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F1's Pantomime Villains

Sunday 19-January-2014 05:48

Christmas and New Year is the traditional time for pantomimes in the UK and some of the more successful productions are still running. Formula 1 has its own pantomime villains, larger-than-life characters who provoke extreme reactions, loved by some but hated by quite a few.

This week we saw the potential exit of one, and the return of another. Bernie Ecclestone and Ron Dennis are not everybody's favourite characters. To put it mildly. Both men wield a lot of power and have an easy knack of getting under F1 fans' skins. They are also similar in that their public and private persona are quite different. Outwardly they come across as hard-edged, single-minded fairly ruthless individuals hell-bent on success. Privately they are a lot warmer. There are legions of people (and charitable organisations) who will step forward and give you an example of a Ron or Bernie kindness. That's what makes them pantomime villiains, as opposed to someone like, say, Flavio Briatore.

Exit stage left: This week Munich's state prosecutor office announced that Bernie Ecclestone had been formally charged with bribery and embezzlement. This relates to his alleged bribery of banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to understate F1's commercial value so that the current owners, CVC Capital partners, could get it on the cheap and Mr.E could retain control.

Bernie is also waiting for a legal ruling in the High Court in London on the same case, and there is also proposed legal action in the USA. He could have settled out of court because the London case and the New York case are both commercial in nature, and as a multi-billionaire he's got deep pockets. Bernie has put his refusal to settle as a vindication of his innocence - why would he settle if he's done no wrong? But to reach an out-of-court settlement would be a tacit admission that he has done wrong. CVC boss Donald Mckenzie has said that if there has been serious wrong-doing Bernie cannot continue

This week Bernie stepped down from the board of the holding company that owns the commercial rights of F1, but will continue his day-to-day running of the sport. But with a trial in Germany in April and the High Court judgement from the London trial due soon, pressure is mounting. A billion dollar business like CVC can't be seen to be profiting from convicted bribers, and multi-national companies such as Mercedes, Shell, Fiat-Ferrari, Pirelli and Red Bull don't want to be involved in a sport which has dodgy deals at its core.

Should the decisions go against Ecclestone, then the FIA will have to step in. It's their series. There might also be the case for examining the initial valuation of F1's commercial rights when the FIA initially sold them to Bernie for 110 years for $330m.

Enter stage right:Ron Dennis has announced that shareholders have voted him back as CEO of the McLaren motorsport group. Having spent the last few years heading the Mclaren automotive group and overseeing the roadcar and technology businesses, Ron is back in charge of the F1 team that made his fortune. Dennis gave up the position after the Ferrari-gate debacle of 2007, but has watched from the sidelines as his team have squandered a great opportunity in 2012 and thrown in the towel in 2013.

"My fellow shareholders have mandated me to write an exciting new chapter in the story of McLaren, beginning by improving our on-track and off-track performance," he said. "Over the coming weeks I intend to undertake a thorough and objective review of each of our businesses with the intention of optimising every aspect of our existing operations."

Ron's favourite word is optimise - and in the past there has been a lot of 'optimising packages' instead of 'improving the car', all part and parcel of Ronspeak, or, making simple sentences unnecessarily complicated and jargon heavy. But we've missed it. Oh yes, we have.

With the rumours that McLaren might have failed one of the FIA's crash tests and might also be in danger of missing the very important first Jerez test session, the move seems obvious. The miserable failure of the 2013 campaign gave the team the perfect opportunity to start on their 2014 car early. If any team should have been ready for the 2014 test it was McLaren.

Add this to the plunge from 2012 (fastest car at the end of the season), losing Lewis Hamilton, signing Perez for just one season, losing Vodafone as sponsor and scraping into fifth place in the constructors' championship and you don't have a happy set of circumstances. Should the difficulties with the 2014 car be borne out then heads will surely have to roll.

The news that Ron is back in charge will instill a lot more confidence, especially with Honda, who will want a triumphant return to F1 in 2015, not a re-run of the EarthDreams car. Martin, he's behind you!

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