A glimpse of F1’s possible post-Ecclestone future

2016 F1 season

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The subject of how Formula One will change once its 85-year-old commercial chief Bernie Ecclestone is no longer in charge has occupied fans of the sport for years.

Who might replace him? And will they continue or reject Ecclestone’s often-criticised stance on media rights, pay television deals and financial rewards for preferred teams?

Today the official Formula One website published an interview with Formula One Group board member Sir Martin Sorrell in which he tackles several of those subjects. Strikingly, he hinted at a need to rethink some of Ecclestone’s most entrenched positions.

Formula One’s gradual disappearance from free-to-air television in pursuit of lucrative deals with subscription channels such as Sky television has been met with dismay by many fans who object to paying hundreds of pounds per year to watch it.

Sorrell stopped short of admitting a link between the pay television switch and Formula One’s slump in viewing figures. But he concedes that the days of selling off exclusive overage of F1 to the highest bidder may be numbered.

“When Sky UK started to broadcast there was an argument that audience would come down because it is pay TV,” he said. “But the actual quality of the production and the use of technology and the engagement of the viewer is much better than it ever was. The product is simply better.”

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“But in the end, getting a flat fee for broadcasting rights is not necessarily the answer in the long run. That might be the old model: to get a fixed fee.”

Asked if it’s easier to extract a fee from a single buyer Sorrell responded “yes, but the world is changing”.

“And a lot of people in Formula One are starting to understand this.”

If the cost of accessing Formula One coverage has presented an obstacle to people wanting to watch it, the one-sided nature of the competition in recent seasons has potentially discouraged many from trying in the first place. Ecclestone has historically resisted calls for more equal distribution of F1’s revenues between the teams – calling it “communism” – and handed lucrative bonuses to the richest participants.

Sorrell points out that a more equal competition is likely to product more competitive and entertaining races.

“What you want to see is a highly competitive sport,” he said, “and the more equal it is the more exciting it is… the more volatile in the sense of results.”

Ferrari receive huge bonuses just for showing up
“If you have just one winner continuously it dulls the enthusiasm. It is entertainment and it competes with other entertainments – and not with other racing formats.”

Sorrell also set out a vision for F1 races to become “complete entertainment events” and suggested virtual reality could play a major role in future race coverage.

His vision for the future development of Formula One chimes in with Ecclestone’s in other respects. In terms of the future calendar he sees little possibility for expansion of the sport within Europe, wants multiple rounds in America including a Detroit street race, and predicts more events in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Wisely, he dodged the obvious landmine of suggesting F1 might be improved upon by replacing Ecclestone. “He is unique, right?” Sorrell asked. “And somebody who is unique – and this will get me into trouble – by definition cannot be replaced.”

However Ecclestone will have to be replaced one day. And whether one or several people step into the void he leaves behind, Sorrell’s interview invites the interpretation that he is being lined up as a potential successor.

It would easy to over-state the significance of a single interview and many names have had the tag ‘Ecclestone’s successor’ applied to them only to recede into the background. But this is not the first time Sorrell has been granted an opportunity to raise his profile as a major player in F1.

In April he shared a platform with Ecclestone at the Advertising Week Europe conference in London. Their wide-ranging, hour-long discussion generated many column inches of coverage, particularly when Ecclestone cast doubt in women’s ability to drive F1 cars, praised Vladimir Putin again, suggested a 25-race calendar and dismissed Formula E as potential rivals.

Whatever role Sorrell may play in post-Ecclestone Formula One, and whoever will take over from the most powerful man in the sport today, they will need to have answers to the questions addressed in this latest interview.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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46 comments on “A glimpse of F1’s possible post-Ecclestone future”

  1. The teams should be fighting against Formula 1 being shown exclusively on pay TV. It might make more money for Bernie, but it drastically cuts down on the number of viewers (especially casual viewers) which devalues the sport for the sponsors, resulting in less money for the teams.

    1. I agree, I watch the highlights now for half of the races and it’s not as exciting as watching it live. If I do occasionally watch a race live then I use a dodgy online stream which has poor quality. I have no need for Sky TV to to pay for it just to watch 20 races a year is something I can’t justify. Most of my fellow F1 watching friends were just casual fans and enjoyed putting it on to watch in the background – now they don’t bother with the highlights and just see what the result was on the news. By having less exposure the sponsors are getting less for their sponsorship money, and there are potential F1 fans out there who simply never get to see it and get used to it or hooked on it.

