A year after he was ousted, Bernie Ecclestone looks back on his F1 reign and reveals why he doesn’t go to races any more, what he really thinks of the new owners and why he wouldn’t buy a Tesla
The door of the little meeting room opens and in walks the familiar diminutive figure, his waistline perhaps just a little rounder since his dismissal from the job he had held for 40 years. But looming behind Bernie Ecclestone is an unexpected visitor: the much larger frame of Flavio Briatore, wearing a black crocodile-trimmed jacket displaying the logo of his Billionaire clothing company (slogan: “For mature men who are unafraid of what they are… dominant, virile and unapologetic”). Could this pair of old friends – the former joint owners of Queen’s Park Rangers football club, among other things – have reunited to announce a plan to march back into Formula 1? No, it’s just a social call.
Briatore still manages Fernando Alonso, who had started the previous day’s Japanese Grand Prix with a 35-place grid penalty, imposed for a full power-unit change in his McLaren-Honda. “The terrible thing for me,” Ecclestone says, “is walking down the back of the grid and seeing a two-time champion who could win the race and knowing he has zero chance. That’s what’s bad.”
The long-time Formula 1 ringmaster had got up to watch the Suzuka race early the previous morning. “Obviously it was predictable. The race itself was a bit boring because there was nothing going on.”
Another disastrous day for Ferrari prompts Ecclestone to recall the Scuderia’s catastrophe at the start in the previous race, in Malaysia, when an accident before the first corner put Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen out, along with the hapless Max Verstappen. “I’ve watched it so many times,” Ecclestone says. “Kimi made a good start. Max was doing nothing. He couldn’t do anything. Seb quite rightly went across. But you shouldn’t take chances like that. I’m surprised at Sebastian, the way he’s been driving lately. It’s not Sebastian. It was his fault in as far as he should have said, ‘Okay, if you can go, go. It’s a 200-mile race, we’ll catch you’.”
Had Ecclestone still been in charge, he would have taken Vettel aside for a quiet word. “I’d just say to him, ‘You know, you’ve got to finish to win. If you want to win the championship, you’ve got to collect points. For example, [Nico] Rosberg’s dad won one race and won the title. Look at all the champions. Look at Michael [Schumacher]. They used to collect points.’ A danger with Verstappen, too, is that he’s doing a fantastic job, but it’s better to have a lot of second places than one big win and go off the road five times. But he’s been bloody unlucky.” Does Ecclestone see him as a future champion? “For sure. A hundred per cent.”
Who else of the younger generation does he rate? “Maybe the Mexican [Sergio Pérez]. I think he’ll turn out good. But there’s a lot of guys a little bit down the field who, if you put them in Lewis’s car, they’d be winning races. And if you put Lewis in some of those cars down the field, where would he be?” He’d still be quick, wouldn’t he? “Of course, but it doesn’t matter how quick you are.”
HIS TITLE in the company that runs Formula 1 is chairman emeritus, conferred by Chase Carey, who headed Liberty Media’s successful takeover at the end of 2016 and swiftly decided that he also wanted to be chief executive. So far this season Ecclestone has attended only a handful of races. What does his title mean?
“I’m so high in the company now, I can’t see what’s going on.” He smiles a little wanly. Does he feel involved? “I feel involved with the promoters and the people who run the races. They’re all very good friends and they’re happy for me to go. But I just feel that I don’t particularly want to be there as a spectator. If I go to Mexico, it’s because I like Mexico City. In Abu Dhabi I know the people very, very, very well and I’ll go to that race.
“I feel a little bit in a difficult position because Chase had sent me a message very early in the year more or less saying, ‘Don’t come to the races because we’ve got no office space. We’ve got three of us now and we’ve got a very small motorhome, so there’s nowhere for you to be, really, and really you shouldn’t be at the races.’ Mercedes said, ‘You have a table in our motorhome.’ Same with Red Bull, and all of them. There’s a table with my name on it in the Mercedes motorhome to use if I want to.”
When the end comes after such a long and close involvement, surely it must hurt. “It was going to come anyway, wasn’t it? But I tell you who was happy. The bank manager. He didn’t care whether I was hurt or not because we sold a lot of shares.” Does he no longer have any shares in F1? “Nothing at all.”
There’s nothing wrong, he says, with the way Liberty has acted. “When they bought the company, Chase met me here – in fact he was sitting where you’re sitting – and he said, ‘You know we bought the company at the weekend?’ I said. ‘Yes, congratulations.’ He said, ‘There’s just one thing. I would like you to stand down as chief executive because I would like that position.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s good. You’ve bought the car, you might as well drive it.’ Obviously they thought I wasn’t doing a good job. Or maybe the way I’ve run the business was different from the way they think it should be run. Why buy the company otherwise?”
