Liberty Media need to learn that you can’t polish a turd

Mercedes F1 cars at the Austrian Grand Prix (original photo by Lukas Raich,

In this forensic analysis of the current state of Formula 1 — and motorsport as a whole — Dieter Rencken asks if F1 faces irreversible decline.

Two years ago I wrote about how I felt motorsport is in an inevitable decline. At the time, I concluded:

Motorsport will survive in some form or another. But it needs to work out what it stands for and why it exists. It’s going to be a bumpy few years for motorsport.

F1 may have undergone a change of ownership since then, but the problems are, if anything, greater now.

Cars are increasingly irrelevant to younger audiences. So the average age of motorsport viewers has increased very quickly — by 9 years since 2006 according to Dieter Rencken.

Meanwhile, manufacturers flock to Formula E, making F1 look like an expensive irrelevance. I heard it said on a recent episode of Gareth Jones on Speed that engineers from Jaguar have confirmed that they’ve learned things from Formula E that they’ve gone on to apply to their road cars. It is probably a long time since F1 had that sort of road relevance.

It is especially notable that the teams are now regularly meeting together, without inviting Liberty Media or the FIA. It seems like teams are beginning to lose patience with Liberty. They may have done lots of work on weird new logos, unreadable new fonts, and various calamitous digital products. But they haven’t yet done much to change the sport itself.

Bernie Ecclestone had his critics, and I was sometimes one of them. But I’ll give him this — he knew that you can’t polish a turd. He realised that F1 had to be a quality product. In the increasingly complex set-up that F1 had become, that quality had let slip a bit. But he didn’t attempt to mask that with marketing. Because he focused on the product, Bernie Ecclestone never really allowed F1 to become a turd, because he didn’t want to have to polish it.

Chocolate ice cream

Standards did slip a bit. F1 became slightly out-of-date chocolate ice cream. It looks a bit like a turd, and it smells a bit bad, but you’ll probably still eat it.

But with Liberty Media, I still can’t shake off the sense that they seem to have thought they were buying a TV show. That is certainly how they behave sometimes.

Instead, what they’ve bought is a political hot mess. There are spiralling costs, a reliance on fickle manufacturers, and contradictory vested interests aplenty. All the while, generational shifts and advances in technology threaten the very being of the sport. This must be quite a shock to them.

Liberty Media place a heavy emphasis on marketing. Unfortunately, this means their business is polishing turds. That means, they probably don’t mind if F1 becomes a turd. The logic goes that if you can bamboozle customers with shiny new logos, you don’t need to make the product any good.

But people aren’t that stupid. F1 fans certainly aren’t. And I don’t get much sense that Liberty Media truly understand that.


  1. There’s a reason for that. Liberty is trying to get the eSports and streaming market… …which it can do without paying much attention to the quality of the product (at least not until it has a stable streaming product to market). Then, it can take advantage of the perceived low quality of the product, improve it and make profit. Did I mention that neither eSports nor streaming money is divided to the teams because it’s not in any of the bilateral agreements, and the fact Renault has a different-length agreement to anyone else is going to make it difficult for the other teams to change that for a fair while? By 2024, it’ll be easy to convince the teams to take less money than they’ve historically had from Bernie… …because by then it’ll be a substantial improvement to the virtually-nothing the non-CRB teams can expect to get by then from Liberty.

    Also, I don’t think the manufacturers have that much allure to Liberty’s marketing strategy – none of them are strong in either eSports or streaming, and only Ferrari has a large enough traditional following for it to make much difference to the financial situation overall. Expect Liberty to try to do just enough to avoid triggering Ferrari’s golden handshake (this happens, I think, if the total distribution to teams falls below $750 m – about 3/4 of the 2016 amount) until 2024, cheerfully shaking off any other manufacturer that leaves. Then, the fact there is only one manufacturer will be used to get cheaper team running and attract the modern “hip brands” teams Liberty is more likely to want.

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