Five years ago today, seismic news broke that many involved in motorsport likely thought they would never live to see: Bernie Ecclestone had been relieved of his duties as CEO of Formula 1 Management.
But with Ecclestone so famously uncompromising in his vision for what Formula 1 should be, his departure after Liberty Media’s $8 billion takeover of Formula 1 opened the door to a raft of changes in the sport, from how races are broadcast, to pre-race pageantry and how prize money is allocated between the competing teams.
Five years on from his departure at the helm of Formula 1’s commercial rights holder, here are many of the most notable ways that the sport has changed in his absence.
F1’s new look
Formula 1’s brand identity had remained fairly consistent since the turn of the millennium, but it was also hard to define what it was.
After Liberty Media ousted Ecclestone from his post, it took less than a year for the sport’s new owners to announce a full rebranding for the series, including an entirely new logo, new TV graphics, new fonts, a new audio sting to announce team radio clips – and even a brand new specially-composed theme song.
While views on whether the refresh is an improvement over what came before may differ, it’s unquestionable that Formula 1 has a much clearer visual sense of what it is in 2022 than compared to 2017. It also extends to Formula 2 and Formula 3 as well, meaning all three tiers now feel cohesively part of the same entity for perhaps the first time ever.
And with the sport enjoying a clear growth in profile in key markets across the world, it appears to have be an successful marketing exercise so far.
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Embracing social media
As web 2.0 began to transform the internet, hailing in the arrival of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, everyone from brands to politicians and professional sports embraced new ways to connect directly with customers, voters and fans. Everyone, it seemed, except Bernie Ecclestone and Formula 1.
It took until 2014 for F1 to even begin sharing footage from TV broadcasts of races on their official YouTube channel – laughably later than most major professional sports. Compared to many other international sports and fellow motorsport series, F1’s output was still relatively pedestrian even in early 2017.
The growth since Ecclestone’s departure has been remarkable. When Ecclestone was replaced F1’s YouTube channel sat at just over 272,000 subscribers. Five years later, F1 is on the verge of breaking through 7 million. On Twitter, F1 has grown from 2.45 million followers to over 7 million five years on.
With official F1 profiles on Instagram and TikTok too, the sport is now firmly embracing the opportunities that social media offers to connect with fans and become a part of their daily newsfeeds.
Ecclestone’s empire was built on television broadcasting contracts, charging networks across the world millions for the honour of broadcasting his product to their viewers. It was a successful strategy for many years, but with the rapid development of the internet and broadband technology, it did not take long for fans to start clamouring to be able to watch their favourite racing series on their PCs, tablets and phones.
Just over a year after Ecclestone was out, Liberty Media announced the launch of F1 TV in select markets at the start of the 2018 season. For the very first time, fans in the United States, Germany, France and many other nations could pay to stream live F1 sessions directly from the sport itself, without any need to sign up to any third-party networks first.
There were some teething troubles for early adopters, but eventually F1 appeared to smooth out many of the issues in their product and expanded to more territories across the world with each new season, including Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal and Brazil.
Unfortunately for most predominately English-speaking countries such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand and many European nations like Spain, Italy or Finland, F1 TV is not offered due to broadcast rights deals with TV networks. But that such an option even exists and what it could mean for viewers in those countries in the future is a world away from what many would have hoped to have under Ecclestone.
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All-access pass for Netflix
The idea that Formula 1 would allow television cameras intimate access to teams and drivers in the paddock during the course of a grand prix season is one that would have been unfathomable five years ago.
Despite its well-recognised flaws, Netflix’s Drive to Survive has also offered both fans and F1 novices unprecedented insight into the characters at the heart of the sport. By helping the audience to feel connected to who the drivers are as people as well as competitors, the show has become one of the most effective marketing tools that F1 has ever possessed.
Sceptics were quickly won over. Mercedes and Ferrari declined to allow the Netflix cameras in for the first series, but embraced the show from season two. Not everyone has been won over, however: Max Verstappen has accused Drive to Survive of faking its drama and refuses to participate.
Nonetheless by making a deal with one of the world’s most popular entertainment streaming platforms – rather than holding the show for ransom behind F1 TV or on another, more exclusive service for more money – Liberty Media have focused on getting the show and the sport in front of as many eyes as possible. And it is a strategy that appears to be working.
So successful has Drive to Survive proved to be, that many other promoters are now seeking to capture some of that same magic for their own sports, with similar shows greenlit that will follow the world tennis tour and the PGA tour in golf.
Budget caps and financial restrictions
Perhaps one of the most enduring criticisms of the Ecclestone way was how the financial structure of the sport under his control led to feedback loops where the richest, most successful teams only got richer and more successful and the poor, lower-performing teams would get the lowest share.
To Ecclestone, it was simply a means to incentivise teams to push for success rather than be content with existing in perpetual mediocrity on the grid, happily collecting their share of TV revenue. But with Ferrari receiving special bonus cuts of the money simply for being Ferrari – the team with the longest history in the sport – calls to distribute prize money more evenly grow louder over his final years in charge.
With only 10 teams on the grid since 2017, Liberty had to address the inequality in the sport to not just help ensure closer, more competitive racing on the track, but to help reduce the risk of the grid become ever thinner. Their answer was the new Financial Regulations, otherwise known as the ‘budget cap’, which restricted teams from spending above a certain threshold for the first time to help introduce more parity into the sport and reduce operating costs for all competitors.