      Admittedly, the Sky coverage is excellent – it really is fantastic, but the trade-off with exposure is a tricky one. having 10 races on regular TV is good, but completely inconsistent – last weekend I assumed Monaco would be on Channel 4 as it’s a high profile race, but it wasn’t.

      1. I pay 6.99 to NowTV for 24hrs sky sports. No way am I going to pay Rupert for anything more than necessary.

        1. It’s certainly the smart option, especially if you skip Sky for the races C4 has live. But it still means you’d spend more than the entire BBC licence fee just to get a full season of F1 from 2017.

        2. I’d never ever pay that much for a Grand Prix. Should my only options be pay TV I’d watch torrent replays.

      2. I agree sky sport coverage is really excellent, and i do not mind paying for an excellent product, the problem is i am being force to pay for 100’s of channels of rubbish just to get F1 coverage

        Even the 7 bucks for 24 hours is expensive if you want to watch practice, f1 show, press conference quali race

        It is at least 3 days so 21 bucks each week just for F1.

        If they were to charge say 7 bucks for only Sky Sports F1 Channel for a weekend, that would be a good deal that i won’t mind paying for, but paying for golf and tennis when i already know i am only going to watch the F1 makes me feel like i am being ripped off.

        1. And then. F1 is international championship and when it comes to developing countries $20 becomes $120-150 of income-adjusted. Even F1 Access is way too expensive for developing countries.

        2. Unfortunately I’ve been hooked since the late 60’s and invested in Sky Sports F1HD when it started and now with the excellent coverage I get my moneys worth. I don’t watch football but watch the tennis and boxing on Sky Sports so overall I’m happy.

        3. You can get a Now TV sport WEEK pass for £9.99, which is a damn sight cheaper than 21 bucks (or should I say quid?). So just under £120 per year if you only pay for the Sky-exclusive live weekends, and watch the rest on Channel 4.

      3. I pay the legal local online race supplier because it is worth paying the extra for the better quality. Sadly, they only keep the video on line for 24 hours, and then it vanishes into oblivion. The service we got last year was much better, you could wait until you had a decent break to watch the race, or you could take several days to watch the entire race, but not any more.
        The biggest looser out of the current arrangement is F1, because if I can’t watch it I won’t pay.

    2. Indycar airs live on Youtube, then stores all full races and all entire sessions on Youtube for free. That’s just a one of many examples how social sport in US is.

    3. If you can live with German commentary, then RTL shows all the races live. RTL is FTA on satellite TV.

  2. Refreshing to see someone directly from the F1 board talking sense on this topic. I expect he’ll be sacked by Thursday

  3. The increased cost of a Sky subscription over a terrestrial TV licence just to watch Formula One cannot be justified by saying it’s a better product. Why should any F1 fan be bullied into paying a ransom for something they love when the sport has become overly expensive by the incompetence of those who run it?

    Prize money I understand. Giving all teams roughly the same money because it takes them all to make it possible, I understand.

    Giving the so called ‘Special’ teams more money because their history much, much, much more money just makes the sport a joke. In fact it makes the sport not a sport.

    Formula One needs to be governed by those who genuinely care about it and its fans. Quite frankly Bernie has just used it to line his pockets and should be dispensed with asap.

    I say make the sport cheaper, more competitive, fairer and available to all. This is that is needed to put F1 back where it should be.

  4. Only F1 would consider replacing an 85-year-old with a young guy of 71. How’s that for forward-thinking?

    1. that’s 14 years younger.. not to bad ;)

    2. You don’t think experience counts?

    3. ColdFly F1 (@)
      6th June 2016, 14:22

      maybe not a big leap forward age-wise (though, a lot happens in 14 years).
      But Sorrell is a totally different person to BE. He is much stronger both business wise and marketing wise. And he seems to understand the current market.
      I know that many people think/want F1 to be run by a committee of ‘wise people’ after the dictator is gone. I don’t think that will work though. The business of F1 is too ‘sick’ for it to be run by indecision. IMO F1 needs another strong person at the helm. However, this time one who understands this day and age, and someone who gets a strong group of people around him/her to make de changes required.

