Liberty Media takeover casts shadow over F1 new dawn

For the first time in 40 years, an F1 season gets underway without Bernie Ecclestone at the helm. Liberty Media has promised a new era, but an Anti-Trust investigation and a series of gaffes have raised many questions.

Formula One is finally moving in a fresh direction following the $6.4 billion takeover by American company Liberty Media.

The new owners promise an F1 that embraces social media and on-demand TV services in the hope of attracting a younger and more dynamic audience. There is also talk of virtual reality playing a part in viewer participation. The overarching desire is to bring fans closer to the action than ever before.

The litmus test for a sport's popularity is of course TV viewing figures and, on Bernie Ecclestone's watch, F1's audience has struggled to sustain growth in recent years. The average age of a fan now is over 50. More than anything, fans want to see excitement on the track and the key challenge facing Liberty is to make F1 appeal to the masses again - and not simply with "faster and faster cars".

Read: What you need to know about the new F1 season

Australien Melbourne Formel 1

Liberty Media have promised to embrace social media and make the sport more accessible to a younger audience.

Broadening appeal

"Liberty has spoken about using social media to better effect and changing how it engages with fans. This is an area with enormous potential where the sport can widen its appeal and reach out to younger fans," Friedhelm Lange, of sports consulting and research company Nielsen Sports, told DW. "One method to engage stronger with fans could be to provide access to fans from the pit lane," Lange explained.

"They will, of course, be careful that none of the team’s secrets are revealed, but opening up the team garages to give fans behind-the-scenes access is something that would be hugely popular and would help boosting the connection between fans and the teams. There are innovative and creative ways to reach a new, younger audience."

To Liberty's credit, paddock passes will be available to the public starting this weekend in Melbourne, with recently-appointed F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn admitting: "It's a fact people need to get more for their money." The group has also announced the launch of 'F1 Experiences' to help bring fans even closer with what it calls 'exclusive access'.

But it is ironic that a sport that prides itself on pushing the boundaries of technology has failed to capitalize on digital media, which could dramatically broaden its appeal. F1 chief executive Chase Carey and Liberty owner John Malone - who is known as the 'Darth Vader of Wall Street' for his cut-throat methods - are aiming to succeed where Ecclestone failed.

Australian F1 Grand Prix - Daniel Ricciardo und Chase Carey

F1's new CEO Chase Carey in conversation with Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo.

'Conflict of interest'

Rather than entering the new season full of optimism however, Liberty are engulfed in a dispute over the very deal that put them in the driving seat. It emerged recently that motor sport's governing body FIA owns a 1% stake in F1's parent company, which it has agreed to sell at a significant profit.

"In 2013 the FIA bought a 1% stake in Delta Topco and although it was told it was worth $70 million (64.9 million euros) at the time, it was offered it for the bargain-basement price of $458,197.34," F1 financial expert Christian Sylt told DW.

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"The FIA bought the 1% stake from Delta Topco itself, which was controlled by the private equity firm CVC. The stake came with the crucial condition that it could only be monetized in the event of a sale by CVC and this required the FIA's approval. CVC netted $3 billion for its 38.1% stake whilst Liberty paid $80 million for the 1% leaving the FIA with a $79.5 million profit after deducting the purchase price."

The deal has been scrutinized and subsequently criticized, not least by British MEP Anneliese Dodds, who claimed it appears "extremely likely" that the FIA broke an agreement struck with the European Commission in 2001 regarding commercial conflict of interest.


Mercedes - Can they win the constructors' title without Rosberg?

The three-time defending constructors' champions have their sights set on a fourth in 2017. Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas (right) will take the seat vacated by the retired Nico Rosberg alongside three-time champion Lewis Hamilton (left). They make Mercedes the favorites for both the drivers' and constructors' titles.


Ferrari - aspiring to form of glorious years past

The Scuderia Ferrari go into the season with high expectations. Neither Sebastian Vettel (right) nor Kimi Räikkönen (second from right) won a race last season. Vettel, in his 10th season, and Raikkonen, Ferrari's last champion, will hope to put Ferrari back in front.


