Casting the runes

Bernie Ecclestone is capable of making startlingly accurate predictions of the future – so why did he tell Nigel Roebuck he didn’t believe in long-term planning?

Long-term planning,” said Bernie Ecclestone, “is a nonsense. The world changes so fast these days that any guy who talks about what’s going to be happening in four years’ time is an idiot.A complete idiot…”

This was 1995, in a conversation I had with the master of all he surveys at the French GP. It came back to me recently when, at the announcement of the future Abu Dhabi GP, Ecclestone said he was thinking of a 20-race World Championship.

Back in 1995 the F1 team owners were adamant we should not have more than 16, and Ecclestone agreed: “No, we can’t. I would never, ever, put more than 16 races on the calendar”

Hang on, I said, we’ve got 17 races this year… “Well, this is the exception,” said Bernie. “I put 17 on, thinking we were bound to lose at least one. Imola might not have happened – there was all that circuit work to do. Monza still may not happen, and there were doubts about Aida, because of that big earthquake. I thought we’d better add one in case, but I’m not intending to have more than 16 in the future…”

Long-term planning, as he said, was indeed a nonsense. We did indeed have 16 the following year, 1996, but 17 or 18 has become the norm, and perhaps it will be 20 in the future.

Back then there were fears that, because small teams like Simtek and Pacific were going to the wall, we might end up with small grids – perhaps as few as 20 cars. It was a long way from the days of pre-qualifying, when sometimes there were 30 or so entries, but Ecclestone said he couldn’t care less.

“We’re the best, right? People go on about only 20 cars in the race – but so what? The size of the field doesn’t bother me at all. It is much better to have a smaller, better quality grid than have a lot of rubbish. We’re in the quality business, not quantity. I’ve had enough of people walking around with begging bowls, crying as if it is everyone else’s fault – people we should never have let in in the first place.”

Always know where you stand with Bernard Charles. From his earliest days in the business he favoured a direct approach, and has seen no reason to change.

As he said, anyone who predicts what’s going to be happening in four years’ time is an idiot. Back in the mid-nineties he may have considered 16 grands prix the optimum, but now he has adjusted his thinking to suit a changing world.

Back in 1995 we had only six races outside Europe, but for as long as anyone could remember Ecclestone had been determined to make it more of a World Championship, and he talked constantly to potential race organisers across the globe.

For all his frequently expressed impatience with Americans, Ecclestone recognised the sponsors’ need to have a race in the US. “I’ve been talking to the people in Vegas about a street circuit race. If I can make it happen, I will.”

Indianapolis, which began hosting the US Grand Prix in 2000, was not even on the horizon.

“What else?” said Bernie. “Well, China… the Middle East…” Both Shanghai and Bahrain duly materialised. “I’ve got super-serious enquiries from Russia – or ex-Russia, or whatever it is now. The people there are serious – there’s no problem with the money, I’m sure. It would be Moscow, and not a street circuit – they’d build a permanent state-of-the-art track.” A dozen years on, though, the Russian GP still awaits.

Still, as he said, the world changes so fast now. Of the 17 circuits which hosted a GP in 1995, only 10 figure in this year’s championship, half of whose races will be outside Europe.

At the time of our conversation, Michael Schumacher was en route to his second World Championship, with Benetton, but rumours were mounting that Ferrari had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Bernie said this: “I think he’ll go there – I’m sure he’ll go there. How long have Ferrari been nowhere? A long time. Well, I’ll have a bet with you that Michael will transform that team – perhaps not instantly, but he’ll do it. He’ll work with (Jean) Todt, and he’ll get the right people there – and eventually Ferrari will dominate again, and for years. He’d do that with any team he went to – he’s worth a second a lap as a driver, and he’s a motivator, like Senna, like Prost. People like that don’t just drive for teams – they run them…”

Remarkably prescient, you’d have to say. People think of Ecclestone as a hard-headed businessman, and that he is, in spades, but at heart a racer he remains. The owner of Brabham for nearly 20 years, he told me that day that he still missed having a team. “It got to a point when I couldn’t do both – the other team owners think about nothing else for 24 hours a day. You could say that, yes, there’s job satisfaction in what I do – when you leave a race, and there’s been a good crowd, and you’ve sorted the various problems that always arise over a race weekend, and nobody’s been hurt, there’s satisfaction in that – but it’s not the same as the satisfaction you get from having a race team, and your car winning the race.”

At the time we talked, a mere year had passed since the death of Ayrton Senna, and although, as it always has, the sport had picked itself up after the tragedy, memories were still raw. Prior to the loss of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola, a dozen years had passed since the last grand prix fatality, and the veneer of safety had gathered many coats.

“You and I have been around long enough,” said Bernie, “to remember that, regrettably, we used to lose drivers.

And, although we obviously weren’t happy about it, it was something that was accepted.

“I remember very well, at the end of 1968, when I was managing Rindt, we had the choice of the Goodyear deal with Brabham, or the Firestone deal with Lotus. And I said to Jochen, ‘If you want to win the World Championship, you’ve got more chance with Lotus than with Brabham. If you want to stay alive, you’ve got more chance with Brabham than with Lotus.’ It wasn’t a bad thing to say; it was a matter of fact. And I’m not saying it now because he got killed in a Lotus. That was what the pattern was, for whatever reason: people did get killed in Lotuses. Maybe Colin took things to the edge a bit – and anyone who drove for Lotus was prepared to take it to the edge, too.

“What I’m saying is that Jochen was prepared to accept that, and so were the other drivers. Everyone knew that people got killed in racing. Now, suddenly we’ve got a brand-new breed of journalist, spectator, television viewer, who have never seen anyone killed in a F1 car.

“They don’t understand that it’s the sort of thing that used to happen a couple or three times a year. I remember when (François) Cevert got killed. I was sitting on a crate with (Carlos) Reutemann, and the conversation was: ‘What happened?’ ‘Oh, he went under the guardrail, and was more or less cut in half.’ ‘Christ, what happened?’ ‘Well, he just lost it.’ ‘Oh. Er, what engine are we using this afternoon?’

“It wasn’t a matter of being callous – it was the fact that it happened so often. You cannot race cars without it happening. It’s got nothing to do with the speed. When people are in that environment, racing bikes, climbing, whatever, and they’re competitive, and they’re taking things to the edge, people are going to get killed. So don’t be shocked when it happens.

“After poor Senna got killed, everyone said, ‘That’s it, F1’s finished, forget it’. Remember that? ‘Brazil,’ they said, ‘don’t even have a race in Brazil.’ Well, this year we had the biggest crowd ever in Brazil. The TV ratings have been bigger than ever this year, and at every circuit the crowd has been up. Now, don’t ask me why – it was the last thing I expected. And this is what I mean about long-term planning being a waste of time, about the world changing so fast. All you can do is react as you go along…”