In Conversation - Bernie Ecclestone and Sebastian Vettel 02 Sep 2009
In his long career in motorsport, Formula One Management CEO Bernie Ecclestone has met legions of drivers. Obviously, however, as F1 racings youngest-ever race winner, Red Bulls Sebastian Vettel is more than just another driver. The two men may be separated in years by over half a century, but as a joint interview at the Belgian Grand Prix revealed, when great minds think alike and when you have plenty in common, any age gap becomes irrelevant
Q: Mr Ecclestone, when was the first time you took notice of a youngster called Sebastian Vettel?
Bernie Ecclestone: Me? I have never heard of him before! To be honest it was in Turkey in 2006. Who is that Vettel? I thought to myself, and why is there again a German at the top of the time sheet?
Q: Can you remember when you gave him your hand for the first time?
BE: I never gave him anything - not even my hand. (laughing)
Sebastian Vettel: The first time I saw Bernie was in Imola in 2006 when I was there as a guest. The real introduction was then in Turkey.
Q: How was that for you?
SV: Gee, there he was, Mr Formula One, the big boss, the legend. Formula One is Bernie and Bernie is Formula One.
BE: At the beginning I didnt know what Sebastian is made off. I generally take notice of them when they start winning. He reminded me of Kimi (Raikkonen). He also appeared out of nowhere and had only a provisional super license. Kimi, Lewis (Hamilton) and Sebastian meant a threat for others because of their age.
Q: Bernie, do you think Sebastian made the right choice in signing with Red Bull Racing for another two years?
BE: Yes, absolutely. The team is very professional, Sebastian is happy there and the team supports him in anything hes doing.
Q: Does he really not need a manager?
BE: No, what for? There is no reason to share your money with somebody else. And one day if he gets married that will happen automatically. Fact is, we have a great relationship and when Sebastian has any questions I am always there to help.
Q: Do you see a future world champion in Sebastian?
BE: Yes. I just wonder what takes him so long. Had they introduced my medal system his chances this year would be even bigger.
SV: Ah, there are still points I have to make good
Q: Bernie, if you could be 22 again, what would you do first?
BE: I would try to find an 18-year-old girlfriend! (laughs)
SV: Why 18?
BE: Why not? It should be allowed at my age to dream sometimes. My advice for you: do everything that means fun for you - especially as lady luck is a bit blind towards you
SV: I dont believe in luck or bad luck. You have to be at the right place at the right time
BE: But sometimes the chips fall your way, sometimes they dont. Think of Felipe Massa last year: with a little bit of luck he would have been world champion and not Lewis.
SV: Yeah, thats right.
Q: Do you think that those young drivers earn too much money these days?
BE: No, they take what they get offered.
SV: I dont race for money. Im only 22 and still living my dream of driving these cars. Thats what motivates me - not money. But as Bernie said, if they offer me money for doing just that I would be stupid not to take it.
Q: Bernie, were you a millionaire at the age of 22?
BE: I dont remember. Its a bloody long time ago. I only remember things that happened yesterday.
Q: What got you both into motorsport in the first place? You both committed at an early age
BE: I started motorcycling when I was 15.
SV: I started with karting, but the goal was always to be in Formula One one day, as there you have the best cars and drivers. But Formula One in those days seemed light years away. Even when I was racing in Formula BMW, F1 seemed to be unreachable. Michael Schumacher and all the other guys were heroes for me and it was hard to imagine being one of them one day. And I find it hard to believe that Bernie knew at the age of 15 that motorsport would be his life.
BE: So tell me why you havent become a policeman or firefighter?
SV: My way into a cockpit was not as straight as many may think. I started with soccer but wasnt good enough. The next thing was tennis but that also didnt work. Finally in karting I found my true purpose in life.
BE: The crucial thing of all success is whether you are born competitive or not.
SV: When did you decide that your place is on the other side of the pit wall?
BE: After an accident. After staring at the ceiling for a couple of months I decided that its better to look after the business.
Q: Bernie, when you were racing would you have wished to race a car with the safety standards of today?
