Bernie's Christmas grenade

19/12/2017
NEWS STORY

Twice in recent months, Bernie Ecclestone has been accused of lobbing grenades into the F1 paddock with the intention of causing trouble.

The first came in reaction to the former F1 supremo's claim that Mercedes had helped Ferrari improve its engine.

"For good reason," he told La Repubblica, "a world championship won against Sauber is one thing, one won against Ferrari is another."

"He's the only one who is able to sit on the other side of the world and throw a hand grenade and it actually lands in the paddock," responded Toto Wolff of the claim.

"These stories are fantastic and I've missed them a little bit," he told Reuters. "I've missed the hand grenades and the pop-up meetings and the crisis situation and the rule and divide."

A few weeks later, Wolff once again referred to hand grenades when asked, in Abu Dhabi, how he felt the sport had changed over the past twelve months.

"Well, 12 months ago Bernie was around," he replied. "We miss the odd hand grenade flying through the paddock, but this is new times and what we need to do is support the new owners and the management to grow Formula 1."

Ever the diplomat, Wolff omitted to mention the row that was already bubbling away following Liberty Media's revealing of its initial proposal for the 2021 engine rules, far less the maelstrom that would follow should predictions about the sport's new owners plans for the prize pot prove accurate.

While, Wolff, and thereby Mercedes, was offering its support to Liberty, predictably, Ferrari had already blown its top, Sergio Marchionne expressing his unease with the engine regulation in no uncertain terms.

While the sport pats itself on the back with various awards ceremonies, reflects on season past while excitedly looking ahead to 2018, winding down for a much needed Christmas break before the whole process begins again, at a time most of us are wondering if we sent a card to Uncle George or whether we should buy in some extra milk because the shops are shut for a whole day, Bernie has taken the opportunity to lob a festive grenade.

"Democracy has no place in Formula 1," he tells Switzerland's Sonntagsblick.

"The new owners will soon realize this because so far they have achieved nothing," he adds.

Asked about Ferrari's threat to quit the sport, he replies: "That old game... If they don't win, there is usually panic. Max Mosley and I could write a long list of all the times we helped Ferrari, but they always deny it."

Barely has Bernie pulled the pin than Marchionne, taking full advantage of his team's traditional Christmas media luncheon, not only reiterates his threat of quitting F1, he takes it one step further, suggesting that his team could head to a breakaway series.

Of course, we've been down this route a few times before, and indeed it was Ferrari that actually scuppered one of the most serious threats to F1 when it was won over by Bernie's promises of lucre, thereby leaving fellow 'rebel' teams with no alternative but to meekly follow.

The current row however, isn't merely about engine rules or budget caps, it is about that very thing the drives F1, and we don't mean fuel.

Liberty is not only looking to share the prize pot more evenly, with the hope of seeing the smaller teams challenge for podiums and even wins, it intends doing away with the special bonuses given to certain teams... by previous arrangement with a certain Bernard Charles Ecclestone.

As John Cale made clear in Mercenaries (Ready for War), "trying to separate me from my money is like trying to separate me from my life".

Fact is, the various deals that Bernie left in place, in particular the prize money and bonuses make the sport unsustainable, it simply cannot continue paying out at that level.

While Liberty might well eye a possible deal with the likes of Silverstone which would see its hosting fees reduced - a move that would necessitate similar agreement with other tracks - the teams would never agree to this coming out of their share. Consequently, no such deals can be made.

Even the increasingly Liberty friendly Christian Horner has made clear that he wants to see the smaller teams receive more money, while at the same time making clear that he has no intention of allowing Red Bull's revenue stream to be compromised.

Be it Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull stamping its feet and threatening to throw its toys out of the pram and walk away, the big difference this time around, in terms of a breakaway series is that the teams won't be playing hardball with Bernie but with Chase Carey and his team who have yet to discover for themselves why the previous F1 supremo's dictatorial style of management was necessary.

Liberty has made much of the fact that under Bernie's management the sport wasn't progressing and missing out on various new revenue streams. True, in many ways he was a dinosaur, however, as long as the money was regularly flowing in the teams simply didn't care.

Now, as reality kicks in and the bigger teams realise just how hard Liberty's vision for the future could hit them in their pockets, the rumblings of discontent begin… in the months and years ahead they will only grow louder.

While, there is sure to be a clause in any contract Bernie has with Liberty in terms of working 'against' F1, it is unlikely to last beyond 2020, which would set the scene perfectly.

In many ways, right now reality must be kicking in for Liberty as it realises just what it has bought for all those billions, a sport in which you either accept the status quo and allow things to continue as is, though a few more million in prize money wouldn't go amiss, or one you try to bring into the 21st century alongside other sports but risks losing its competitors in the process.

Ever eager to rubbish F1 under Bernie - which does make one wonder why it sought to buy the sport in the first place - like the man says, much of Liberty's input thus far has been talk.

OK, we have a bright shiny HQ in the heart of London, tons more staff to help fill that HQ and run the sport, we have Ross Brawn building a phantom F1 team, a new logo and the London F1 Event... which will be followed by a number of similar events next year in the likes of Berlin, Marseille and Moscow.

Incidentally, the London event was put together by TBA, a marketing agency headed by one Guy Horner, or as the Liberty friendly Red Bull team boss calls him "bruv".

Yet other than that, what has Liberty done thus far other than talk, that and rattle the cages of the three leading manufacturers.

While the sceptic in us cannot help but think that right from the outset Bernie sold Liberty a pup, fully aware that the sport as we know it was reaching a watershed, on the other hand perhaps this is merely another one of those hiccoughs the sport faces from time to time.

Either way, we take Ferrari's threat seriously, even more so now that Bernie is not only not there to cajole the ever melodramatic outfit but on the outside looking in, a large box of grenades by his side.

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Published: 19/12/2017
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