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Why F1 doesn't need an outsider as chairman

NEWS STORY
20/02/2011

Buried amongst the welter of stories about Bahrain in Saturday's newspapers was an article suggesting that CVC, the private equity firm which majority owns F1's commercial rightsholder, should appoint an independent outsider as chairman of the sport. The suggestion comes in the wake of reports that CVC has initiated an investigation into an alleged $50m bribe paid to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky in return for undervaluing the shares in F1 which it bought in 2006.

The article suggests Lord Davies, the former UK trade minister, or Sir Stuart Rose, the ex-head of Marks and Spencer, for the role of F1's chairman. The world of business is littered with bosses who are fans of racing and would probably jump at the job. Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman of yellow digger manufacturer JCB and Lord Digby Jones, former director general of the CBI, both spring to mind. However it remains to be seen whether there is any point in hiring anyone. Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt certainly doesn't think there is.

From the outside looking into F1 it may seem logical that the sport could benefit from having an independent outsider as chairman. Not only could it bring further credibility and endorsement to the business, but it would also increase its institutionalisation. At least that is the theory.

In practice, F1 is a business that has literally been built by one man and is still run by that one man. Whilst Bernie Ecclestone is still controlling the sport an independent chairman is literally redundant. We aren't saying this out of any deference to the diminutive billionaire but it is quite simply common sense. All of the key decisions concerning the management of F1, from the signing of new trackside advertisers to the marketing of the sport, need Ecclestone's sign-off. He even dabbles in hiring public relations managers for the teams.

There is good reason why CVC vests this power in Ecclestone. He has transformed F1 from a business which had annual revenues of well under £15m to one which made £930m in 2009 and there is still plenty of room for improvement. The mind boggles to think that F1 manages to pull in this amount of money without even having a race in America - the world's biggest economy.

Delta Topco, F1's rightsholder, already has two non-executive directors who are some of the biggest names in business outside the sport. The first, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, is the chairman of Nestlé, the world's biggest food company. We have heard very little from Brabeck though he is punctual and friendly in his replies to journalists. Likewise, F1's other non-executive director, Sir Martin Sorrell, replies rapidly and politely in his replies to the media but he has been a bit more outspoken than Brabeck.

Sorrell, the chief executive of the world's biggest advertising group WPP, has had an involvement with F1 for over 40 years. Sorrell handled Sir Jackie Stewart's management account at talent agency IMG in 1969, the year that the Scot won his first world championship. In 2006 Sorrell was appointed to Delta Topco and since then we have heard a lot from him.

It started back in 2008 when the then FIA president Max Mosley was caught in a tabloid exposé. At the Monaco GP Sorrell reportedly conferred individually with leading team principals and warned that the commercial view outside was that F1 risked being out of bounds for serious commercial sponsors if Mosley remained in what some regarded as his ivory tower. Things didn't quite pan out this way as Mosley won a vote of confidence from the FIA's general assembly and no sponsors are known to have left the sport as a result.

One year later Ecclestone came out with his memorable comment that Hitler could "get things done" and Sorrell, one of the UK's leading Jewish businessmen, went on the attack. "I am appalled by what he said about Hitler," said Sorrell adding "any other CEO in any other business would be gone." Ecclestone stayed in the driving seat but it didn't stop Sorrell's stinging attacks.

Later in 2009 another scandal engulfed F1 as it was claimed that former Renault team principal Flavio Briatore told Nelson Piquet junior to crash in the Singapore GP. The FIA initially banned Briatore for life from working in F1 which led Ecclestone to say that "even murderers don't get life these days." It was a fair comment given that months later, the FIA overturned its own ruling. However, Sorrell did not see it as being fair at the time and instead said "first we had 'Hitler did good' and now we have 'cheating is acceptable'. It's another example, I'm afraid, of Bernie being totally out of touch with reality."

Anyone who really knows Ecclestone is aware that although he is as outspoken as they come, there aren't many other people, let alone billionaires, who are as down to earth as he is. This is a man who lunched every day at his local pub until the day it closed, doesn't have a dishwasher at home and before his heart bypass in 1999 his meal of choice was egg and toast covered with brown sauce.

According to F1's industry monitor Formula Money, Ecclestone has cashed £2.4bn out of F1 but, despite this, he rarely uses a chauffeur outside of working hours. Indeed, as he recently explained to Sylt, this is one of the reasons that he got mugged at the end of last year. After pulling up to his home he turned to lock the doors of his Toyota people carrier and was attacked with his back turned. Say what you want about Ecclestone but one thing which can't be denied is that he counts literally every penny he spends. It is hard to do that without being pretty well in touch with the real world.

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