The big interview: Bernie Ecclestone

Before Bernie was replaced, TG caught up with him in 2016. Here's what he told us...

“I should have sued you.” – Bernie Ecclestone

I’m very relieved to report Bernie wasn’t talking to me, but to editor-in-chief Charlie Turner. Fourteen years ago, Charlie handed in his notice to Mr Bernard Charles Ecclestone at F1 HQ after six tumultuous months working on his magazine. Today, much to Charlie’s unease, we’re back in the same room (with its eclectic melange of art and artefacts, including a supersized bronze of the man himself, a framed broken plate entitled “Let it be” and a World Business Award, presented in 2002 by Mikhail Gorbachev) for me to interview the F1 ringmaster. Luckily as he utters these words he cracks a smile and shakes our hands, but some things never change…

At 85, Bernie shows no signs of slowing down or obvious succession planning for the sport that he’s spent the past 43 years guiding, managing and building into one of the world’s most valuable sporting commodities…

Words: Eddie Jordan

This interview was originally published in the September 2016 issue 286 of Top Gear magazine, before Liberty Media bought a controlling stake in Formula One, and before Bernie Ecclestone was replaced as the boss of F1.

Eddie Jordan: We won’t be long. Kick us out when you want, will you?

BE: OK, I will. [laughs]

EJ: Let’s go… Why are you a winner?

BE: Who said I was a winner?

EJ: I’m saying. You’ve been a winner all your life.

BE: I’m lucky.

EJ: No, no. That’s different. Why are you a winner?

BE: I’m lucky. That’s all.

EJ: You’re a gambler?

BE: Yup.

EJ: Does gambling come naturally to you?

BE: If I feel like something’s gonna be right, I invest in it, whatever it is.

EJ: Does that mean new races as well?

BE: Yep.

EJ: I’ve always described you as a visionary. I never really wanted to go to Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Singapore… but these are turning out to be sensational races. Did you have that in your mind all the time?

BE: Don’t forget I started looking at China a long time before any of those races happened. I always thought go east, not west…

EJ: What do you think your greatest skill is as a businessman? I mean, look at what you’ve created. You’re the son of a trawlerman. You didn’t have anything like this coming into life. What’s your skill?

BE: You might have asked that of an artist or a musician or whatever… but with me it just happens.

EJ: But you’re a dealer.

BE: That’s it, I’m a dealer. That’s exactly right. I’m a used car dealer.

EJ: What part of this job do you find gives you the most satisfaction?

BE: I suppose it’s knowing when you’ve come up with an idea that works, when you’ve got it right, whatever it is. I’m very, very happy with these races, I was delighted with Baku. People said I was completely mad; I was so happy when it all turned out all right.

Charlie Turner: Where would you like to go next?

BE: Turkey. Two races we’ve lost which I’m genuinely upset about were India and Turkey.

I was delighted with Baku. People said I was completely mad…

EJ: But I’ve got to ask you, then… It’s unlikely we’re going to see a French GP in the foreseeable future, Italy looks in grave danger, and Germany. Have you got good substitutes for these in the future?

BE: It’s not as easy as that… it’s disappointing to think that all these countries spend a lot of money trying to get the Olympics. Which, obviously, is not the easiest thing to do, and nobody makes any money out of. Yet, for the small amount of money they could [invest] in a Formula One race, they don’t want to do it…

EJ: Why do you think that is?

BE: I have no idea. It’s the same as in England. Silverstone is not, I’d say, super-safe – quite the opposite. These circuits don’t need a lot of money to make them safe.

EJ: Britain had no problem spending billions on the Olympics.

BE: Ah, yes. It’d be interesting to know exactly how much they got back, and what the country’s got back from that.

EJ: Are we getting a slightly noisier engine next year? Because the noise is an issue…

BE: It is, a BIG issue.

CT: And you’ve been very vocal in wanting to make the cars louder, wanting change…

BE: That’s the trouble. We need to get rid of Lauda… that’s a problem.