    4. F1 is just following the Vatican’s example.

    5. I think we should look at a lot more than a person’s age when judging their capabilities.

      1. Agreed Keith! For instance, does he know how to exit a revolving door?

  5. When asked about reasons for people to tune in (i.e. pay up), he immediately talks about emerging markets. F1 is just numbers to him. For him, the consumers of his product are the governments that bankroll a race. Full family events and virtual reality seem to be tinsel that helps him sell it, along with raising a country’s profile. Short answer, its a business in the entertainment industry, not a sporting championship. When we talk about a breakaway formula, I’m beginning to think F1 has already become just that. It will eventually break away from the FiA and become an entertainment event run outside of sporting regulation, like Race of Champions. His comments on the Kardashians and the Presidential elections in the US just scream ‘cynical world’ to me. Obviously I’m being naive to think that this isn’t the case in all the other world events he cites (Olympics and Football = greed and corruption, so why not here?) but it just seems so contrived, to have this competition of technology and speed and engineering and ingenuity and other dashing terms caught up in a bid for dollars. “You, you build me a more efficient gurney flap on the rapid prototyper after the CFD numbers come through, and I’ll sell its appearance to a rich human-rights-shy government and a broadcaster for the comfortably-off”. If engineering in sport (aircraft, boats, cars) was the spirit of creativity borne out of the industrial revolution, removed from the capitalism (though not the nationalism), then we’ve managed to bottle that spirit and market it anyway, and come full circle.

    Anyway, I need to clean my rose-tinted spectacles. They get sand on them when I bury my head…

  6. I’ve said it many times before. If the masses want F1 back free to air, then stop paying Sky. Within a year it will be back FTA because it will cause SKY to lose money and they would no longer want it. But give in to it and pay Sky, then expect to pay ever increasing fees year on end until you have had enough. Stop paying the ransom.

    1. It comes with the sport package and ALOT of people get sky for the football.

    2. People have been trying that tactic for 4 years so far and it appears to have out-and-out backfired, as Sky decided they couldn’t justify paying anything for F1 unless they had it exclusively due to generally declining viewing figures for the F1 component :(

      1. 4 million on C4, that is peanuts compared with the emerging economies like China. That’s what BE and co are following.

    3. I must admit that more or less worked in The Netherlands. Has been behind a pay wall for years with very few subscribers and since last year F1 is included in the standard cable contract by the largest cable company in the country.

      As far as I know no pay tv station has ever been structurally profittable in the Netherlands. Hope it stays that way.

      1. @mosquito Having a highly rated young Dutch driver is a deciding factor.
        Here in Belgium the contract with the free public television has been renewed but it probably wouldn’t have been the case without Stoffel Vandoorne about to step in F1. The other thing was that nobody was willing to pay so much for it, so the public television got a renewed contract with a price decrease and extended rights about internet broadcast.

  7. “But the actual quality of the production and the use of technology and the engagement of the viewer is much better than it ever was. The product is simply better.”

    This makes me doubt the 71-year-old has much more of a clue than the incumbent. I don’t think we saw one of Max’s passes in full, live, did we? They can’t even recruit a TV director who knows a race from a hole in the ground.

    We don’t know when they harvest and deploy ES tactically, nor do we know tyre temperatures or fuel use or get GPS or get much idea at all about why one car is faster than another at any point in time.

    They can’t even fit 22 lines of timing data onto one HD screen. We need two devices to have driver tracker and timing. Just don’t mention the website. Or Youtube. The ‘product’ is a massive wasted opportunity at the moment, while the actual racing is often brilliant.

    1. knoxploration
      7th June 2016, 2:22

      You had me almost until the end, and then you spoiled it all by claiming “the actual racing is often brilliant”. As somebody who’s been watching for a quarter-century or more (at least, until the last two years when I’ve pretty-much given up, and at most fast-forward through the DVR if it sounded mildly interesting on the blogs), what we have now very seldom involves “brilliant” racing.

      Every race win is a foregone conclusion. Most passes — once an attempt is finally made — are also a foregone conclusion thanks to DRS. The standard of racing has declined precipitously, thanks in part to concrete run-offs and terrible rulemaking / enforcement of the rules, and in part to the scourge of pay drivers who have far more sponsor money than talent. We occasionally see a little decent racing in the midfield, but that’s about it. The back third of the grid has little to no racing — especially of the “brilliant” variety — and the front third of the grid likewise.

