The problem with Formula 1

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In five year’s time, we may look back on 2013-2015 as the beginning of the unraveling of Formula 1. Not in a dire sense of the word but in a pushpin on a timeline sort of way that signaled a major event in F1’s long history.

The balance of power is not always impregnable and often times it can become untenable. It seems these days, F1 is continually digging a hole until they fit comfortably in it and along the way its commercial rights holders are enjoying the sale of shovels at the proverbial F1 hardware store.

Today F1 doesn’t seem, on the outside, as fully assembled as it once was and there is an element of searching for the part of F1 that used to suffice fans no matter if Jim Clark won by over a minute or Senna and Mansell battled to the bitter end at Jerez.

F1’s new Strategy Group has certainly changed the landscape but what it really has shown us is that the top four or five teams are all intent on growing alone with their own agendas and political positioning. The fear, however, is that they don’t grow apart and leave F1 bereft of any real, meaningful way to institute much-needed changes in order to survive.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone once said that the teams couldn’t agree to do anything as a group—and boy was he right about that! It was in reference to a threat the teams made to leave the sport and form their own series if then FIA president Max Mosley didn’t step down.

mercedes title 2014 team

Max became unpopular amongst teams over his ham-fisted Chelsea loft episode and the manner in which he exacted punitive actions on teams that had long been a festering relationship and thorn in his side as well as critics of his leadership. All that said, what F1 is missing is Max’s ability and power to get things done even if the teams didn’t like it.

With Max gone and current FIA president, Jean Todt, selling the organization’s regulatory oversight ability for a bigger payday for services rendered in governing the daily running of the sport, it now seems that making dramatic changes will be nearly impossible.

The have’s and have yachts are at serious odds with each other and the conflagration is only being fanned to a white-hot bonfire with each month that goes by. At this point, even if we split the issues in half are we even sure which half we’d champion? If we listen very closely, we can hear the teams all excited about the new engine format they approved and now those voices have turned to shouts and cries of foul play, equalization, untenable costs, team exits and income equality among teams.

The system is devouring itself under the agendas, greed, costs and cash that have long been an effusive part of F1. The series has very few European grands prix left and the it’s chasing far-flung location in AsiaPac, and even the occasional despot, in order to keep the cash flowing and sustain the series. I understand why Ecclestone has to find the highest bidder—revenue must exceed expenses. He’s always been very good at that and he has to be, it’s just good business.


We can claim the percentage taken by CVC Capital Partners is too high but if the total income of the series is not there, CVC takes very little or worse. The teams rely on this revenue stream now more than ever instead of sponsor’s dollars. They squeeze every dime out of drivers along the way and occasionally commit to more drivers than seats they have available in order to keep the lights on.

In the old days the Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone show worked. It was a benevolent dictatorship that made the changes the series needed to survive. No longer. Truth be known, more Ecclestone in the series and less investors may have been a much better program—warts and all.

It’s not a doom and gloom story but I do wonder if Ecclestone’s ultimate goal for F1 was not reached back in the late 90’s or early 2,000’s and no one has created a new business model for the series for the next 60 years. The system has become pear-shaped and now we’re effectively paying teams to participate in F1. In the past, the opposite was true and sponsors as well as teams paid for the privilege.

Money Bag 600

So far, F1 has been able to bend before it breaks but I do wonder where the breaking point is. The halls may echo with the choir and mob singing the famous “get rid of Bernie” refrain but be careful what you wish for. Taking F1 into an even more strung out, corporate, feeding frenzy may not be the best move for the series and we can now see that leaving it to the teams is a fools errand. Don’t look to the FIA to solve it like they used to, they new FIA is not as advantageously positioned to exact sweeping changes as it once was.

In short, Mr. E bought the assets, worked his arse off and built a series that would appeal so much as to grow the value of the assets he owned. Having done that, he cashed out. Now the new owners have shown very little interest in taking the reigns and creating an even bigger value so much as simply ride out the waning value that Ecclestone created for his assets to mature or reach their zenith in the early 2,000’s.

That’s not a very positive business model but then they are a venture capital firm—it’s not like Google, Shell, or Mercedes Benz bought the series and can have their board and executives work their P&L magic and let the marketing team go to work. This is an investment to reap big returns—and very little else it seems.

