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In conversation - Ecclestone & Schumacher 25 Aug 2010

Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with Mercedes GP driver Michael Schumacher Mercedes GP driver Michael Schumacher is interviewed with Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with Mercedes GP driver Michael Schumacher Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with Mercedes GP driver Michael Schumacher

Their names are synonymous with Formula One racing. One abandoned his driving career after two Grands Prix, became a successful team boss and then transformed the sport into a global phenomenon. The other rewrote its record books from behind the wheel, accumulating a set of career statistics that may never be surpassed. They are, of course, Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone and Mercedes GP’s seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher. Their friendship goes back almost 20 years. No surprise then that they always have plenty to talk about…

Q: Bernie and Michael, can you both remember when you first met - and what you thought about the other?
Bernie Ecclestone:
If memory serves me well, that must have been some two decades ago in Monza…
Michael Schumacher: … that’s right.
BE: I helped a bit to move him from Jordan to Benetton.

Q: Why? Was it already so obvious to you at that time that he had that ‘je ne sais quoi’?
BE:
Yes, of course. That was the reason I wanted him in a competitive team. And indeed he not only developed into a magnificent driver, but also into a sort of team manager. In soccer you would call it a player-coach… (laughs)

Q: Before Michael legions of German drivers had tried their luck in Formula One, with varying degrees of success. Why were you so sure that Michael would make it big?
BE:
You could see that immediately if you had a good eye for talent. I think it was already visible at his first race in Spa.
MS: I also believe that talent shows right away…
BE: …anyway, I was sure that there is a winner in the making, even before his first podium in Spa in 1992. That he would win the title seven times is of course something that nobody sane would have ever predicted.

Q: When was it clear for you Michael that you would succeed in Formula One?
MS:
To be honest that was in Monza after my second race - my first race for Benetton - when there was that gut feeling that bigger things could be in the wings. Before that I was lacking self-confidence to think beyond the mere fact of just being there. Of course there was no vision of winning a championship, but I had the impression that I could race on a level with the best and fight with them.

Q: So you must have been grateful that Bernie helped you move from Jordan to Benetton?
MS:
Of course. He was always there if I needed advice and always offered his support. For sure Bernie was an important factor when I changed team from Jordan to Benetton. It was an important change, probably not in the first year, but definitely as a natural next step to being with the right team. Only then was I able to help increase the interest in Formula One in Germany. So I benefitted from it, as well as Formula One.
BE: Absolutely. He and Lewis Hamilton are still the most prominent drivers in Formula One. Even today.

Q: What did Formula One give you Michael?
MS:
Twenty years full of passion and positive excitement.

Q: What have the two of you learned from each other?
BE:
Michael is a proper guy. That is important for me. If you talk to him you know where you stand. And once again, how fast he upgraded himself from pure driver to ‘team manager’ at Benetton…
MS: …that’s not totally correct. That was rather more the case at Ferrari. (smiles)

Q: And now at Mercedes?
MS:
Well, I have worked together with (team principal) Ross (Brawn) and others in the team for so many years that it is natural that my job is not limited to driving only. I’m surely no engineer nor aerodynamicist, but I have enough experience to know the direction it should head in to be successful. With all these computer programs and all the data flowing from it, it is still men who make the decisions.

Q: Bernie, at what point did you know that Michael would make a comeback?
BE:
I learned it from the newspaper.

Q: You didn’t talk before?
BE:
No.
MS: What for?
BE: The most important factor was that Michael had enough self-confidence to do it and a team that believed in him. The people at Mercedes knew what he stands for and what he is able to achieve and they talked to him in a serious way so that he would listen. If they’d tried to sell him nonsense he surely wouldn’t have listened to them.

Q: Were you surprised by the media hype surrounding your comeback?
MS:
You bet. Already in summer 2009 when there was the talk of me returning to Ferrari for a short period I was surprised - positively surprised.
BE: It was super. Very similar to Tiger Wood’s comeback - even though Tiger had stopped playing for very different reasons. We had a tremendous media presence thanks to Michael. Thanks again for that.

