(Tobacco + TV + Tracks = $2 Billion)
by Thomas C. O'Keefe, U.S.A.
Thomas O'keefe, a long time contributor of Atlas F1, set out to study and hopefully understand the true motivations that drive The Supremo of Formula One - Bernie Ecclestone. The result, exclusively published here at Atlas F1 in four parts, is one of the most extensive profiles ever written about the man who IS Formula One
Final Part - All Things Considered, We Could Probably Do Worse
Bernie is indisputably the Indispensable Man who has seen and done it all in Formula One – the ups, the downs and the cycles of the sport, whether as to popularity, competitiveness or commercial success.
He started off in the early 50's as a driver himself, but courtesy of a career-ending accident at Brands Hatch at the tender age of 21, he dusted himself off and opted for deal making over driving and Formula One fans worldwide have been the beneficiaries of that choice. Even the most hard bitten and vehement Bernie Basher would have to grudgingly acknowledge that Bernie has been Good For Formula One while doing things that were, to be sure, Good for Bernie. Thank goodness he never qualified his privateer Connaught at Silverstone in 1958!
But now that he is in his twilight years (Max Mosley, ten years younger than Bernie himself, has quipped that he is confident that Bernie will last at least as long as Enzo Ferrari - who died at 90), the question becomes: is Bernie thinking about you as he goes about planning the future of Formula One, you, the long-suffering armchair Formula One fan who has been tossed about on uncertain seas over the last few years as to television coverage, whether it be in the U.K. where the BBC has been replaced by ITV or changes at Channel 9 in Australia or in the United States where ESPN and ABC have lost out to the Fox Sports and Speedvision or in Germany, Italy and Holland, the wave of the future, where a much higher caliber of coverage is now available, for a price.
In some elemental way, yes, Bernie cares about you because he needs to keep we groundlings entertained. Unless we watch Formula One, the advertisers will not pay the TV revenues and the shifting sands on which the House of Ecclestone is built will shift again, collapsing the foundations. Thus, Bernie's pronouncement that terrestrial TV coverage of Formula One will be around "forever" as far as he was concerned.
But, in a larger sense Bernie has put in motion forces that even he cannot control that will ultimately permit the millions of us who watch Formula One to stay "in contact" (to use a racing phrase) with the frontrunners on Bernie's digital subscriber list. On the one hand, the garden variety Commoner Fan is being left behind because the non-digital TV coverage available to the masses is gradually deteriorating.
While the Formula One fan in Germany who springs for Bernie's digital TV service can practically become his or her own producer, changing camera views from several in-car cameras at will with a remote control, those of us in the Great Unwashed terrestrial TV land are allocated one or perhaps two in-car cameras. Bernie's recent tete á tete with ITV over its right to broadcast qualifying shows how Bernie, like any good businessman, is looking out to maximize on every sliver of marginal profits. The recent discussion about having two days of qualifying is probably as much about adding another layer of programming as it is about adding to the sport.
Max Mosley is not the most unbiased witness on Bernie but he is certainly an informed one. This is Max's view of Formula One's Godfather: "Bernie is a financial genius and he works almost 24 hours a day in making the whole F1 business succeed ... History proves Bernie is invariably right ... Formula One is very lucky to have Bernie Ecclestone." Even Bernie's harshest critics would have to grudgingly acknowledge that he has shepherded modern Formula One from its infancy to its current condition and his vision has made the sport prosperous even beyond what Bernie could have imagined. Are there mistakes made; every weekend. Is there excess in the sport; of course there is – Everywhere.
For example, even to the most rabid Formula One fan, the idea that it costs McLaren $250 million or more to put two Silver Arrows on the grid 16 times a year is mind boggling. As an example of how this kind of money is raised, it is rumored that the going rate for a sponsor whose logo would appear on each mirror of a top two-car team is $4 million. At a Million Dollars a Mirror, you can begin to see how the money gets raked in. The obscene amounts of money currently spent in Formula One are rivaled in excess only by the American Political Campaign Contribution System.
In addition, the almost universal dependence on the tobacco industry for funding this excess is disconcerting, and as the ban on tobacco advertising takes on universality the replacement of the sponsor dollars contributed by the Tobacco Road contingent will not be easy, although it does now seem inevitable.
While Max Mosley and the FIA are still waiting for proof that some young people take up smoking because of tobacco promotion they see at Formula One tracks, even Max concedes that "Formula One will have to give up tobacco sponsorship in the medium to long term." And even if Max never receives the evidence he is waiting for, the bans on tobacco advertising in Europe that have been suspended until 2006 will ultimately be lifted and the teams will have to auction off their mirrors for even higher returns to non-tobacco sponsors if they want to continue to race in Europe. (This year at Spa, the teams went sans tobacco advertisement.) The "Green" and politically correct Stewart-Ford-Jaguar team reflects the trend: no tobacco sponsors at all.
So, yes, there is excess, yes, there is Tobacco (the embarrassing relative who keeps turning up at the party), yes, there are problems with the sporting regulations in coming to grips with keeping the right balance between technological wizardry and competitive open wheel racing, and yes, there are inequities and shortcomings in television coverage that we can put down to Bernie trying to get his digital TV project off the ground and acting in a proprietary way with what he regards as his broadcasting "rights."
But before Bernie, Formula One was a contest between the gentlemen garagistes challenging more established manufacturers like Ferrari in races that ran on club circuits or country roads in Europe before an audience of thousands, not millions (or billions now, if you believe the FIA's statistics). At that time, the bulk of us learned about what we now think of as the classic Formula One races at Monaco, Spa, Brands Hatch, Reims, Zandvoort and Monza not from seeing it ourselves but only from motor racing journalists and the now-treasured black and white photographs taken by intrepid photographers stationed at the Gasometer Hairpin in Monaco, the Tarzan corner at Zandvoort, Thillois at Rheims or the Karussel at the Nurburgring.
Today, however diminished the quality of the racers and racing may be with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it is now possible on a Grand Prix weekend for virtually anyone to go to Australia in March, Monaco in May and Japan in October to see a Formula One race by means of the nearly universal availability of TV coverage and sometimes – Hungary and Monza 1998, Canada 1998 and 1999, France 1998, 1999, Monaco 1996, 1999, and Silverstone and Spa most years – there are even a few decent races that at least come close to the Golden Ages of Fangio, Clark, Moss and Senna, even if they are often the result of passing in the pit lane or other tactics or anomalous events other than wheel-to-wheel racing.
All of it comes to us compliments of Bernie, who - for all his faults - had the vision and entrepreneurial skill to make order out of the chaos of racing on a World Stage that was previously for only the privileged few and to make a profit along the way. Notwithstanding all the variables out there, Formula One's future seems secure, well into the Millennium, and much of the credit for that stability in an otherwise unstable World, undeniably goes to the little man with the thick glasses and the tousled hair, who hopefully will continue to preside over Formula One from the Kremlin or the pitlane for some years to come.
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Thomas C. O'Keefe is a lawyer who practices law in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in New York. He became captivated with Formula One and visiting race-tracks after watching Jimmy Clark cross the finish line to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1965 and following his F1 career thereafter.