11 Formula One teams are in Austin, Texas, where the penultimate round of this year’s 19-race championship will take place Sunday, it was not the domination of the German driver Sebastian Vettel, winner of 11 of this year’s races and a strong favorite in Austin, that spurred the most fevered talk among grand prix racing insiders.
Instead, it was about an old friend of mine Bernie Ecclestone, the 83-year-old billionaire who is the ringmaster of Formula One. What a circus he has built. Ecclestone, faces in coming months two civil cases, in Munich and New York, and a possible criminal trial in Germany are also on the horizon, all related to allegations of fraud by Ecclestone in the 2006 sale of Formula One’s commercial rights.
A verdict in the London case is expected next spring. If it goes against Ecclestone, it could force a quick end to the iron-fisted control he has built since entering the sport as a team owner in the 1970s. That has alarmed those in Formula One who credit him with turning the sport into the globe-spanning financial bonanza it has become in the last 25 years.
Others have been encouraged by the sweeping changes they believe would be possible in a post-Ecclestone era, including new rules for profit-sharing by the teams that would end the era of cloistered, billion-dollar agreements and secret payments into Swiss bank accounts that have been exposed in the London court. Those deals have effectively stripped Formula One over the past decade of control of its own affairs, handing the sport’s ownership — and billions in profits — to outside investors, and enabling Ecclestone to accumulate a personal fortune of at least $4 billion. They have also left all but 4 of the 11 teams that will compete at Austin — Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes-Benz and Red Bull — flirting with bankruptcy on a race-to-race basis.
One team, Lotus, has admitted that it has been unable to pay Kimi Raikkonen, a former world champion who is the team’s lead driver, any of the $15 million it owes him for the 17 races he has contested this year.
This is the mood set, and in the paddock let me tell you gossip runs hotter than some engines, all eyes, and ears are open so look out what you say and whom you say it to.