Yes, Ecclestone has a large bronze bust of himself at the table
Even at 89 years old, Ecclestone is as outspoken and scandalous as ever. We sit down to chat
Bernard Charles Ecclestone. Suffolk trawlerman's son. Race driver. Car dealer. Driver Manager. Team owner. Pints The godfather of modern Formula One. Ringmaster of the most political sport in the world. Businessman. Billionaire.
Admired. They were afraid. Disgusted.
On the other side are the racing purists, the Munich prosecutor's office and Labor's funding scandal. On the other side of the law, too, if you want to believe the mythology surrounding the Great Train Robbery - but as you'll hear later from the man himself, there wasn't enough cash in that it was worth his part.
Bernie. A person whose name and number are resident in my mobile phone, but who is in more than 12 months, I have yet to work up the courage to call. Somehow the journey from explaining how I numbered him to asking for an interview feels like an irresistible leap. Worse than asking a girl out on a date. Even worse than asking her father if you can marry her. Fear and trembling. Sticky hands and a sweaty forehead. Get a hold of yourself.
"Hey?" The voice is unique, but the speaker does not want to give up the game.
"Mr Ecclestone?" For 30 years I have followed Formula 1, he has always been Bernie, but what else am I going to call him?
"Who is this?" Polite but aloof.
“Jim holder from the car. I hope you have heard of us; I was wondering if you would be available for an interview.”
“This is a magazine that is older than me, isn't it?” He's 89 years old and sharp as buttons. We are 125. I can almost feel him thinking, 'This is how I'll know if this guy is for real.'
“Older, actually—if you’ve been telling the truth about your age all these years.” Why oh why do I feel the need to joke?
“Yes, yes, no problem. I'll call you back with a date.” Laugh, warmer now. Phew.
That's it. He left. Possibly in Google Car History.
He won't call back, but now I have an excuse to pursue. Ecclestone is always polite, sometimes apologetic, but busy.
And then one day in early March, my phone rings. “What are you doing at 11 o’clock tomorrow?”
At five o'clock I grew up on rock in my office, ready to go toe to toe, but ready to reply. I remember every interview with Ecclestone I have ever seen or read. Anyone got a hold of him?
I ring the bell and walk. I meet his personal assistant who directs me to the room. And here he is: Mr. Ecclestone. As short as short adults maybe, casual blue jeans, a white shirt, a neat beard and looking healthier than anyone at his age is entitled to be. Charming, too.
Automobile: like you? We haven't heard from you for a while.
Bernie Ecclestone: ok, i'm still here. According to the newspaper, most of us are going to die [from the coronavirus], but I think it will be good.
AC: do you worry about death?
And the second question, it's rather left the field, but this, I quickly learn how it goes with Ecclestone. You can ask whatever you want, but don't expect to get a lot of answers. No time to think, no time to consider. Just hang on, be willing to push for what you want and work hard for the answers.
Be: no. I don't worry about anything.
AC: don't you find you get more reflect on life as you age?
Be: reflective? No.
AC: have you ever had one to look back on?
AC: why not?
Be: because he left yesterday.
AC: you just look ahead, even at 89?
Be: I am always looking for opportunities. So when opportunities come, I love to see if its worth taking them or not. I'm not looking for opportunities. People think that I'm planning that it's all nonsense. I never planned anything.
AC: have you never had a plan in your life?
Be: no. When the opportunity presents itself, I look at them. If I keep working, I keep getting opportunities. It's like I've always been.
It takes a certain leap of faith to believe that one of the richest men in the world has twirled and twirled his way on his fortune, but spending time in Ecclestone's company and you might start believing that, in his case, it's possible. His brain is so fast. His attention to detail is simply ridiculous. The quiet way he relishes problems and brushes them off is quite something to behold.
AC: why were you able to do so many more features than others?
Be: I make quick decisions. And if I make decisions that, ultimately, I thought were the wrong decisions, well then I'll fix it right away.
AC: what's the best decision you've ever made?