      1. Wow this is a glass half full, seriously. Who has guessed the winners of the races so far? The large majority of would-be DRS passes fail, how have you not noticed? I don’t know when you think the racing was better, but your memory is playing tricks, presenting highlights as the norm. Of course the hopeless coverage helps to disguise, or miss completely, what happens in a race.

        On which subject I’ll add another bêtise: we can’t record the onboards, because Sky only puts them on the red button. They never play them again. So when exactly are we supposed to watch them? Stunning waste of the existing ‘product’. Yes Canal+ puts one up, highlights with a limited view, but that’s incidental.

        1. er, glass half empty, I mean!

    2. @lockup Absolutely agreed. I laughed at that sentence, being myself a developer. Their product is barely manufactured (like you say, all on-screen infos are badly designed).

      It’s the broadcasters that engage huge amounts of work and money to make something decent (sky). All FOM does is open APIs and provide material.

      It is only semi-finished. While it is not a problem in its own, I wouldn’t say their product is better but that pay-TVs invest more funds to make it (more expensive) better.

  8. The future of F1 & all sports broadcasting is neither traditional PayTV or FTA.
    Sport on FTA is a dying thing, Fans of the respective sports may not like it but its a reality that no amount of complaining is going to change. But at the same time the PayTV model of paying for ‘packages’ is also a dying thing.

    The future of sports broadcasting is online subscription based streaming services that you get directly from the rights holders. You pay x amount per event/month/year/season or whatever get live streaming to your web browser, TV or mobile app.

    You already see other areas of TV moving in the streaming service direction with things like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu & so on & sports will go the same way. Maybe you will see those sorts of services pop up just for sports, Maybe you will see some of those services pick up sports… But you are going to see sports producing their own services in place of both FTA & PayTV…… Its just the way things are going to go.

    To be perfectly honest in 20 odd years I wouldn’t be that surprised if over the air TV disappear all-together with online streaming via dedicated online platforms the only way to watch things.

    1. Oh forgot to include that a streaming service from FOM may very well be a lot closer than many might think ;)

      And the 2019-2023 deal with Sky may actually involve a partnership that includes such a service.

      1. GT, i ask because you work in the industry, FOM claim to provide all the audio to the broadcasters, ie: every radio transmission…. is this true?

        1. There was a plan to do so a few years back & to allow broadcasters to supply them to viewers however this never actually happened in part because some of the teams didn’t want there radio’s available to all. A compromise was made where FOM would be allowed access to everything for re-broadcast on the TV & those little fan-vision things that used to be available at circuits.

          The broadcasters therefore only get the snippets that the viewer gets on the world feed and pit channel.

  9. Selling F1 to a bunch of results-people who only care about how much money they can make from their investment at the end of the day was absolutely the worst thing to ever happen to F1. Of all the deals Ecclestone has ever made, selling F1 to CVC has to be one of the worst he has ever struck. CVC, who probably knew little to nothing about F1 were in effect hoodwinked by Ecclestone- they were convinced by the master negotiator himself that if they could buy F1, then they could run it like the kind of sales-driven business that can be run in such a way where results the #1 priority- like chains of stores/shops, restaurants, or any other common type of business.

    F1 doesn’t work like that. No sport of any kind in the world can be run like that to the benefit of all involved. CVC made a terrible mistake to buy F1- I’ve heard that they wanted to sell as early as 2009. The one thing that absolutely must happen to secure a stable future is to sell the sport to someone who either cares about F1 and/or a bank or any other kind of open-minded entity who don’t see F1 as a sales-driven business (in the way CVC sees it) and see owning F1 as a matter of prestige and who don’t care about how much money they can suck up from F1.

