Flop-haired muppet and dictator aficionado Bernie Ecclestone has controlled Formula One for decades now, and for decades now the sport has been regularly wracked by turmoil. But the traveling F1 circus might finally be sold from his grasp. And that might be the thing that saves it.
Though I did just use the word “might” there twice.
Over this past weekend, rumors began to pick up steam that Liberty Media, which owns the Atlanta Braves baseball team and QVC, could be buying F1, the Guardian reported:
A media mogul nicknamed “Darth Vader” is close to taking control of Formula One in a deal that will net billions of pounds for the private equity firm that controls the sport.
John Malone’s Liberty Media, which owns a collection of media, telecommunications and entertainments businesses, could announce it is investing in F1 as early as this week after talks with CVC Capital Partners, which has controlled the sport for a decade.
A guy nicknamed “Darth Vader” probably wouldn’t make things any better, and Bernie Ecclestone still apparently has some sort of clause in the deal that allows him to hang around like a ghostly specter rattling chains of assholery near the sport for years to come, but there may be hope.
If you’re not caught up on all of the dark wizardry that serves as the functioning office of F1, a little background. Formula One, as a sport and governing body, isn’t run like other sports, like the NFL for instance. In something like the NFL, the individual team owners effectively “own” the league, and the commissioner of the league acts on their behalf towards what the team owners believe is both their best interests and the best interests of the sport.
In F1, a relatively opaque cabal of investors, including private equity firm CVC Capital Partners and Ecclestone actually own the sport itself and the lucrative media rights that accompany it, and effectively exert control for their own best interest, and sometimes that means getting the F1 teams themselves to tepidly agree to how things are done.
The F1 teams themselves tend to despise this arrangement, which is embodied in a semi-secret contract known as “the Concorde Agreement.” They despise it so much, in fact, that every couple of years a whole bunch of teams threaten to just quit this dumb charade altogether.
It’s all incredibly esoteric and complex, and from a fan’s perspective it really only seems to be hurting Formula One more than anything else. The easy fix would be to devolve much of the sport’s governing power to the teams, as F1 teams acting in their collective interest for the betterment of the sport could serve as the cure-all for perennial issues like competition and cost.
On the other hand, Ecclestone, the man who enjoys de facto control over everything, once said that Russian pseudo-dictator Vladimir Putin was a “first-class man” who had a solid shot at taking over Europe and America.
For years a sale of F1 has been something of a pipe dream for teams and F1 fans, but it seemed like the only way anyone would pry power from Ecclestone would be from his cold, dead hands. And at a spry 85, it looks like he could be alive for at least another 300 years, his life extended beyond mere human mortality by nothing but the power of hate.
As part of CVC’s deal selling the majority of its stake to Liberty Media, F1 broadcaster and journalist James Allen picked up a rumor that CVC could actually sell some portions of the sport to the teams themselves, like some obscenely well-financed version of Oliver Twist (emphasis mine):
Speaking to CVC’s Donald Mackenzie in Monza, it is clear that they will halve their stake, relinquishing control of the F1 business, but remaining a minority shareholder. The cornerstone investors, like Waddell and Reed and BlackRock, who came in as a prelude to the aborted flotation in Singapore in 2012, have already had their initial investment back and more, but they will make their exit. There will be a partial flotation of the business.
Mackenzie is also keen for the teams to become shareholders in the F1 business, which will tie them into the business long term and give them a share of the upside and a motive to work for the mutual benefit of all to grow F1. All teams will be offered the chance to take a stake and even smaller teams like Sauber, now they are owned by Longbow Finance, might be able to avail themselves of the opportunity.
And that’s the first time in recent memory that anyone’s ever suggested tossing even a small morsel to those poor, wretched F1 teams.
Of course, we’re still a long way from handing full control over the sport to the people that, you know, actually participate in it. And we’re still probably a long way from all the teams just pulling out, setting up their own rival series in which they can all work towards the best racing possible for the good of everyone, and finally taking control of everything that matters to them. Which is what they should have done a long time ago.