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In Conversation - Bernie Ecclestone and Niki Lauda 07 Oct 2009

FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with Niki Lauda, Singapore Grand Prix, 2009 © Oliver Reck FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with Niki Lauda, Singapore Grand Prix, 2009 © Oliver Reck FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with Niki Lauda, Singapore Grand Prix, 2009 © Oliver Reck FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with Niki Lauda, Singapore Grand Prix, 2009 © Oliver Reck FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with Niki Lauda, Singapore Grand Prix, 2009 © Oliver Reck

Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One Management CEO, and Niki Lauda, three-time Formula One world champion, have seen it all. Thirty years ago they worked together as team principal and driver at Brabham. Both agree that pushing the limits was always part of the game. Making a driver hit the wall for the benefit of a team mate, however, wasn’t - and never should be. The two F1 veterans talk about recent events - and inevitably reminisce about the old days…

Q: Niki, if a team principal like Bernie had asked you to do something, where was your limit on obeying?
Niki Lauda:
That always depended. But if he had asked me to hit the wall so that that Piquet (Senior) could win the race I clearly would have told him, sod you!
Bernie Ecclestone: I would have never asked him!

Q: So why did it happen last year?
Because times have changed. People were different then - and the situation. In the old days before going racing you would have left information at the hotel as to who would be entitled to collect your things, in case you didn’t come back - so big was the risk to fatally crash. Formula One was for men, not lads.

Q: And today?
Today they almost start as toddlers in karting and by the time they are 19 they arrive in Formula One - and most of them don’t have a character yet. The last fatal accident was the one of Ayrton Senna. Today’s cars are safe as tanks so these kids know their way around in the car, but outside (of it) they are what they are according to their age - kids.

Q: But if everything has changed that must also go for team principals…
Everything has changed.
BE: Drivers today don’t have any respect when it comes to accidents. They hit the wall, shake it off in two seconds and off it goes again. The inhibition threshold recedes substantially.
NL: Bernie, do you think that last year after the Singapore race anybody would have guessed that Piquet hit the wall deliberately?
BE: I don’t think so. Because even with such an action nobody could be sure to win the race, as this incident happened in the first quarter (of the race) and a thousand things could have happened before the chequered flag. It was a completely insane action and a completely unnecessary risk.

Q: So why did Flavio Briatore and co go for it?
I don’t have the slightest idea.

Q: Is the pressure on all individuals involved in Formula One racing that high nowadays?
No. Some individuals plotted that incident, but that does not mean that people in Formula One in general would pick such a remedy. If some people rob banks it doesn’t mean that all individuals are potential bank robbers.

Q: The ‘life sentencing’ for Flavio, what do you make of that?
It is how it is. You cannot compare FIA verdicts with common measures. They have their yellow statute book - I think it’s about a hundred years old. This book is a sort of code of conduct and (anyone) who violates that code of conduct can be expelled from the club - for as long as they like. This has nothing to do with a civil court.
BE: Everybody who enters that club acknowledges their rules. At the first glance it’s that simple.

Q: Paragraph 151c of the Sporting Code essentially says that whoever damages the image of the sport can be punished rigorously. Doesn’t that nurture arbitrary decisions?
That paragraph was implemented because you have to be prepared for the impossible. The Singapore crash was indeed something that nobody would have believed could ever happen. What bothers me is the phrasing ‘lifelong’. You can sentence somebody to 20, 50 or even 150 years, but ‘lifelong’? I have an issue with that.
NL: Why wasn’t Flavio heard at the hearing?
BE: No idea. If Flavio has new evidence - and he said that he has - then he should come forward right away.

Q: When did you first hear of that crash incident?
Nelson Piquet told me about it somewhere in May. I immediately went to Flavio and asked him if it was in line with the truth. He denied it and said, ‘That’s absurd!’ I believed him.

Q: You must have conflicting feelings in your heart: Flavio has been a close friend of yours over many years. How affected have you been?
You have to separate friendship from what happened.
NL: Let me answer for Bernie: he has a huge heart, but if something goes against his interests - his business - he will never forget. He will slap you for that. I respect that attitude. I have only met one other person with a similar attitude.

