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On the level - exclusive Q&A with Bernie Ecclestone

10 Jul 2016

Ahead of this weekend’s 2016 Formula 1 British Grand Prix, a candid interview with Bernie Ecclestone sees the Formula One group CEO cover a wide range of topics, including his potential successor, the fate of traditional F1 circuits, the future of Ferrari, and his tip for this year’s drivers’ title…

Q: Bernie, are we seeing a trend right now away from traditional race tracks and towards street circuits - or city circuits? Is tradition no longer important? Do the spectacular images from Monaco, Baku or Singapore speak for themselves?

Bernie Ecclestone: It is obviously much better in the city. But it is a bit difficult for promoters, as it is almost impossible to fit more than 40,000 people in a city circuit. That makes it rather tough to have more street circuits.

Q: But aren’t locations in relatively remote areas also difficult to sell to fans these days, especially the younger fans? The young generation probably want to go to the race in the afternoon but then to a club in evening? The may not want to get their tent out and drive to the countryside - they probably don’t even have a tent…

BE: That’s very likely true. But it is very expensive to put on a city race - so it is up to a promoter to make a calculation of the pros and cons.

Q: You have been involved in this sport for so long and have been shaping it for almost 40 years. Do you feel sad to see some of the classic tracks fading away?

BE: I feel sorry for the fans who will never have the chance to see these kind of circuits that we used to have.

Q: Your fellow F1 board member and WPP boss Martin Sorrell said that you are unique and thus irreplaceable - also partly because of your occasional ‘verbal slips’, shall we call them. Is there any ‘strategic planning’ behind your more infamous quotes?

BE: Ha, then I’ve probably made a mistake. There’s neither plan nor strategy behind them. (laughs) To be honest, I don’t plan many things. But the fact is that sooner or later I have to be replaced.

Q: Do you have a plan for that?

BE: No, right now I am in reasonably good shape.

Q: At the recent Heineken press conference in Montreal, you told any journalists expecting your retirement announcement that they would be disappointed - that your retirement would coincide with your funeral. Is this still the case?

BE: Absolutely!

Q: But is there a masterplan for F1’s future brewing in your head? You are usually two or three steps ahead of everyone else, so there must be something…

BE: If I find someone who would do the things I would like to do and help me with it I would be delighted. I haven’t found anybody.

Q: That suggests you’ve been looking around…

BE: Yes.

Q: How many times have you looked only to learn that it is not the right person?

BE: Quite a lot.

Q: And why didn’t these people have the ‘right stuff’?

BE: Because they didn’t want a job - they wanted to travel, look at the bank account and be in the press. I have said it so many times before: we need another used-car dealer. And the used-car dealers that I have found make a lot more money than I do, so why should they change their business? Look at just a couple of weeks ago: nobody would have really believed that England would dump out of the EU! I am pleased they did. It is the right thing for England.

Q: So do you have any idea of how F1 racing should, or could, operate in ten years’ time?

BE: I have no idea. If you had asked me the same question ten years ago, I would have had no idea that we would be in the state we are in right now. The world is changing so fast - so if people tell me about what is happening in the next couple of years I would simply say: that’s a lie.

Q: Coming back to the racing, we see rule changes - including technical rule changes - almost every year. Do you have a technical advisor who tells you about their feasibility?

BE: No. But my thought is always: make it easy. The Mercedes engine is a fantastic engine - but only if all teams have it. Then you would see how good the teams are on the car side. But as this is only wishful thinking, we have to get back more to the basics again.

Q: Mercedes are indeed dominating. But that is not necessarily equating to popularity. Ferrari still seems to be the name that gives fans goose bumps. Will that ever change?

BE: Ferrari are popular when they are losing. Indeed it doesn’t make any difference. This is the power of brands.

Q: But everybody loves a winner. Why are Mercedes not loved for winning?

BE: Because right now people think: they will win anyway. That’s it. There are no emotions about something that is so obvious. The two Mercedes guys crashing gives them more popularity than winning. Just look at what is going on since Austria - more positive publicity in my opinion. It’s shown that they let their guys race. In terms of brand management, it’s D-Day.

Q: There is a fierce fight between Lewis (Hamilton) and Nico (Rosberg) for the F1 title this year. Do you already see a 2016 champion?

BE: Apart from Lewis? The only person is possibly the one who is leading the championship right now. But I believe Lewis will win again.

Q: Why?

BE: He already had his share of bad luck this season. Take me: I don’t like too much luck, as then there is mostly a lot bad luck to follow! (laughs)

Q: So Lewis again. Would you bet money on it?

BE: Yes. I am not saying that this would be the best thing for Formula One. I am not saying that there is anything bad about Nico at all. It’s just the general circumstances.

Q: Will Ferrari and Red Bull be able to seriously challenge them next year?

BE: I hope so. Mercedes should have let an engine go to Red Bull. That is the biggest mistake we’ve made in F1 in the last couple of years. That would have been brilliant for the competition. Mercedes probably still would have won - but it would have looked a lot better when they win the world championship in the last race of the season.

Q: Would that have made people more sympathetic towards Mercedes?

BE: Well, everybody would have said: that’s fair.

Q: How long do you believe Ferrari will need to step up to a title win?

BE: Ferrari has become very Italian again.

Q: That is probably why some have advised Ferrari recently to move their operation to the UK, as it is there that you have the biggest pool of F1 engineering talent. Would you agree?

BE: No. I think it is just the way things are set up. [Ferrari CEO] Mr (Sergio) Marchionne is doing a super job trying to pull it all together. But he has an awful lot of things to do and to be in charge of that operation you need to be him seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It is not a part time job. There is nothing wrong with [team principal] Maurizio (Arrivabene) at all, but maybe his character is a bit different to Sergio - which it is. I’d love to see Sergio there morning to night, all through the week and the weekend. Then he could put it together for sure. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it.

Q: So out of Ferrari and Red Bull, who will make life harder for Mercedes in 2017?

BE: As I am very close and friendly with Red Bull, I hope it is Red Bull. And I hope it is Ferrari, as it would be the best for Formula One.

Q: Coming to another topic: people wonder how you run the business on a practical level these days. The internet and all its choices will change sports in the future. How is Bernie Ecclestone handling that? How many hours a day are you glued to the internet?

BE: I am still a telephone man. I haven’t got time for that kind of waste. Watching what?

Q: So does Bernie Ecclestone have his own email address?

BE: No, I don’t. What for?