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85 up - exclusive Q&A with Bernie Ecclestone

24 Oct 2015

This week Bernie Ecclestone will celebrate his 85th birthday. To mark the occasion we caught up with the Formula One group CEO for an exclusive chat. Among the topics up for discussion: his secrets for a long and healthy life; the people who have made an impression on him over the years; his regrets and highlights; his art collecting habit; his hair. Oh, and of course, Red Bull, engine regulations, and the future of Formula One racing in general…

Q: Bernie, 85 is an age at which most people have been retired for at least 20 years, yet you still seem to be in your wheeler-dealer prime. How are you?

Bernie Ecclestone: Ha, I am still here!

Q: You do not seem to have aged a lot in the past 20 years. What is your fitness regime?

BE: I will tell you a secret: I don’t have one!

Q: So no special diet…

BE: Nope. But I have to take a bit of this off. (Points at his waist)

Q: Then what’s the plan?

BE: I have to walk more. I used to run around a lot. Now I have become something of a politician: I sit and wait and they come to me. I have to change that again! Have to go back to the old days with walking and causing some trouble… (laughs)

Q: How often do you see a doctor?

BE: I pop in once in a while to have my blood taken to see if everything is fine, I take some tablets to keep my cholesterol level down, and that’s it. If I didn’t take these pills I don’t think it would make a lot of difference. So healthy - up until now!

Q: If you were to imagine your life as a movie, what would you like to add - and what would you cut out?

BE: My answer is pretty simple: if I were reborn again I probably wouldn’t change anything I have done, because at the time whatever it was I thought that it was the right thing to do. So no changes.

Q: Is there anything you are sad that you have never experienced?

BE: No. I am in the fortunate position that if I were missing something I could change that. Then nothing could stop me. I don’t see anything missing. And the minute I don’t enjoy what I am doing I would stop. Period.

Q: When you look back have there been moments that have hurt you?

BE: I don’t think so. ‘Hurt’ is perhaps the wrong word. I get disappointed by people. Maybe they are right and I am wrong, because lots of what people do upsets or disappoints me. But maybe they are right and I shouldn’t feel that they’ve done something that wasn’t right - but still it disappoints me. I get very disappointed, because an awful lot of people can’t keep their word. There are no excuses for that!

Q: When you reflect on your life, have there been moments that you will never forget?

BE: I am not really emotional, so I can’t say that. I don’t have that kind of emotion, where I sit back and think ‘Oh, that was wonderful’. I am not that kind of person - probably because I know that many times circumstances put you in a situation that you would have never thought about.

Q: Let’s try it from another angle: if you could undo one thing in your life, what would that be?

BE: You’re probably thinking about that thing that I had in Germany last year?

Q: Not necessarily…

BE: But in this matter I was wasting a lot of time just to hear the judge say in the end that they never had a case. I made an agreement with the prosecutor - and I have to say he did a very good job to extract that amount of money from me. When I think about it I probably would have asked him to work for me when I was a used car dealer! He was really, really good.

Q: Without doubt securing the commercial rights to Formula One racing was your biggest business coup. The story goes that you offered the other team principals the chance to join you, but they all politely refused. What was going through your mind at that very moment?

BE: I proposed to form a company and that I would run the company and get a percentage. They all should put some money in - but they didn’t want to. They told me that they wanted to race and that I should go on with whatever I like - and that’s what happened. I was surprised - and, here you have it, disappointed.

Q: When that happened you were relative ‘small fry’ compared to the likes of Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman or Teddy Mayer. Didn’t they believe you could succeed?

BE: It was not a case of being ‘small fry’. In many ways Mr Ferrari and Colin supported me. I think they just simply didn’t want to get involved. Yes, it was a risk in the early days to follow my plan. No doubt about that.

Q: But then why did you go for it if it was a risk?