EJ: Yeah, but then you’d have no one to control Toto.

BE: Yeah, maybe you’re right, let’s keep Lauda.

CT: But in terms of the noise, you’ve been very vocal about wanting to change it, but it seems like Mercedes and Ferrari have a stranglehold on stopping that from happening.

BE: Not really. No, wait a minute. Somebody, Max was the one that said, “We ought to have smaller engines and you’re going to get more manufacturers,” I said to him at the time, “But why don’t we get the manufacturers in, subject to us having smaller engines? Not the other way around – not have the small engine and hope they come,” because they come and go when it suits them. So, that’s what the problem has been, and they spend a fortune on these engines, and they don’t want to dump them. And they’ve just convinced the board to spend all this money, and then you say, “Well, it seemed a good idea at the time,” and nobody knew how those engines would finish up. When they were designed no one would have believed they were going to be what we got.

CT: But how much can you influence the change?

BE: We can’t really because, as I say, the bottom line is that they have spent a fortune, and done a fantastic job. The engine, as an engineering project, is super.

CT: But it’s far too expensive.

BE: It’s not what we want.

EJ: It’s not sexy. I remember you, me and Flavio having a discussion and you saying, “Under the engine cover, no one cares what’s in there. Nobody cares.”

BE: Nobody knows.

EJ: But they don’t care, either. So, I’m one for saving cost. Should there be more common parts, for example? At present, you have the situation where Mercedes supply their teams, and only Mercedes win. Ferrari supplies its group of people. Surely it’s a two-horse race at the moment. It feels like there’s no room for the Jordan of years gone by…

BE: If it was a two-horse race it would be good, it’s a one-horse race.

EJ: Bernie, your relationship with Toto is a little bit strained.

BE: No. There’s no problem. Zero problem.

EJ: Do you see him as a threat?

BE: A threat for what?

EJ: Well, he’s very close to Ferrari and he’s very close to Mercedes. Do you see him in a position where he might try to oust you?

BE: I’m very happy for him to try. Or anybody else. It doesn’t bother me, these things. I mean it’s good.

EJ: Yeah, but Bernie, there have been times that you’ve been very frustrated with him. You were not happy with him about the engine…

BE: No, frustrated about the fact that they are in a position that THEY can – not him in particular – decide what they’re going to do. Because they supply the teams so when there’s a vote on something he votes, Ferrari vote, and all the teams they supply vote for them because they can’t vote any other way. So it’s not entirely a level playing field.

EJ: You have spies out there, and you must be very aware that he’s [Toto] close to Ferrari. How close is he?

BE: Was.

EJ: Has that broken up now?

BE: I don’t think they’ve ever been that close. I think they wanted to see Ferrari be a little bit more competitive, better at beating other people down the field, and Ferrari was happy to get the information it got. Because it got a lot of information from Mercedes…

EJ: And that’s as much as it is – it isn’t anything sinister.

BE: No.

EJ: If you were Toto, you were the boss at Mercedes, what would you say if your two drivers were running into each other as often as they are now?

BE: Well, it depends. I mean, this time of the year, I’d let them race, for sure. If, later in the season, it was a case of one of them needing to be sensible, and be like a team driver because another team were going to snatch the championship away from them, I’d then say to them, “You’d better start having a think about this and maybe you should let the other person in the team do the winning to get the points.” In this case… one of those two is going to win the championship, so that’s not going to be the point.

EJ: Is Toto strong enough to be able to deal with two major drivers like that in the team? What would you do… you’re Toto, you’re the boss.

BE: Keep racing.

EJ: What… keep hitting each other?

BE: Try not to hit each other. What do you want me to do?

EJ: Yeah. So you don’t think there is a credible formula to control those two?

BE: No.

CT: OK. Do you think that a situation has been created where Mercedes is so dominant that the championship is obviously between those two and therefore the interest and excitement is between those two and those two alone?

Before they go to the race, people want to think four or five guys could win, but now…

BE: Yeah.