Be: well, I hope I did a lot more good things than bad things. If you're putting me up against the wall for an answer, I'd say, This was when we made the decision to start all the races at the same time on Sunday so the broadcasters could schedule his rhythm. He was innovative, and it took quite a bit of a relationship. But we did it, and it's turning into a sport.
A seasoned businessman, Ecclestone may be, but he's also a lifelong fan of motorsports. He raced at a high level as a young man before giving it up and earning his fortune in cars. He returned to the sport of the wealthy, as a driver manager and later as a team owner, but it was when he took over his commercial organization, and especially its television rights, that his wealth and influence soared.
AC: has it always been about money for you?
Be: No, definitely not.
AC: what was the motivation then?
Be: desire to do a good job. That's all. Never money.
AC: if you are forced to do well, doesn't that mean you have a fear of failure?
Be: I don't think about failure.
AC: you may still be afraid of him, though?
Be: no, I have no fears.
AC: but billionaires shouldn't have fears. What were you like when making money didn't matter? You must have been worried that it would go wrong?
Be: no. I do what I think is right. Always is. And I don't just do the right thing for myself, but for the people I do business with. I like the internet. Always is. I can't imagine myself stopping looking for offers.
AC: you never fell for a deal?
Be: I can't remember who or why.
AC: have you ever broken your word?
Be: I can't remember if I ever. And it would be made from something. Maybe something minor. Nothing important.
AC: you're pretty straight, but Formula 1 is full of people who love poses. Should it be hard? What about Ferrari constantly threatening to leave the sport?
Be: I never received any notice. I am not a man to notice anything but what I want. If Ferrari wants to leave, then they should have done it. They never did, and as it happens, I have only fond memories of Mr. Ferrari. He always told me what was really going on, even when he was busy saying the opposite.
AC: Which is bigger: F1 or Ferrari?
Will be: I think F1 without Ferrari is not exactly good. And the Ferrari brand is so strong that they can walk away from F1 and still be awesome. Even when they don't win F1, you could ask the man on the street who won the world title and he just said Ferrari.
It's hard not to get sucked into a man who lives shoulder to shoulder with his heroes, and now that we've moved on to Formula 1, it's a great opportunity to ask more.
AC: do you miss F1?
Be: no. I still hang out with the same people. They come to me and ask for opinions.
AC: you say you watch every race. Sports as good as before?
Be: there are all these ideas about increasing overtaking, but racing today isn't much different from how it's always been. What you need is competition. It's when the team dominates that it gets frustrating.
AC: why not change it though? In short races can satisfy the modern concentration of attention, no?
Be: I don't think this is the way to go. F1 has been established for 50 years, why change it? I mean, the world is changing so fast that it's hard to know what people really want to watch or how they want to be entertained.
It seems that the so-called younger generation is not interested in cars in general. I assume that in a few years there will be nothing special here with the car. If this is an electric car for everyone, it will be the same.
AC: does this mean the end of the sport?
Be: no. We need to make sure that F1 remains an entertainment package. I would go back to naturally aspirated engines, which make a bit of noise and look amazing.
AC: not a sport, then look out of touch with the modern world?
Be: well, I don't see how the engines that we have now, which are better than a bit of engineering that has ever been made, are of interest to the public. What will inspire people: how much fuel does the engine use or how much power does it produce?
AC: Surely every producer would have to leave the sport if he accepted such an attitude?
Be: The sport must be able to accept technological progress and still be interesting. Today the state of the art is excellent, but is it good for entertainment? I do not think so.
I watch every race. I look at the sport and criticize it a bit, to be honest. There are not many races, but the teams and drivers are working. I get very upset when I see the driver walking and next to him is a young pr [public relations officer] with a microphone or something, waiting for him to say. If a guy wants to explode and say something, let him. Like they have minders to keep them out of trouble.
AC: is everything also manageable now?
