Bye, bye Bernie: How can Liberty Media Make Formula 1 Great Again?

As F1 waves off its pint-sized empresario after four decades ensconced in the era of Ecclestone, we take a look at what this means for the sport and what opportunities it may now afford teams and sponsors under its new guv’nors 

Enigma. A person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand.

Never has one word encapsulated a persona so perfectly – not only is it hard to get your head around just how Bernie Ecclestone managed to stay atop the Formula 1 pile for nigh on 40 years, but he did so while cloaked in such mystery and misdirection.

Boasting more lives than the luckiest of felines, this is a man who was, after all, rumoured to have helped bank roll the Great Train Robbery – so titillating a fact that we can’t help but entertain it (however ridiculous it may be); but proof, if it were needed, of our point.

All jokes aside, the man known simply as “Mr E” is a modern marvel. To have stayed in power for as long as he did, there is no doubting his achievement in building an empire that Liberty Media has seen fit to pay $8bn for, and the ultimate measure of Ecclestone’s achievement.

Bernie Ecclestone

However, with his reign at an end after decades of operating under the jackboot of his oft-oppressive regime, we look at some of the exciting opportunities that the teams, sponsors and rights holders could now be afforded by this brave new dawn at the top of motorsport.

Still open for business: Don’t forget your smart phone

For a good few years now, as the digital explosion happened around it, Formula 1 had for the most part resisted opening its doors to digital media – well, that is, unless you were willing to pay for the privilege.

Filming and content creation in and around the track was strictly forbidden unless you had purchased the right to do so, which meant that while other rights holders opened their doors to the possibilities afforded by these new platforms, F1 remained in the dark ages. This may have, perhaps, been down to its previous ill-fated foray into a pay-per-view model in the UK, Germany and France at the turn of the century, which never gained much traction.

This did not help sponsors much, as it required them to often waste precious time with their drivers, transporting them to other sites, far enough away from the circuit that they were no longer under the looming cloud of Ecclestone – and all in the name of content.

Liberty Media has already hinted at bringing down these barriers that have for so long made sponsors’ jobs difficult, and that can only be a good thing. Whatever you think of Bernie, he turned F1 into a truly global proposition recognised for its exclusivity and glamour – but much of that was built on how closed off and unattainable it was for the 99 per cent and was no longer working.

“However, the traditional broadcast model
is being increasingly challenged by new digital
platforms and social media giants, a fact to
which motorsport should be wise.”

With modern audiences wanting more access than ever, not less, the new Formula 1 needs to afford greater freedom and therefore a much bigger sandbox for sponsors and content creators to play in, which would only be a good thing for fans and the sport alike.

Box fresh: Are new broadcast platforms the answer?

One of Ecclestone’s greatest successes in recent times has been how he has managed global broadcast agreements – creating an environment in which channels perceive the need to pay exorbitant amounts of money to enrich their televisual offer with F1.

However, the traditional broadcast model is being increasingly challenged by new digital platforms and social media giants, a fact to which motorsport should be wise. Sporting giants such as the NFL, NBA, NHL, Wimbledon and the PGA Tour are all already supplementing existing broadcast agreements with coverage on both Twitter and Facebook’s live platforms.

This is a potentially game-changing development, as consumers balk against the need to pay several different suppliers for numerous expensive satellite packages so they can watch all the sport they crave. If they can do so cheaper and easier on these emerging platforms, then they will do so, and this is an area that Liberty would be wise to harness in its infancy.

Such platforms would be ideal for opening practice sessions up on a Friday to a wider audience, for example. This would not undermine existing broadcast agreements too much, but would be an olive branch to those fans cut out of the sport by its quest for TV dollars. Currently, the most fans have had to enjoy online from Formula One Management has been a desert-based dalliance with Facebook Live in Abu Dhabi last year, which may well prove to be the tip of the iceberg as we count down to Melbourne.

