What does Liberty Media’s Takeover Mean for Formula 1?

With Liberty Media finally completing its takeover of Formula 1, we take a look at what this means for the future of the sport.

Liberty Media completed its widely-anticipated purchase of Formula 1 earlier this week, with the American mass media company clearing the last of the regulatory hurdles required in order for them to take control of the sport. The move represents a significant moment in the history of the sport. Formula 1 currently finds itself at a crossroads from both a sporting and technical viewpoint, with lingering uncertainty about the series’ way forward. The acquisition of Formula 1 by Liberty Media represents a bold, new beginning in the history of the pinnacle of motorsport. The takeover has raised a variety of questions about how things will work from now on, and what the sport’s new owners intend to do with their latest asset.

What immediate changes have Liberty Media made?

It will take time for the sport’s new owners to usher in any sweeping changes, and they are likely to do so only after a fairly comprehensive process of analysis concerning the effects of any changes on the sport, including its participants and commercial performance.

However, substantial changes have already been made concerning the day-to-day running of Formula 1, including a significant boardroom shake-up. Undoubtedly the most dramatic immediate outcome of the takeover is the departure of Bernie Ecclestone as the sport’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) after a marathon spell of forty years at the helm.

Ecclestone, who is generally a divisive figure among Formula 1 fans, is set to hold the title of Chairman Emeritus and to be available to assist the sport’s new governing board in an advisory role. Instead, Chase Carey, a 62-year old American and vice chairman of 21st Century Fox, will take up the reigns of CEO, making him responsible for the sport’s day-to-day operations.

Meet your new Motorsport Managing Director.

In addition, former Ferrari Technical Director Ross Brawn will take up the role of Motorsport Managing Director, making him responsible for the technical and sporting side of the sport. Finally, former ESPN executive Sean Bratches is the sport’s new Managing Director of Commercial Operations.

What is Liberty Media’s long-term plan for Formula 1?

As mentioned above, it will take time for any changes made by Formula 1’s new management group to have an effect on the sport. However, there has been some indication of what Liberty Media’s broad plans for the sport are, although the finer details of the planned changes are to implemented have not yet been revealed.

Liberty Media aim to connect fans to the sport in ways that the old regime did not explore, especially through the use of digital media. It is here that the departure of Bernie Ecclestone is likely to be most keenly felt. While Ecclestone played a key role in turning the sport from a European series to a truly global spectacle, taking advantage of new ways to connect fans to the sport was not a top priority to him. The importance of social media and its potential as a marketing tool, for example, were generally under-utilised during his time.

Anti-social Ecclestone?

In addition, the American company intend to change the concept of what a grand prix weekend is. For too long, a grand prix experience has simply consisted of three practice sessions, a qualifying session, and finally a race on Sunday. The new owners hope to change a grand prix weekend into a far more comprehensive spectacle, with the on-track action augmented by a variety of other attractions.

This approach has been used by organisers of the US Grand Prix, who attempted to swell crowds last year by arranging for pop musician Taylor Swift to perform a concert after qualifying on the Saturday of the weekend. The effect was plain to see, even on television. While the majority of European venues noticeably struggled with scarcely-populated seats, the US Grand Prix enjoyed a mammoth turnout of just under 270,000 over the three days. Given that the estimated attendance for Taylor Swift’s concert was 80,000, it is fair to conclude that the prospect of seeing the musician perform live served as a unique drawing card for at least a portion of the fans in attendance.
The importance of a change of approach cannot be over-stated.

As the world has become ever more connected, with an ever-growing variety of content available in an ever-growing variety of new ways, much has been made of, for lack of a better expression, the shortened attention span of content consumers. The competition for viewers’ attention is growing fiercer, because something else is always close at hand. For this reason, it is imperative that Formula 1 grows into a spectacle that offers something for all members of the family, while firmly keeping the on-track action at the centre of proceedings. As the pinnacle of motorsport, and one of the largest sporting series in the world, Formula 1 has the clout and attractive power required to associate with the likes of Taylor Swift, and hence to make the sport into the magnificent spectacle it has the potential to be.

Liberty Media further hope to grow the sport’s presence in the USA, which has been a tough market for Formula 1 to crack in the past. The time is right for such an effort. The US Grand Prix at Austin, Texas, has been a successful addition to the calendar, which it joined in 2012. In addition, the sport’s newest entrant, Haas, is from America, and with Liberty Media itself being from the USA, there are finally compelling reasons for the population of the world’s largest economy to pay attention to the sport. The idea of growing the sport is not purely limited to the USA, however, with the new owners eager to expand the calendar further, while also securing the futures of the sport’s more iconic circuits.

Finally, there are plans to change the way in which commercial revenue is paid out to the teams, with Ferrari’s annual $100 million bonus payment potentially being cut. The Scuderia are Formula 1’s oldest participant and the only team to have competed in every series since the FIA World Championship began in 1950. For this reason, the Italian outfit was paid the above bonus under the old regime, in recognition of their unique position within the sport. However, an attempt to distribute revenue more evenly between the teams is a change that has been called for by fans or some time now and is likely to be well-received.

Will Liberty Media’s ownership ultimately prove successful?

While the above changes sound like good ideas in theory, it remains to be seen how they will impact on the sport, and how exactly they are implemented. It is far too soon to herald Liberty Media as the saviour of Formula 1 until the effects of the planned changed are understood. At the very least, however, the media company seem to have a clear understanding of the direction in which they hope to steer the sport. The involvement of Ross Brawn, in particular, is encouraging. Brawn, the mastermind behind the success of the great Michael Schumacher at both Benetton and Ferrari, laid the foundations for Mercedes’ recent domination of the sport and is widely acclaimed for his technical knowledge of the sport. Irrespective of what may transpire from this point forward, Liberty Media’s acquisition represents a bold new dawn for Formula 1, and a significant moment in the sport’s history. Where the pinnacle of motorsport goes from here will become clear in time.