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Bernie Has Gone. Long live Bernie! 2017 And All That!

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By Nicholas Frankl
Senior Editor
F-1 Desk
The Auto Channel

Auto Central March 23, 2017; With Mr. E shuffled off into an honorary / advisory retirement role after the buyout of the commercial rights of the sport by John Malone, and the appointment of new CEO Carey, with Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches as support team, it’s worth a little reflection on this extremely unique individual.

At the time when the sport wasn’t consistently on TV, races weren’t shown live, teams, drivers and journalists all shared rented houses and caravans, the teams had little to no money, promotors didn’t pay up, didn’t invest in tracks or safety barriers, ambulances (let alone helicopters), and the death of drivers was a regular occurrence, it was Bernie who had the vision and skill to negotiate with the teams, create the constructors' ‘union’, break the FIA and promotors' stranglehold on the sport and allow the teams to develop the commercial rights of their cars, whilst he developed the TV, track advertising and hospitality rights of the sport. Without Bernie and Max Mosley its highly unlikely F1 would ever have grown into the unique global sport it is today. Thank you Bernie, now go spend more time with your lovely daughters and grand kids!

After a week in Geneva at the annual SIHH watch fair, I came away with more info on F1 than horology. Most of the teams and drivers have (or want) a watch brand partner, so it wasn’t a surprise to find F1 execs and even Champions wandering around. The take away wasn’t inspiring. General consensus is that the engineers, namely Adrian Newey, are running modern day F1. Red Bull has enormous power and influence over the rules and with a weak Renault engine the team can only rely on aero to save them. Consequently, the new rules are biased towards more aero grip and less mechanical, which on the surface of it will make overtaking harder and on-track racing more difficult. If, as in the past few seasons one team (Mercedes) has a significant power / aero package superior to the field, then it’s almost guaranteed that it will lead to more single file processions up and down the track.

Chatting with four-time World Champion Alain Prost and his son on the Richard Mille stand, which displayed a McLaren F1 car suspended from the ceiling and a new limited edition McLaren watch offered at $950,000, he wasn’t optimistic. Prost, as a former team owner and current advisor to Renault knows the inside scoop. The Renault team, now revitalized by incoming German ace and Le Mans champion Nico Hulkenberg and with an upgraded engine will continue to improve over the next 12 months, which is probably more than McLaren, which new US CEO Zak Brown told me is in a ‘transition year’ and unlikely to be much if anything improved over last year. Zak is working hard to turn the team around, invigorate the marketing and pull $35m plus out of at least 1 major blue chip sponsor for the next 5 years, no easy task in today’s viral marketing world, even for one of the world’s best.

I asked Paul Hembry, boss of Pirelli motorsport and the F1 program if the new ‘big’ tires would improve the overtaking and the show. “F1 has forgotten it’s in the entertainment business” was his measured reply. “Engineers are running the sport and I don’t think it will improve this year”. I guess Pirelli is lucky that Bridgestone and Michelin aren’t in the sport, as I’m not sure they would fare too well with the competition, although it would make the sport more exciting for sure. More costly, too, but then what doesn’t in F1?

Of course, all the drivers are looking forward to setting lap records with up to 1000 turbo charged horses strapped to their backs. The issue is that neither the fans watching live or on TV will really notice any difference visually other than on their stop watch. I, and most others, don’t expect Bottas to give Hamilton much trouble in qualifying or race mode, unless he’s been sandbagging for the past three years! The Red Bulls will be close behind and, most likely, the best competition to challenge for the season (both drivers are young and hungry and dynamo Verstappen will cause new drama for sure with his outrageous overtaking maneuvers!)... unless a miracle has occurred at Ferrari and Vettel and Arrivabene have made up and the engineering and aero department has found a new harmony. One can only hope!

Expect Williams to pick up a podium and Force India to beat them again this year. I think Renault will improve dramatically and we will see a podium or two. This could be Alonso’s last year with McLaren or even in F1. I don’t care how much one loves a sport, it’s no fun blasting away midfield and although the promise of gold at the end of the rainbow is large, it’s also at least another two seasons away, if not three. Honda has to pull its socks up and stop operating as a secret supplier to McLaren rather than an integrated team partner. Frankly, its crazy how badly that union has developed.

No matter what, it will be a different feeling this season not seeing Mr. E. strolling around the starting grid, surveying his domain and all that he has built. Love him or hate him, he brought a very distinctive character and personality to the world of F1, something that it sorely needs again to revitalize the sport and invigorate the fans.