There’s never been anyone in the history of professional sport quite like Bernie Ecclestone.
A visionary pioneer. A brilliant businessman. An unscrupulous competitor. A dictatorial leader. An endlessly quotable machine. A figure as big as Formula 1 itself. Without a doubt, we’ll never see another like him – and maybe that’s a good thing.
At 86 it was getting to a point where you wondered if he’d never leave – surely if there was a frontrunner to have their brain placed in a vat and hooked up to a computer, it would be him – but it’s finally happened.
Liberty Media, the new owners of F1, have relieved Bernie of his role as Chief Executive, replacing him with the three-man team of Liberty’s own Chase Carey and Sean Bratches, as well as former team principal Ross Brawn.
Having finalised their acquisition of the sport only on Monday, Ecclestone’s removal was a clear signal of intent by Liberty to advance a sport that under his leadership has struggled to adapt to the changing economic and media landscape of the 21st century.
And while without Ecclestone F1 undoubtedly wouldn’t have grown into the $8 billion enterprise it is today, his case for staying wasn’t helped by the reality that his presence had devolved into an unnecessary sideshow good for only the occasional quote and plenty of pot stirring.
The problem has been that at a time when the sport has been in dire need of actual leadership and direction, Ecclestone has failed to provide either. In the last year alone, his suggestions to improve “the show” ranged from splitting races in two, to putting walls on corners.
He’s angered drivers, teams and fans alike with his constantly inflammatory remarks, and introduced another race in a motorsport wasteland – Azerbaijan – after which he laughably argued F1 had a “clear conscience” despite the country’s dismal human rights record.
All the while, the sport continues to struggle with viewership numbers thanks to a widespread shift to pay TV, has failed to embrace the power of the internet, and remains in danger of losing both teams and historic races.
Against all that, the only thing that shined a remotely positive light on Ecclestone in 2016 is that just like the rest of us, he doesn’t really care for his mother-in-law!
Sure, if the only requirement of an F1 supremo was to line the pockets of his investors, this would all be excusable, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. All of these things affect the health of a sport that would ideally outlive him – robot or otherwise – but in its present state, that remains an uncertainty.
Whether Bernie likes it or not, Liberty Media realised this, and they were right to let him go.
That said, there is no guarantee Liberty are the ones to “fix” F1, but in their limited time as the head-honchos, they’ve certainly given cause for optimism, with Brawn’s appointment being just the most recent example.
For the first time in a long time, there seems to be legitimate hope in F1 circles that the sport cannot just regain its international prestige, but grow it even further – let’s hope that’s the case.
For as controversial a figure as Ecclestone has been in recent years, it can’t be forgotten just how massive an impact he has had on the landscape of not just Formula 1, but sports in general.
Under his watch F1 went from a haphazardly-run circus to an international sporting powerhouse that created the blueprint for the televising of professional sport.
It’s just a harsh reality that after 40 years in charge, the sport needed to move on. Maybe it was only fitting Ecclestone was dealt with as ruthlessly as he’d dealt with so many others in the past, even if it wasn’t the most glamourous of send-offs for F1’s biggest personality.
It just goes to show that time comes for all of us in the end, even the man they call Mr. E.
Inside Line Opinion by Ben Stevens