Until early 2017 there were absolutely no doubts about who held ultimate power in Formula 1: Bernard Charles Ecclestone, who reigned over F1 with an iron fist, wrapped in a velvet glove only when it suited the purposes of the diminutive, floppy-haired son of a trawlerman.
From 1981 to that January day three-and-a-half years ago when Liberty Media completed its acquisition of F1’s commercial rights and booted him upstairs with the notional title of ‘chairman emeritus’, Ecclestone lorded it over F1 through a unique mixture of guile, cunning, ruthlessness, mental agility and unique grasp of (and tight grip on) the sport.
It was clear who was in charge when F1 came visiting, and that was F1 Rule #1. Kings knew it, presidents understood it and car company CEOs resented it, albeit silently. Ecclestone bent billionaires unto his will, cajoled car companies into playing on his patch and paying heavily for the privilege, and sweet-talked cities into shelling-out for showcase stadia used once a year.
Donald Mackenzie, Ecclestone’s ‘boss’ at CVC Capital Partners – the venture fund that acquired F1’s rights in 2006 in a Bernie-massaged deal – gave him free reign and Ecclestone rewarded investors with big bucks that kept rolling in from across the world. FIA officials, oft embarrassed by his outbursts, gasped, shrugged shoulders, shook heads, but kept schtum such was his power.
When Ecclestone paid $100m to settle a $34m bribery claim CVC looked the other way; when he praised Adolf Hitler for “getting things done” they spluttered but did little more; when he suggested Rolex-wearers and not youths were F1’s target market, sponsors despaired but continued spending on the sport. F1 was indisputably Ecclestone’s playset, and they knew it.
However, the question of absolute power over the world’s largest annual sporting block became blurred after Liberty’s takeover. Power can be defined in a number of ways, but ultimately the question boils down to: Who holds the greatest influence over F1? Expressed differently: Whose actions have the potential to wreak the most damage the sport?
Applying this thinking to F1 provides pointers to who are the current powermongers in the sport. A diverse bunch they are, too, ranging from a driver through team principals and/or owners, car company bosses and engine suppliers to Liberty executives and senior FIA officials.
Over the years various outlets have published their ‘F1 power lists’, but in the final reckoning a single name counts – one is top dog or not, so why bother to rank losers? There are no degrees of power, as there are no degrees of winning. You’ve won or not; you have power or not.
That does not, though, mean that various contenders for F1’s Most Powerful should not be listed – just as entry lists reflect all competitors although there will eventually be a single winner. Thus, our contenders are listed by category in alphabetical order together with brief resumes, with the single most power individual in F1 (according to RaceFans criteria) being nominated, together with reasons for the selection.
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Lewis Hamilton (35)
No doubt that Lewis is hugely influential, both as driver and human being; on- and off-track. No driver commands greater social media presence, nor holds as much clout over his team. Take the Mercedes driver as he is or leave him: Lewis’ influence over committed fans, casual followers or rank outsiders will continue after he hangs up his helmet; his legacy will extend beyond sporting achievements.
In fact, so great is the power Lewis wields over the grid that he is the only driver listed – for now. But does he hold the ultimate power to truly influence F1’s bigger picture?
Mattia Binotto (50)
Ferrari team bosses wield power, if only via the legendary name and regulatory veto. Ferrari is news whether it wins or loses – and ability to soak up pressure ultimately determines the team’s successes and continued influence. Where once Ferrari’s power was bandied about in swashbuckling fashion by Luca Montezemolo or ruthlessly by Sergio Marchionne, it is now applied in a more low-profile manner
Whether this approach is preferred by his immediate superior Louis Camilleri (below) or is Binotto’s favoured modus operandi is irrelevant – paddock opinion has it that Ferrari’s power base has waned, and perceptions are deemed to be reality until disproven. Ferrari’s present struggles do not aid it, so where once any Ferrari team boss could not be excluded from any such list of one, on current form that is not the case.
