Bernie Ecclestone is a controversial figure at the best of times, whether it be his “donation” to the Labour party, allegations of sexism, bribery or tax avoidance. What however is undeniable is that the sport of Formula 1 in general owes him a great deal. Before Bernie took over it was a struggling sport with a sporadic viewing audience which was not necessarily guaranteed to continue. Bernie turned it into a multi million dollar industry, the third most watched sporting event in the world behind only the Olympics and the World Cup, he built a huge fan base and made a lot of people very rich in the process.
Yet for the first time in the Ecclestone era Formula 1 is struggling. Not only are TV audiences falling but more worryingly teams are struggling financially. It is thought that only Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and McLaren are on a firm financial footing. This seems extraordinary for a sport that last year generated revenues of $1.5 billion. More worryingly however Bernie does not seem concerned by this, this week claiming that he would be happy for there to be only eight teams in Formula 1 each running three cars, claiming that spectators would prefer a third Ferrari to a Caterham.
On this I have to completely disagree with Bernie. In sport we love the under dog, witness the World Cup that is currently under way in Brazil. Who amongst us wasn’t cheering on the Nigerians against the Argentinians, the Algerians against the Germans or Ghana against Germany (basically anyone against Germany). Or lets take Formula 1. Sebastian Vettel may now be a four time world champion who has swept all before him, but who can forget that his first victory came for Toro Rosso, a team that for so many years was known as Minardi, a team that didn’t even have a podium to its name. Two years ago who wasn’t cheering on Sergio Perez in a Sauber at the Malaysian grand prix as he battled with Alonso’s Ferrari. Or lets go back further to 1996 and Olivier Panis’s only grand prix win for Ligier at the Monaco grand prix from 14th on the grid!
If costs continue to spiral out of control we will be left with a grid full of Red Bull’s, Mercedes and Ferrari’s and we will be denied any future great upsets. How can Bernie think this will be an improvement? He seems more concerned by the lack of noise that the cars make, something that I personally think is a bit of a non issue.
Partly we are in this situation because of the unequal distribution of prize money in Formula 1 at the moment. According to Autosport Red Bull took home approximately £100 million in prize money last year, Caterham by contrast took away just £6 million. Suddenly the fact that Caterham are only two seconds a lap slower than the leading teams doesn’t look so bad.
That however is not the worst part of it. Some of the teams are given preferential status because of their racing history and the value of their brand. According to some estimates this means that even if Caterham were to win the world championship they would receive less in prize money than Ferrari, even if Ferrari scored no points. How can that be right? It makes the distribution of money in the English Premier League look positively socialist.
Of course part of the reason this situation has come around is because of the global financial crisis. In the years leading up to the crash the sport was awash with money from manufacturers and blue chip sponsors. In recent years however the money has dried up and it is noticeable that even a team like McLaren carries no title sponsor, let alone Marussia. Formula 1 has never really adapted to this new age of austerity. Instead it has buried its head in the sand. Part of the way it has tried to attract more money is by going to ever more remote grand prix locations that have no fan base, Azerbaijan for instance will soon be added to the calendar whilst the historic track of Monza is expected to be dropped after 2016. Monza has held a race every year except 1980, but because it can no longer meet Bernie’s financial terms it will be dropped. Who can forget that for many years Silverstone (the track that held the first ever Formula 1 race) looked like it was going to face a similar threat.
Formula 1 needs to stand up and act. Serious cost cutting measures need to be implemented and a fairer distribution of money otherwise Formula 1 will change for the worst, and the only way I can see this happening is if Ecclestone steps aside and the FIA start making real changes to help the smaller teams.