He’s approaching his ninth decade, but as the F1 impresario made plain when he talked to us, his drive and ambition are as urgent as ever
By Joe Saward
Bernie Ecclestone is doing very well for his age. The boss of Formula One Management is 79 this year, but he looks much younger and he still works incredibly hard. If the concept of retirement has entered his head he has never given a hint about it. He runs F1. He has a fairly major real estate empire that people in F1 don’t know much about. There are investments all over the place. It is his nature to wheel and deal. It always has been like that – and it always will be.
The thrill comes not from the money he makes but from the next deal. There is no reason to quit. Ask him if he still gets the same thrill from F1 as he used to and he looks a little surprised.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t want it,” he says. “I don’t have to do what I do. I do it because I like it.”
A major understatement. Ecclestone is worth billions – in any currency. Who knows how many? Newspapers try to “guestimate” the number each year, but is that even close to the right number? Probably not. Bernie juggles the balls in the air. He remembers them all. Loves a good deal.
F1 remains his primary interest. The global economic crisis is worrying but Mr E does not seem to be too concerned.
“I suppose we are no different to any other company,” he says. “Anyone who says what has happened hasn’t affected their company is obviously not in touch with their company.
I think we’ve been lucky. Certainly. Most of the teams have longer-term contracts. If things don’t change in the longer term then I think we are going to have problems in 2010 and 2011. I am sure we will. But I don’t see any particularly dramatic things this year.”
Even with the Formula One group’s revenues, from such things as trackside advertising and VIP hospitality?
“I’m not too worried,” he says again. “Long-term contracts, going into the future. This year is not a problem.”
But what about the vast debts that CVC Capital Partners has left F1 to service? Does that not worry Bernie?
“They are that sort of operation,” he says. “That is how they operate. Like most of these people. I’m not worried at all. They don’t owe me anything.”
Yes, but they owe an awful lot to others.
“If we’re performing well they have nothing to worry about,” says Bernie.
The teams may not agree with that. They have already made it very clear that they would like to see more of the revenues generated by the sport going into their pockets, rather than to the money men in the background. They argue that it is not justifiable that the Formula One group takes half the money.
Ecclestone is unmoved.
“That is what the agreement has been,” he says. Deadpan.
And in the future?
“Well, I don’t really want to talk about what might happen in the future,” he says. “We are trying to convince the teams to reduce what they spend. They say it is a necessity to spend to be competitive. Eventually, I suppose, they will come to their senses and realise that there is no need for this. You know it is the last tenth of a second that costs the money. If you leave the engineers alone, there’s no limit to what they want to spend. You give them unlimited budgets and that’s what it will be – unlimited. I would have thought that teams will run under the new system – which people call ‘the cap system’.
I don’t know who can afford not to run under that system. If I was running a big company and they said, ‘The budget this year is $227m’, then I would say, ‘Stop a second! How come these other teams are running for $30m or $40m and you want $227m?’ I would rather spend exactly the same as the other people and hope that our engineers can do a better job.”
There is much logic in the argument. Companies are suffering at the moment and there are no guarantees that the situation is going to get any better.
“The problem is simple,” says Bernie. “When you have got massive unemployment – which we haven’t got yet – people haven’t got the money to buy things, so people are not manufacturing things and so you have to fire people. And it goes on and on and on. Last September someone said, ‘What can anyone do?’ and I said, ‘If I was in charge of the world I would get the major currencies together and print 15 per cent more money. Within three months you would have inflation and after six months big inflation. You would have everyone working again. It is easy then to cut back the inflation rather than what we have at the moment. If people keep getting fired they’re not going to spend, or even if they think they’re going to get fired they think, ‘Maybe something bad is round the corner’.”
And then there are other knock-on effects.
