An Open Letter To Bernie Ecclestone
I guess before I start I should say I hope that one of your underlings or helper monkeys or whatever it is you use is internet savvy enough to pull up this message and pass it along to you. I understand you have no need for the internet or any of that new fangled stuff, so I am sure you aren’t reading this by yourself, accidentally coming to my page while surfing for champagne and private jet offerings and the like. That said, I hope they do pass it along to you, because I think what I am saying here speaks volumes about F1, it’s past, it’s future, and why you should no longer be part of it.
2014 was a banner year, that is for sure. A couple of those banners are “we are poor” and “in administration”, those pretty much cover 75% of the field running and they also frame the basic issue of F1 perfectly. If we put one to the left and one to the right, you have the narrow passageway through which the season has traveled to a fairly sad and meaningless conclusion. Let me tell you, as a working stiff and life long racing fan (and one time racer myself, for a few minutes), I understand that money equals speed. However, F1 has reached a point where the money is so far off the chart, that I find myself sympathizing with the millionaires bitching about not having a big enough part of the pie. When I realized that they had my sympathy, I also realized that the sport in fundamentally broken.
Your comments as the season wound down, from “begging bowls” to the sport not needing younger fans tells me that you may be a big part of the problem at this point. You have done some truly amazing things, taking F1 from something just up from gentleman racer levels to a true international spectacle that attracts millions of viewers and more than a billion euros of sponsor money every year. However, that success perhaps has created it’s own problems, a sort of smoke cloud of champagne bubbles and fluttering dollar bills that makes it hard to see where you are going. Blinded by financial success and the desire to always get more, F1 has spent nearly the last decade floundering around, ignoring the core product and instead worrying about massaging the egos of the money people and their businesses that derive their existence from the F1 spectacle. That desire to both make more money and to kiss the asses of some of those who make they show has lead to a major problem of the very life blood of the series, the money. That’s where things fall apart.
There is just way too much money in F1 right now, and way too much of it going to too few of the players. I know this isn’t news, but from a fans perspective, the harm is becoming more and more painful to deal with. Understanding that on a given weekend, only maybe 6 cars are starting with even a chance for a podium finish greatly diminishes the product. It’s hard to cheer on a Hulkenberg or a Perez when you know they are at best fighting to maybe make a point or two somewhere in the middle of the field. The problem is money, plain and simple. They don’t have enough money to do the work that the top teams can do, because they money in F1 is unfairly distributed.
This, as you have admitted, is your own fault. You have created an unfair playing field, you have signed agreements with teams like Ferrari that drive a big percentage of the total money to them each year. It’s time to rip up the contracts and start over, and time to fix the regulations that are making this sport too costly and too out of touch with reality:
Free freight: No team should worry about the costs of actually getting to the races. To that end, F1 should always pay for a certain amount of freight for each team. There should also be a special note here, that the only things allowed in the pit lane during an event are the things that came in the freight package. Ever team gets the same number of cubic meters of space, and everyone can bring the same amount of stuff. No more extra stuff, no more flying your own extra bits in… you run what you shipped. F1 needs to pay for that freight as part of the basics of being in the sport – and it would create a way to regulate costs in the sport.
Distribution of funds: The moneys paid to the teams each year need to be broken into two sections: Base money, and prize money. Split the money 50/50, with 50% distributed EQUALLY to the teams (perhaps in return for certain sponsor considerations on every day, ala NASCAR). The other 50% paid as year end prize money. So for the moment, if you paid out 500 million total, that would be about 20 million per team “start money”, and then prize money at the end of the year. That wouldn’t be enough money for any team to run the full season, but at about a million an event, they could likely all muddle through. It would certainly go a long way to paying the costs of racing each event.
Budget limitations: It’s not an easy to thing to do, but this is one of those places where F1 needs to keep working. Unlimited spending means that the deepest pockets will always tend to win. The distribution of funds above would be at least a step towards changing this, as your legacy teams wouldn’t be pulling in tons of free money. But longer term, something has to be done to handle the never ending costs of F1, so that the lesser teams are not so far behind as to be useless. To that end, comes my next two great ideas:
Limits of staff at races: There is a bunch here, so pay attention. I know it’s a little complex for you, but here goes: Severely limit the number of hard cards per team per event. Figure out a number of total crew per car, a limited number of “non-crew” team members, and stop it there. For tire companies, engine manufactures, and the like, they should all have a limited number of hard cards as well, and perhaps zones or areas of the pit that they are restricted to, so they don’t get attached to the teams and become defacto team members again. With some of the teams bringing literally hundreds of people to each event, the costs to keep up are off the charts. That leads to the other two cost measures:
Kill communication links: Teams should not be allowed to send real time data back to their headquarters for processing. Nobody outside of the pit area should be involved in the racing event. As fans, we should be able to see all of the players in the game at the track, they should be visible, and such. The “computer guys” should be in the pit stall with everyone else and visible, and no invisible hands from the head office should be playing in the game. From before P1 to the end of the race, there should be no data moved back and forth from the track to any remote processing, head office, or the like.
Forbid computer connections to the cars anywhere outside of the garage area: The cars should be able to be started with nothing more than an outboard starter and perhaps a booster battery to run it. The cars should not need a crew of 50 on the starting grid just to get them running. Limit the crew members on the grid to maybe a half a dozen per car, no computers, no external devices. If they feel the need to adjust the cars, either do it before you come to the grid, or start from pit lane.
Before I go any further, let me make it clear. The objectives at every step here is to reign in the unlimited spending and unlimited costs of F1. These are all cuts in areas that the fans do not see, do not benefit from, and just drive up the bottom line costs of coming to the track for each race. If the teams were taking 50 people to a race instead of 150, you can see where their costs would be more reasonable and perhaps that 1 million per event seed money enough to get the job done. Eliminating the massive costs of the “home office” staff and all the computing that goes into looking for the very slightest edge in performance would go a long way to fixing both the costs and the unbalance in the F1 system.
Like it or not, F1 faces many potential crisis points in the next few years. Three companies provide all of the engines. One single company directly owns 20% of the grid, and if you move to a 3 cars per team situation, you could find that number over 30%. If that one company (Red Bull) decides they no longer want to play in F1, then the sport itself would almost certainly collapse due to a lack of cars on the grid. It’s to F1’s long term benefit to have a full 13 (or even 15) financially viable teams on the grid, with two cars each, running the best drivers they can get (as opposed to the ones with the biggest checks in their hands). At the core of all of this is the sport, the racing, the spectacle itself. I think you have very much lost sight of that, and instead you are worried about how to make more money from milking the cash cow. That cow is getting skinnier by the day, they feed they should be getting is instead wasted on lavish fixtures, oversized teams, and legacy payment systems that feed the rich and starve the sport.
In conclusion Bernie, you have done great things for the sport. You are one sharp businessman for sure. At 84, you are probably still sharper than most would be 20 years younger. But you are losing your touch, you are losing your connection. Your focus has wavered from what is good for the sport and it’s fans, and moved on to a much more selfish goal of amassing the biggest pile of cash for yourself and your masters. That is the moment that you need to know it’s time for you to retire gracefully and enjoy some gardening leave. Be a consultant. Be a friend of the sport. Be a supporter. Anything you like, just get out of the way and let someone else drive the bus, we have spent too long in this money pit of a ditch.