In short, Ferrari’s exit would cause major ripples, but no crippling implosion as was once the case.
Toto Wolff (48)
Has won more championships as team boss than any other and led Mercedes F1 Team to record-setting heights. In addition, he holds shares in Williams and Aston Martin – forget Wolff’s actual holdings in these companies; by association he has inside lines in to their operations – and wields a big stick as engine supplier to two customers, plus a third from 2021.
Factor in influence over drivers – he holds a slice of Valtteri Bottas’ contract, and was influential in signing a host of youngsters – and Toto is undoubtedly a contender even if he unlikely to replace Carey, as was once mooted. The question is whether his power base is eroding, and if so, why? Which leads to the next question: Is Wolff constrained by Ola Källenius (below), who moved into the Mercedes top office in May 2019.
Dietrich Mateschitz (76)
The Red Bull magnate owns two F1 teams and a state-of-art circuit, plus wields sufficient clout to persuade Austrian authorities to sign up to ‘Covid bubble’ that facilitated F1’s return of racing – with double-headers largely funded by company coffers. Such factors point to significant fire power and make the Austrian born near the Red Bull Ring, a serious contender.
Still, despite superb marketing and driver programmes which aid the entire sport, a wholesale exit would inflict only slight damage as teams and circuit could be sold as going concerns. Crucially, engine supply is the overriding factor, and until (when) both operations have guaranteed engine partners (or own units) both Red Bull squads are participatory independents with little overall power despite their historic successes.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Essa Al Khalifa (51)
The Bahraini is chairman of McLaren Group and his influence extends to the island’s F1 circuit. Thus his position is similar to that of Mateschitz, particularly as his team is dependent upon engine suppliers – currently Renault, Mercedes from 2021. The Sheikh wields considerable power, but not as much as the team once did. A McLaren exit would hurt F1, though, but not seriously so.
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Luca de Meo (53)
Renault’s CEO, recruited from a similar position at Seat, has no F1 experience on his CV, yet was forced into the Renault versus Racing Point ‘photo-copy engineering’ protest within weeks of joining the company. Although currently a mid-fielder, Renault, and thus de Meo, holds more influence than independent teams through being a manufacturer team with engine supply capability.
However, unless Renault amasses political strength by expanding engine supply base and a return to winning ways, de Meo’s power base is the weakest of all.
Louis Camilleri (65)
Ferrari’s CEO, a former tobacco and consumer goods baron, was parachuted in after the untimely death of Marchionne in 2018, and has taken his time to slide his feet under a desk (figuratively) occupied by Enzo Ferrari and Montezemolo: supreme powermongers, both. During this orientation phase Camilleri dwelt mainly on road cars and has thus far shown no F1 power aspirations, which is unlikely to change in the medium term.
Ola Källenius (51)
The no-nonsense Swede, a Mercedes lifer who ascended to the top job with arguably the world’s most prestigious car brand last May, is no stranger to F1, having been a Mercedes appointee to the McLaren board during the 2000s before moving onwards and upwards to head the company’s F1 engine division. ‘His’ units won championships in 2008/9.
The team has a string of record-setting performances to draw on in any struggle, plus Mercedes has made what rank as F1’s largest investments in its Brackley base and Brixworth engine plant. Add in triple team engine supply in 2021 – with ensuing support in disputes – and Mercedes is powerfully entrenched. Indeed, of all CEOs listed Källenius is undoubtedly the most powerful.
Chase Carey (66)
F1’s CEO and chairman effectively replaced Ecclestone, then created a triumvirate to advise and support him. Although a necessity due to his inexperience in F1, this structure weakened his power through reliance on others. In addition, the American TV veteran seems more comfortable in investor circles than in argy-bargies between feuding team owners.
Carey wields his influence quietly, and there is no doubt inner steel lurks behind his luxurious moustache, but one gets the impression his gig is a stepping-stone to retirement, one last fling in an illustrious corporate career. Thus, Chase has no need to build short-term power bases; had he come into F1 ten years ago it may have been a different matter, but for now upwardly mobile share prices and not political power sustain him.
