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Formula One commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone speaks on the phone during the Monaco F1 Grand Prix in 2012. (MAX ROSSI/REUTERS)
Formula One commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone speaks on the phone during the Monaco F1 Grand Prix in 2012. (MAX ROSSI/REUTERS)


Money woes and drama continue to plague F1 racing Add to ...

With Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel crowned 2013 world champion last week in India, questions about the future of Formula One may push into the spotlight as the season moves into its final three races and the off-season.

The biggest concern for the paddock over the next few months has to be the fate of F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone, who continues to face accusations related to the sale of the commercial side of the sport in 2006.

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First, there's the German bribery case which has the F1 boss defending himself against allegations that he paid $44-million to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to ensure private equity group CVC would get a sweet deal in the transaction. The banker is now serving an eight-and-a-half year sentence after being convicted last year of taking bribes from Ecclestone.

German prosecutors continue to sift through evidence to determine if there's enough to charge the 83-year-old. If charges are laid, it would likely happen in 2014.

While the Germans dig, Ecclestone found himself in a U.K. civil court this week in a case related to the Gribkowsky file. German communications company Constantin Medien is suing Ecclestone in relation to the sale to CVC. If that weren't bad enough, it was revealed this week that Swiss prosecutors received a complaint and have also started a criminal investigation into the Gribkowsky payments.

With all the court activity and CVC planning an initial public offering for F1, it's conceivable that Ecclestone may not be around to run the show much longer, something that would leave a huge void in the paddock. While he may not be universally loved, Ecclestone is the glue that keeps the paddock running and often serves as both the hammer when things need to get done and the peacemaker when deals among the teams must be worked out.

Ecclestone isn't the only one fighting for his future in F1 lately, as the viability of several of the teams not at the front of the grid remains in doubt as the season comes to a close. Apart from Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, and Red Bull, none of the other seven outfits are on solid financial ground.

The series already lost the HRT Formula 1 Team at the end of 2012 after the Spanish outfit could not find investors to keep it going. This year, Lotus and Sauber needed cash injections to make it to the end of the season on an even keel.

In addition, two-thirds of the F1 grid seeks heavy subsidies from the guys in their seats to keep them running, with the need for these "pay drivers" becoming more acute as you look down the grid.

The lack of any kind of meaningful cost control in F1 means that backmarker teams have little prospect of competing and therefore even less chance of attracting big name sponsors with flush bank accounts. That's why teams sign drivers like Max Chilton and Charles Pic, who have spotty driving records but rich parents.

Among the teams resorting to this route is the once-mighty Williams squad, a nine-time constructors champion and seven-time drivers title winner which now needs pay drivers to keep its legendary name in the sport.

The issue leapt into the spotlight with Sauber's signing of young Russian driver Sergey Sirotkin, who has easily become the poster child for what's wrong with F1 these days. The 18 year old racked up a grand total of two podium finishes in 16 starts in this year's Formula Renault 3.5 Series, and ended the year ninth overall in points. To be fair, Sirotkin did miss one round due to commitments with the Sauber team and he could have finished as high as eighth with a good result in the race he skipped.

Sirotkin's only driving title so far came in the little-known Formula Abarth European Series. The same goes for his next stop, theAuto GP World Series last year, which was formerly known as the Euroseries 3000. Sirotkin finished third with two wins in 14 starts.

Auto GP's most recent graduate of note is Lotus driver Romain Grosjean, who won the title in 2010. To give an idea of the talent pool, Grosjean cruised to the championship despite missing the first four of 12 races that year.

While Sirotkin's talent and speed may be suspect, there's no doubt he has a giant wallet going for him care of his father Oleg, who heads one of Russia's largest scientific research enterprises, the National Institute of Aviation Technologies. The elder Sirotkin is part of the group that poured money into Sauber earlier this year to kept the team solvent.

Sirotkin compares his son's meteoric rise to that of 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen, who only started 23 races in open wheel cars before reaching F1 a decade ago.

While that might be more than a bit of a stretch, there's no doubt that with F1 heading to Russia next summer to race at the Sochi Olympic Park Circuit, having a Russian driver in the car might be a ticket to more deals and money for Sauber.

It's the same reason Toro Rosso went with Russian teen Daniil Kvyat for 2014. Although Kvyat seems to have some talent after winning a race as a guest driver in the European Formula 3 Championship this year, the series is easily two steps or more away from being a bona fide F1 proving ground.

It's true that these pay drivers have always been a fact if life in modern F1 and that won’t change, but the sport should be worried that they moving farther up the grid than ever before. Right now, only three teams of the 11 — Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull — have a pair of drivers in their stable who don't write a cheque to race and there's likely only eight drivers of 22 who don't bring personal money or backers to the table. Ironically, this is a crisis created by the top teams which could not agree on cost cutting measures to help ensure the lesser lights were able to complete without resorting to asking for huge handouts from their drivers.

The new engines coming in for 2014 and the return of in-season testing will only put more financial pressures on already-stretched smaller teams. Unfortunately, it seems likely that the big teams can't put aside self-interest for the good of the sport, so F1 seems destined to see a collapse at the lower end of the grid.

With the uncertainty of the commercial boss' future also hanging over the sport, anyone wanting to invest in F1 just might sit on the sidelines and see how things pan out before committing any cash. That will only make the crisis worse when it finally comes. And it won't be pretty.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone

Twitter: @jpappone

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