Red Bull Racing - 'catching up'

Red Bull, with drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo are looking to build on their upward trend from last season in the hopes of dethroning Mercedes. The 19-year-old Verstappen, who entered F1 as the circuit's youngest-ever driver, is excited about the new season: "I think Mercedes might still have an advantage on us in terms of power at the beginning of the season but we'll be catching up."


Renault - Can Hülkenburg make the podium?

Renault, the successor team to Lotus, are hoping to make an impact this Formula One seaaon. Germany's Nico Hülkenberg (right) has joined British driver Jolyon Palmer (second from left) at Renault and is hoping to help his new team to a successful start. Hülkenberg is still looking for his first spot on the podium after 115 Grand Prix starts.


Force India - continuing towards the top

F1's most consistent over-performers of recent years will once again have their sights set on the top half of the field. They reached fourth place in the constructors' championship with 173 points last season. Mexican driver Sergio Perez und and Frenchman Esteban Ocon will be in the cockpits in 2017.


Williams F1 - young and old

Williams, which has been involved in Formula One motor racing since 1977, will have 18-year-old Canadian debutant Lance Stroll and veteran Felipe Massa driving for them this season. The 35-year-old Massa had retired at the end of the 2016 season, but agreed to take the wheel for one more year after Valtteri Bottas moved to take the vacant cockpit at Mercedes.


McLaren Honda - new color, new success

The second-most successful team behind Ferrari will be driving in new black and orange colors this season. The British racing team will once again have Spaniard Fernando Alonso (left) in the cockpit. Stoffel Vandoorne (right), who has just one start in his career, will take part in his first full Formula One season as he has replaced the retired Jenson Button.


Haas - Season 2 for the Americans

Successful on the American stock car circuit, Haas is set to take another crack at Formula One this season. They achieved the highest position for a racing team making its debut when Romain Grosjean (left) finished sixth at the 2016 Australian Grand Prix. Danish driver Kevin Magnussen (right) has joined Grosjean at Haas for the 2017 season.


Toro Rosso - more than the little Red Bulls?

The Italian racing team has gone back to Renault engines after a season using year-old Ferrari power. Red Bull's stronger 2016 season with Renault might have encouraged the switch. Russian driver Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Junior, the son of two-time rally world champion Carlos Sainz, constitute an unchanged driver line-up.


Sauber - hoping to move up the pack

The Swiss racing team is hoping to mount a credible challenge again after finishing second-last in the constructors' standings. This season, Germany's Pascal Wehrlein and Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson will seek to collect more points for their team. Due to changes in regulations, the Sauber cars will be equipped with the Ferrari motors from last season.

Questionable relationship

On top of that headache for Liberty, there also remains the questionable financial relationship between teams and the Strategy Group (made up of Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Williams and the next best team from the previous year), with smaller teams such as Sauber and Force India alleging that the field is rigged in favor of the financially powerful. Liberty clearly has a problem before the season's first race in Australia has even started, and both aspects of the Anti-Trust investigation could turn ugly for Liberty.

Read: Testing suggests Ferrari could challenge Mercedes

While Liberty is yet to address what they plan to do about the Strategy Group, the new owners announced in February that they would be offering teams the opportunity to give up their stakes in F1 in exchange for stock in Liberty - a move to help fund the expansion and move away from the "old boys" ownership structure that currently exists. Thus far, the only team to take Liberty up on their offer - and probably the only team financially capable of doing so - is Ferrari. The overall response to Liberty's offer of "an induced change in how we operate together" has been lukewarm at best.


Then there is Greg Maffei. Liberty's chief executive has been shooting from the hip before an engine has even been revved this season. He has already suggested Liberty might scrap the Grand Prix in Baku, claiming it does "nothing to build the long-term brand and health of the business."

Maffei also angered American broadcaster NBC, describing the $3million paid by the broadcaster for F1 rights in the US as a "popcorn fart." His remarks were startling not only because chief executive Chase Carey has since claimed that the management of F1 won't be played out in public, but because of Liberty's claim that they want to grow the sport in the US.

Cosying up to the likes of NBC rather than alienating them would surely have been the recommended course of action. Liberty could even offer US broadcasters the TV rights for free, in exchange for turbo charging its marketing of F1 in the US, but that scenario seems a long way off.

Such gaffes have not helped Liberty's cause and, on the eve of F1's supposed bright new era, there are more questions than answers about how they will shape the future of the sport.