“I was with a barrister the other night,” says Bernie. “He said, ‘I was going to buy a new Bentley’ and I said, ‘So?’ He said, ‘I decided not to. I don’t think it’s the right thing to be seen to be doing.’ It’s the same with the Royal Bank of Scotland and dear old Fred Goodwin. They panicked and sold the company jet. It cost them three million a year to run it. Their idea was to get rid of something that was visible but they obviously bought the plane for a reason. If it was the wrong reason they should not have bought it, but when you think that they are £30bn in trouble the plane is not that big. They have to do business. They have to pay a lot of money back. It just sends out the wrong message.”
The financial realities, however, do exist. One needs only to listen to the Grand Prix promoters to hear that they are suffering. There is less money about. Ticket sales are down. They can’t afford to pay the fees that they have to pay to the Formula One group. They look to the national governments to help them out, claiming that the races are in the national interest. Politicians are happy to pay wild amounts of money to host something like the Olympic Games; logically they should do the same for Formula 1. It’s a much more effective marketing tool than the Games because it happens every year rather than once every four years. F1 is always in the newspapers and on TV. Presumably Bernie thinks that the authorities should pay for F1?
“No, not really,” he replies. “They are running a business. If they can’t make it work, they can’t make it work. We are selling a commodity. If our commodity is not good for them, then they will do something else, won’t they?”
The reality is that a number of the European races are now beginning to think along those lines. Bernie is always looking ahead. He is looking for new promoters. New circuits. Oddly, he says he doesn’t know much about the new French track being planned at Flins.
“Is that the one by the Renault factory?” he asks. “A local mayor told me not to take F1 there. I have a lot of letters complaining.”
What about the British GP?
“We have a contract with them,” he says. “I hope that they can honour it. I don’t know. The only people who know are them. It wouldn’t hurt the government to assist them. Apparently they had a bank facility but because of the current situation the bank pulled out on them. Maybe someone should ring the government and say, ‘You ought to do this on a commercial basis – because you own the banks’. It’s like 0.0002 per cent of what they are spending on the Olympics. What do they get from that? All the people who have done that before now have massive stadiums that are empty.”
It is a fair point, but then what about the Chinese GP in Shanghai? It hasn’t really worked, has it? They have an empty stadium.
“The biggest problem with Shanghai, in my opinion, was that they had some funny ideas,” says Bernie. “It is much too large and therefore there’s no atmosphere. I guess they were anticipating a larger number of people because Shanghai is so big, but the ticket prices are too high. Getting there is difficult. They were going to have a train, but that didn’t happen. It will, but it hasn’t yet.”
He says that the city still has seven years to run on its contract. And what about Montréal?
“We are trying to get that back on again,” he says. “The government is interested. The trouble is that the teams don’t want to do more than 17 races. If they don’t want any more than that then we cannot put on a race in America or get Montréal back.”
Bernie is being a little mischievous here. The teams want America much more than they want a race, say, in Bahrain or a second event in Spain. Sports entities in the US are much cheaper than they are elsewhere. There is a lot of sport and it’s hard to find anyone who is willing to pay what F1 is asking. There are other problems as well.
“Apart from Indianapolis, where we have been,” he argues, “there is nowhere in America we could go to and hold our head up and say, ‘This is comparable to other circuits we are building around the world’.”
If things were easier and there was a choice, would Bernie have a GP on the east or west coast, given the time zones involved and so on?
“East,” he says – with no hesitation. So he is still chasing an age-old dream of a Grand Prix in New York?
“Yup,” he says. “Who knows? It is the one place where someone could make a business out of it.”
Bernie reckons that F1 would also need a better show for the American audience, which likes easy-to-understand action, cheerleaders and razzmatazz.
“I think perhaps to start we would have to make the racing better,” he smiles. “Maybe an idea like the guy who has won the most races becoming the World Champion. If someone were to suggest that…”
He is playing games now. That was his suggestion.
“That way you get the guys who want to race to win,” he says. “That is what it’s all about. If you go to an athletics meeting and you watch the 100 metres, you’re not terribly excited about the guy who is second. Are you? You’re interested in the winner. If I was a driver I’d rather retire and say: ‘I’ve won 27 gold medals’ rather than ‘I have 321 points’. That’s something to tell your kids. They couldn’t care less about points. How does that relate to anyone else?”
