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Interview: Ecclestone opens up on ousting

F1

London - Bernie Ecclestone walks into the room, shakes hands, then leaves. He has to say goodbye to his daughter, Petra, and to his grandchildren, who have been visiting. When he returns, he says he has been giving her twins their birthday presents. He still doesn’t sit down. "I’m running away again," he says. A couple of minutes later, he comes back and sinks into his seat.

"I’m busier now than when I was working," Ecclestone says with that familiar, querying half-smile. There are no elephants in the room with Bernie. 

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File picture: Dan Istitene / Getty Images North America / AFP.

He is 86 but, as he is always keen to point out, he is a realist. Self-pity has never been his thing. He was deposed as the head of F1 last month after one of the longest-running reigns in sport and he gets straight to it.

"Since I’ve been out of work, I’ve been flat out," he says. "Lots of things. Other people’s problems. Everything. Whatever. People know I’m no longer doing what I should do, so they contact me."

A few days ago, Sebastian Vettel called from Barcelona. There might be more than 50 years of age difference between them but the two men are firm friends. The four-time world champion told him how his Ferrari was going in testing in Catalonia and they talked about the approach of the new season, which begins with the Australian Grand Prix next Sunday in Melbourne.

"He said to me, 'Are you going to Australia?'" Ecclestone says. "I said, 'No'. 'Oh s**t', he said, 'who am I going to play with?' I said, 'I’m not bloody well coming to Australia just to play backgammon with you. Can you wait till Bahrain?' 'Ah, good', he said. So, yeah, that’s how it is."

You're going to have to play backgammon without me, dear Seb. File picture: Caren Firouz / Reuters.

That is how it is. Ecclestone has missed the first race of the season plenty of times in the past but this year, it is different. For the first time in more than 40 years, he is not the boss of Formula One any more. Team owners will no longer beat a path to his forbidding grey bus in the paddock when they want a problem solved. It will not be him banging their heads together.

He may still dine with friends in Le Roannay, near Spa, during the Belgian Grand Prix and in the Cipriani Monte Carlo during the week of the Monaco Grand Prix and his other usual haunts but, even though people will still seek his advice, they will also know that he does not wield the ultimate authority in the sport now. For a man who was in charge for so long, whose persona was wrapped up with power, it is a seismic shift.

Sure, Ecclestone has been handed the honorary title of F1’s chairman emeritus, but the day after American company Liberty Media completed their £6 billion (R94.2bn) takeover of F1 from private equity firm CVC in January, he was informed that Chase Carey was taking over as chief executive.

Quite what Ecclestone’s new role with the company entails remains to be seen. "The last thing I am is an ambassador," he says. "I’d be a bad one, actually." He says he plans to attend at least half the races this season but the relationship between him and Liberty is uneasy.

They want to distance themselves from him and what they see as his outmoded practices, but they also want him inside the tent because they know that, if his talent for mischief is allowed to run wild, things might get difficult.

Ecclestone is playing ball for now. Up to a point anyway. It feels as if it is taking a super-human effort for him to maintain a veneer of diplomacy about the changes Liberty is proposing.

"I can’t do anything," he says. "Even the staff have been told they shouldn’t talk to me. They want to get rid of the Bernie era: 'Let’s get rid of Bernie’s history'. They always say the same thing. They probably think it makes me happy but it doesn’t: 'He has done a super job and a fantastic job but we have to move on' and they may be 100 percent right. We don’t know whether they are or not. They have to believe what they’re going to do is right. A lot of the things, I would have done if I could."

What is clear is that Liberty wants to take F1 in a different direction. They want to be seen as modernisers. They are said to be uneasy about the sport’s association with regimes in places such as Azerbaijan and Bahrain, which have highly questionable human rights records. They are said to want to safeguard the races in its European heartlands, which have come under threat.

Now owners are said to be uneasy about venues like Azerbaijan. File picture: Maxim Shemetov / Reuters.

They feel the sport has become too elitist and want to make it more open and accessible. They want to connect with fans. They want to utilise digital media more. At a Press briefing last week, it was suggested that the prelude to each F1 race should be imbued with the razzmatazz of Super Bowl week.

Ecclestone smiles that half-smile again. It jars with his philosophy. "I look at it in a different way to other people," he says. "Everyone wants to go to a restaurant where you can’t get a seat. So I was very strict with things like paddock passes. Liberty’s philosophy is more open.

"They have an American culture and at an American race everyone is in the paddock and the pits and they can chat with the drivers and sit in their cars. In F1, we have been running a five-star Michelin restaurant, not a hamburger joint. But maybe now the cuisine will be more accessible. Maybe it will even have a better taste."

His faith in the longevity of the sport, however, remains the same. He says: "A lot of people have contacted me from F1. They all say the same thing, 'Bernie, what do you think is going to happen?' I say that Formula One has been around now for 50 odd years and it will be around for another 50 years, hopefully. It has been in all different formats and maybe we are going through another period where there will be changes.

"Life changes and you have to change with life. Everything is different. I’m terribly envious of Chase because he is in the lovely position of being able to do a lot of things I wanted to do and couldn’t. I’ve been trying to run the business as a chief executive of the company to make profits for the shareholders. I knew CVC wanted to sell the company. I was doing all I could do to make sure the company was set up in a way to make good profits in order that they could sell.

"They were very good to me because they let me run things the way I thought they should be run. Maybe it will be proved I was wrong and they should have let somebody else run it. Only time will tell.

"Was I annoyed when Liberty asked me to step down? No. The way I look at it, if somebody buys a car, they want to drive it. I was a little disappointed because I was asked before they took over, would I stay here for three years if they took over and I said, provided I was fit and competent, yes, I would be delighted.

