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The Formula 1 deadline is set, the clock is ticking: Bernie Ecclestone runs the show

Austin Photo: Author_kevin_benz
News_2011_November_CircuitoftheAmericas
Circuit of the Americas under construction Photo by Kevin McCauley
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin_Formula 1_Nov 2011_susanne combs
Susan Combs, Bernie Ecclestone, and Tavo Hellmund Courtesy of Formula 1 United States
News_Formula one_May 10

The clock is ticking…

On Monday, Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone drew a line in the sand and asked Circuit of the Americas (COTA) co-founder Bobby Epstein to cross it.

Ecclestone set a deadline: Wednesday, November 30th. If there’s no contract signed by then and no money in the bank, there will be no Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix in Austin—certainly not next year, probably not ever.

By now, Ecclestone’s patience is worn thin and out. In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with Autoweek magazine, he called out Epstein and he made it clear who is the boss of F1.

“I've spent more time with these people [COTA] and these races in the States than [I've had to spend with] anybody else [running a Grand Prix]. India's come and gone, and other places have come and gone, and we're still messing around.

This is what these people [COTA] don't understand. They're sitting there on their own, thinking about their race, buying something that they can't afford, thinking the world is going to change for them. Which it isn't.”

Ideas that were bandied about weeks ago are now crystal clear. Epstein and his partners bungled a power play that might have sounded good over a cigar and scotch at the club but arrogantly ignored where the real power of the deal lies—with Ecclestone, and his close family friend Tavo Hellmund.

Hellmund got the F1 contract, a sweet deal according to Ecclestone, and most certainly a better deal than he is offering to COTA now. Hellmund brought in the moneymen, Epstein and McCombs, and then he got the shaft. Perhaps no one will truly know why Epstein pushed Hellmund out the door, but with him went the Formula 1 deal—and the COTA relationship with Ecclestone. Right now ego and greed seem to be the most likely culprits.

“I was disappointed insofar as he [Hellmund] had what he thought were partners that could finance the business and wouldn't let him down,” Ecclestone told Autoweek. “Really, they let him down, and they're trying to steal from him, get him out of [the project] and do the whole thing themselves.”

 “I think the problem is a simple one, they never had the money. It's simple.” - Bernie Ecclestone 

On Thanksgiving Day, COTA made a last stand and proved just how ignorant they could be. In a press release sent out on Turkey Day (how appropriate), COTA announced they were prepared to pay the F1 sanctioning fee, which was way overdue and a major part of the problem with Ecclestone and F1:

“We have been ready to send Mr. Ecclestone a sanctioning fee check for some time now,” Epstein explained. “He hasn't received it yet because the new contract presented to us two weeks ago contained unrealistic and unfeasible demands. We have signed and returned a contract similar to what we anticipated receiving.”

Whether or not you know Bernie Ecclestone personally (and Epstein at least has met and spoken to him a number of times), does it seem wise to portray the F1 Boss, the man you need to sign off on your race, as making “unrealistic and unfeasible demands”?

Formula 1 is the boss, COTA is the employee. Employees don’t get to write up new contracts just because they don’t like the terms of the original one. Formula 1 writes contracts, race organizers sign them and write checks. That’s how it works.

If you guessed the letter pissed off Ecclestone, you would be right.

“The guy that was going to do it in the first place [Hellmund] didn’t think it was unfeasible,” Ecclestone said, “and it’s not for [Epstein] to say that it was unfeasible. What he should do is go to the bank and see if he can get some money.”

Let’s break this down to its bare essentials:

  • If Epstein and his Circuit of the Americas racetrack want to run a Formula 1 race—ever—then they must sign the Formula 1 contract Ecclestone provided, they can’t just make one up themselves.
  • If they don’t sign, they don’t race.
  • If they don’t pay a sanctioning fee—like tomorrow—and give some guarantee of credit for future investment, they don’t race.
  • If they keep pissing off Ecclestone, they don’t race.

It says here, they won’t race.

“I think the problem is a simple one,” said Ecclestone, “they never had the money. It's simple.”

And so a large plot of land southeast of Austin sits vacant. Reports suggest Epstein and his partners have already spent $71 million dollars on construction. They had that money; they certainly could have found another $25 million lying around someone’s bank account for a sanctioning fee right? Some reports also suggest it could cost $41 million just to shut it down.

At least no public money has been spent yet, as far as we know.

If it weren’t so damn sad it would be funny. Race fans are left to wonder what might have been; the residents in Elroy, Texas, just southeast of Austin are left with an eyesore; the kids of Del Valle ISD are left without the benefit of the tax dollars they would have gleaned from a big shiny new racetrack.

The jokes on the rich guys who though they could make up their own rules, but no one’s laughing right now.

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