London - Bernie Ecclestone wants to bring back an air of danger to Formula One. And his means of achieving it have echoes of the man he is supporting for the American presidency, Donald Trump.
Trump wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out. Ecclestone wants to build walls at every track to keep the drivers in.
The sport’s impresario, who is 86 tomorrow, said: “In the old days people would come to a race and think that somebody could get killed. Today they come to a race knowing nobody is going to get killed. Which is good.
“But I want to build 40cm-high walls around the corners. I keep being told that they mustn’t go off the road - they wouldn’t this way.”
Citing tight street circuits, as opposed to tracks designed with huge run-off areas, he added: “They didn’t go off the road in Baku and I’ve never seen them go off in Monaco. Or Singapore. And they are probably some of the good races. If someone is running a circus with a high-wire act 15 metres up people will want to go there. If it were a metre off the ground, they’d say, ‘I can do that’.”
Ecclestone’s views go against modern thinking. Safety has been of paramount concern since Sir Jackie Stewart took up the cause half a century ago to combat regular fatalities. That work was stepped up after Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994. Despite extensive safety improvements, Jules Bianchi died a year ago from injuries he sustained in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. But after most crashes, drivers amble out of their crumpled cars, as McLaren’s Fernando Alonso did after his spectacular accident in Australia in March.
Opportunity to add drama
Ecclestone sees an opportunity to add to the drama when a car is pitched into a wall, saying: “When you have a big shunt like Fernando’s we ought to put up big sheets around the scene, bring in the ambulance and take him away. He goes to hospital and later on you announce that, thank God, he’s out. A bit of showbiz. People like that.”
Even if Ecclestone’s suggestions will prove too outlandish for some, few would disagree that the rulebook is now too proscriptive, with punishments for minor driving infringements de rigueur.
Only last week the governing body, the FIA, put out an edict banning drivers from defending their positions by moving from one side to another under braking. The change was prompted by the elbows-out style of Red Bull’s young shaver Max Verstappen. “You know why people like Max?” asked Ecclestone. “He’s a racer. And when he races people he does that…” Ecclestone raises his middle finger to show, metaphorically, what Verstappen does.
Americans take over
Ecclestone was talking in Austin, home of the US Grand Prix, before his circus moves to Mexico for next weekend’s third-last round of the championship. Formula One’s relationship with America is on the minds of fans, given that Colorado-based Liberty Media has agreed, but not completed, its £3.62 billion takeover of the sport.
Chase Carey, Liberty’s moustachioed boss, was in Austin to see Lewis Hamilton win, the American businessman’s second race since his putative takeover.
So how are Bernie and the new man getting along?
“Chase is all right.” Is he interfering? “Not at all. What would I say they should do? Give the teams less money and charge the promoters less so tickets are less. Then we’d get back people queuing up for a ticket.”
There seems little prospect, however, of a glut of new races being staged in the US, despite that being Carey’s avowed intent. Ecclestone said: “I tried for a race in New York. The trouble with the Americans is that you want to do a deal with them but they want guaranteed profit before they start.”
Ecclestone supports Trump, of course
Despite that sense of disdain for how Americans do business, Ecclestone is not reticent about offering his view on the unedifying presidential election taking place between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
“I’d have Trump,” he said, “100 per cent. If they get Clinton, nothing’s going to change. Trump would change a lot of things and might f*** up a lot things. But out of the changes a lot of good things would come. I was with Vladimir Putin in April. I said Trump was going to win and if he does he’ll come and give you a big hug, and you’ll be running America in three years. Which I think he thought was funny.”
Ecclestone, who is worth over £2bn, is scathing about the new breed of team bosses, saying they are only in it for the money. “What I did, I didn’t do for the money. The same with Ron Dennis and Frank Williams.
We all made money but it wasn’t our intention. The trouble today is we are getting people whose intention is solely to make money. “Toto Wolff (the Mercedes team principal) is probably the best example.”