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.”
“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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