Chase Carey, the new man in the driver's seat. File picture: Mark Thompson / Getty Images North America / AFP.

"So I was a bit surprised the day after they completed the deal that I was asked to stand down because Chase wanted to be chief executive. Chase did that face to face. In fairness to him, he asked me to stand down because he wanted to take the position.

"It may be that we will be sitting talking in a year’s time and me saying to you, 'Honestly, these people have done a bloody good job, they have done lots of things that we should have done or couldn’t do but have now been done'."

Ecclestone takes a couple of swipes at members of the new regime. Ross Brawn, a success at Benetton, Ferrari and as the owner of his own champion team and now F1’s managing director, being one.

"Ross was in Benetton," Ecclestone muses. "He was a helper in the team, like a lot of them. It was the same at Ferrari.

"I said to Michael Schumacher at the time, 'Who’s running the team?' and he said, 'I am'. Assisted by Mr Todt [Jean, now president of the FIA]. Between the two of them, they worked well and did a bloody good job. Ross was there but he didn’t design the car or anything like that."

Ecclestone pauses when he thinks about how Liberty might improve the sport. "Well, what wasn’t right?" he asks. "Probably the amount of money I managed to get the promoters to pay to run the race. That meant they had to charge a very high ticket price not to go bankrupt quickly.

"What I wanted to do way back was see the teams getting less money and us charging less money to the promoter for running the races. They are all losing a lot of money. That’s what’s bad."

I point out that many of his detractors will laugh bitterly at his retrospective sympathy for race promoters. "Oh, 100 percent," he says. "People will say that’s a bit rich coming from me. But the reason I did this was to produce as much revenue as I could for the company.

"I negotiated with all these people. All of them seemed over 21. They seemed to have lawyers and accountants with them and they agreed the deals we put together. It suited them at the time. Whether, subsequent to that, they have decided they wished they hadn’t paid as much is a different thing.

"Before I do a deal with any promoter, I always tell them before they start, 'You. Are. Going. To. Lose. Your. Arse. So don’t think for one moment you are going to be different from anybody else and make money. I’ll explain to you why you won’t make money'. They don’t believe me. After a couple of years, they say it didn’t quite work the way we thought and can we have a talk about the contracts."

It is not his problem now. It is for others to make the deals. Ecclestone wants to devote more energy to upgrading the Hotel Olden in Gstaad, which he owns, and spend more time on his coffee farm in Brazil with his wife, Fabiana.

Ecclestone with his wife Fabiana. File picture: Paul Gilham / Getty Images North America / AFP.

"I don’t plan my time," he says. ‘I try to do what I have to do when I have to do it. It’s as simple as that. It depends what Liberty want me to do here. I don’t want to stay here not doing anything positive for the company. We’ll wait and see. Early days. It’s a little bit like a marriage. When you get married, you have your hopes."

Bernie and his sport have been together for a long time. He started racing motorbikes when he was 16 and motor racing’s triumphs and tragedies have been his companions for many of the last 70 years. He may be a ruthless man but he is a loyal friend too and, briefly, he allows himself to reminisce about those he has lost.

He was hit hard by the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994 and by the tragic skiing accident that gravely injured Schumacher. Ecclestone has never been to visit the seven-time world champion since the fall. "I want to remember Michael as I knew Michael," he says. "Not the way he is now."

Ecclestone, who ran the Brabham team between 1972 and 1987, was shattered by the death of Elio de Angelis in 1986 when he was killed in one of his cars during testing in the south of France. And it is the death of Jochen Rindt at Monza in 1970 that causes him to shake his head slowly and admit that a sense of guilt over his death lingers with him still over persuading F1’s only posthumous world champion to join Colin Chapman’s Lotus team. "Jochen and I were bosom pals and partners in things," he says. "In those days, it is terrible to say, we used to lose a lot of drivers. It wasn’t such a big shock that somebody got killed. It was a shock that somebody got killed that you were with.

"I was the one that put the two together for Jochen to be with Lotus. He could have done a deal with Brabham or Lotus. I said to him at the time I thought Colin would always somehow get the job done but at Brabham they were a little bit more secure and careful.

"I said it was a bit of a risk but if he wanted to win the world championship, I thought he had more chance of winning it at Lotus rather than at Brabham because I didn’t own Brabham at the time. It’s not a good feeling to think, 'Christ, if you hadn’t have done that, he wouldn’t have driven the car and wouldn’t have got killed'."

His happiest time, he says, was when he was running Brabham and winning world drivers’ titles with Nelson Piquet in 1981 and 1983. They were days of camaraderie, days before driver aids, days when Ecclestone admired the men behind the wheel.

They were gentler days, he says, days when he would fly to Italy and drive to Maranello to have dinner with Enzo Ferrari, days when team owners sought out each other’s company. "Now the only reason one team would mix with another is if they can steal their staff," he says.

Many believed Ecclestone would remain in charge of the sport until he dropped. He says he will miss the pressure that came with his job. Some worry about how he will cope without it.

"I work better under pressure," he says. "Anyone who’s competitive is happy to have pressure. When I go for a check-up, doctors say, 'You should take it easy'. I say, 'Explain to me what that means'. 'Well, you shouldn’t worry about things and put yourself under so much pressure,' they say, and I say, 'Why’s that?'

"People used to say to me, 'What do you actually do?' And I said, 'I’m a firefighter and if there are no fires, I light them'." I ask him if he will miss fighting those fires. He pauses for a second and smiles that half-smile again. "I might have to light some," he says.

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