BE: Yes, of course. If I have to have an accident then please let it be with a Formula One car - today they are safer than a tank.
Q: Sebastian, could you imagine doing Bernies job?
BE: He could do it!
SV: I think this job is much more demanding than what is visible on the outside. I always said Bernie is a legend for me. I dont say that because I kiss up to him. When you look at what Bernie made of Formula One, thats phenomenal! Today its not only one of the leading sports in the world, its also leading in terms of business.
BE: A lot of people contributed to that success. In the past things were completely different - the people, the atmosphere. We all had the same engine and gearbox, and if a part bid farewell you simply walked over to the next pit and borrowed the piece that failed. Then everybody had the philosophy to help each other - just a bit like in a boys scout camp. You cannot say that this is the case today. Today the pressure to succeed is too big.
Q: Sebastian, would you prefer such an ambience?
SV: I cannot judge the past. I havent been there. But in many sports people dream of the good old days, but I am living in the here and now. In the past it was much more dangerous - but believe me you still need big balls today.
Q: Bernie, do you miss those good old days?
BE: No, as the world around is permanently changing Formula One cannot stand still. In those days weve lost many drivers by accidents. And after every accident weve tried to make F1 safer. When we started we didnt have a medical centre at the track - nothing.
Q: What was your most dramatic moment?
BE: When Jochen Rindt was killed in Monza in 1970. He didnt have to die. When I arrived at the scene of the accident I saw him lying on the back seat of a Volkswagen and somebody was hammering on his chest. Then he was taken to the wrong hospital. When he arrived at the right one he was already dead. That is still something that haunts me. Jochen was the first driver very close to me. I am happy that something like that will never happen to Sebastian and his colleagues.
Q: Sebastian, is friendship among drivers still possible today - given the enormous pressure?
SV: An interesting question. As Bernie has put it, there is so much business involved and that makes you very careful in what you say. Thats why people think that todays drivers are chemically purified.
BE: Just like you! (laughs)
SV: but one thing didnt change: then and now all drivers have the same impulse. They want to drive the fastest cars on this globe on the limit. In the past those guys had the same grudge as we have today after a bad race. We are 20 different characters and there are people you like and others you like less. Its a bit like in school. Many refer to the paddock as a sort of prison. I like to be here, I have my friends here, my engineers and many times I stay here until late in the evening - have fun and make jokes.
Q: Why is it that you two get along so well, despite 55 years difference in age?
BE: Formula One has got a bit sterile. You hardly find a character in the paddock. In the old days the guys would say what they mean and if that upset anybody they didnt care. Thank god Sebastian is not deformed in that matter.
SV: Fact is that you become very careful about what you say - because you might find it in big letters in the papers. If you walk to the supermarket people stare at you and sometimes they hang around your house. All that leads to the situation that you think very carefully before you say something. You are not that open any more, but thats a natural reflex of self protection.
BE: And those poor guys get pestered day in, day out by the same stupid questions. That can drive you crazy, so its sometimes better to say nothing. Footballers and tennis players face the same problems.
SV: When you hear stories from the old days, how drivers took out a pack of cigarettes from their overalls the moment they returned to the pits - or had a drink - but today we have much more g-force and that makes races much more demanding. So no drinks or cigarettes today!
BE: And there was a significant difference then: we started the race when everybody was ready. Hard to imagine today to postpone the race for half an hour because Sebastian has not shown up in the paddock! You have to be much fitter today, so you probably cannot live as it pleases you. Character building takes time - time that all those young drivers dont have. So it is only natural that in three years time Sebastian will be a different person than today. And if he is world champion, that again will change him. I hope that even as a champion he will fulfill his obligations to the public.
SV: In one thing I hope Bernie is right - that I will be world champion one day
BE: I didnt say one day - I believe, latest, in three years.
Q: Sebastian, would you ask Bernie for advice?
SV: If it doesnt have anything to do with the set-up of the car, yes. And Ive never asked him for money! (laughs) He was always very frank with me and gave me advice. There is nobody who knows Formula One as well as he does.
BE: That is pretty much praise for someone who sometimes messed up things. Thats why Ill say good bye now.