BE: Because I look at things differently. I try to evaluate the upsides and downside of a business, and if the upside is better than the downside then why not give it a go? (laughs)

Q: Who are the people you have been impressed by? Looking at the photos in your office, you have mingled with some of the most powerful characters in the world - take for example Mr Putin…

BE: Probably Mr Ferrari, or Colin Chapman. Those kinds of people. Mr. Putin is wasting his time in Russia. He should run Europe - completely. Because nobody else is!

Q: Looking around your office more, one can also conclude that you are an assiduous art collector. Is there any piece of art you would kill to own?

BE: No, not at all. I buy what I like. It doesn’t matter if the artist is well known or not.

Q: If you had to describe your life in 85 seconds, how would that go?

BE: Don’t need 85 seconds for that. It’s disyllabic: hectic!

Q: That is all?

BE: Then let’s add this: I have been extremely lucky. I have been lucky enough to be healthy enough to be able to do what I do, and lucky that opportunities have opened up for me - and that I had the balls to take the advantages that I saw. I don’t think negative and I don’t think positive - I think realistic.

Q: There are many people out there who believe that your 'Beatles hairdo' is not real…

BE: I don’t care what people believe. I also don’t care what they think about me because the vast majority of those who think negatively about me have never met me.

Q: The indictment against you in Munich had 223 pages. How many pages has your will?

BE: What do you mean?

Q: A will - your last and ultimate instructions. Have you not made one?

BE: No, not yet. I am not in a hurry! (laughs)

Q: We hear that the big Hollywood stars have hundreds of lawyers working for them. How many lawyers are on your personal payroll?

BE: When I had that case in Munich I had two lawyers, and when I had that case in London I had two or three - but only for that case, not on permanent terms. For everything else I have one person in the office.

Q: Famous mobster Meyer Lansky once said that his business is in his head. You said that you met him once, so is that also true for you?

BE: Probably. There are only two reasons you need a lawyer: when you don’t understand a particular thing you can ask advice, or you tell them to write down what you want to sign.

Q: Finally let’s embrace the Formula One present: there is still no obvious light at the end of the tunnel in the Red Bull engine saga. You always had solutions for everything…

BE: …but this is not a matter of me having a solution, but of other people agreeing to a solution. There are many different solutions out there! When I look back on the history of F1 then I must say that this engine we have now - this power unit - has created the biggest problems F1 has ever had. All the problems immediately came out with this power unit. Back in the day we only had two engines: Ferrari and Cosworth - and the English teams were lucky to get it a bit better than Ferrari did most of the times. I can see that we are going back to something similar to back then -that Ferrari and Mercedes control the sport via their engines, that these two manufacturers supply engines to all the teams in the paddock. But that is not F1…

Q: Would you like to see more manufacturers coming in again?

BE: Yes. But I also would prefer an engine that is a bit simpler. What we have now is a superb piece of engineering - but it is extremely expensive, so every manufacturer coming in can’t afford not to get it right. And it is hard to get it right. As I said, I wish it would be simpler, but the people who are now successful won’t let it go - because now they are secure.

Q: So let’s go back to Red Bull. You said in Sochi that both Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso would be on the grid in Melbourne in 2016. But Mr Mateschitz has not confirmed - nor denied - that…

BE: Mr Mateschitz is fortunate enough to be able to pull the plug if he wanted to. He doesn’t have to ask anybody. He is used to winning and doesn’t want to be put in a position where he could be unfairly beaten. Unfairly! When he won the world championships he was competing on the same terms as anybody else. Probably he has not made up his mind yet.

Q: But isn’t time running out for them? They need to design a new car…

BE: My opinion is that they will be in trouble whatever engine they get because of the timing. The reasons why Ferrari or Mercedes don’t want to give Red Bull the same engine as they will race in 2016 is because they are afraid that they might get beaten - which is completely ridiculous. And should it really happen, then they should rush back to the drawing board. This is a sport that has competition it its DNA, not asset protection!