Q: Who was that?
Enzo Ferrari. He was similar. On one hand very emotional, the typical huge Italian heart, on the other hand a stone cold b*st*rd. I had to deal with both his sides. In the end I had to leave him. Bernie is quite similar to old Enzo.
BE: Ah, so you think I am a stone cold b*st*rd…
NL: Stop, let me speak my piece: Enzo loved his cars above all. Everybody who insulted his cars he fired. Okay, Bernie is no stone cold b*st*rd, but both are a mixture of warm heartedness and stubbornness.

Q: Will we see Flavio again in the paddock one day?
Who knows? For the moment not, because it is part of the verdict that he is not allowed to attend races. If you see it differently that’s your own private opinion. The verdict at the moment is like that.
NL: And that goes straight back to the yellow code of conduct book of the FIA…
BE: But honestly, at the moment it would not make any sense for Flavio to attend races. Everybody would just think: there’s the guy who didn’t follow the rules. Why should he want to run the gauntlet?

Q: What would you do if he were to ask you for a pass?
I would say no. Until he’s proved that he is innocent.

Q: Do you think he has a chance to prove his innocence?
If he has clear proof that he is, sure.

Q: Doesn’t Formula One racing need that kind of colourful personality?
Absolutely. Before that incident he was good for the image of Formula One. Flavio added a lot of colour to the paddock.
NL: I fully agree. All the fancy ladies that accompanied him - that brought a lot of glamour. But this has nothing to do with the fact that he has destroyed a lot with this Singapore incident.

Q: How were the two of you working together in the years 1978 and 1979?
We cheated together!
BE: Never!
NL: We did. Remember the Swedish Grand Prix in 1978 when we were running the car with the ventilator [the famous Brabham BT46B ‘fan’ car]. I won with that car.
BE: Stop. That was not cheating. It was pushing the technical requirements to the limit. You were able to keep that victory. Later on they banned the ventilator. It was much too good for the time.
NL: True. At that time I was a bit stupid. All practice and qualifying I had to drive with a 200-litre fuel load, while all the others where low on fuel. I was fuming. I only made it to P12 on the grid. In the course of the race I knew why: so nobody would guess how fast the car really was - otherwise they would have banned it before the start.
BE: Thanks Mr Lauda. People from other teams came to our pits for a little spying, so I said to (Brabham team manager) Herbie Blash very audibly, ‘Take the fuel out of the car’. So they all were putting their minds at rest when they saw our meagre qualifying time. They had no idea that we didn’t de-fuel the car.

Q: Niki Lauda always asked for the number-one driver status from you…
BE: That was in Austria. Piquet was young, ambitious and very fast. You came running to me arguing that you are the number one in the team…
NL: That’s true…
BE: …but not today I told you. And that’s why Piquet got the better tyres!
NL: We discussed a lot. Always constructive! In the end always the one who obviously seemed to be wrong gave in. We never needed a contract.
BE: We didn’t have a contract?
NL: No. Everything that Bernie said always happened. Ours was the gentleman’s agreement. Those were the good old times.
BE: Absolutely.

Q: Bernie, what crossed your mind when Niki told you in Canada in 1979 - in the middle of the season - that he wanted to retire?
That’s not quite the truth. He told me that he wanted to retire at the end of the season. I told him: you must be stupid. If you want to retire then do it immediately. Anything else would not make sense.
NL: That was typical Bernie. Prior to that I had been fighting with him over my contract for six months - that was always like war and he really showed me who has the say. I told him if he doesn’t pay me what I ask I will go and drive for another team. So when I tried to speak with other team principals they all gave me the cold shoulder - Bernie had spoken to them before!

Q: Niki, could you imagine anybody else running Formula One racing more profitably than Bernie?
Let me answer that one! Formula One today is such a strong brand that it makes not much difference who is running it. There undoubtedly will be people after me. The only difference that I see is that they will do it rather corporate and less entrepreneurial.

Q: Could Niki be a potential successor?
No, he’s much too soft hearted!