Q: Hand on heart Michael, would you ever have guessed it is possible for one driver to win seven titles in his career?
MS:
No, nobody can be that narcissistic. Even in my wildest dreams I could not imagine winning more than one title, if at all, because as a driver you depend heavily on the competitiveness of your car. We are not tennis players or other lone sportsmen where it is only your own talent that makes or breaks it. But I love it the way it is - that you are part of a team where you have to put performance together like a jigsaw puzzle to be successful, and where everybody needs to be motivated by the others.
BE: How true. Formula One is a team sport and that shows in the outfit of every individual team member - they are all the same. So they should all pull together for the benefit of the whole. That’s why I am against the so-called ‘team order’ ban that is all over the place right now - because we are speaking about internal team decisions. The only collusion that cannot be tolerated in my opinion is one between two teams for the disadvantage of a third party. What’s your opinion Michael?
MS: Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel in Turkey had the smell of team orders, or Nico Rosberg staying out longer in Hockenheim. But is that really team orders? No, it is not. Only things that can be controlled should be regulated.
BE: Absolutely correct.

Q: Bernie, when you heard that Michael was coming back you called it a gift for Formula One. That comeback has been a bit bumpier than expected and there are lots of critics. Was it really a gift for Formula One?
BE:
Yes, because Michael is a hundred percent fit and talented, but he is racing because he wants to win - and at the moment this is not possible, so he has to focus on getting the car right.

Q: What about you Michael? Explain why your comeback was not a mistake…
MS:
Because I enjoy what I’m doing and because I believe in being able to reach my goal - to win the title. I have to accept that it will take time. Of course we all in the team believed that we would be more competitive this season. Unfortunately that’s not the case.
BE: If Michael were driving a Red Bull I would put my money on him…

Q: You too, Michael?
MS:
Let’s put it this way, I would have different options in a Red Bull.

Q: What makes you so optimistic that next year will be better?
MS:
Because we know and understand the problems that are haunting us now.
BE: I have to add something else. When people say that Nico Rosberg is faster than Michael I tell them Nico still has to prove himself. Not so Michael. For Nico fourth places are still important - not for Michael. Only winning is what counts for him. Whether he finishes fourth or 14th doesn’t really matter for him…

Q: Is that true, Michael?
MS:
He’s probably right.

Q: Both of you like a poker game. How important is it to put on a good poker face?
BE:
He doesn’t need it - he’s in the car wearing a helmet! (laughs) But let’s be serious, why should he push to the limit for fourth places?
MS: Wait a minute, I cannot leave that statement unresolved. I always drive at the limit. I do that for myself.

Q: What Bernie obviously means is that you appear much more relaxed than in the past…
MS:
Okay, yes. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not giving everything.
BE: I’m only suggesting that the motivation is different if you fight for a win or for eighth or ninth place.

Q: Are you still surprised about the reactions of the media? Do you pinch yourself sometimes, thinking ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’
MS:
Once again, for me it is important how I work with the car and with the team. The media are just a side effect. They don’t influence the picture that I envision.

Q: So you believe that you are faster than Nico Rosberg?
MS:
I see all the details. True, with how the car behaves at the moment I am not driving at his level. At least not in qualifying. In the race it’s very equal. I know precisely how I can change that fact - and I am working on it.

Q: Jenson Button, your predecessor at Brawn-Mercedes, has said feels a bit guilty as last year he moulded the 2010 car to suit his driving style - and that is completely different to yours. His handling preference is more towards understeer - a characteristic you don’t like. You came to the team too late to change the fundamental characteristics of the car…
MS:
…true, every driver has his own driving style and you have to work with the team so that you feel comfortable with the package. I achieved that with Ferrari. But that doesn’t happen overnight. It is no secret that at the moment our car has characteristics that don’t suit me. Now it is up to us to change that. Then the situation will be different.

Q: Bernie, before Michael drivers were not averse to living the high life off track. But then he came and changed it all. He introduced a kind of Teutonic thoroughness that had only one goal - success. Did you view that development with mixed feelings?
BE:
I can only say this - today all drivers want to be like Michael Schumacher…
MS: I am sure that, for example, Sebastian Vettel observed my career steps very carefully. He never told me, but I think I’m right. I am proud of that. But I wasn’t only successful because I was the fittest guy on the grid. I also worked hard with the team. My success was the summation of many factors.
BE: And let’s not forget that Michael also introduced new dimensions for driver salaries. Team principals don’t really appreciate him for that! (laughs) And coming back to Sebastian Vettel, he is as smart as Michael when it comes to his working mode and he is gifted with exceptional talent. On top of that he’s a damned nice guy. Wasn’t he called ‘Baby Schuey’ in Germany?
MS: He doesn’t like these comparisons. And he’s right. He has outgrown it.

Q: Last question. Is Fernando Alonso your spiritual successor at Ferrari? Some feel he is the Ferrari team principal in disguise…
MS:
I cannot answer that. I have no contact with Alonso.
BE: Fernando has a different character. He will not achieve at Ferrari what Michael did.