In the end, perhaps five years from now, F1 may not look at all like it has in the past. Is this the 2008 global crunch finally coming home to roost in F1? Is this simply down to fleecing the series from just about every player except the fans?

It’s most likely a combination of all of them but perhaps F1 will change, grow, die or something else. Regardless, the teams will simply find another series to invest their racing dollars. If you’re the WEC, you may take serious notes and avoid getting yourself in this situation should the day come when you’re not only taking on ex-Formula 1 drivers but a complete grid of ex-Formula 1 teams.


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Mario A. Bauér

Do you realize that articles trumpeting “the problem with F1” out like this, like so many others do, will only add to the corporate world turning away from motor sport? F1 is, like it or not, the pinnacle of motor sport. Should marketing VPs turn away from F1, they’ll send the signals out they are turning away from motor sport. Do you you feel comfortable with the idea of making sponsorship chasing for teams and drivers ever more difficult by constant criticising what a wider audience sees as the guiding light of motor sport. I wish you – and others… Read more »

Paul KieferJr

Well, the thing is that motorsport, like business, is made of human individuals, and they are subject to error, and errors like that affect everyone: You, me, Todd, Grace, etc. We’re all affected by what people do, and if we don’t expose these failings, then we’re all harmed, and it becomes something immoral and antithetical to the fabric of society and the Human Race in general. Sure, it’s unpopular, but it has to be done. The other half of the error is when there are people who are afraid to face their own demons, much less the demons of others.… Read more »

Negative Camber

Keep in mind, Mario, that you and I are stakeholders in this series as well and ultimately we drive the machine. By exploring concerns about F1’s future in editorials, we share with each other our concerns. Sponsors wouldn’t exist in F1 if we didn’t watch it. Having said that, I really do appreciate your thoughts on this and giving us credit for impacting the sport and potential sponsors but to be honest, I’m not sure anyone is going to take our commentary as something you can write on a rock. It’s just opinion, nothing more, nothing less. There are still… Read more »


Unlike a previous comment, I believe fans commenting on the issues we observe in F1 helps the entire process and product. I understand the point that was made saying that marketing VP’s could turn away from motor sport, but the inverse is also true. Marketing VP’s could see motor sport, and particularly F1, as a viable advertising option because of the passion of the fans. Simply put, we want F1 to continue after Bernie Ecclestone and many of us fear that under the current model it will not. F1 has subjected its self to half-baked ideas recently that have accomplished… Read more »

Paul KieferJr

Truth be told, the inmates are running the asylum. That was the first problem that started it all.


I couldn’t agree more. To expand on that idea, the problem I see with having F1 run by a committee is the teams will likely begin to influence one or more members of the committee and if that becomes the case the problem(s) will only get worse. I am not saying that Max Mosley was perfect or always right but I liked the way he would lower the boom and once he did, that was that.


The fundamental problem with F1 is that there is no clear mission statemet. At least make Bernie even richer, is not a mission statement in my eyes. Certainly the brand and the sport needs be be developed into the future, but this requires a clear management and not mgmt by commity. The sport is alienating its core fans with castrated racing at unheard of prices. Bernie has done great things with the sport, but on this transition from sport to business the ultimate sponser has been left behind – the fan.

Classic Velocity

Much as I hate the very sound of it, F1 is a business, plain and simple. It is a very large business with owners. Those owners want to maximize return on their investment. What do the teams own? What do the fans own? We like to think we have some rights to the sport, but what we really have is the same as any consumer; the right to disrupt the ability of the owners to generate a return by taking our eyeballs and dollars elsewhere. As a sport (and yes I cling to that moniker), and the very pinnacle of… Read more »

'The Believer

A brilliant article!!! But when you say will it grow, die or whatever I have a confused view point to this. Now F1 has seen lot of exciting fights in the last decades from the Alonso-Schumi battle to the Current Hamilton-Rosberg battle. We have seen many season going down the wire to the penultimate or last race. However, Fans as still not happy and many say F1 is losing its sheen. I agree that 90s was a far more fascinating ..but if you see post Schumi-Ferrari domination, Formula one has managed to get many competitive seasons. So it is just… Read more »

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