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The Best of 2016 - Bernie Ecclestone & Toto Wolff in conversation

20 Dec 2016

Our end-of-year series picks out some of our favourite features, interviews and videos from the past 12 months. The latest instalment stars Formula One group CEO, Bernie Ecclestone, and Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, Toto Wolff: two of the most powerful men in F1 racing. Back in September (before Liberty Media’s F1 takeover was announced), we put them on a sofa in Monza for an informal chat...

Q: Bernie, Mercedes will win both titles again this season - whether you like it or not…

Bernie Ecclestone: ...Yes, that’s for sure. The only thing that would stop that from happening would be maybe if both Mercedes drivers suddenly stop racing, for whatever reasons. But I doubt then that any one of the other teams would get enough points to push them aside.

Toto Wolff: Hold on! Do you have any idea in mind as to why our drivers should stop?

BE: No idea, but that is the only scenario thinkable in which any other team could take it away from you.

Q: Many hoped 2016 would be a fight between Mercedes and Ferrari - but it is not. Why are Ferrari not getting it right?

BE: Mercedes helped them, but obviously not enough!

TW: Bernie always says that we’ve helped them - but not enough! (Laughs) Of course we didn’t. In the end your success is all about people, isn’t it Bernie? With the right people you get it right.

BE: You really think so? Everything in this business is about rumours. Toto says that Mercedes didn’t help Ferrari, so they didn’t give any help - obviously. Because he is saying the truth. What I am saying is what I have heard. And it’s good that they helped them. I’d say they should have helped them a little more!

Q: Bernie, there is still your criticism that Mercedes didn’t give Red Bull Racing an engine for this season. Did you and Toto sit down and talk about it?

TW: Many times.

BE: It never stopped.

Q: …and what was the outcome?

TW: Bernie always wanted to have competition between the teams. That was his main objective. Our main objective was to have the best possible team. But in the end we understood each other: if we find the right agreement between Red Bull and Mercedes - and that was not only limited to F1 - then there could probably be a chance. So we tried to pull something together - but alas, it never happened.

BE: If I were to run Mercedes I would not have given them an engine. I simply wouldn’t have given the strongest competition something that would enable them to beat me. That is team perspective. In my position I saw it differently.

Q: If the two of you could swap jobs for a month, what would you change?

BE: Nothing. Mercedes is very successful, so why should you change anything?

TW: Look what Bernie has built up over the last 40 years: F1 is the number-one motorsport in the world. There are many people out there who always know better - you should do this, you should change that. Talk is cheap. But the truth is that once you are in this seat you need to take the real decisions and there is nobody better than Bernie.

Q: Then is there a formula to connect more to fans again?

BE: What I would do is against the manufacturers. I am thinking of something like a ‘Super GP2’ where the drivers matter more - racing each other hard - and not the engineers. Would it work? I have no idea. Probably it would be a disaster.

Q: Toto, would that be an option for Mercedes - to take a bit of a backseat?

TW: Well, of course, F1 always should be about the drivers. They are the heroes. Nobody is really coming to a race to see a team perform. But for Mercedes, F1 is also a world championship of engineering. The technology that has come into F1 was always at the cutting edge of car development and eventually finds its way into road cars. The question, of course, is how complex has the technology got to be? Right now we have probably gone too complicated - so we are working to give the driver his ‘hero’ role back. Lewis (Hamilton) and Max (Verstappen) are a step in that direction, if you see how they attract fans.

Q: Isn’t that superficial, to pretend that F1 car development can be transferred to road cars? Isn’t that a bit like the old notion that space research helps the daily life of the common people? The Teflon pan was the only ever benefit…

BE: I always said that if manufacturers want to connect racing technology to road car development then they should go to saloon car racing, because that is what they sell. They are not selling single-seater, open-wheel cars. But in the meantime they have spent a huge amount of money to be competitive in F1, so you cannot fall back to saloon cars. There is no coverage at all to compensate for the money that they’ve already spent.

Q: Coming back to the heroes of the sport, the drivers. With Max Verstappen, we have here an 18-year-old youngster who is stirring up the scene with action and comments. And, ravenous for sensation, the world jumps on it. Is he the logical way back to the old ‘hero days’?

BE: Probably. The teams, us (FOM) and the FIA have - with stupid rules - kept the drivers from racing. We should let them race again.

Q: Max is probably the hottest commodity on the driver market. Mercedes let him slip through their fingers because they had no seat for him…

BE: …who knew that he would be such a find in F1? Nobody. You see drivers making it big in lower series - then they come here, and nothing!

Q: Toto, did you know that he was such an exceptional talent?

TW: He was an exceptional kid in karts. Then he won in the Formula Three championship against all odds with an inferior car. Esteban Ocon was his opponent then - that says a lot. But yes, the real test is F1 - and now we see the result. But we simply had no availability for him, so Red Bull was his best option.

Q: Bernie, Sebastian Vettel was always close to you, ever since he started - almost like an adopted son. Would you also ‘adopt’ Max Verstappen - and everyone lives happily ever after?

BE: No adoption - unless it’s an 18-year-old young lady! (Laughs) But to be honest, since Sebastian started we have been tampering with the rules, which made it very difficult for drivers to really race. Let’s look at Max: he is a ballsy young driver…

Q: …and you like that?

BE: Of course. We need a half a dozen of that sort!

Q: Then why don’t we?

BE: I have no idea.

