- The Inside Line
The beginning of the end for Bernie?Kate Walker January 17, 2014
The world of Formula One experienced a dramatic sea change yesterday, even if the official story was that it's all still business as usual.
When it was confirmed that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone would be facing bribery charges in Germany, the 83-year-old stepped down from the board of Delta Topco - F1's holding company - and accepted that his day-to-day activities would be subject to heretofore unseen monitoring by the board.
For a man who has long been the one holding the reins of the sport he built into a globe-trotting financial behemoth, it will be a sharp adjustment.
Like many leaders with the reputation of being in sole control, Bernie Ecclestone is no lone wolf. While the wheeling and dealing is a solitary matter, with Ecclestone the man whose phone calls are always taken, it is simply not possible to run a multi-billion dollar operation without a strong and trusted team.
In Prince's Gate, Bernie works closely with his chosen few, men and women skilled at drawing up contracts and fine-honing the fine print. Without the trust he places in the likes of his lawyer, Sacha Woodward-Hill; FOM head of marketing Alexander Wooff; and FOM head of media rights Ian Holmes, Mr Ecclestone would not be in a position to do the deals he does.
He has an equally strong team in the paddock, men and women who serve as his eyes and ears on the ground at the races he doesn't attend.
But Bernie's trusted team works for him. Under the new - said to be temporary - Delta Topco power structures, "The approval and signing of significant contracts and other material business arrangements shall now be the responsibility of the chairman, Mr Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, and the Deputy chairman, Mr Donald Mackenzie."
For the first time in decades, Bernie Ecclestone will be answerable to others inside the rarefied world of Formula One.
Perhaps the biggest change will be a psychological one. Part of the Ecclestone appeal, in business terms, was that Bernie has long been known as a man who does deals on a handshake. Now that power has been removed from him, and that will be a major adjustment to come to terms with. After a lifetime spent negotiating and closing deals, the 83-year-old is now "subject to increased monitoring and control by the board" of Delta Topco.
According to the statement released yesterday, that decision was taken because "the board believes that it is the best interests of both the F1 business and the sport". And while there's no arguing with anything so obvious, it will have been a blow to be asked to step back from the sport he grew into an influential marketing tool with an international reach, a trailblazer in terms of global expansion.
Making matters worse, the simple matter of Ecclestone's age means that - whatever the outcome of the Munich trial - this is the beginning of a slow exit. CVC et al. have long known that they need to be more proactive in finding a successor (or successors) to Bernie. Now that his powers have been diminished, it stands to reason that the search will be accelerated. Having relinquished some control of the sport, it is highly unlikely that Ecclestone will ever again be at the reins on his own.