likes of Force India and Williams a better chance of success, create more opportunities for young drivers without billionaire backers and change the image of the sport. And above all else, that final point is Liberty’s most pressing and important challenge, because right now, rightly or wrongly, F1 has the image of a sport that’s failing and ultimately if not treated, these perceptions can morph into reality.
Photo: Getty Images
Andrew van de Burgt has been a motor racing journalist for over 16 years. He started working for the Jaguar Racing team on its website in 2000, before moving to AUTOSPORT in 2002. From 2005 to 2014 he was the Editor and then Editor-in-chief of the most prestigious motorsport weekly and online publication in the world. He has covered everything from NASCAR in the States to V8 Superscars in Australia and pretty much everything in between.