Many articles have been written recently about Bernie Ecclestone’s F1 legacy. Since the abrupt departure of the former F1 commercial chief much has been said about what he did for the sport.
Most articles have been written from the perspective of an F1 insider. But what about his legacy from a fan’s perspective? The people on the outside looking in?
Bernie says: I’m going to make F1 global
Ecclestone made F1 the global phenomenon we have come to know. Without Bernie the sport would not be second only to the soccer World Cup and Olympic Games in terms of global TV coverage.
Senna, Prost, Mansell, Alonso, Schumacher, Vettel and Hamilton would not be household names without him. Legions of fans around the world would never had got hooked on the sport they love so passionately if it had not been for Ecclestone.
The sport we adore may in fact not even exist if it was not for Ecclestone. F1 could easily have torn itself apart several times over without Bernie at the helm.
The inability of the FIA and the participating teams to work together for the good of the sport is well-documented. Ecclestone’s dictatorial style held F1 together for over four decades through periods of bitter in-fighting. Indeed it would not be hyperbolic to suggest F1 might not exist without Bernie Ecclestone.
Bernie’s F1 legacy
But then there is the darker side of Ecclestone’s management of F1. The questionable business dealings. The vast wealth he has accumulated from F1. The myriad teams and race circuits that have gone bust during his reign. The financial burden placed upon the heart of the sport – us, the fans.
The real Ecclestone legacy – from a fans perspective at least – is a sport that is now inaccessible, hideously expensive and elitist.
F1 is proud to be inaccessible
Drivers are kept in a bubble away from everyday fans in modern F1. Keeping fans at arms length creates an added premium for access. A premium that was exploited by Bernie in the shape of revenue streams like the F1 Paddock Club.
Rightly or wrongly in the glory days of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, F1 was a sport for everyone. Tracks would be packed with fans in numbers rarely seen since. Drivers would not be hidden away and accessible only to those able to pay exorbitant fees for hospitality and VIP treatment.
Watching F1 through the fence
That is why exploits like Lewis Hamilton’s crowd surfing at the 2016 British Grand Prix caused such a stir. That day real fans were briefly able to interact with their hero in a way not seen since the days of Nigel Mansell.
In modern F1 fans interact with their heroes through metal fences or waiting for a glimpse and an autograph at the entrance to the Paddock Club (you can find it next to the helicopter landing pads usually).
The rising cost of F1
As Bernie screwed circuits to the wall with ever increasing race fees and pursued pay-per-view TV, only one outcome was likely – rising costs. Unfortunately it was fans who bore the brunt of it.
Circuits have increasingly started each season at a massive financial deficit. Before selling a single ticket or item of merchandise their balance sheet is firmly in the red to the tune of several million dollars. In his usual style Bernie offered no compromises and took a hard line: pay up or we go somewhere that will.
Circuits without significant regional or national government support had only one option: increase the cost to fans. The commercial agreements Ecclestone forced them to accept offered no other means to generate revenue. Thus ticket prices and anything else ancillary to the fan experience like parking and camping had to go up.
Similarly the food retailers, merchandisers and exhibitors at the tracks would be charged more for their pitch and consequently ramped up their prices.
Of course the unwelcome byproduct of this is that fans simply stopped attending races when they reached their financial limit. (Processional races and dominance by one team at a time did not help either.) Which then fed back in to the system as lower income for circuits forcing them to recoup costs elsewhere with – you guessed it – higher prices.
Pay up to watch F1 live and on TV
For a decade now the net result has been rising costs for fans. We pay through the nose to attend the races (even if only buying general admission tickets) and drop a small fortune on food and drink while we are there.
Bernie of course was masterful in getting F1 to a global audience through TV. But as F1’s appeal grew there was a greater opportunity to generate revenue by switching to pay TV. Free-to-air broadcasters could not match the budgets offered by subscription channels and thus fans started paying to watch races at home.
The F1 elite
F1 has become the preserve in many respects of the rich, the powerful and the famous. Wealth and fame get you access to F1 in ways fans can only dream of, even if the person in question has never watched a race in their life. Personally the sight of celebrities with zero interest in or connection with F1 gracing the grid pre-race or enjoying the hospitality of teams during a race makes me embarrassed for the sport.
When the clamour for F1 to properly embrace digital and social media became a roar, Bernie was firmly against it. Anything that could ‘open up’ F1 to more than just the elite group of people willing to pay a premium for access was firmly beaten down. Bernie was happy for F1 to remain the preserve of the champagne-quaffing, Rolex-wearing elite because they were best placed to pay for it.
Free access to F1? You must be kidding
Giving access to behind-the-scenes F1 via Twitter or Instagram was likely considered abhorrent by Ecclestone. Free access? You must be kidding.
Even the media covering F1 – so often the moral compass for a sport – seemed to have been charmed by Ecclestone. Bernie was criticised by the mainstream F1 media but it always lacked bite. Despite being downright obnoxious to many journalists over the years they still looked upon Ecclestone with admiration. Why? In part I think because he maintained their own elite status within the inner workings of the sport.
Bernie made F1 the global sporting powerhouse it is today. But for fans he also made F1 a sport that fewer and fewer of them can afford to or want to be involved in. As fans we must hope that the new era to be ushered in by Liberty Media can redress the balance and quickly.