Getting more kids into racing is important. The F1 demographic is not getting any younger. The kids have too many choices and shorter attention spans. F1 is not doing much to attract them.
“Maybe what we have to do if the kids today are not enthusiastic is to wait until they become 30 or 40,” says Bernie. “Maybe then they will be fans. You can’t really say. Maybe 25 years ago it was exactly the same. It takes a long time to get a sport where people really understand it and want to follow it.”
What about the Internet? F1 has not really embraced the World Wide Web. Does Bernie see any dangers for the F1 business model as TV and the Internet merge?
“We licence TV companies to provide free-to-air coverage and we give them the right to broadcast by whatever means they wish in each national market,” he says. “If they want to broadcast to mobile phones – like the BBC for example – they can. Or on the Internet. They can control it.
“However, if someone came along to me today and said, ‘We’d like to buy those rights for a long period’ and gave more money and much more coverage, then there would be a contract on their desk very quickly.”
What else can be done? Would a woman driver help? And is that a realistic thing?
“We have big interest from women already,” he says. “It’s surprising. I reckon that there are plenty of women who are a lot more capable physically than some of the men. Even the ones we have driving today! The problem is whether they will ever get the chance to be in a competitive team. They will be taken on by teams which are not competitive but think they can get some mileage – because they’ll have a female driver. That’s not on. I’d like to see them in a McLaren or a Ferrari. I think there are a couple of women who are driving in America and I’d like to see them over here. It would obviously create a lot of interest just as Lewis Hamilton has created a lot of interest. A lot of black people now watch F1. They stop me on the streets and say: ‘Well done Bernie, you’ve done a great job!’ Maybe they wouldn’t have watched F1 before Lewis but can now associate with the sport.”
So we have covered races, colour, money and sex. What about the environment? Does Ecclestone agree with FIA president Max Mosley’s ideas about Formula 1 contributing to green issues?
“We’re nothing to do with the environment,” says Bernie. “Really and truly. Max uses F1 because it is a good platform to launch from, but as far as F1 is concerned we don’t harm the environment. The fuels we use and the amount we use are insignificant. I was laughing to myself the other day about that. I was stuck at the traffic lights and to my left were five buses. And coming the other way were three more. They were all behind one another and I bet there weren’t 30 people on all of them. And people are talking about the environment!”
What about Mosley? Did the scandal of 2008 cause F1 any damage?
“I don’t think it has done any damage to the sport at all,” he says. “I apologised openly to Max and to the FIA.
I should have been supporting him rather than being against him. I was only carrying out what a lot of people asked me to do – and suggested I do. Maybe he could have handled things a little bit differently, but Max is Max and as it happened he handled it the right way. He had the courage of his convictions. Not only did he not hide, but he went up front and sued the newspaper. So many people will benefit from what he did.”
So what about the season ahead? Are we in for the same McLaren-Ferrari fight?
“The winners keep on winning, don’t they?” he says. “McLaren looks – at the moment – to be in trouble. But you wait and see, after a couple of races they will be out of it. Some people manage their companies better than others. That’s all.”
And what about the new rules for 2010 with two different types of F1 car? The teams don’t seem to want it.
“They don’t know what they want,” says Bernie. “Can you remember any similar thing that we have had to push through which did not cause opposition? When we did the engines for two races, people said ‘Forget it! Cars won’t finish’. It’s always like that, right back to when we introduced parade laps and traffic light starts. People said we were mad – but it was only because they hadn’t thought of it. It’s easy to knock something. People are negative without even trying it. The important thing is to make things work.”
So Bernie does not subscribe to the idea that we are at the end of F1’s Golden Age?
“There are always doom and gloom people,” he says. “When Ayrton [Senna] died people said: ‘This is the end of F1’. When Michael Schumacher retired it was the same thing. We could have had this same conversation 10 or 20 years ago.”
And we may be doing the same thing in another 10 years…