F1: IT’S ALL A BALANCING ACT

It’s the question on every F1® fan’s lips: what changes will new owners Liberty Media make?

First impressions are that the ‘new broom’ syndrome won’t be happening. Bernie Ecclestone has been asked to stay on and run the show for a further three years, and new chairman Chase Carey has promised a ‘softly, softly’ approach rather than wholesale changes. Evolution rather than revolution, to use the hackneyed phrase.

But, as Red Bull’s Christian Horner pointed out in Singapore at the weekend, ‘without the teams there is no Formula One’. So what would the F1® team bosses ask for if the sport’s new masters gave them the chance?

Unsurprisingly, money was the first thing to rear its unlovely head. ‘A lot of value has been derived for the existing shareholders of Formula One,’ said Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul. ‘I think it would be a great thing if Formula One teams were able to capture some of that value, given the risks that are taken by the different parties that finance a team.’

Sauber’s Monisha Kaltenborn chipped in with an idea that was more in tune with what F1 fans have been saying for some time. ‘I do also hope that they see that the sport has to be looked at from the inside,’ she said, ‘and that they will take steps to ensure a certain competitive parity.’

That’s all very well, but there is another dimension to it all – and that’s how F1 builds bridges to its global fan base. To be fair to Monsieur Abiteboul, he gets that too. ‘How’s it going to engage with the fans?’ he wondered. ‘How’s it going to improve the show for the future?’

Warming to his theme, he went on: ‘Formula One needs to find some balance between entertainment and technology, which sometimes goes against the interests of entertainment and the show.’

Which is what F1® fans have been saying for ages too: it’s been skewed too far towards the engineers and the superstars of the design world. Is Liberty Media likely to change that?

Well, the group clearly knows about the entertainment business: Liberty Media Corporation’s interests range from sports franchises like the Atlanta Braves in major league baseball to Time Warner Inc. and TV programming such as Discovery Channel.

Ferrari’s Maurizio Arrivabene came closest to hitting the nail on the head when he counselled a careful approach and specified his two wishes. ‘Normally what you do when you buy something, you are listening, learning, sharing and acting,’ he said. If you’re asking me, “spectacularisation” and cost reduction, they are two topics to take into consideration.’

And that’s why Horner also said this: ‘Rather than having a venture capitalist or a financial institution buying into the sport, I think it’s far better, for the start, that a company like Liberty has bought in. Hopefully that will address some of the areas we have been weak in previously.’

That means a number of things, from the digital universe to social media – the younger generation – and that old F1 bugbear, the American market. 
‘There is big potential in the States,’ said new F1® players Haas’s Guenther Steiner. ‘Being an American team we hope they bring that to fruition, that market, and that we can all have gains on it. We are more than happy to help them do anything they need to do in the United States.’

Will that mean more races in the US, perhaps on the eastern seaboard to balance out the existing event in Texas? Chase Carey has said the new owners will respect the sport’s European origins and traditions, but on the other hand Americans love a show and would probably love to put one on at home.

Last word to Cyril Abiteboul. ‘It will be interesting to see,’ he said, ‘with the arrival of a pure player on entertainment and show, how it can impact the product, which can only happen through the regulations.’

It’s that last phrase that offers hope that the people who are at the heart of F1® – the teams – do realise that ‘the product’ needs improving through the mechanism of the rules that bind. After all, spectacular races like the one we just saw in Singapore have become too few and far between.

 

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