Some years ago his old accomplice Max Mosley, having risen to the presidency of the FIA, announced that Formula 1 had outgrown its “entrepreneurial” era and was about to enter its “managerial” phase. Is that what we’ve finally been seeing in the past year, since Liberty Media paid £6.4bn to take over F1’s commercial rights from CVC, the private equity firm on whose behalf Ecclestone had been running the sport as chief executive?
“I don’t know. It’s difficult for me to comment because I haven’t seen what they’ve done, [compared] to what was normally done. I expected to see people going for six races a year in America, which is what I tried to do over the years, unsuccessfully.
“I ran the business for the last five or six years because CVC wanted to sell. That company doesn’t keep things for ever. They buy companies, try and make them better, and then sell. All I was trying to do was set the stall up to sell it for the maximum price. I’ve no idea what they have in mind.”
BRIATORE GETS up to leave. “You know the way out,” his friend tells him. As the door closes behind the man at the centre of the 2008 Crashgate scandal, Ecclestone says: “You need a few more Flavios. You need a few more team managers like him because he could see all sides of what’s going on. Flavio understood what we were trying to do. I said we should really try to forget about the engineering. We’re in the entertainment business. The minute we stop entertaining the public, the business is in big trouble.”
Did he leave F1 with one big regret about anything he had or hadn’t done during his decades in charge? “There must be thousands. If I had ideas, at least I’d run it past the teams. My job was to convince the teams that my ideas were right and theirs were wrong. And when I thought my ideas were wrong and theirs were right, we used to follow their ideas. As simple as that.
“In the last few years I used to complain that nobody wants to go to the race knowing who’s going to win the race before they go. It got to the stage that Mercedes was going to win and you knew it was going to win and where’s the excitement? In the end you’re going to lose interest.”
Does he regret having encouraged the participation of the manufacturers, whose vast resources and need to win pushed up the cost of competing for everyone? “Honestly, I never encouraged them. The only team that I ever encouraged was Ferrari, to stay. That’s why I used to make sure that Ferrari was commercially beneficial [sic].” Does he see any downside to giving Ferrari such a favourable deal? “Not at all.” Don’t you think they’d have stayed in the sport anyway? “I don’t think people quite understood how that happened. I was the one who put that together and I said to the teams, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ There were four or five teams who signed a contract to 2020. So I could say to a promoter, ‘If you sign the contract, I guarantee these people will be there, performing.’ All of them [the teams] would have signed – the difference is, they couldn’t give the guarantee. So if they left, what do I do? Do I sue the team because they’ve disappeared? So I said, ‘Okay, if you make this commitment and guarantee you’re going to be there, this is how much you’re going to get and these are the privileges.’ A lot of these teams were in the positiion where they could have gone. One or two of them in the past five years have gone. So imagine if I’d had a commitment from them and they disappeared.”
In a television interview the previous day, Sergio Pérez had remarked that a mooted 25-race season would “break everything”. “He’s right. I told everybody, a maximum of 20. Well, we had 21. I did the deal with France two years ago to come back in. Hockenheim, too, who have a contract they’re going to honour. So we’ll be back to 20 races again – unless there are new races put in. The idea was there are going to be six new races in America. I doubt that’ll ever happen. America I think for F1 is not important. America is about the same size as Europe, and we have 10 races in Europe, so to make Formula 1 successful in America you’d need 10 races there. Whatever race we’ve had in America has been successful for a couple of years. Think about all the races in America that have come and gone. I always say to a promoter, ‘Look, with what you’ve got to pay us, you’re going to lose money. Unless you’ve got some other idea of why you want to race in your country, to bring in tourists or whatever, unless you want to do that, forget it’.”
But in his free-enterprise, turbo-capitalist world, shouldn’t everything pay for itself – as, say, the tennis and golf majors do? “Yes, absolutely. A hundred per cent.” Didn’t he contribute to putting that out of balance by accepting government-subsidised circuits? He pauses. “Let me see if there’s a sensible way to answer that.” His tone is that of a kindly adult instructing a willing but slightly backward child. “I suppose it’s like a guy that’s running a greengrocer or a fruit business, the same as if I had to get up in the morning and buy the fruit, make sure it’s all okay, lay it out in a good way that made people want to buy, and sell it and take the money to the bank. That’s what I was doing. Because I was going to sell the company. I was going to sell the greengrocery business. So I had to make sure that everything was working well and looked good and was producing good profits.”
