Opinion: Worrying early signs as F1 enters new era | Opinion | DW | 24.01.2017
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Formula 1

Opinion: Worrying early signs as F1 enters new era

Bernie Ecclestone's shoes may be little, but filling them will prove a mammoth task for F1's new management. The series faces serious challenges, and Mark Hallam is not encouraged by the earliest efforts to address them.

Formel 1 Chase Carey und Bernie Ecclestone (picture allinace/empics/J. Moy)

Chase Carey inherits major challenges and the huge shadow cast by Ecclestone's diminutive frame

Two former television executives and one of the finest engineering brains in Formula One history have been handed an impossible task: replacing the series' founding father and commercial driver Bernie Ecclestone.

As chief executive Chase Carey put it on Tuesday, the trio are inheriting what was essentially a "one-man show" under the 86-year-old's leadership. "That's not a criticism, it's just the reality," Carey was keen to stress, as Liberty Media sought to extend an olive branch to the partially sidelined Ecclestone.

Although a change of leadership was probably overdue, it's difficult to muster much optimism about what Liberty Media can achieve for the series. It's even conceivable that the new owners' priorities and needs could end up exacerbating the string of problems F1 faces, rather than fixing any of them.

Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App

Mark Hallam

Viewing figures have been waning, key race venues like Germany's Nürburgring and the Hockenheimring, as well as Silverstone in England, are at risk of dropping off the calendar. What's more, Mercedes has been dominating the field on the track, making recent race results rather predictable. Then the permanent paddock civil war between rival teams and interests - precisely the tightrope Ecclestone could walk like no other - will continue on an almost daily basis. As Ecclestone would be happy to confirm, this laundry list barely scratches the surface.

The worrying early signs

Not unlike the previous owners, who bought the commercial rights to F1 on credit and then used the series' revenues to pay for their investment, Liberty Media has shown early signs that it struggled to cobble together the capital to buy out the sport. 

Among the group's first suggestions was an expansion of the season, to stretch to 25 races each year. The motivation behind this is obvious: Most race organizers pay in order to host a race, and that revenue has become the series' largest single source of income. But the 2016 season, with 21 races, was already the longest in history. On Tuesday the US owners again mooted a street race in New York, Miami or Las Vegas.

There's no need to pity the handsomely paid drivers touring the world in first class - but for a team mechanic or engineer, who's probably earning less than he could working nine-to-five at a major car producer, the strains on family life have become immense. Bear in mind that these same staff are hard at work during the entire off-season preparing the next year's car - the job most certainly is full time. One mechanic I follow on Twitter has a young daughter; he missed her first steps while on location at a Grand Prix.

Liberty Media's next proposal was to offer F1's teams the chance to buy shares in the series. Again, this at least hints at liquidity concerns. What's even more concerning was the reason the teams unanimously turned the offer down: The shares being offered would not have carried voting rights, because the new owners' grip on the sport is already tenuous enough. So it's hardly a shock that teams asked: "What's in it for us?"

Believe in Brawn? 

But there are silver linings that should not be overlooked. The first takes the familiar bespectacled shape of Ross Brawn - a regular in the paddock since the late 1980s. Getting Brawn, one of the most successful engineers in the sport's history, to cross the divide and take up a strategic role could prove Chase Carey's first masterstroke. 

Brawn has made a career and a fortune out of his ability to interpret and exploit the F1 rule books in order to deliver performance. Those skills should prove invaluable in creating regulation changes that are more difficult to exploit. Many of F1's major recent errors - like the catastrophic, abandoned experiment with new qualifying rules at the start of the 2016 season - came about because rules were changed without sufficient thought on how the teams might react to the new arrangements. Brawn will think from this perspective, and he has a paddock contact list almost as long as Ecclestone's to call on when he needs advice.

Formel-1 Teams: Mercedes AMG (picture-alliance/dpa)

Ross Brawn (r.) has exploited the rule book successfully for years, he could be just the man to help to write it

He also has a refreshingly clear take on where engineering and entertainment need to meet in a sport that can never quite decide whether it's a sport, a business or an engineering exercise. 

"I've watched Formula One for the past few years - there's been times when even I haven't been sure what's been going on," Brawn told the BBC. "Fans want overtaking, close racing, and to know what's going on." 

Liberty Media's takeover coincides with a major rules revamp for the 2017 aiming to deliver precisely this. Ecclestone, like the new owners, had been pushing for a shake-up, arguing that the series was stagnating.

But in truth, the cornerstone of exciting racing does not lie in Liberty Media or in Brawn's hands, nor does it reside in a set of technical or sporting regulations. What would really spice up the 2017 season is another team - most likely Red Bull or Ferrari - putting together a package that can really challenge Mercedes. On that front, all the new bosses can really do is cross their fingers.

With two US media executives joining Brawn at the top of the tree, Liberty Media does seem to be concentrating on areas where it can affect change - better coordination with broadcasters around the world, and perhaps developing a strategy to finally catapult the world's most technologically advanced sport into the internet age.  Their familiarity with the main US race series NASCAR, which humbles F1 in areas like fan participation and driver interaction, could also prove a boon going forward.

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