Tunnel Vision: How Bernie (almost) broke Formula One

Tim Swinson

Tim Swinson

Consulting Manager

07 December 2023

The perennial powerhouses of Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull sat at the front of the grid for the final round of the 2016 season - the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Sheikhs, sponsors, and billionaires watched on, as the pinnacle of open-wheeled racing reached its climax. The Drivers’ World Championship was on the line… it was exactly what Bernie Ecclestone wanted.

After nearly five decades of pushing, pulling, and bending the sport into his own image, he had transformed what was a pastime for rag tag enthusiasts into a global motorsport giant – with annual revenues totalling $1.8 billion dollars.

But Abu Dhabi would be his last hurrah and just three months later, Liberty Media had ousted Bernie as CEO, signalling their intention to change the sport.

The man who had held the keys was no longer in the driving seat, and the future of F1 was uncertain.  How had this happened, and why?

Was Bernie asleep at the wheel?

In taking on his new role as F1 CEO, Chase Casey denounced Bernie’s ineffective vision and dysfunctional decision-making as the main drivers for the downturn. His analysis was that F1 had:

  • Alienated future generations of fans – F1 had become an ‘old boys club’ – a passion reserved for the elite – explicitly ignoring younger fans.  ‘Most of these kids haven’t got any money’ may well have been true today, but was it short-sighted to not nurture the fans of tomorrow?
  • Rejected the impact of social media – Despite being a global brand, there was no strategy or understanding of how to use F1’s high value assets to create real connections with audiences through social media.
  • Become too predictable – With the requirement for healthy investment, it was perhaps inevitable that a small number of teams – Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari – would dominate the sport.  But for the global audiences, this lack of fresh competition meant that fans stopped watching because they knew beforehand who was going to win.

The challenge facing organisations today: ‘The Stakeholder Trilemma’

Ecclestone’s influence on the shape of modern motorsport cannot be understated. But whilst his tenure made F1 highly profitable for investors and constructors, this success was at the expense of the fans.

Bernie’s blind spot should provide a cautionary tale for all organisations. When making strategic decisions, balancing the needs of shareholders, colleagues, and customers is a must. It’s a trilemma for a reason – it’s easy to have two on board, but having all three requires focus and diligence.

To achieve this balance and fully realise the benefits, acknowledging the often-competing priorities of different stakeholder groups can provide perspective. But that’s just the start.  An impactful vision needs to bring the organisation’s strategic objectives together into a coherent and compelling single statement, so that it resonates with all stakeholders. Key questions to consider include:

  • Can colleagues see how their actions and decisions point towards your organisation’s objectives and vision?
  • Do customers emotionally connect with your organisation’s purpose, as described through your vision statement?
  • Can investors identify the value in your organisation and buy-in to your mission statement?

Get in touch

Ensuring your organisation’s vision, mission and values engage all stakeholder groups is a challenging task. Johnston Carmichael knows what good looks like – we can help you review, develop, and enhance your strategy to ensure it delivers on your organisational objectives. If you would like to explore how we can support you, please get in touch with me or our Consulting team.

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