A history of F1 ownership: How F1 has changed hands over the decades

Henry Valantine
Chase Carey and Bernie Ecclestone at the United States Grand Prix. Sunday 23rd October 2016.

Chase Carey and Bernie Ecclestone at the United States Grand Prix. Sunday 23rd October 2016.

Since Formula 1 began in the 1950s, it has accumulated a long and complicated history of ownership before reaching its current owner, Liberty Media Corporation, who purchased the company in 2017 for a whopping $4.4 billion.

Here at PlanetF1.com, we have had a look at the history of F1 ownership and how it has developed up until today.

Strap yourselves in for a journey back in time…

Bernie Ecclestone era

While F1 itself began in 1950, It wasn’t until 1974 that the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) was founded, designed to increase commercial organisation of Formula 1 for the benefit of the racing teams.

At this time, Bernie Ecclestone was the Brabham team owner, and he became a member of FOCA.

In 1978, Ecclestone was promoted to executive of FOCA, and fought the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) for control of the commercial rights of F1. The dispute was settled by March 1981 and Ecclestone won the right to negotiate TV contracts.

In 1987, when the second Concorde Agreement was published, Ecclestone ended his career as Brabham team owner and established Formula One Promotions and Administration (FOPA) to manage TV rights for the teams. At the time, FOPA received 49% of TV revenues, with 1% going to the teams and 50% to the FIA.

Over the years, several Concorde Agreements were created and disputed by the Formula 1 teams until finally a compromise was reached in 1998 that every F1 team signed.

In 1996, SLEC Holdings was created as the holding company of the Formula 1 companies and in the same year Ecclestone signed a 14-year agreement with the FIA for the exclusive broadcasting rights for 18 FIA championships.

In 1997, he transferred his ownership of all his F1 businesses to his wife, Slavica Ecclestone, in anticipation of a 1997 flotation of the group.

New F1 ownership on the horizon

Following the announcement of the European Commission in June 1999 that an investigation of the FIA, Formula One Administration and the International Sportsworld Communicators for abusing dominant position and restricting competition, it was announced in the October that Morgan Grenfell Private Equity (MGPE) would be acquiring 12.5% of SLEC for £234 million.

In February 2000, Hellman and Friedman went on to purchase a 37.5% share of SLEC for £625 million, and throughout that year several stakes in the company were agreed, lowering the share price and raising concerns among the car manufacturers which participated in the sport.

In 2001, BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Fiat, Ford, and Renault formed GPWC Holding BV so the manufacturers could be better represented, financial conditions for the F1 teams could be improved, and the championship could become more stable with free-to-air television rights.

The following decade saw lots of changes with more companies fighting to take control of the sport.

This included three banks suing Ecclestone in 2004 for more control and winning. Ecclestone offered the teams a total of £260 million for three years if they would unanimously renew the Concorde Agreement in 2008.

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The Liberty Media acquisition

In late 2016, the Formula One Group agreed to buy controlling interest in the Formula One Group for $4.4 billion and by January 2017, Ecclestone had been replaced by Chase Carey as Chief Executive of the Group. Ecclestone remained a chairman emeritus for the firm and acted as an advisor to the board.

It was the end of an era for Ecclestone whose control of the Group was primarily financial. Under the terms of the Concorde Agreement, Ecclestone and his companies also managed the administration, setup and logistics of every Formula 1 Grand Prix and it was this control which helped him to become one of the richest men in the United Kingdom.

Since then, Liberty, an American mass media company, have set about looking to make Formula 1 more profitable and bring it to more markets around the world – not least by making it more popular in the United States.

The commissioning and subsequent success of Netflix docu-series Drive to Survive has played an enormous part in the growth of the sport since Liberty’s takeover, with three rounds of the season now taking place in America and the value of the Formula One Group skyrocketing.

In January 2023, prominent business magazine Forbes listed F1 as the “most valuable sports empire in the world”, valuing it at an estimated $17.1 billion – representing a huge 389% increase in value for Liberty Media.

Other changes to be made under Liberty’s control of the sport include the expansion of the calendar to record levels, a general move towards pay-TV or streaming deals for live broadcasting around the world, as well as the introduction of sprints – shortened ‘races’ run over a 100km distance at select rounds of the season.

Not all the changes have been universally popular among fans, but the financial results have been unquestionably positive for the sport.

Day to day, the sport is currently run by Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, in conjunction with the FIA and Liberty Media bosses, including its CEO, Greg Maffei.