CT: That’s a bit of a damning indictment on the sport, or the dominance of Mercedes within it, isn’t it? Because, in essence, Lewis and Nico are going to win each race. Everyone knows that. That for you must be a problem. Isn’t it? In terms of ratings?

BE: Well, of course it is. Massive.

CT: Do you find that hugely frustrating?

BE: Yeah. Sure. Before they go to the race, people want to think four or five guys could win, but now… Normally you’d say, “One of those two, and I think it’s going to be Lewis,” because that’s what had been proved up to now – thank God that Nico has won some races.

CT: What would you do if you were setting out again to stop Mercedes being as dominant as it is? What would you do and at what point, to change it?

BE: It’s the engine. They should have never had that. The biggest mistake people have made… I say, “people,” because it wasn’t just me alone, was not insisting Mercedes supply Red Bull an engine. Because had they supplied the same engine as they had, you would have seen good racing, you would have seen Red Bull up there last year.

EJ: Bernie, I thought you had that negotiated with Niki? What happened there?

BE: Well, they changed their mind.

EJ: Who changed it for them? Toto?

BE: Yeah, I think Toto. Didn’t want competition.

EJ: That’s not really in the interest of Formula One, overall is it?

BE: No, but it’s in HIS personal interest.

EJ: But he has to think about the sport, does he not? The sport is paying him an awful lot of money; surely he has an obligation? Particularly when a deal was done, Bernie.

BE: They would deny there was a deal done. Didi (Mateschitz) and Niki, when they shook hands, Niki said, “It was just saying goodbye.”

EJ: I always remember something from my earliest days meeting you. You said, “Shake my hand. A deal is a deal forever. Get me to sign a contract, and I’ll find a way out of it.” Do you still hold that view?

BE: Absolutely. Yeah, I’d rather the handshake for somebody that I can trust than a contract. Because you can read the bloody contract – perhaps if you made a little bit of a mistake writing it – in a way to suit you.

EJ: Max Verstappen is a breath of fresh air.

BE: Great, eh? You’d have had him in your day…

EJ: Since last year I said, “I think this kid is absolutely world-class.” Have you seen anything to change that view?

BE: No. Early on, I thought he’d got a bit lucky, and the press had been very much behind him, and lifted him… but I think he’s what you said…

EJ: For his age, he’s fantastic. So, we have some great stars on the horizon. We’ve got lots of good drivers there.

BE: Yes, but you know there’s one or two – if we didn’t have Nico and Lewis in those cars – there’s one or two guys down the field who in those cars would have delivered the same.

CT: Who else do you look at on the grid and rate in a similar way that you rate Verstappen?

BE: I think at the moment it’s difficult to say. The Mexican guy [Pérez] is good, gets the job done.

EJ: On street circuits, he does a good job. Tell me, Wehrlein, first year in F1, which we know how difficult it is to penetrate the top five or six positions. Toto must be happy with his young driver finishing in the top ten… he finished 10th in Austria, which is remarkable… He’s another young kid who’s worth watching…

BE: Yeah, I think he gets it. This whole thing – as you know, the same as me – is a case of what equipment you’ve got. He has got a personal contract with Mercedes or with Toto, and I think he might get a bit of help.

EJ: Engine-wise?

BE: And a few other things…

EJ: Can we talk about politics perhaps? You’re an advocate for Leave. You think you backed the right horse?

I think we don’t need some people in Brussels trying to run countries that are some distance apart…

BE: Absolutely.

EJ: Where do you see Europe now?

BE: Well I think we should SHUT UP, stop talking about negotiating anything, just be quiet and let things sort themselves out a little bit, and see what happens. Maybe there will be one or two other countries that think what Britain’s done, we can do, and it seems the right way to go.

EJ: Trying to look at this crystal ball, in two years’ time would Britain be very happy that they made that bold decision?

BE: I’m sure they will. I’m absolutely sure.

CT: What is it, as a businessman, that makes you think that?

