Bernie Ecclestone’s uncritical outburst of fuhrer-worship will bring down his own autocratic regime at F1, no doubt about it. The question is when.
Ecclestone, whatever his awesome reputation, is only a minority shareholder in Delta Topco, the company which ultimately owns F1’s commercial rights. The majority shareholder is CVC Capital, with about 70%. Although Ecclestone was able to haul CVC chief executive Donald MacKenzie to the phone for a vigorous denial that he was about to get the heave-ho, all is not what it seems. CVC has had enough with the way FIA president Max Mosley and Ecclestone have been running things or, as they see it, running things into the ground. Mosley’s intransigence over reform of the rules recently led to a mutiny by eight of the racing teams – representing all the powerful motor manufacturers – and the threat of a breakaway championship under the Fota moniker. No one really wants a breakaway, including the teams. It would mean diminished income all round, especially in the key areas of TV rights and sponsorship. But CVC has more to fear than most: a breakaway would either destroy or severely impair its multi-billion pound investment in the sport. So it is keen to appease the teams, who now find themselves in a powerful bargaining position.
On the board of the Formula One holding company are two prominent Jewish businessmen, Peter Brabeck, former head of Nestlé, and Sir Martin Sorrell, ceo of WPP – both Delta Topco investors in their own right. It scarcely requires me to articulate their thoughts on Ecclestone and his continued tenure. The question is, who could replace him? No easy answer comes to mind. Not, for example, the flamboyant Flavio Briatore – head of the Renault team and close confederate of Bernie (both, among other things, have a major stake in football club QPR). The other teams simply wouldn’t wear it. Nevertheless, a replacement looks likely by the end of the year. It’s a gripping Mexican stand-off in which Ecclestone has yet to fire his last shot.
We might ask, while all this unseemly wrangling is going on, what of the sport, what of the brand, what of the sponsors? More in my magazine column this week.