    I still can’t understand how someone as smart and talented as Ecclestone could have made such a disastrously stupid mistake as to sell F1 to CVC. Because of that, F1 now goes to countries with pathetic, unchallenging, corporate-center-like autodromes in wealthy places that are willing to pay high-eight figure sums like Bahrain, Russia, Azerbaijan (exception to the autodrome), Abu Dhabi, China, Singapore, and formerly Korea and India. Granted- Abu Dhabi, Russia and Singapore are races that have a place on the F1 calendar- but the circuit layouts need to be drastically changed in order for them to see any kind of excitement. These venues are on the calendar at the expense of countries that actually have an interest and a history in and of motor racing, like France, Argentina, the New York Grand Prix and perhaps Sweden or Finland. I am not against visiting new countries in F1- far from it- but do not like to see F1 in countries that have governments that are so corrupt and depraved that the people in charge only want authoritarianism and absolute power- no freedom for all- and none of that is done for a greater good. As a Westerner, I will not accept that.

    1. I will admit that I liked the Indian Grand Prix- I wish it was still on the calendar; and the Korean Grand Prix might have been a success if the venue was right outside Seoul and not in the middle of nowhere, hours away from one of the most fascinating and cosmopolitan of all the big cities in Asia.

    2. *secure a stable future post-Ecclestone- but I am not sure Ecclestone likes stability- it gives him clout to exercise the game of business dealing- which is what he lives for.

  10. I completely disagree with “Pay TV” being a bad thing. We used to have free-to-air coverage in Australia and it was a disgrace. Qualifying on delay or sometimes not shown at all. Races full of ad breaks so more often than not you missed the most important parts and local commentators that had no idea what they where talking about. Now it’s on Pay TV and we get the Sky F1 feed for all practice session live, qualifying and races live and ad free and hours of pre race and post race coverage. Put simple, its just a better product and well worth the money.

    1. Lee Porcelli
      7th June 2016, 5:13

      I agree totally. Until sky we never had access to practice at all. They also show our V8 super car rounds in full. For the money an absolute bargain for a quality product.

  11. I sincerely believe that 90% of people who are interested in F1 just want to sit on their couch or chair in front of their TV set on a Sunday afternoon for 2 hours and watch a good motor race without any of the bells and whistles that the broadcasters and men in suits are keen to attach to the coverage, all this does is make it more expensive for the viewer and is a big reason why the viewing figures have dropped off. I for one do not care for all this extra fluff that is included and I believe most people do not care for it either.

  12. Michael Brown (@)
    8th June 2016, 0:17

    I don’t see paying for F1 coverage as an inherently bad thing. If fans want to pay for a better product, why not let them?
    The issue is when paying for coverage is the only way to watch F1. It makes money for the broadcasters but viewership will decline.

  13. “Mr. Sorrell obviously knows nothing about VR technology other than the buzz-word phrase.
    VR is not going to parachute you into the seat of an F1 car in a live race, put your hands on the wheel, your feet on the pedals and let you actually take control.
    At best it may let you choose between multiple cameras to view various snippets of action.
    VR is at it’s best in gaming where it lets you control the actions/inactions/reactions of the in-game avatar, to make your way to the end of the game.
    It doesn’t make a lot of sense, or add much value to, a 3rd person passive POV.
    As an average person if VR could somehow parachute me into the set of the LH or DR car at the recent Monaco GP the first thing I’d do is crash the car. I wouldn’t magically change the result, I’m not a better F1 driver than LH or DR and it would be outrageously arrogant of me to think that I might be.
    The key to understanding is to see that VR stand for VIRTUAL reality, whereas watching an F1 race is watching reality.
    VR belongs in the gaming world where it has a natural home, not in watching live sport where it makes no sense at all.”

  14. VR gives you, the viewer, a unique, personalised view of the race but what about the other 50 million worldwide viewers that are also tuning in via their VR headsets?
    What sort of bandwidth requirement are we talking about to give each and every one of them their own unique, personalised view of the race?
    HD streaming requires something in the region of 5Mbps to maintain stutter-free viewing. Giving each VR headset the freedom to ‘race their own race’ with 50 million VR headsets online means you need 250 million Mbps of bandwidth. Or to put it another way that’s 250 Tbps which is roughly equal to the current total of all traffic flowing across the internet at peak times.
    VR is a technology that works OK in a standalone PC game, you can even share it with a few friends via a private network but it simply doesn’t scale-up to thousand or millions of users with the current internet technology.
    Sure there are faster technologies in development labs around the world but the infrastructure costs mean they aren’t going to be available to Joe Public anytime soon.

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