In Good Conscience

Chase Carey now rules the roost and he'll put the razzmatazz into F1

"You can wring the rooster's neck, but dawn will still come."

It feels appropriate to recall the words of Kim Young Sam, the activist who defied and eventually replaced the military rulers of South Korea to become its president in the 1990s.

Appropriate because, of course, today starts the Year of the Fire Rooster.

Appropriate in sport, because, with a short cry that he feels deposed, Bernie Ecclestone has been sent squawking into history. From this week forward, he no longer rules the roost of Formula One, as he had done for nigh on 40 years.

Poor, rich, formerly omniscient Bernie. He met his match ostensibly through Chase Carey, the American who takes over as chairman and chief executive officer of F1.

Carey told us that there are going to be changes, big changes bringing F1 kicking and screaming into the post-Ecclestone era, and into the new digital age that 86-year-old Bernie does not appear to understand.

Liberty's world, one which left Ecclestone bewildered, opens up F1 to high-speed, global communications that left Bernie behind.

Carey, in turn, answers to the ultimate owner of Liberty, John C. Malone, the ultimate bossman at Liberty Media, Liberty Global, and Liberty Interactive, which put up the US$8 billion (S$11.42 billion) to buy out the Formula One business.

I say business rather than sport because F1 was owned until this week by a private equity firm, CVC, which Ecclestone sold to a decade ago, yet continued to let him run it as, seemingly, only Bernie could.

We've spoken before of this incredible story of Ecclestone, the son of an English trawlerman who left school at 15 and, living off his wits as a wheeler-dealer, propelled himself from a spare parts salesman to be the overlord of F1 racing worldwide.

From the tragic loss of two drivers he managed - Englishman Stuart Lewis-Evans and Austrian Jochen Rindt - who were killed racing, Ecclestone went behind the scenes.

He gained control of the global TV rights that meant he could cut deals with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin to take his F1 circus across virtually every ideological divide on earth.

America, though it is a one-stop event among the 20 races in the 2017 calendar, is ironically the one place that hasn't yet fallen into sync with Ecclestone's world domination.

Yes, the United States Grand Prix has existed since 1908, preceding even Ecclestone. But America hasn't, yet, been won over by F1. In part that is because America likes to call the shots, and the US built up and preferred Nascar Racing around Daytona National Speedway.

F1 was the alternative for motor sport. Its roots were in Europe and control of the sales pitch and the global commercial rights belonged elsewhere. The contracts were made or unmade by a handshake by the peripatetic Ecclestone.

Bernie knew where all the purses were, and knew how to get the most from governments, never mind team owners, sponsors, TV companies, and anyone else who wanted a piece of his action.

To be sure, once Liberty had closed the deal and informed Ecclestone by conference call on Monday that he was no longer in charge, there were those who felt sorry for Bernie. It was his life, his baby, his purpose on earth.

US$8 billion changed that abruptly, leaving Ecclestone dangling on the title chairman emeritus. It means Chase and company can sound out Ecclestone for advice as and when they want to. But Liberty has plans to go above and beyond F1's hitherto ways of making money and creating excitement. Liberty's world, one which left Ecclestone bewildered, opens up F1 to high-speed, global communications that left Bernie behind.

"Bigger, broader and better," is the opening gambit from Chase Carey, the man behind the white handlebar moustache.

He spoke kindly, superficially of Ecclestone. But he also said F1 had been ineffectual and dysfunctional in exploiting the full rights in the American way of packaging sports.

"We have multiple untapped opportunities," the Liberty man broadcast. "We have got stars, Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, but we have zero people in marketing. And we don't have a connection on digital media. We have to do a better job of enabling fans to connect to our stars."

The 21 races (there were 21 in 2016), Carey says, should be 21 Super Bowls. "They should be week-long extravaganzas with entertainment and music - events that captivate a whole city."

And why stop at 21? Why not, for example, turn New York City (failing that, the Vegas strip) into Monte Carlo? Singapore got there first, but America needs the excitement of a street circuit, and full on social media awakening.

The venture capitalists of CVC Capital Partners who bought Formula One in 2006 were a spin off from Citicorp bank in America. They based themselves in Luxembourg for tax purposes and were content to let their investment grow in the hands of Ecclestone.

The Yanks will now show how to really put the razzmatazz into Formula One. In some aspects, they have crossed the start line already. By hiring Ross Brawn, who engineered much of Michael Schumacher's domination of F1 in the red Ferrari, Liberty has gone back to face the the future.

Brawn believes in real racing, not in the gizmos that Ecclestone spun like plates, shooting from the hip as he aged. Making man and machine - driver and car - the essence of racing again would be a real pleasure.

We might have to start calling it "auto racing", and we saw this coming last September when, in the run-up to the Singapore Grand Prix, Ecclestone said of Liberty's buyout: "If they want to change the whole structure of the company and run it like a corporation probably I won't fit in."

Probably not. Ecclestone had concluded that interview with Sky Sports' Martin Brundle: "The only thing I have to do is die, and pay my tax."

This rooster appeared to see his own strangulation coming.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'Carey now rules the roost and he'll put the razzmatazz into F1'. Print Edition | Subscribe