Bernie Ecclestone admits he knows what’s wrong with Formula One — but he can’t fix it on his own any more.
Two decades after Ron Dennis greeted Eddie Jordan by quipping “welcome to the Piranha Club” and four since Ecclestone took control to build one of global sport’s first TV-based cash machines, F1 faces a crisis that may signal the end of the Ecclestone era and F1 in its modern image.
The sport’s 84-year-old commercial ringmaster, who was the designer of the original Concorde Agreements that bound together the teams and the ruling body, has blamed himself for the current financial crisis that has reduced the grid for Sunday’s United States Grand Prix to 18 cars.
It is the smallest grid in a decade, amid fears of a further cut to 12 or 14 next year. And he has suggested that the sport’s biggest and richest teams now have to dig into their own pockets to help rescue the strugglers before F1 is left on the brink of a major meltdown.
“The problem is there is too much money probably being distributed badly — probably my fault,” Ecclestone told reporters in the Circuit of the Americas paddock late on Saturday. “But like lots of agreements people make, they seemed a good idea at the time.” Asked if he regretted the deals in question, he said: “If the company belonged to me I would have done things in a different way because it would have been my money I was dealing with.
“But I work for people who are in the business to make money.” Trapped between the needs of his shareholders and the greedy craving for success of the leading teams, Ecclestone proposed one short-term idea that might briefly paper over the cracks — asking the big teams to share their bloated proportion of the prize money with the minnows.
“We have to open the eyes of those people in a position to turn the lights on and off to what they need to do,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be in a position where I was too strong, F1 disappears and someone says it is because of you it disappeared.
“I said to people getting a chunk of money that I would like to take a percentage of their performance-related payment. “I would put that money together to divide among the three or four we know are in trouble, but are not going to run away with the money, and then I will put in the same amount of money.
“But there would not be one team that would think it was a bloody good idea. In the old days, the people sitting around a table would be the guys who could say yes or no. They would ask me to sort it out and it would be sorted.
“But none of the modern guys can agree anything, even if they wanted to… They all have to report back to somebody.” In effect, Ecclestone has proposed asking the leading cash-rich teams who earn most of the prize money — led by Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes — to hand back cash to save strugglers like Force India, Lotus and Sauber, as well as the absent Caterham and Marussia teams, both of which went into administration last month.
“We have to decide the best way to sort this whole thing out. Frankly, I know what’s wrong, but don’t know how to fix it,” said Ecclestone.
“It’s not like having the flu and taking a few tablets and it will disappear. I think the situation is such that if enough people want it resolved, we can resolve it.
“It’s a case of the people that are involved in the sport will have to want to look after the sport and be prepared to make some sacrifices.”