So the whole object of the exercise was to fatten up the sport before selling it as a going concern. “That was my job. I worked for CVC. I was employed by CVC. I used to own 100 per cent of the company, whenever that was, but after that, the idea was to build the company so it could be sold. Which was what happened. It’s difficult for Liberty to make it work the way I made it work. This year the company has been lucky because Ferrari has been competing well. But I had five years of knowing full well that every time I went to a race, Mercedes was going to win.
“Now it looks so much like Mercedes wants to finish first and second in every race, and if they can bury a few people while they’re doing it, so what? There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not wrong. That’s what they’re there for. To win.”
DOES HE MISS the life of the paddock, the deal-making behind the tinted glass windows of Bernie’s bus, the people he’s known for half his 87 years, the power to exercise his disapproval or to get someone out of a jam with a benevolent gesture? The opening to his answer could have come out of a handbook of Zen riddles.
“I miss it so much that I don’t think about it,” he says quickly and emphatically. “I’m not going to say that I miss this, I miss that and I miss the other. Because you miss the whole lot, if you’ve been doing something for 40 years, the way Max and I used to do it to try and keep things together. We were very close. With the current FIA set-up, I think it’s a bit different. It’s good, I think, that the Liberty people have got very cosy with the FIA, because maybe they’ll be able to do something. When I set up the strategy group, the teams and the commercial rights holders could have outvoted the FIA on anything. The trouble was that the teams could never agree. Firstly it was Mercedes, and then Ferrari thought, ‘We’d better get on the bandwagon,’ so it became impossible, nearly. The FIA could always pick on one of the teams and offer them something, some nice goodies.”
Dividing and conquering was one of Ecclestone’s most effective tactics, along with a gift for disruption and the ability to sow confusion by contradicting himself with the straighest of faces. Did the governing body learn it from him? “I think it’s so obvious that they didn’t need to learn it from anybody. With me it was different, I think. We didn’t have a strategy group, so nobody could outvote anybody. If the teams thought we were doing a good job, they supported us. If Max thought we were doing a good job, he supported things. Or if I thought the way Max was going was good, we tried to get all the teams together to follow Max. So we had meetings. I used to get hold of them and sit them down and have a chat. Christian Horner said to me the other day, ‘We never have these meetings. We don’t see the Liberty people or talk to them or anything’.”
Of course many people are claiming that he’s just biding his time until he can walk back in and repeat his trick of buying the commercial rights back for a lot less money than he received when he sold them. “No way. Lots of people come to me and say, ‘Ooh I’ve got an idea – we could this or we could do that.’ Like the people with Formula E. I’ve talked to them. But in the end Formula E is really owned by Liberty, so…”
With some of the biggest manufacturers, like Mercedes, Audi and VW, racing to turn their commercial range all-electric, is petrol-driven F1 on the brink of obsolescence? “I was always against the idea of electric road cars, but I think that was completely wrong. It’s going to happen, whether we like it or not. It just needs our mayor in London or somebody in France to say, ‘You can’t come into the city unless you’re in an electric car.’ It’ll take a lot of courage to come out and say that, but I think one or two will. Now that’s good and bad for Formula 1, if you like. Because if we were to go back to the old type of engine, 12 cylinders or whatever, I think it would make Formula 1 a million per cent better than it is today. When we dropped all that, it was a very small percentage of difference in the power between the different units. What we’ve got now, why some are better than others, and a lot better, is because of the amount of money they’ve spent.”
But isn’t it right to want to make the sport more relevant to what’s going on in the rest of society through the adoption of hybrid power units? “Maybe. I’ll go back to when we started this conversation. We aren’t racing technology. We should be entertaining the public. Walk into the crowd today and ask the people sitting there how many cylinders these engines have got. They won’t know.”
But you still get people staring in awe at today’s Formula 1 cars. “There are a few people, and I’m one of them. I think the power we’re currently getting out of this tiny engine is incredible. Would that make me buy a road car because it’s electric? I don’t know. I was talking to a friend of mine in Switzerland recently and he’d just bought a Tesla. I said to him, ‘Bloody joke. Why didn’t you buy a Volkswagen Golf, or something?’ He said, ‘This car’s fantastic – come with me.’ I got in the car with him. Went for a drive. Got out. He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Fantastic.’ The only trouble was I didn’t want to go too far. The danger with those cars is that if you turn the radio and the air-conditioning on, you could be in trouble. But they’ll get over those problems, for sure. It’s pretty obvious that the people who’ve spent all that money on this current F1 engine have learnt things. What they’ve learnt, if it’s necessary, will be used.”
