As has long been established, when Bernie Ecclestone makes targeted statements to newspapers and broadcasters, the F1 supremo often has intentions that don't relate to the words spoken.
This week's comments to the Financial Times
regarding his retirement plans have less to do with Ecclestone's desire to buy an RV and drive the length of Route 66 – or to buy a bungalow and call it Dunroamin – than they do his desire to save face should his legal battles make his current position untenable.
While there is sporadic chatter naming Red Bull team principal Christian Horner as Bernie's most likely replacement, the CEO of Formula One is far more likely to be replaced by a committee than any one individual. That committee is made up of long-term paddock personalities and FOM shareholders, many of whom have reputations that precede their rarely-photographed faces.
Perhaps the most high-profile of the group is Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the former Nestle Group CEO most famous for saying that access to water is not a basic human right. Brabeck-Letmathe was nominated to the board of Delta-Topco in 2012, when it was announced he would run a post-IPO Formula One as a non-executive chairman. The Austrian businessman – who is affiliated with boards in 19 different industries – is thought to own between 0.25 percent and one percent of the F1 business, depending on your source.
As an experienced international businessman with contacts both in a range of blue-chip industries and with the governments that support them, Brabeck-Letmathe is one of the few men with a Rolodex to rival that of Ecclestone. During his time with Nestle he focused on diversifying the business, telling Time
magazine in 2007 that “we have to be able to learn how to get operational efficiency with a relatively complex business structure. This is what I think real management is all about. The other thing is much too easy.” That challenge is all too familiar to those familiar with the labyrinthine inner workings of the business side of Formula One.
While Brabeck-Letmathe has the global business experience needed to run the behemoth that is Formula One, it is Sacha Woodward-Hill who has the greatest experience and most in-depth knowledge of the contracts and deals that keep the sport going. Known to be one of Bernie's closest confidants and most trusted advisors, Woodward-Hill is much more than just the in-house lawyer at Prince's Gate.
She is director of and lawyer for Formula One Publishing Limited, lawyer for Formula One World Championship Limited, and has been director and lawyer of a long list of dormant companies involved in F1 holdings. Prior to the recent shake-up of the F1 sub-companies that preceded Ecclestone's decision to step down from the board of Delta Topco, Woodward-Hill was a director of Formula One Holdings, and is thought to have a one percent stake in the business.
Deliberately low-profile, Woodward-Hill has long been viewed as Ecclestone's preferred successor, and it is impossible to envision a version of F1's future that does not have her – at bare minimum – overseeing the handover of power.
Another in-house lawyer whose influence will be felt in the next era of F1 governance is Kate Beavan, who in another lifetime was the in-house lawyer for Tom Walkinshaw Racing. Since 2003 she has been one of the heaviest hitters on the commercial side of FOM, and there is no reason to expect that to change in a new (post-Bernie) world order.
Other candidates likely to be involved in a committee rule of Formula One are Sir Martin Sorrell, another non-executive chairman of the Delta Topco board, and who owns a similar stake to that controlled by Brabeck-Letmathe, and Sainsbury's chief Justin King, who announced in January that he would be stepping down from the role of CEO effective in July. King is not currently a part of the Delta Topco inner circle, but he is connected to the world motor-racing through the on track activities of his son Jordan, who will be racing for Carlin in the 2014 FIA European Formula 3 Championship.
Kate Walker is a senior F1 writer for Crash.net. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, she keeps an eye on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that makes Formula One a political melodrama.