How many multi-billion dollar international corporations bet their entire net worth on an 85 year old man? The answer, friends, is one — Formula One. Once one of the most powerful marketing organizations in history, the sport is now circling the drain as the mandates of Bernie Ecclestone — aka The Toxic Troll — continue to drive fans away.
The latest schlamozzle created by the diminutive Brit is the utterly embarrassing new qualifying scheme. The new format was used for the first time this weekend at the 2016 season opener in Melbourne, Australia. Ecclestone proposed this cockamamie format just weeks before the start of the season. It is another in a long list of brain farts by the out of touch octogenarian designed to, as he always says, “spice up the show.” Instead, it put everyone to sleep.
The new format is known as “musical chairs” qualifying, with drivers eliminated at 90 second intervals during each qualifying session. That the teams agreed to this insanity is just another example of the vice-like grip Ecclestone has on the sport. Powerhouses like Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull roll over and play dead whenever Bernie crooks his finger.
The idea behind the new qualifying format was that it would force more cars to take to the track throughout the three qualifying sessions. At the end, it would come down to the fastest two cars slugging it out for pole position in the last 90 seconds. Sounds exciting, right?
Wrong. The way it worked out in practice is that there were huge periods during qualifying when there were no cars on track. The big showdown at the end turned into a boring snoozefest. Because of the idiocy of the new rules, all the teams decided they had no chance to beat the front running Mercedes drivers and elected to stay in the pits.
When Lewis Hamilton stamped his authority on qualifying by putting a lap that was more than 3 tenths of a second faster than his teammate Nico Rosberg, both drivers came back to the pits and parked. At that point, there were still three minutes left to go in the session. Former F1 driver and world champion Damon Hill lampooned the procedure by saying it allowed Hamilton to park his car back in the pits, jump out, run to the start/finish line and wave the checkered flag to celebrate his own pole position.
As NBC Sports commentator Steve Matchett observed, this is the first race in memory in which no cars were on track at the end of qualifying. Instead of spicing up the show, Ecclestone’s madness drove a stake through the heart of the only part of a race weekend that has been consistently interesting the past few seasons. Way to go, Bernie.
Reaction to the disaster has been swift. Immediately after the truncated qualifying session ended, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told the BBC and Sky, “We should apologize to the fans here. We have to hold our hands up and admit we got it absolutely wrong. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was equally candid. “I’m the first to say we shouldn’t be speaking bad on the TV about these things,” he said, “but I think the new qualifying format is pretty rubbish. We need to come back and look at it again.”
The always entertaining Nikki Lauda had this to say. “It was obvious that when we took that decision [to implement the new format], nobody thought of all the details. We should change it quickly, have a quick discussion and change it for Bahrain.” Ferrari driver Sebastien Vettel says the drivers thought about the details and disliked the plan from the start. “I don’t see how anybody should be surprised. We told the FIA.” Lewis Hamilton agreed. “We said from the beginning that it wasn’t the right thing to do.”
The talk now is of ditching the new qualifying format and going back to the old system before the next race, which takes place in Bahrain on April 3. But doing so will require unanimous agreement among the teams, something about as rare as Republicans and Democrats agreeing on a Supreme Court nominee.
But the solons of the sport really need to face a bigger issue — what to do about Ecclestone. The man is clearly no longer in possession of all his faculties and is in the process of destroying the sport. It’s true he is largely responsible for building it into the financial powerhouse it became, but that was then. This is now. Formula One cannot long endure with Ecclestone at the helm. He won’t go quietly. He has made that much clear. But this latest debacle may provide the impetus the teams need to finally show him the door.