While the cap does not cover everything – marketing budgets, driver and team boss salaries are among the areas excluded – the cap will reduce to $140 million for this season with further reductions planned. It’s early days for the new financial frontier in F1 and the impact on both the racing and the health of all 10 teams remains to be seen, but that it even exists at all is a major departure from Ecclestone’s doctrine.
Goodbye ‘grid girls’
For decades, Formula 1 grids regularly featured glamourous models holding boards that identified each driver’s slot on the start line. As these models were virtually exclusively women, criticism from fans, journalists, politicians and even drivers alike that the spectacle was sexist, unnecessary and reinforced a sense that Formula 1 was not respectful of women only grew louder over the years.
It was a perception that was not helped by Ecclestone himself, who made offensive public comments about his views on women on multiple occasions during his time leading the sport.
Soon after Liberty Media took over control of the sport’s commercial rights, it was announced that Formula 1 would phase out the old practice of models on the grid and replace them with ‘future stars’ – young children from the host nations of each grand prix acting as mascots to accompany drivers prior to a race, similar to those who escort footballers onto the pitch before a match.
It was a controversial decision, with many celebrating the new direction for the sport and others decrying what they considered a break from tradition. While the impact of the pandemic led to the programme being halted, it was another striking departure from the approach taken under the sport’s previous leadership.
Special helmet and car liveries
Under Ecclestone, teams and drivers were heavily restricted in how much freedom they had to run special or alternative helmet and livery designs during a season. Only a handful of teams were ever permitted to run alternative designs just for one race, with Monaco often the popular choice for it. The FIA even took matters a step further in 2015, banning drivers from being able to change their helmet designs in the season.
While the rules about both cars in a team running fundamentally the same livery design remain today, post-Ecclestone F1 has become far more relaxed about competitors embracing some creativity and adopting one-off designs for individual races. McLaren ran a special Gulf-influenced look in last year’s Monaco Grand Prix and Red Bull ran a white livery at the Turkish Grand Prix in honour of power unit provider Honda, which was originally planned to be raced at the cancelled Japanese Grand Prix. Mercedes (in 2019) and Ferrari (in 2020) have also taken advantage of the opportunity to race special designs, commemorating historic milestones.
A U-turn on the helmet design ban means drivers too are now regularly updating and changing their helmet designs again. Unsurprisingly, it’s proven popular with fans who enjoy seeing their favourite drivers not only switch up their style but better express their own personalities and advocate for the issues that are important to them.
Record calendar sizes
Given how Ecclestone was famous for securing lucrative contracts with circuits over the privilege of hosting a grand prix, it’s remarkable to think that the F1 calendar has ballooned to its largest ever size under Liberty Media.
Ecclestone felt no obligation to offer special favours to European circuits that had long been the backbone of the calendar. Instead, he actively courted growing nations in Asia and the Middle East, with wealthy backers willing to build stunning, state-of-the-art circuits with facilities that put their European counterparts to shame – even if their layouts paled in comparison.
But since his departure, the calendar has only gotten bigger. With a record 22 races last year, the upcoming season will see F1 visit 23 venues in a single campaign for the first ever time. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, a second US race in Miami and even Vietnam (despite never materialising) have all been added to the calendar in recent years, while Imola appears to be back for good also.
So many races have led to a concerning trend of ‘triple headers’ – three rounds held over three consecutive weekends. It’s not only been a major logistical challenge for the sport to move all its equipment and personnel across three nations over three weeks multiple times a year, it is also taking a toll on the teams and their staff.
Ecclestone’s dealings with circuits may have had their critics, but he arguably never asked as much from the people involved in Formula 1 as Liberty Media now do.
Ecclestone was not above introducing gimmicks in a bid to ‘improve the show’ – remember the short-lived double-points finale. But Liberty Media has embraced an even more radical innovation in the form of sprint races.
Introduced last season, the sprint qualifying race format used at three races proved divisive. While F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali has repeatedly claimed huge fan support for the extra Saturday races, their own surveys point to a much more mixed reception, and RaceFans readers have repeatedly panned sprints.
While touted as an exciting way to shake up the grand prix weekend and introduce more drama and unpredictability, these 100km qualifying races have effectively been treated by teams as the opening stint of the grand prix, which is then resumed the following afternoon.
Sprints are slated to return in a revised form at six rounds this year. However some teams’ concerns over the financial arrangements mean a question mark hangs over Liberty’s expansion plans.
2022 radical regulations overhaul
The coming season beckons in a brave new era for Formula 1, with a major overhaul of technical regulations intended to improve racing by making it easier for drivers to follow behind their rivals. Cars will not only look strikingly sleeker with larger front wings and smoother, more sculpted bodies, they will generate a large amount of their downforce from ground effect underbodies that should help to dramatically reduce the dirty air effect that has been the bane of the sport for so many years.
The FIA sets the regulations and has ultimate say over the wording in the rulebooks, but it is clear how the current FOM leadership and efforts of Ross Brawn as managing director of motorsport have shaped his bold new vision for what racing in Formula 1 should be. Coming off the most intense, season-long championship battles ever seen, with the popularity of the championship only growing, the new season will be a major litmus test for the sport as it seeks to provide even more competitive and unpredictable racing for its viewers.
If it is successful, then the upcoming era of Formula 1 racing may be one of the most enthralling its millions of viewers have seen. And while it will not all be down to FOM, it will also be a striking example of Liberty Media giving F1 fans more of what they want to see, compared to the later years that Ecclestone presided over the direction of the sport he influenced so heavily for so long.
Over to you
Has Formula 1 changed for the better or worse on the whole in the five years since Bernie Ecclestone relinquished control? Share your view in the comments below.
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