Yep, Ecclestone has a large bronze bust of himself behind his desk.
Even at 89 years old, Ecclestone is as outspoken and controversial as ever. We sit down for a chat.
Bernard Charles Ecclestone. Suffolk trawlerman’s son. Racing driver. Car dealer. Driver manager. Team owner. Pint-sized godfather of modern Formula 1. Ringmaster of the most political sport in the world. Businessman. Billionaire.
Admired. Feared. Loathed.
On the wrong side of racing purists, Munich prosecutors and a Labour Party funding scandal. On the wrong side of the law, too, if you wish 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 for it to be worth his involvement.
Bernie. The man whose name and number reside in my mobile phone, but who in more than 12 months I have yet to summon the nerve to call. Somehow the journey from explaining how I have his number to asking for an interview feels like an insurmountable leap. Worse than asking a girl out on a date. Worse even than asking her father if you can marry her. Fear and trepidation. Clammy hands and a sweaty brow. Pull yourself together.
“Hello?” The voice is unmistakable, but the speaker is unwilling to give the game away.
“Mr Ecclestone?” For the 30 years I’ve followed Formula 1, he has always been Bernie, but what else am I going to call him?
“Who is it?” Polite but detached.
“Jim Holder from Autocar. I hope you’ve heard of us; I was wondering if you’d be available for an interview.”
“That’s the magazine that’s as old as me, isn’t it?” He’s 89 years old and sharp as a button. We’re 125. I can almost feel him thinking: ‘Here’s how I find out if this bloke’s for real.’
“Older, actually – assuming you’ve been telling the truth about your age all these years.” Why oh why did I feel the need to crack a joke?
“Right, yes, no problem. I’ll call you back with a date.” A chuckle, warmer now. Phew.
That’s it. He’s gone. Perhaps to Google the history of Autocar.
He doesn’t call back, but now I have an excuse to chase. 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 to the hour I rock up at his offices, prepped to go toe to toe but ready for the runaround. I think back to all the interviews with Ecclestone I’ve ever seen or read. Has anyone ever managed to pin him down?
I ring the bell and walk in. I meet his personal assistant, who directs me to a room. And there he is: Mr Ecclestone. Just about as short as short adults can be, casual blue jeans, crisp white shirt, neat goatee and looking fitter than anyone his age has any right to be. Charming, too.
AutoDaily: How are you? We haven’t heard from you for a little while.
Bernie Ecclestone: Well, I’m still here. According to the newspapers, most of us are going to die [from the coronavirus], but I seem to be fine.
AD: Do you worry about dying?
As a second question, that’s rather left field, but this, I quickly learn, is how it goes with Ecclestone. You can ask whatever you want, but don’t expect to get long answers. No time to think, no time to consider. Just keep up, be prepared to push for what you want and work hard for answers.
BE: No. I don’t worry about anything.
AD: Don’t you find yourself getting more reflective on life with age?
BE: Reflective? No.
AD: Have you ever been one to look back?
AD: Why not?
BE: Because yesterday is gone.
AD: You only look forward, even at 89?
BE: I’ve always been there looking for opportunities. So when opportunities come up, I like to see if it’s worth taking them or not. I don’t go looking for opportunities. People think I plan things, which is all rubbish. I’ve never planned anything.
AD: You’ve never had a plan in your life?
BE: No. When opportunities arise, I look at them. If I keep working, I keep getting opportunities. It’s how I’ve always been.
It takes a certain leap of faith to believe that one of the world’s richest men has wheeled and dealed his way to his fortune, but spend some time in Ecclestone’s company and you can start to believe that, in his case, it’s possible. His brain is so fast. His attention to detail is ridiculous. The quiet way he relishes challenges and swats them away is quite something to behold.
AD: Why have you been able to make so much more of opportunities than others?
BE: I make quick decisions. And if I make decisions which eventually I’ve thought were bad decisions, well then I immediately rectify it.
AD: What’s the best decision you have ever made?
BE: Well, I hope I’ve made a lot more good ones than bad ones. If you’re putting me up against a wall for an answer, I’d say it was when we took the decision to start all the races at the same time on a Sunday so that broadcasters could schedule it to a rhythm. It was groundbreaking and it took quite a bloody-minded attitude. But we did it, and it transformed the sport.
Hard-headed businessman Ecclestone may be, but he is also a lifelong motor racing fan. He raced at a high level as a young man before giving it up and earning his first fortune trading cars. He returned to the sport wealthy, as a driver manager and then as a team owner, but it was when he took on its commercial organisation, and particularly its television rights, that his wealth and influence rocketed.
AD: Has it always been about the money for you?
BE: No, definitely not.
AD: What was the motivation, then?
BE: Wanting to do a good job. That’s all. Never the money.
AD: If you’re driven to do well, doesn’t that mean you have a fear of failure?
BE: I don’t think about failure.
AD: You might still fear it, though?
BE: No, I don’t have fears.
AD: But billionaires don’t need to have fears. What were you like when making money mattered? You must have worried it would go wrong?
BE: No. I do what I think is the right thing to do. Always have. And I’m not just doing the right thing for myself, but also for the people who I’m doing the deal with. I like the deal. Always have. I can’t imagine ever stopping looking for deals.
AD: You’ve never fallen out over a deal?
BE: I can’t remember who or why.
AD: Have you ever broken your word?
BE: I can’t remember if I ever have. And it wouldn’t have been to get out of something. Might have been something insignificant. Never anything important.
AD: You’re pretty direct, but Formula 1 is full of people who like to posture. That must have been hard? What about Ferrari continually threatening to leave the sport?
BE: I never took any notice. I’m not a man to take notice of anything other than what I want. If Ferrari wanted 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 telling everyone else the opposite.
AD: What’s bigger: F1 or Ferrari?
BE: I think F1 without Ferrari isn’t at all good. And Ferrari’s brand is so strong that they could walk away from F1 and still be huge. Even when they aren’t winning in F1, you could ask a man in the street who won the world title and he would just say Ferrari.
It’s hard not to get sucked in by a man who has lived shoulder to shoulder with your heroes, and now that we’re onto the subject of Formula 1, it seems the perfect opportunity to ask more.
AD: Do you miss being around F1?
BE: No. I’m still talking to the same people. They come to see me and ask me opinions.
AD: You say you watch every race. Is the sport as good as it used to be?
BE: There are all these ideas about increasing overtaking, but the racing today isn’t much different to how it always was. What you need is competition. It’s when a team dominates that it gets frustrating.
AD: Why not change it, though? Shorter races might suit the modern attention span, no?
BE: I don’t think that 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 difficult to know what people really want to watch or how they want to be entertained.
It seems that the so-called younger generation aren’t interested in cars any more in general. I suppose in a few years time there won’t be anything to get excited about with a car. If it’s an electric car for everyone, it’ll be the same.
AD: Does that spell the end of the sport?
BE: No. We need to make sure that F1 remains an entertainment package. I’d go back to normally aspirated engines that make a bit of a noise and look exciting.
AD: Wouldn’t the sport then look out of touch with the modern world?
BE: Well, I don’t see how the engines that we currently have, which are the best bit of engineering that has ever been done, are of any interest to the public. What gets people excited: how much fuel an engine uses or how much power it produces?
AD: Surely every manufacturer would have to leave the sport if it took that attitude?
BE: The sport used to be able to embrace engineering progress and still be exciting. Today, the level of engineering is superb, but is it good for entertainment? I don’t think so.
I watch every race. I look at the sport and criticise it a little bit, if I’m honest. Not so much the racing, but the way the teams and drivers operate. I get really upset when I see a driver walking along, and standing beside him is a young PR [public relations officer] with a microphone or something, waiting to see what he says. If the guy wants to explode and say something, let him. It’s like they have minders to keep them out of trouble.
AD: It’s all too managed now, then?
BE: Yeah. Well, it’s too clinical. There are the rules too: don’t touch the white line, whatever you do. Don’t risk not finishing, as you’ll never make the points up. You used to have at least six cars failing to finish every race, with mechanical problems or risk-taking. Now races are being decided by how long a pit stop takes.
AD: That’s a sad way to describe the sport, isn’t it?
AD: What’s the solution, then?
BE: Somebody needs to tear up the rulebooks – and really write new rules. We need to keep the basics of F1 but just get away from all these super-high-tech things.
And then we need to stop telling drivers what they can’t do. I want to see sportsmen over the edge. Not to the point of an accident, but proper wheel-to-wheel racing. And if it goes wrong? Remember when Nelson [Piquet] got out of the car and whacked Eliseo Salazar after they crashed into each other? The people loved it. It’s human.
AD: Have you been to a Formula E race?
AD: Would you?
BE: I will go, yes. Curiosity.
AD: Could Formula E be a threat to F1?
BE: I feel sorry for the guys running F1 now, as they have to consider the impact of Formula E. I would have buried it. It would have saved all the arguments. It wouldn’t have happened if I had been there. But now everyone is only talking about electric cars, so it would be a bit of a courageous thing now to go against it.
To many people, that answer will be used as evidence of Ecclestone’s absence of any sense of fair play. But, as with all his answers here, he would present it as nothing more than being pragmatic, a result of putting his own view forward as the only priority. Time to ask him more about the sport in general.
AD: Who is the best driver at the moment?
BE: You would automatically say Lewis [Hamilton]. But are there other guys who would do a job as good as or better than him in the same team? Probably yes.
Max Verstappen, a hundred per cent. Certainly Sebastian Vettel, although he has he gone off a little bit. All these guys are as good as the support they get. Lewis has got the maximum support. There’s not one thing missing from what he’s got behind him.
AD: What has happened to Vettel?
BE: We’ve seen it before: all of a sudden the kid from nowhere who nobody has heard of [Charles Leclerc] comes along and performs, and everyone fell in love with him at Ferrari. I’m close to Sebastian, but we don’t talk about things like this. But I’m guessing he feels a little bit that he has been put on the back-burner.
AD: If you were his manager, what would you advise him to do?
BE: Well, he’s not in an easy position. His contract runs out at the end of this year. If this year he could show his capabilities, he should stay with Ferrari. If not, he was very happy at Red Bull, because they loved him…
AD: Should he have left Red Bull?
BE: On reflection, no. But I think most drivers would like to drive for Ferrari. I think financially he thought it was a good thing to do.
AD: Do you think Hamilton should have a stint at Ferrari?
BE: I don’t think he would get on very well there. He’s used to being more or less in charge. If he went and they remained in love with Leclerc, they would bury him.
AD: What do you think of Hamilton? He’s unusual for an F1 driver, isn’t he?
BE: Yeah. He’s different. That’s great. He’s a first-class guy. He’s actually bigger than F1. Nothing wrong with launching clothes lines or having 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 out and wake a few people up, and I’m pleased he’s using it.
He has also said he feels the sport is a bit too safe now, which I agree with. I don’t want anybody to get hurt, but some of that knife-edge excitement has gone from it.
It’s time to find out more about Ecclestone’s view of the wider world – albeit through the perspective of F1. Just how aware of change is this near-nonagenarian? Very, as it turns out…
AD: What would you say if I suggested that Tesla were a bigger brand than Ferrari?
BE: I think Tesla will one day be forgotten. Ferrari will never be forgotten.
BE: Other people will make electric cars. They are a leader today, but they won’t be special soon.
AD: My kids get more excited about a Tesla than a Ferrari, though.
BE: But what is Tesla’s brand? What is Tesla known for?
AD: Pioneering tech.
BE: Do people care?
AD: Today they do.
BE: But what do they actually care about? It’s the fact the cars are electric, not the brand itself. That won’t last forever.
AD: What do you think of Elon Musk?
BE: I think he’s fantastic. He has done an incredible job. He’s a real ballsy guy. There were times when people thought Tesla was going to disappear in the morning. He saved it. He’s prepared to do what it takes.
I’m not a guy who believes in democracy. I believe in dictatorship. He’s a dictator, and that’s why things work. So much has been achieved by dictators, not because of a democracy.
AD: What happens to people who cross Bernie Ecclestone?
BE: [Smiles] You mean what happened to them?
BE: [Chuckles] I take them flowers… Leave them by the grave. No, a joke: I’ve never had any problems myself. What upsets me is if they hurt someone close to me.
So maybe Ecclestone does have a heart after all. But we’re now two hours into our one-hour meeting, and while he shows no sign of ushering us out, it feels inappropriate to risk running on. Time to wrap up.
AD: What’s your legacy?
BE: I don’t have one.
AD: You don’t get a choice; we’ll all write it for you.
BE: Frankly, I don’t give a damn. You know, when I’m gone, I’m gone.
AD: How would you summarise yourself?
BE: I’d like to think I’m fair.
AD: But even your friends say you’re a hard bastard…
BE: No, but… I was thinking about this the other day. Every deal I’ve done, from selling cakes at school during the war to later in life: you’re either buying or selling. And that means the other person is happy to either buy or sell. What could be fairer than that?
AD: Any regrets?
BE: Yeah. Just one.
AD: Which is?
BE: Not supporting Max Mosley when he needed support over the News of the World story [in 2008]. Too many people said we couldn’t have him as FIA president after that. I didn’t support him publicly enough. I apologised, but it damaged our relationship for a while.
AD: Has he forgiven you?
BE: I think Max appreciated I didn’t have a lot of choice. But it was a private matter that shouldn’t have made the public domain.
AD: Any chance of a comeback to F1?
BE: Me? No. There’s no reason to. I was sacked, which was all right, and there’s no reason to go back.
Bernard Charles Ecclestone. Slippery as hell. But as good an interviewee as I’ve ever encountered.
F1 dropping grid girls: Grid girls were colourful. That’s what F1 is supposed to be: colourful. The sponsors were happy. The teams were happy. The girls had good careers that have been taken away.
Describing women as domestic appliances: I did, yes. I didn’t regret it when I said it and I don’t regret it now. It was said as a big joke. Nothing I can do about it now, just because people didn’t take it as one.
Admiring Hitler: Correct. Actually, I didn’t say I admired him. But from when he took over in the 1930s, it’s clear he got things done, which was impressive. Hospitals, trains and so on. What he went on to do was obviously mad and wrong.
Donald Trump: I think what he’s doing is a great job – a super job. He’s got ideas and he gets on with them.
Vladimir Putin: Yeah [I know him]. Absolutely. He’s got a reputation he doesn’t deserve as being difficult. He’s an easy, straightforward person.
Boris Johnson: Straightforward too. Like all the people in that position, he makes mistakes, but you only remember them if they’re written down.
Brexit: The EU will have to clean up its whole act if it wants to survive. The original idea was fantastic, but it got too democratic. I don’t think Britain needs to be in Europe. I think we need to do business with Europe and vice versa, but I’m quite sure that will continue.
His rumoured role in The Great Train Robbery: Didn’t have one. Wasn’t 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 investments. Why bother?
What he drives: 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.
Paying a $100m fine to void bribery charges: I hadn’t bribed him, but I couldn’t prove it, as he was in jail. Sending the money over wasn’t that bad. It’s like going into a casino and playing with chips: you never think you’ve lost the money. The prosecutor was a nice guy, actually. I could have been locked up for 10 years. It seemed a reasonable price.
Lawyers: They’re expensive. I’d rather have a mistress and spend it on her. But anyway, sometimes you need them.
Frank Williams: I supported Frank for years. He used to come and borrow money when times were hard. He’d turn up and ask for £500, and I’d give it to him on the condition that he paid it back on Tuesday. He’d turn up on the Tuesday, give me my £500, have a cup of tea, chat a bit and then ask if he could borrow £700…
Being fired from F1: It was alright, 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. No time for that. He had already explained.