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In conversation - Bernie Ecclestone & Ron Dennis 07 Jul 2010

Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with McLaren Executive Chairman Ron Dennis Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with McLaren Executive Chairman Ron Dennis Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone Ron Dennis, McLaren Executive Chairman Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with McLaren Executive Chairman Ron Dennis

One is the modernising maestro who swapped managing a team for managing Formula One racing. The other led McLaren to 162 victories, eight constructors’ championships and 12 driver titles. Both have been paddock fixtures for decades and F1 wouldn’t be what it is today were it not for them. From allies to combatants and from a healthy rivalry to a firm friendship, Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone and Executive Chairman of the McLaren Group and McLaren Automotive Ron Dennis have many stories to tell. They share a few in this candid interview…

Q: Bernie, Ron, you are both Formula One legends and have known each other for a long time. Can you remember the day - in the dim and distant past - when you met for the first time?
Ron Dennis:
I was working for Cooper in Formula Two at the end of the 1960s. I saw Bernie playing a board game with our driver Jochen Rindt, in the heat of a race weekend!
Bernie Ecclestone: Jeepers! Nothing has changed since then… I still play today.

Q: Ron, did you ever think of Bernie as an idol, a hero of your youth?
No. How could he be? He only had one thing on his mind, which was to make money. My heroes were drivers. In a way they were gladiators for me, and unfortunately many lost their lives in those days. To name one, it would be Jim Clark. He was a real hero for me. I saw him at an event at Goodwood. He raced in three categories in one day - and was always on the limit. He was special - his aura, his talent, his way of driving.
BE: Very true.

Q: Ron, did you never want to race yourself?
Never. I realized very quickly that it was a dangerous habit.

Q: Let’s go back to Jochen Rindt. In September it will be the 40th anniversary of his fatal Monza crash. What do you remember about him?
One time I will never forget was at the German Grand Prix - I’m guessing in 1967 - at the Nurburgring. We had set up the car on the grid and time was passing quickly. There were only a few minutes to the start - and who was missing? Our driver Jochen. I was sent to get him. I remember that while Jochen had an Austrian passport, he was a German native. I discovered him at the back of the garage, a cigarette in the right corner of his mouth and he showed no intention of moving to the grid. With incredible coolness he said, ‘They may do many things, but one thing they will not do is start the German Grand Prix without me!’ A bit arrogant, but impressive in a way too.
BE: Yes, those were turbulent days. Today we have everything timed to the split second. It’s a completely different procedure. In those days the race started when everybody was ready. In Mexico we once started two hours late…
RD: I remember that. The drivers didn’t want to start because the fans were sitting and standing too close to the track. I mean they were in the corners, in front of the barriers. But when they started to throw bottles we all felt that it was probably better to start… So indeed the organisation today differs a lot - thanks to Bernie!
BE: Come off it - my organisation starts after the race, when I collect the money bag!

Q: Has anyone ever been reluctant to pay?
We had little problems in Spain for a while. Bang went the money once. In the end we got it back.

Q: Did you really carry the money away in a bag? We are talking here about millions, right?
Of course! For example after the US Grand Prix in Watkins Glen, Bernie went to the local bank on Monday morning to pocket the dough. In Mexico he crossed the whole city with the money bag and deposited it in the hotel safe. It’s unbelievable nowadays. Today everything is totally different. It’s simply a different time. Not better, not worse - just different.
BE: Remember Monaco? The teams had their garage in a musty car park…
RD: Oh yes, and the mechanics had to drive the cars down the hill to the pits…
BE: The teams that didn’t exist in those days have no idea how it was back then. They have no clue how good they have it now.

Q: Ron, how difficult was it two years ago to leave Formula One racing?
Not difficult at all. I drove to the F1 presentation in the factory that morning and on the way I came to the conclusion that now would be the perfect time to quit. It was very spontaneous and I surprised the whole team. I wanted to be able to concentrate fully on building our sports cars. That gives me overwhelming satisfaction, and I wanted to devote more time to my private life. This was all possible because I knew that Martin Whitmarsh, with whom I’ve been working together for 21 years, would be the perfect successor for me in the Formula One team. It became clear that he would give Bernie the same hard time as I’ve done.

Q: What would you both say were your biggest Formula One successes?
Let’s answer that question from the other’s perspective. Bernie Ecclestone had two business lives. As a team principal there was only one thing on his mind - to win. He was a real racer then. When he quit his team career to concentrate on the business of Formula One, he still wanted nothing more than to win - he wanted to win at making the most money. More than anybody else! It was his substitute for the on-track action. I still find it remarkable that he sold parts of his business without ever giving up control. When you think of how difficult it is to sell your car but still keep the ignition key. It was brilliant.

Q: But Ron, didn’t you do something similar when you sold part of McLaren to Mercedes? You also never gave up control and always had the last word…
Not quite the same. Mercedes invested in the company and had only one goal - to win. That means if McLaren won, Mercedes won as well.
BE: What always impressed me with Ron was he was tough but fair. You could trust his word. You didn’t need to sign contracts.

Q: And Ron discovered Lewis Hamilton, whom you described a while ago as a real ‘gift’ for Formula One racing…
Discovered Lewis Hamilton? I think he was just lucky.
RD: It was a far cry from being luck. It was part of our system. For a long time we have supported young talents at McLaren and Lewis was one of them. At the moment we support a young kart driver with unbelievable talent. He is unknown at the moment, but he will make his way up just as Lewis did. Bernie and I have one thing in common - we always want the best for our companies - and have forsaken a part of our private life for it.

Q: Ron, some of the biggest names in Formula One history have driven for you, including Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Mika Hakkinen, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. How did you handle them, especially as many were team mates at some point?
That depended on the circumstances. They all had very different characters and that is one factor that makes it very difficult to make any judgements. When I started as a team owner I was younger than my driver, Graham Hill, so he showed me the ropes. With Lauda, Senna and Prost I had a sort of comradely relationship - it was again age related. With Hamilton and Alonso it was more of a fatherly tie. Prost and Senna were completely different in their backgrounds and character. They eyed each other suspiciously and didn’t trust each other. I let their track rivalry happen.

Q: What was the problem between Hamilton and Alonso?
It was very simple - Alonso didn’t expect Hamilton to be that competitive in his first year. He told me at the beginning that it was my decision to sign a rookie like Hamilton, but that it could cost me the constructors’ championship. Fernando was calculating everything, but not that Lewis would challenge him. That affected him massively.

Q: What do you make of the driver rivalry at Red Bull that culminated in their crash in Istanbul?
Only that every promoter, including Red Bull, should be happy about it. For weeks they have been in the media. Obviously nothing sells better than ‘bad news’. Am I right Bernie?
BE: Absolutely!