He has never been to a Formula E race. “Not a lot of people have.” But surely the city-centre venues are quite appealing? “You know full well that in Hyde Park if you have a bicycle race and it’s free you’re going to get a lot of people. It something to do on a Sunday. ‘Let’s go and have a look at that Formula E.’ Maybe the second time they won’t go.”
IF HE WERE back in sole charge of F1 now, what would be the first steps he’d take to improve the sport? “I’d have a good look at the technical regulations and not take any notice of the FIA or anyone, and I’d bring back the normally aspirated engine.” Then he veers off into a discussion about F1’s success in making the cars safer. ”If I had to have an accident in a moving vehicle, I’d like to have it in an F1 car.” With a halo around the cockpit? “No. Thank God now we don’t have fires in cars, but think about trying to get out. Or if the car’s upside down. We haven’t really seen yet. It’s a prototype. If it works, and doesn’t cause any problems, and the drivers are comfortable with the visibility, okay. But I hope it doesn’t happen that there’s an accident and the guy couldn’t get out of the car.
“I think also you need to look at the sporting regulations. At the moment all of our sporting regulations should be headlined: ‘Don’t race! Don’t go over the white line, don’t do this, don’t do that…’ and I’d stop all communication between the driver and the pits. It’s a complete nonsense. People say to me who’s the greatest driver of the last 50 years? And I say Alain Prost. Why do I say that? It’s very simple. When the flag drops – or the lights go off, which is something I brought in -- you’re on your own in the car, doing the best you can, making sure you look after the brakes and the gearbox, and Prost never had people in the team with him that were trying to help him win. He had people in the team perhaps who were trying to make sure he didn’t win!
“It can’t be right for someone sitting on the pit wall to be able to tell you what to do. When I bolt you into the car, you’d better get going and try to win the race. It’s your problem if you’ve been heavy on the brakes or there’s something wrong with the gearbox because you made a cock-up. And when you get out, you’ve won the race. These days, you’d have to say Lewis won with the help of an awful lot of people. I’m not saying if we went back to the old days he wouldn’t still win. And it would be more enjoyable for the drivers. Apart from Nico Rosberg, most of the drivers when I tried to stop ship-to-shore radio were very happy. The world has changed in the last five years, for sure, and Formula 1 has changed as well. For the better? We’ll have to wait and see.”
What he did while he was in charge wasn’t clever, he says. “It was obvious. I just had the balls to do it. Whereas other people think of things and don’t do them, if I think something’s going to work, then that’s it, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s why I only want to deal with the people who turn the lights on and off. I don’t want to deal with the messenger. Because the messages very often get lost.”
SO WHAT WAS his happiest and most fulfilling time in motor racing? “I think when we started FOCA in the old days, in the 1970s, with Ken Tyrrell and Colin Chapman and guys like that, and Luca [di Montezemolo] was running Ferrari. We all knew what we knew and didn’t try to do things that we didn’t know.”
His formal connections with F1 may have been severed, but he claims to be busy. “Go and have a look at my desk. I said to my PA this morning that I’ve got more bloody things to do than when I had a proper job.” What things? “Whatever I think will make me a few dollars and keep me occupied. A bit of everything.”
Everything includes the extensive coffee farm a couple of hundred kilometres outside São Paulo, something he bought with his Brazilian third wife, Fabiana Flosi, who is almost 50 years his junior and whom he married in 2012. The farm now wins awards. “Fabiani looks after it,” he says. “She’s a lawyer, she’s bright.”
For him, it’s a new adventure. “What I like is asking, ‘Why do you do something that way?’ And they say, ‘Because that’s how we’ve always done it.’ What that means is that to change it means more work for them. The farm we bought, nothing is the same. Completely rebuilt, changed everything. I was hoping when Liberty came in, they’d do the same thing and say to me ‘Bernie, why do you do things this way? Why can’t we do it like this?’ But they haven’t. I’m supposed to be an advisor or whatever, but they’ve never asked for advice. And they shouldn’t. They bought the company thinking I wasn’t running it properly, so they’re going to show how it should be run.”
As he shows me out of the black-glass Knightsbridge office that was for so long the centre of the spider’s web, he points out how quiet the place is now. I ask him what his former right-hand man Pasquale Lattuneddu, a Sardinian waiter who became one of the most familiar members of the F1 paddock cast, was up to now. “Nothing,” he says. “Looking for something to do.” He shrugs. “Idiots. They should never have got rid of him.” He’s talking about Lattuneddu, I think.