However they do it, short-form content and a proliferation of access to broadcast coverage across the world can only increase the sport’s appeal to the next generation of fans, which in turn will work to make the sport commercially attractive to sponsors once again.

There’s no “I” in F1: Can Liberty align teams for the audience’s benefit?

Parity in any organisation is a rare beast, and no one could ever have argued that in recent memory it has existed in Formula 1. All anyone wants is equality, but with some teams more equal than others when it comes to making and ratifying the laws that govern the sport, it has made for a very unfair field (or circuit) of play.

Liberty would therefore be wise to restructure – as best it can – the hierarchy, to create an environment that sees influence and financial reward spread out more evenly. With a more even distribution of power off the track, that will likely create a much more competitive environment on it, and that can only be a good thing.

Team Principals in F1

For too long the teams have put themselves before the sport, which has come at the expense of the fans. Too many races are dull and uneventful, boasting little to keep the interest of those watching across 90 minutes, thanks to car performances ranging from the imperious to the down right dismal.

One or two “good” races in a season is too scant a reward for hours of processional tedium, and with a more exciting and unpredictable product, the sponsorship dollars would come rolling back in.

Lift the lid: Where Hamilton has led, others must follow

Bunny ears have never looked so good on a grown man, but despite his “Marmite” public persona, there is no doubting that Formula 1 could benefit from a few more personalities like Lewis Hamilton.

The three-time World Champion – covered in tattoos, bling and seemingly followed at every turn by a photographer briefed to take a moody photo in front of a prominent landmark at a moment’s notice – is a brand, and therefore an ambassador.

For a sport in which its stars are hidden under colourful skid lids and team colours, coupled with the advent of social media, it is more important than ever that F1’s star do their bit to promote the sport. Kimi Räikkönen might do so begrudgingly, but he is a rare cult hero remaining in a sport that used to boast a whole grid of them.

Drivers should be encouraged to break free of their shackles and make more of their position, if not for their own commercial benefit, then for that of the sport. With more personalities and greater access to the paddock will come more fans; with more fans comes a more attractive product; that means more sponsorship dollars, cooler activations and better content; which eventually brings us back round to the beginning again.

Liberty should leverage its drivers more; its sponsors, its teams, every stakeholder under the sun; only then will we all feel empowered enough to build a platform we can all share in and feel responsible for.

Pure and simple: Racing first, regulations second

People watch Formula 1 to see edge of the seat, death-defying action that they could only dream of doing themselves. They want to be thrilled, they want to see spills, and they don’t give a flying-Fernando-Alonso how the hell that happens.

History has demonstrated this across decades of regulated sporting endeavour – moments that have not only defined the careers of those responsible for them at the time, but transcending their team or sport to affect the lives of those in the stadium or even watching hundreds or thousands of miles away on TV. Sport is emotion, it’s the collective investment in what is happening before them; and without it, there can be no entertainment.

Everyone understands that there needs to be rules and indeed regulations to govern any sport, but they do not need to come over and above the spectacle. Engine penalties that demote drivers some 80 places more than there are slots on the grid, or wings that are now ten millimetres wider, are inconsequential.

“There is no overnight fix for Formula 1; no
winglet or blown diffusor to solve this
particular performance problem.”

It is therefore refreshing to see that one of Liberty’s first acts has been to simplify the rules around in-race driver sanctions, so as to provide clarity to those watching at home. Music to the ears of many, as a first edict under the sport’s new stewardship, it certainly whets the appetite for what else they have up their sleeve.

The Chase begins: Are Carey and co. the right people for the job?

And there-in lies the rub. There is no overnight fix for Formula 1; no winglet or blown diffusor to solve this particular performance problem.

It is for us all to promise that we will give Liberty the time and the support they need to make the changes necessary that will create a more cooperative and collaborative future for the sport we hold so dear.

With less dictatorship and more power to the people, they might just be the people for the job, but time will tell as to whether they can, in fact, Make Formula 1 Great Again.