At the recent US Grand Prix we caught up with Formula One group CEO Bernie Ecclestone and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton for an exclusive chat about mind games, body language, double points and more - and to discover who Ecclestone wants to see become world champion in Abu Dhabi…
Q: Bernie and Lewis, you both find yourselves under pressure at the moment. For you Bernie it’s safeguarding the future of Formula One racing, and for you Lewis it’s battling for the title. How do you both cope with that pressure?
Bernie Ecclestone: Situations like this are usually out of your personal control anyway. You just have to do what you can and hope for the best.
Lewis Hamilton: Hey, you can’t compare the two situations really. Running the whole of Formula One is a massive business, whereas I’m just competing for the world championship. He probably has more control over what he does than I do.
BE: Oh no I don’t... (laughs)
LH: Oh yes you do. Around here, what he says goes! He’s the boss. He wanted double points for last race of the season and here you go: he’s got it!
BE: I wanted it for the last three races.
LH: Yep, that would have been better and fairer.
BE: That’s what I wanted. I never thought that it would come to this sort of situation. I thought that Nico (Rosberg) would be disappearing in the standings and maybe Lewis would be trying to catch up. Lewis would get his act together and by Monza he’d look as if he had a chance because despite being a long way behind, by winning the next three or four races he could catch up - and with the last three races on double points it could have worked. At least that was the plan. It didn’t work out that way.
Q: Bernie, how do you read the intentions of your opponents or business partners? You have a reputation for being a master at that...
BE: …I always practise on young ladies... (laughs)
LH: You can never read a woman’s mind!
Q: Lewis, can you tell from Nico’s body language if he has a good day or a bad day?
LH: I never look at Nico like that. I focus on my data, on my computer, on my weekend and on myself. I never look to see what he’s doing. I don’t look at his engineers or try to figure out what they’re thinking or what they’re doing in the garage. If you do that, you miss the things that are important for you, and then you lose your way.
BE: It’s a waste of time as people change all the time. They might agree with something in the morning, but then have changed their mind by the afternoon. Lewis knows what he’s doing.
LH: I’d be lost in his position. (nodding his head towards Ecclestone)
BE: And vice versa... he’s doing the best job he can.
Q: What do you think about mind games?
BE: Not much. It is better to wait for the others to make mistakes rather than putting yourself under pressure or getting caught up in these sorts of games.
Q: Bernie, who would you prefer to see as world champion, Lewis or Nico?
LH: That’s not a good question - it’s not fair to put him in that situation in front of me. It might be better if he doesn’t answer.
BE: Why not? It really isn’t an easy question, but I am prepared to give an answer. At the beginning of the year, I thought Nico would be champion.
Q: Why’s that?
BE: Because I thought that would probably suit the team better. And in my position I thought it would be better for Formula One to have a world champion who can speak several languages. I thought that if there was going to be any help, which I am certain that there hasn’t been, then maybe there would be a bit more support forthcoming from a German team for a German driver. So yes, I was sure that Nico would do it. Privately I thought that Lewis would be a good champion. He is more widely known around the world than Nico. Consequently, he would be the better champion for the sport. I’m sure that, for example, 80 percent of the people in America know Lewis, and it’s probably the same for the rest of the world. Most people haven’t heard of Nico. Therefore, Lewis would be the better champion as far as this sport is concerned.
Q: Bernie, Mercedes have two drivers with very different personalities. You must have been in a similar situation when Niki (Lauda) and Nelson (Piquet) were driving for you. You had two guys able to win races - but each in his own particular way. How did you handle that?
BE: Back then it was easy. They understood. I remember a race in Austria. We had two sets of qualifying tyres - and a spare one. Now Niki comes in and wants the spare set. I said to him, ‘Not today, you’re not the faster one.’ And he accepted that. No big drama - and no chewing it through in the media. Because if you tell the truth to people, what can they say? That was racing…
LH: …and a real driver is accepting of the hard facts. It’s sure not nice and you think to yourself, ‘Wait for next time - then I’ll show I’m better than you.’ Because what you don’t accept is that they are better than you - but you accept the decision.
Q: Lewis, have you ever wanted to ask Mr Ecclestone a question? If so, what would it be?
LH: That would be too private for this interview. But we could talk about something I feel quite strongly about.
Q: Go on…
LH: The trophies lately are terrible. They used to be excellent, but in recent years they’ve become cheap and fragile. Can’t we do something about that?
BE: Usually, the organisers were responsible for the trophies. But nowadays, they approach the sponsors and leave it to them. I like some of the trophies, though.
LH: Really? The design isn’t the problem, but the material. Previously, when I used to look at all the trophies in the cabinet at McLaren, the cups were nice and solid. When I held up my winner’s trophy at Silverstone this year, it broke. Some of the trophies today are as bad as when I was in karting.
Q: Can’t you do something about that, Bernie?
BE: Yes, we should designate someone to be responsible for the trophies. I’ll see to that.
LH: I really value the trophies - they make me proud. It’s also not nice when drivers get replicas and the originals go to the team…
BE: ...absolutely right. It’s not them who have won it, after all. They belong to the driver. But we’ve hit on a different problem there.
Q: What’s that?
BE: The quality of the team managers today is different from in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. I’m not saying they are bad nowadays, just completely different. In those days the drivers accepted the team boss and showed him respect. I’m not sure the drivers do so today. I think they accept him, but they no longer have the same level of respect.
Q: Formula One racing has become more and more of a business and less and less about the competition. Is there a way back?
LH: That’s difficult. Today we live in a different world. Morals and respect are on the decline. I see that in my own generation.
BE: We should get back to when your word was your bond. I’ve gone round the world hundreds of times on the basis of handshakes. It’s still usually the case that I can rely on people because they would be ashamed of themselves if they didn’t keep their word.
LH: But it’s become difficult to find people whose word you can trust.
BE: We mustn’t give up on trust between people. There is nothing more valuable than having someone look you straight in the eye and say, ‘It’s a deal.’
Q: Bernie, are there too many people nowadays with a say in team affairs, hence decisions are becoming more difficult to make?
BE: That’s the problem we currently have with the indebted teams. All it takes in any organisation is one strong personality to turn off the lights. Previously, the team bosses thought about the sport as a whole. Now everyone is just thinking about himself. That’s why we have all this current nonsense and troubles.
Q: Lewis, what was it like at McLaren compared with the way it is today at Mercedes?
LH: There, we just did what Ron (Dennis) told us. It’s better at Mercedes with three people who have a say: Niki (Lauda) is a total racer who completely understands the drivers, Toto (Wolff) is an outstanding businessman who sees the big picture, and then we have Paddy (Lowe) who simply wants to build the fastest car. From that perspective, we have the best team you could possibly wish for!