BE: Well I think we don’t need some people in Brussels trying to run countries that are some distance apart, who don’t speak the same language, don’t eat the same food. There’s a bit of difference between, Holland, if you like, and Italy.

EJ: Do you think Trump has a chance?

BE: I hope so. It’d be good for the world if he won.

EJ: It’d be good for your friend Putin, because he’d be laughing all the way around the world, wouldn’t he?

BE: Trump would want to cosy up to him for sure, and he’d be right to do that. Which would be good for the world.

CT: So in a world where Trump gets voted in in America, what does that do to the axis of power? Because you’ve dealt with Putin…

EJ: He’s his mate…

CT: What is it that you see in him that you admire?

BE: Putin or Trump?

CT: Putin and Trump.

BE: Trump, I think, is the sort of guy that if he maybe thought he’d made a little bit of a mistake, would find a way out, he wouldn’t want to say, “Well, that’s what I’ve done and I’m sticking to it, and I don’t give a damn.” Which is what the other people in America would be like. With Putin, he says he’s going to do something, he gets on it, does it.

CT: Is that a quality that you admire?

BE: Yeah. Super. It’s a handshake, isn’t it?

EJ: Do you enjoy causing trouble? You like aggravation? You live on it. I live on it.

BE: If somebody says, “You like putting out fires,” and I say, “It’s not a case of liking it, but I do put them out, and if there aren’t fires left I make them, so I can put them out.” It’s what we do.

CT: How long do you want to keep doing what you’re doing?

BE: Honestly, I’ve never told anybody this, so I don’t know if maybe you shouldn’t print it, but I’ve made plans. I’m only going to continue doing this for another 25 years. (laughs)

EJ: No, no, the reality. Bernie, you have the most adorable wife. She’s intelligent, she’s attractive, she’s gorgeous, she’s highly qualified, she knows how to win a Grand Prix, she’s a lawyer. Would it not be sensible – or is it possible – that you could hand over some of the reins to her to take some of the workload off you, or do you feel that she wouldn’t want to do it?

BE: I have.

EJ: But we don’t see her in the office.

BE: No, because she’s running the coffee farm in Brazil.

EJ: I’ve seen the beans. They are great beans if you can get your hands on them. Bernie, have you ever thought about it? She would run this brilliantly. She wouldn’t or couldn’t?

BE: She wouldn’t. I love her too much to punish her with that.

EJ: Well, I’m very happy to hear that, but at the same time, she actually could do a good job.

BE: She could… let’s put it this way. She certainly could do a better job than other people that are involved…

EJ: She is a proper individual. And let me tell you, you are the luckiest man, other than me, on this planet. Because Fabiana is an ace.

BE: It’s because we both deserve it.

EJ: Best decision you ever made in your life? Marrying Fabiana. I’ll answer that one for you… yes. Boy, I tell you what. She must have a Labrador and a white stick. How the hell she ever married you is beyond belief honestly.

BE: My charm. [chuckles]

EJ: Like I said, she must have a Labrador and a very big white stick.

BE: I tell you what. You should know because you’re not much bigger than me…

EJ: I wear bigger… bigger heels.

BE: But I suppose, in fairness, it probably doesn’t apply to you, but this hidden talent … [stands up]. I won’t wear shorts. [waves crotch at EJ]

EJ: Actually, those trousers are very tight on you, Bernie. [chuckles]

CT: What do you see as the future of F1? Would you like it to be more competitive, more even-handed, more…

BE: No… Our sport is ruled whether it’s for good and bad, or whatever, for technical things. There’s lots of teams out there that could and should have done better if they’d have had technical things. I suppose in the end that basically revolves around how much money they’re gonna get. I mean, let’s be realistic about that. I think Mercedes when it started the engine [development] didn’t have a budget. It spent. And then lots of teams don’t and can’t. I mean Red Bull, for example, that won four world championships, didn’t know the word “budget”, and it’s a case that it hadn’t got the ability to have the engine that it should have had. