What really drives Bernie Ecclestone

Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone waits for the start of another day of his trial in front of the courtroom at the courthouse in Munich, southern Germany June 3, 2014. Ecclestone is accused of paying German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky $44 million (32 million euros) in 2006 and 2007 to ensure his continued grip on the motor sports empire he had built up over four decades. The Briton, who has pleaded not guilty, faces a maximum jail term of 10 years if he is found guilty. REUTERS/Christof Stache/Pool (GERMANY - Tags: CRIME LAW SPORT MOTORSPORT F1 BUSINESS)

Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone waits for the start of another day of his trial in front of the courtroom at the courthouse in Munich, southern Germany June 3, 2014. Ecclestone is accused of paying German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky $44 million (32 million euros) in 2006 and 2007 to ensure his continued grip on the motor sports empire he had built up over four decades. The Briton, who has pleaded not guilty, faces a maximum jail term of 10 years if he is found guilty. REUTERS/Christof Stache/Pool (GERMANY - Tags: CRIME LAW SPORT MOTORSPORT F1 BUSINESS)

Published Mar 9, 2015

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London, England - Bernie Ecclestone is leaning forward in his chair in his Knightsbridge office. He is talking about his trial for bribery last year. He is talking about the greed of others. He is talking about the hypocrisy of some Formula One teams. He is talking about money.

He is 84 years old but, as a new F1 season dawns in Australia this week, Ecclestone is still very much in charge. As he talks about what lies ahead, he rarely raises his voice above a murmur, something people have always seemed to find intimidating. Somehow, it underlines the ferocity of his intent.

Ecclestone is driven by commerce, by the deal, by making money. Age has not dimmed that. He has a plan to help the smaller F1 teams cut costs. He has not conceived it out of charity or sentiment. He thinks it will improve the health of the sport, which will make even more money.

His answers, as he sits in his chair, clicking his heels together every now and then in a gesture that might suggest mild impatience, tend to be short and to the point. Bernie’s a billionaire. He likes to make a conversation work. He likes to make it pay its way. You ask and he’s straight back at you.

Has his wealth brought problems as well as advantages?

“Absolutely,” he says. “100 percent.”

Why?

“If you want to make enemies in this world, then be rich and successful,” he says.

KNOW YOUR FRIENDS

So does the possession of great wealth sometimes make him wonder who his friends are?

“I know who my friends are,” he says, with the half-smile that has unnerved adversaries his entire working life.

How do you know?

“I know people who say they are my friends and forgot to ask me,” he says. “They have got all sorts of reasons for saying they’re my friends. Friends are people who are prepared to give something up for you. Not the other way round.”

But what does money mean? Has it brought him happiness? Is there a luxury he indulges in that symbolises his wealth? Barbra Streisand said: “Success to me is having 10 honeydew melons and eating only the top half of each slice.”

Ecclestone doesn’t warm to the example.

He says: “It’s very difficult. I’ve always been in a position to have managed to do things to earn money. Anything I have wanted, I have earned enough money to be able to buy. Even when I was a schoolkid, I did a bit of wheeling and dealing. I have never really thought, ‘Christ, I wish I had this or that because then I could do whatever’. I just try and go and get it.”

Ecclestone’s expertise, apart from making money, has been banging heads together. He has been a genius at uniting the disparate interests and raging egos in F1 - in the interests of making money. By and large, the sport has always fallen in step behind him. Even now, there are many who believe it would fracture without his controlling influence.

SIMPLE PLAN

He is still trying to bang heads together. He is exasperated because his cost-cutting plan is being blocked by bigger teams. Ecclestone is scornful of their short-sightedness. He abhors their profligacy and conspicuous consumption, embodied in the travelling motorhome mansions they set up.

“If they’ve got the money, they spend it,” he says.

His plan is simple, set against the backdrop of concern that the F1 grid is being decimated by costs. Last week, it was revealed that, amid fears there might only be 12 cars on the grid in Melbourne on Sunday, he had handed a £6.5 million (R118 million) advance each to Sauber, Force India and Lotus to help with cash flow. Now Ecclestone wants to go further.

He wants to provide lesser teams with two chassis and charge £15 million (R272 million). He says that will come out of the £50 million (R907 million) a year the teams are paid to compete, leaving them with £35 million (R635 million), plus whatever they can get from sponsorships and paying drivers, to finance the racing. Cosworth or Renault could supply engines.

“Some of the other teams are saying, ‘Well, this isn’t Formula One, this would be downgrading Formula One,” says Ecclestone. “I can’t see that. I’d call these four or five teams that we supplied chassis to the ‘Team Championship’. They would all be in the Team Championship but they wouldn’t be able to win the Constructors’ Championship.

“But to all intents and purposes, nobody would ever know. The public would never know. It would not alter the way they see the races. It wouldn’t change the spectacle. It would just mean that instead of incurring big losses, these teams would be able to make a profit.

‘BE REASONABLE, DO IT MY WAY’

I have come up with something that could make a difference between the people that don’t have to worry about spending and those that do. But the bigger teams say it’s downgrading. They have been living in a very rich area and they think this would be like living in a poorer neighbourhood. So they don’t want to be associated with it.

“When I ran Brabham in the Seventies, it was on a ‘Be reasonable, do it my way’ dictatorship system. We were racers and we found the money to keep ourselves going. There were always the haves and the have-nots and there was always Ferrari with a lot more money. Nowadays, there is a big difference. There are teams that spend maybe £500 million (R4.5 billion) a season and other people that are trying to work with a £120 million (R2.2 million) budget, which is still too much. The regulations don’t hurt the people that can spend but hurt the people who are trying to put a team together.

“When you consider teams take maybe 120 people to race two cars and spend up to half a billion pounds to be there, it’s not too logical. The Mercedes unit that they take to races and put in the paddock, it takes 24 trucks to carry the parts to assemble it.

“The FIA believes it keeps the world alive because F1 cars don’t use any fuel. Not true. They use a few percent less than a normal engine. But some teams have 24 trucks to transport their motorhomes, which use a lot of fuel. So it is all nonsense. It is all complete hypocrisy, which upsets me. It is complete stupidity.

“So everybody has got their corner they want to fight for. The FIA want to be green, the teams are split on what they want to do and we want to make sure the championship is successful. We are in the entertainment business.”

THE CREATOR OF THE MODERN SPORT, FOR GOOD OR BAD

Ecclestone has run F1 since 1978. He is the father of the modern sport, its creator, for good and bad. He made multi-millionaires out of the struggling garagistes who invigorated racing in the Sixties and Seventies. He is generous and loyal to friends. He devotes plenty of money to good causes. Quietly. He does not like fuss and yet he is the man who turned F1 into the greatest travelling circus in sport and made it the favourite toy of big business.

There have been attempts to unseat him. Private equity firm CVC Capital, which owns F1, appears uneasy about Ecclestone’s uncompromising, occasionally politically incorrect persona. But when Lewis Hamilton begins his title defence, Ecclestone will still be at the helm. F1 is too fearful of life without him to make the break. Many have predicted his imminent demise several times over. He has defied them all.

His position came under scrutiny in 2014 when he stood trial in Munich accused of bribing a former German banker as part of the sale of a major stake in F1. It was said he faced 10 years in jail if convicted. The trial ended when Ecclestone paid $100 million (R1.2 billion) to settle the case. The judge stated that none of the evidence against him had been corroborated.

Ecclestone later sent Christmas cards, which featured a cartoon depicting him handing over a sack of money to a highwayman. “This is not a robbery,” the man on horseback is saying. “I am collecting for the Bavarian state.”

Did he feel bruised by the trial? Did he feel bitter about it?

“No,” he says. “I never feel bitter about anything.”

OVERPAID

Did he feel damaged by it, then?

”I haven’t noticed any damage.”

The only thing that irked him was that he felt he might have overpaid.

“I always like to think I’m a reasonably together business guy and I realised that perhaps in this case I wasn’t,” Ecclestone admits. “After I had settled with the prosecutor, the judge, in his summing up, said they never had a case. You think. ‘My God’.“

So, at 84, does he still feel sharp?

“Yeah.”

He still has a ferocious work ethic. He gets up at 6.30am, reads the papers and heads into the office. He often works all weekend.

ON THE LIMIT

“I don’t know what would happen if I stopped,” he says. “I live, not a stressful life, but I’m on the limit all the time. If you give that up and decide to go to the Bahamas and live there and get up in the morning and do nothing, well, I couldn’t do it. It would be impossible for me to do that. I’d have to do something.

“The danger is that you get into a routine. People get on the same train or the same bus or travel the same way. They get in their car and they always go the same route. You have to be careful you don’t get into a routine because then you don’t want to break the routine.”

How much longer does he intend to run F1?

“No idea,” he says. “Haven’t got a clue. When I think I’m not what you just said, ‘sharp’, then I would say to the people who own the company, ‘I think the time has come, you have got to find somebody’, or ‘I have found somebody for you’.”

Will he sense that moment?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not thinking about that.”

And is there something he wishes he had done differently.

“No,” he says. “Yesterday’s gone for me. I don’t look back. I look forward.”

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