Be: Yes. Well, it's too clinical. There are also rules: Don't touch the white line, no matter what you do. Don't risk not finishing as you will never make these items. You used to have at least six cars, failing to finish every race, with mechanical problems or risks. Now the race is decided how long the pit stop takes.
AC: that's a sad way to describe a sport, isn't it?
AC: what is the way out then?
Be: someone has to break the vaults - and really write new rules. We have to keep the basics of F1 and just get away from all this super-tech stuff.
And then we have to stop telling drivers what they can't do. I want to see athletes around the edge. Not to a crash site, but a proper wheel-to-wheel race. And if it goes wrong? Remember when Nelson [Piquet] got out of the car and hit Eliseo Salazar after they crashed into each other? People loved him. This is human.
AC: have you been in the Formula E race?
Be: I will go yes. Curiosity.
Alternating current: Formula E could be dangerous for F1?
Be: I feel sorry for the guys running F1 now as they have to consider the impact of Formula E. I would bury him. It would save all arguments. This would not have happened if I had been there. But now all this is only talking about electric cars, so it would be a bit of a courageous act, now go against it.
For many people, that answer would be used as evidence of Ecclestone's lack of any sense of fair play. But, like all of his answers here, he wanted to present it as nothing more than pragmatic, as a result of putting his view forward as his only priority. Time to ask him more about sports in general.
AC: who is the best racer at the moment?
Be: you would automatically say Lewis [Hamilton]. But are there other guys who will do a job as well as or better than him on the same team? Maybe yes.
Max Verstappen, one hundred percent. Of course, Sebastian Vettel, although he is gone a bit. All these guys are just as good as the support they get. Lewis received maximum support. There's one thing missing from what's behind him.
AC: what happened to Vettel?
Be: we've seen it before: all of a sudden a guy out of nowhere that no one heard [Charles Leclerc] comes in and performs and everyone falls in love with him in a Ferrari. I'm close to Sebastian, but we don't talk about those things. But I guess he feels a bit like he's been put on the back burner.
AC: If you were his manager, what advice would you give him?
Be: Well, he's not in a comfortable position. His contract ends at the end of this year. If this year he could show his abilities, he should stay with Ferrari. If not, he was very happy at Red Bull because they loved him...
AC: should he have left Red Bull?
Be: reflection, no. But I think most drivers would love to drive a Ferrari. I think financially he thought it was a good thing to do.
AC: do you think Hamilton should have worked for Ferrari?
Be: I don't think he would be very good there. He is used to being more or less responsible. If he left and they remained in love with Leclerc, they would bury him.
AC: what do you think of Hamilton? He's unusual for a Formula 1 driver, isn't he?
Be: Yes. He is different. It's great. He's a first class guy. It's actually bigger than F1. Nothing wrong with running a clothing line or rappers as friends. I don't think people give him an instruction book and start telling him what to do. He's in a position where he can speak up and wake up a few people, and I'm glad he's using it.
He also said that he feels the sport has become too safe, with which I agree. I don't want anyone to get hurt, but some of that knife's excitement is gone from it.
It's time to learn more about watching Ecclestone about the world - albeit through an F1 lens. As you know, the changes are almost ninety years old? Very, as it turns out...
AC: what would you say if I suggested that Tesla was more of a brand than Ferrari?
Be: I think Tesla will one day be forgotten. Ferrari will never be forgotten.
Be: other people will make electric cars. Today they are leaders, but they are not only special.
AC: my kids get more excited about tesla than ferrari though.
Be: What is the Tesla brand? What is Tesla known for?
AC: innovative technologies.
AC: today they do.
Be: What do they really care about? It's a fact, the car is electric, not the brand itself. It won't last forever.
AC: what do you think of Elon Musk?
Will be: I think he is fantastic. He did an incredible job. He is a very brave guy. There were times when people thought that Tesla was going to disappear in the morning. He saved him. He is ready to do what needs to be done.
I'm not a guy who believes in democracy. I believe in dictatorship. He's a dictator, and that's why everything works. So much has been achieved by dictators, not because of democracy.