Jean Todt (74)
Make no mistake: the FIA president could easily be the most powerful man in F1 if he chose to be so. Indisputably the best all-round motorsport manager of his generation, the Frenchman is content to let F1 operate independently until a firm hand is required. In the interim Todt focuses on the governing body’s other sporting interests plus activities such touring, global mobility and road safety.
One example of his ‘step-in’ style: when he realised various teams sought advantages during the Covid-19 hiatus he deftly stepped in, steadied F1 via emergency regulations, then let teams get on with it. The result: the first global sport to return to action, quickly followed by further FIA series. FIA statutes dictate that he retires at end-2021, and understandably he is now more concerned with a lasting legacy than power games.
Ross Brawn (65)
A seasoned F1 figure, Brawn is no stranger to power struggles, having won more than a few along his (ultra-successful) way. Having returned from comfortable retirement to act as Carey’s right hand, Brawn is tasked with steering F1 into the future in orderly fashion. However, at his age he is unlikely to step into Carey’s shoes for any extended period (if at all). Why, then, push for power?
Greg Maffei (60)
President and CEO of Liberty Media – whose interests extend well beyond F1 and include a baseball team, radio streaming and concert ticketing – Maffei is effectively Carey’s boss, but leaves him to get on with it provided the numbers tally. Indeed, Maffei plays little part in F1 on a day-to-day basis, and nor should he as the listed company’s most senior executive. Powerful, in financial terms.
Assessing where power lies
So, who is currently F1’s most powerful individual? A clue: Only two entities are mentioned thrice: Liberty and Mercedes. Carey and Brawn enjoyed other careers and are not in it for the long haul, while Maffei has no regular involvement with F1, nor is he a paddock regular. Liberty wields considerable clout, without teams it has no business, and thus largely panders to them. Any break-away series would kill it.
That leaves Mercedes: Hamilton wields power as a driver but is beholden to whoever pays. In other words, he is a hired hand – well-paid, but a hand with few or no winning options outside Mercedes. That weakens him considerably, as indicated last week when asked about his contract situation. With Mercedes planning to lay off at least 10,000 employees, the word is that Källenius has placed such big pay deals on hold.
Without doubt Wolff once wielded enormous paddock power as befits statistically the most successful team boss in F1 history, but rivals point to various U-turns – such as Mercedes’ withdrawal from the Ferrari engine settlement action group (instigated by Wolff) and the overnight about-face over racing in Australia during Covid – and allege were forced upon him by Källenius. If untrue, why have team bosses ganged up on him?
Add in that last week, after prolonged attempts at corralling teams into delaying signing the Concorde Agreement and pushing for better terms, he crudely referred to his peers as being “up the arse of Liberty” so huge was his frustration. Yet, a week later he stated he was ready to sign despite the draft being essentially unchanged. As this was written news filtered through that Mercedes signed the Concorde Agreement.
Is it pure coincidence that these occurred since May 2019, where previously Wolff seemingly had free reign? Which brings us to the crux of the matter: Wolff increasingly drops hints that he may retire when his contract expires, but surely the contract requires two signatures: his and that of a senior Mercedes executive, namely Källenius?
The word in Stuttgart is that Källenius has opened talks with potential candidates, as is prudent under the circumstances.
It follows that if Hamilton is F1’s most powerful driver and Wolff its most powerful team principal, the man who holds their destinies in his hands is clearly more powerful than either, and therefore the most powerful man in F1? Consider the effect on F1 and its (FWONK) share price should he decide against contract extensions for either or both.
Indeed, consider the effects on F1 of a total withdrawal of Mercedes, namely team and engine supply. Such decisions would spell absolute disaster for F1, yet Källenius could take them with a stroke of a Montblanc. Mercedes has now signed the Concorde Agreement, but as we revealed previously, there is an annual exit clause provided it is triggered by 31 March for the following season.
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