The departure of Bernie Ecclestone was a seismic shift in Formula 1’s history, yet the confirmation that one of his successors will step down at the end of this month barely registers.
F1 has announced January will be Sean Bratches’ final month working in his role of managing director of commercial operations, confirming a story that we broke on RACER in October. In doing so, the sport is losing one of the main figures who took over the reins from Ecclestone, with Bratches having formed a three-man team alongside managing director of motorsports Ross Brawn and chairman and CEO Chase Carey.
On the face of it, little has changed in the sport. The same teams still race, at the same venues, at roughly the same time of the year. People moan about Pirelli and a two-tier championship, and Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton still win.
But Bratches wasn’t asked to change all of that. So just how should we view the American’s time in his role?
Firstly, we shouldn’t judge it against Ecclestone’s influence, as Carey’s role is much closer to what Bernie used to do. It was a new approach, and Bratches had the freedom to learn on a new job, but also had the unenviable task of instigating potentially major change after decades of ‘the way it was always done’.
The floodgates were opened by Liberty Media’s takeover of the sport, with a basically non-existent commercial arm being injected with huge levels of investment. There were so many potential opportunities to take on that it appeared resource was allocated to every single one, in the hope that some would work out.
Some did, some didn’t, and others haven’t yet but still might.
Bratches has largely been true to his word, when you can understand what those words are. He had a tendency to speak in jargon, sometimes saying a lot but not actually saying anything at all, and at others showing up a lack of understanding (or willingness to understand) from those of us trying to report what he was saying.
From the start he saw fresh opportunities for the sport and was willing to try and exploit as many as possible – such as eSports, podcasting and fantasy gaming – whether their potential returns were massive or minimal.
F1 wants to race in destination cities, but understanding how difficult such deals were to clinch, Bratches took the sport to some of the venues through the roadshow events. They weren’t all fruitful, but in major markets they represented a concerted attempt to put the sport in front of more people.
Perhaps the standout success has been the Netflix documentary Drive to Survive. The reach to so many new viewers who then turned more of their attention to the sport was so good that even Ferrari and Mercedes had to get involved after having initially dug their heels in.
Race promoters highlight the series as having a significant impact on their ticket sales and interest from fans – both new, and ones that had fallen out of love with the sport – and on top of the added exposure, the teams even got a little bit more revenue, too.
F1’s digital offering has been a massive improvement as well. Sure, the almost complete lack of social media usage prior to 2017 meant there was enormous potential for growth in this department, but while figures have relatively easily rocketed, the quality of the output on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook that has fueled those increases has been impressive. It has also allowed teams a much greater freedom to tell their own stories.
But not every new venture has worked so well. The F1 TV over-the-top service has been a poor product, riddled with problems. That said, OTT is exactly what a major global sport should have, even if it risked upsetting the traditional broadcasters who were comfortable with the way things were (see also: Netflix). Regardless, it should have been of much higher quality. It also played a part in the ESPN television deal that doesn’t rake in the big bucks, although has resulted in higher audiences.
And while F1 TV goes down as a missed opportunity so far, there have also been obvious failings. Bratches – in charge of commercial operations – has failed to use any of the above to secure a new major global sponsor. In terms of races, Vietnam and Zandvoort are welcome additions in capitalizing on where there’s currently money, but a flagship new event in the United States remains a void that has yet to be filled.
Overall, the sport is in a better position on a number of fronts than when Bratches (and Carey and Brawn) started work. It probably hasn’t advanced as far as any of them would have liked, and there were bold claims that currently remain unsubstantiated, but it has taken steps in the right direction in a number of previously under-exploited areas.
Put it another way: Under Ecclestone’s stewardship, for all the good things he did, how much of the above would have even been attempted?
It’s perhaps too easy to simply say Bratches could have done better – of course he could – but the sport did develop on the commercial front. The next few years will show whether he built a strong platform for F1 to grow from, or if it was an inefficient use of the opportunities available that will need further design changes.
With Carey now taking on the majority of the responsibility that Bratches had, the next step has to be a greater success rate as Liberty learns from its experience so far.