AC: what happens to people who cross Bernie Ecclestone?
Be: [smiles] You mean what happened to them?
Be: [laughs] I use them flowers... leave them on the grave. No, joke: I never had any problems myself. It upsets me if they offend someone near me.
So maybe Ecclestone does have a heart. But we're now two hours into our hour-long conversation, and until he shows any sign of brooding to us, he feels inappropriate to risk working on. It's time to sum up.
AC: what is your legacy?
Be: I do not have it.
AC: you have no choice; we will write it all for you.
Be: frankly, I don't care. You know when I'm gone, I'll be gone.
AC: how would you short yourself?
Be: I would like to think that I am fair.
AC: but even your friends say you're a cruel bastard...
Will be: no, but... I thought about it the other day. Every deal I made, selling pies at school during the war, to later in life: you either buy or sell. And that means the other person is happy to either buy or sell. What could be more beautiful than this?
AC: any regrets?
Be: Yes. Only one.
Be: does not support Max Mosley when he needed support behind world news history [in 2008]. Too many people said we couldn't have him as FIA president after that. I don't support it publicly enough. I apologized, but she ruined our relationship for a while.
AC: did he forgive you?
Will be: I think Max appreciated I didn't have much choice. But that was a private matter that should not have been made public.
AC: Any chance of returning to F1?
Be: to me? No. There is no reason. I was robbed that everything is fine and there is no reason to return.
Bernard Charles Ecclestone. How many. But as a good conversationalist as I have ever met.
F1 falls grid girls: the grid girls were bright. That's what F1 should be: colorful. The sponsors were happy. The teams were happy. The girls had good careers that were taken away.
Describing women as household appliances: Yes it is. I don't regret it when I said it, and I don't regret it now. It was said as a joke. I can't help it, just because people don't accept it as one.
Admiring Hitler: Right. Actually, I didn't say that I respected him. But when he took over in the 1930s, it's pretty obvious that he got things done that were spectacular. Hospitals, trains and so on. What he continued to do was clearly angry and wrong.
Donald Trump: I think he's doing a great job - super job. He has ideas and he gets with them.
V. V. Putin: Yes [I know him]. Absolutely. He has a reputation that he doesn't deserve as hard. He is a simple, direct person.
Boris Johnson: simple too. Like all people in this position, he makes mistakes, but you only remember them if they are written down.
UK outlet: The EU will have to clean up her entire act if it wants to survive. The original idea was fantastic, but it's too democratic. I don't think the UK should be in Europe. I think we should do business with Europe and vice versa, but I'm sure it will continue.
His role in The Great Train Robbery is rumored to be: did not have. Not enough money in it for me.
His car collection: I don't drive them. I don't sit in them. I trade them. I don't see the point of supercars, either. People buy them as an investment. What for?
What does he drive: car dealers hate me as I don't buy new ones very often. I'm in an old [Mercedes] S-Class at the moment while my Range Rover is being repaired. They tried to sell me a new one, but I don't see the point.
After paying a $100 million fine to quash a bribery charge: I didn't bribe him, but I couldn't prove it, as he was in prison. Sending money wasn't so bad. It's like going to a casino and playing with chips: don't think you've lost money. The prosecutor was a good guy, actually. I could be locked up for 10 years. It seemed like a reasonable price.
Lawyers: they are expensive. I would rather have a mistress and spend on her. But anyway, sometimes you need them.
Frank Williams: I have supported Frank for many years. He used to come and take money when times were tough. He turned up and asked for $500 and I would have given it to him on the condition that he returned it on Tuesday. He will be back on Tuesday, give me my £500, have a cup of tea, chat for a while and then asked if he could borrow £700…
Being fired from F1: It was ok, actually. Chase Carey came into this office, sat there, told me what was what and asked me to sign a legal document. I signed it without reading it. There is no time for this. He has already explained.
Automobile: I know who you are, yes. I read it. But I would hate to think that I never advertised there when I was trading cars. I bought shares people wanted. Ads ate only the bottom line.
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