TW: Maybe there is now a generation coming up that is different. There was a time when money paved your way into F1, but that seems to be different now, as not only Red Bull have a junior program. We have also picked it up and now I see five or six youngsters coming up who are ballsy - and my guess is that in the near future we will have a range of young drivers that will be exceptional.

Q: Toto, have you never regretted not taking Max Verstappen and getting rid of one of your guys?

TW: No. We are not disappointed with anything in the past. I was very conscious about him. I wanted to find him a place, but with Lewis and Nico we have the perfect driver pairing - so far we have won two constructors championships and it is looking good again - so there was the logical thing, to stay with those two.

Q: Bernie and Toto, you sit so nicely together on a sofa - but there have been different times. Are there still topics the two of you would never agree on? And if so, what are they?

BE: For me still the topic of Mercedes not supplying Red Bull with an engine - we never did, and probably never will agree on that. Yes, I understand the reasons - I would have reacted just like them in their shoes. Toto was in a very difficult position back then, because maybe - in his heart - he would not have minded, but he had to look at what’s the best for his team - and him personally.

TW: In all the discussions we had about this topic, we both always understood why the other had that standpoint. If I had been in Bernie’s shoes I would have wanted the most sensational fight for the titles. I always accepted that, but I could not follow that path. Running a team means you very much have to look out for yourself, for your team. Running Formula One you naturally want to have the most competitive and entertaining platform - which can translate into very different objectives.

Q: How often do you telephone each other?

BE: More or less every day.

TW: Yes, more or less every day - and sometimes many times a day.

Q: Bernie, if you want to speak with somebody from Mercedes, who do you call - Toto or Niki Lauda?

BE: Toto.

Q: Toto, 2017 could be a completely different ball game. Who do you expect to be your biggest challenger?

BE: Toto is hoping that there is not a competitor. I am hoping it is Ferrari! (Laughs)

Q: Toto, there are rumours that one of your top guys - technical chief Paddy Lowe - may eventually move to Ferrari. Do Ferrari need a Mercedes guy in order to be successful?

TW: Paddy Lowe? That is news to me.

Q: But would they need a Mercedes guy? They have been trying for months to get hold of more good people. How do you protect your team from fluctuation?

TW: You never can - if somebody wants to move, they will. If the right offer is on the table you cannot hold them back. That is why I try to create the right environment so that they never even start to think about it. We always try to do long-term contracts…

Q: …even with Paddy? Isn’t his contract running out at the end of the season?

TW: I do not want to comment on individual contracts.

Q: Bernie, even when Lewis was behind in the standings, you said you would bet your money on him winning the title again - and the current situation suggests you could be proved right…

BE: Of course he will win. No doubt about that.

TW: If you switch off the microphone I can give you my personal opinion… But I try to be as neutral as possible with the two of them. I would be happy with either of them winning.

Q: Bernie, we see that Sebastian is struggling a bit at Ferrari. Do you think he really is a ‘Ferrari man’ at heart?

BE: I think he was very, very happy when he was with Red Bull. Ferrari is a totally different environment. People tend to wish to finish their career at Ferrari - I hope that is not what Seb has got in his mind. Ferrari means a lot more pressure: you have to accept that.

Q: Bernie, what are the typical traits of a Ferrari driver - and what are those necessary to be a Mercedes driver?

BE: It is much easier to drive for Mercedes than to drive for Ferrari, for sure. A completely different set-up. It’s the brand. In all fairness the best brand in F1 is Ferrari. Even now if you were to ask the man on the street - not fans - who won the last championship, most would answer Ferrari - even if they won their last title over nine years ago!

Q: Your notion that Mercedes are most popular when their cars crash: it’s a popular one…

BE: I would have been happy if that had happened today!

TW: Ha, I completely understand where Bernie’s notion is coming from - but I would be very upset with such a scenario!

BE: So you see, Toto never agrees! (Laughs) But let’s put it differently: I don’t want to see them crash - but I want to see Ferrari win.

Q: Toto, Bernie: can you learn from each other?

TW: There are many life lessons I can learn from Bernie.

Q: Toto, your F1 career has been skyrocketing so far. You must have had an incredible business plan…

TW: …No, not at all. It all happened in a funny way. One door opened, and then another one - pretty much unplanned. The first door Bernie opened when I joined Williams as a financial investor and then Bernie had the idea that I should get more involved. And the next step was Mercedes…

Q: Bernie, could you see Toto as one of the guys who could run F1 in the future?

BE: Yes, sure.

Q: Does he have the skills?

BE: He is getting very close to being a used-car dealer. This is the kind of qualities you need! (Laughs)

Q: Have you given him advice on opening a used-car dealership?

BE: He is sort of half doing it now!

TW: We are thinking about a joint venture. But only premium cars! (Laughs)

Q: Bernie, the rumours about CVC having sold their F1 shares to Liberty Media have caused quite a stir. They are a media conglomerate. What would that mean for F1?

BE: I have no idea.

Q: Could they be an opener for the American market, where F1 still lacks presence?

BE: To open the American market you need to have 10 races in America, sell tickets cheap and have a huge number of hamburger stands - but then it would not be F1 any longer. But if all that scenario of the takeover is happening, then they can do what they want!

Q: What about your position?

BE: I haven’t got a clue. No idea what they’ve bought - and what kind of management they are thinking of. Really not. Fact is I haven’t got any shares to sell.