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Exclusive interview with Bernie Ecclestone 17 Oct 2010

Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Bernie Ecclestone (GBR) CEO of the Formula One Group.
Great Ormond Street Hospital Grand Prix Party, Natural History Museum, London, 6 July 2010 Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone

The answer came back as quick as a shot. ‘I’m still here!’ That’s the headline Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone wants to see as he readies himself for his 80th birthday at the end of this month. And indeed, he’s still very much here - so much so in fact that he arrived uncharacteristically late for the interview because he’d been embroiled in three simultaneous meetings, ‘trying to solve problems’. Ahead of his ninth decade, the indomitable Briton looks back at his successes - and looks ahead to his successor…

Q: Bernie, there are hundreds of stories about you and still people find it hard to work out who you are. Who is Bernie Ecclestone?
Bernie Ecclestone:
An ex-used car dealer. (laughs)

Q: But there must have a moment when you realized that you were smarter than your surroundings, that you could see opportunities quicker than most…
BE:
You don’t think about these things. You are in business and you do whatever you think is right. I don’t think that an artist would suddenly think, ‘well, from today on, I am an artist’. A painter starts to paint without knowing if he will be famous some day. That grows. It’s as simple as that.

Q: How then did you end up in motor racing, ‘creating’ what we know today as Formula One?
BE:
I used to race motorcycles and cars, and then I bought Brabham. Somehow I’ve always been involved with racing. I started racing and I was running a business. Racing was sort of a hobby.

Q: Your racing career was a short-lived one. Was it disappointing when you realised you weren’t good enough? It seems to be the only thing you have struggled with…
BE:
It was not a case of not being as good as I wanted to be. It was a case of how much effort you put into it. I was running a business, and running that business was more important than racing. So I concentrated on running a business and not on racing. That’s why I stopped.

Q: Did you ever have a role model?
BE:
No. Because you can never say that you want to be like somebody else. Otherwise I would say I would like to be like Robert Redford. But these things don’t happen.

Q: Is there a difference between Formula One racing’s Bernie Ecclestone and Bernie Ecclestone, the human being?
BE:
I hope I am a human being in Formula One. So the answer is no.

Q: Have you followed any guiding principles over the years?
BE:
I have never had any intention to plan anything. Things happen and I try to do the best with what’s available. Probably that’s a natural gift - one that many people have.

Q: But there are not many people around who have achieved what you have…
BE:
I’ve been lucky.

Q: Is it really only luck? Some say you make your own luck…
BE:
What you have to do, when an opportunity is there, is to take it. A lot of people stumble through life saying ‘I could have done this’ and ‘I could have done that’. I took opportunities.

Q: Can you say what these three things mean to you - money, power and success? Let’s start with money…
BE:
It means zero to me.

Q: Power?
BE:
Zero.

Q: Success?
BE:
Zero. I just do what I think I have to do. If you send me to do a job, I would do the best that I could for you. Is that being successful?

Q: Money, power and success - you have all three. Which of the three could you go without?
BE:
I would rather not go without money, but it is not the most important thing. Success? Success you get if you have achieved something. Not having success would mean doing nothing - lying in bed all day long.

Q: Have you been surprised by how successful you have been over the years?
BE:
I have been lucky with many things.

Q: But wherever you go there is a limousine waiting and a police escort - the attributes of a successful man. Are there moments when it dawns on you just how successful you are?
BE:
Ah, the police escort… I think they just want to make sure that I get there.

Q: Luck seems to be an important factor in your life. What does luck mean to you?
BE:
It’s the right time and the right place and having the guts to take up the opportunity.

Q: Can you remember a situation where you really felt you had been touched by luck?
BE:
I cannot remember. It has happened to me so often. Ah, one thing I do remember was during the war and I was out picking potatoes to make some money when a German warplane went down just metres from where I was. The impact picked me up and blew me metres away - but that was it - I didn’t even have minor injuries! That was luck! And this luck had nothing to do with me. I had no ego, I was not successful - I was just bloody lucky. Obviously, a lot of people must feel that they were unlucky on that day… (laughs)

Q: There is a rather unusual item in this room - something one might not automatically associate with you - a fire fighter’s helmet. There must be a story connected to it…
BE:
I was once asked what I would write in my job description and I said I am a fire fighter. That is exactly what I am - a fire fighter! A lot of people think that I start more fires than I put out…

Q: If you hadn’t ended up in motor racing, did you have a ‘Plan-B’?
BE:
I always wanted to run a business. I realized that to be a race driver you need to do it full time - and I was not prepared to do that. I wanted to run a business.

Q: But you could have picked any business…
BE:
I was always too busy to reminisce about what might have been. I like what I am doing - otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I am lucky enough to be able to have that choice. If I don’t want to do it, I don’t have to do it. I don’t do it for money. But if I do something I want to make sure that things are done properly. That’s the same with boiling an egg or doing an important contract. And if I have the feeling I can’t do it properly, then I wouldn’t do it.

Q: You always seem to have known what you can do and what you can’t do…
BE:
Probably others just haven’t been prepared to give up what you have to give up to do a proper job. I have given a lot of things up because of this.

Q: When you look in the mirror, do you sometimes think, ‘Is that really me they write and talk about’?
BE:
These days I try not to (look in the mirror)! (laughs) But no, because I am just doing a job. And what I do, I hope I do well.

Q: There are still many who believe your biggest motivation is money…
BE:
I have never done anything for money. Money is a by-product of what I do. From the early days onwards. I had a very successful business when I was 20 years-old. What motivated me even then was to do good deals - not to make money. Money comes out of good deals, which people don’t understand. I don’t think that you will find anyone who is more than comfortably off doing what he does just to make more money.

Q: Do you have any vision of where Formula One racing could go in the next decade?
BE:
No. I am worried about next year! Anyone who starts telling you today what is going to happen in three years is wrong. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the problems we are just going through.

Q: There is a notion in the paddock that it still takes 12 team principals to make one Bernie Ecclestone. What do you think when you hear something like that?
BE:
We will see! (laughs) They should probably all see that they run their own businesses properly and not worry about others’. What is good for Formula One is good for everybody involved - teams and companies. Too many people only think about what is good for them. It’s the same with the rules - they only think about what can make them win.

Q: Is it all about ego?
BE:
I wouldn’t call it ego but stupidity. They should think about the whole global side of it. All the teams are very competitive and want to win, which I support completely, but they need to want to win on level terms and not try to get a big advantage. If they get an advantage because somebody designs a better car or they have a better driver or strategy, then super. But they should not try to devise things so that they can go in knowing that they have an advantage. Lots of them would like to go in and have a little bit of a bigger engine than the others, which is not really the way to go.

Q: Lately there have been a lot of programmes showing Formula One racing 40 years ago, as it was the 40th anniversary of the death of Jochen Rindt. The drivers in those days all looked and behaved like stars. What has happened to the personalities of the drivers since then?
BE:
I think the teams themselves don’t encourage the drivers to be particularly free. And it’s easier for the guys not to be, although I have to say that there are a lot of nice guys racing at the moment. But it takes a long time to build up characters - they don’t grow overnight.

Q: Do you have any idea about who will come after you?
BE:
I have no idea. They should probably look out for another used car dealer!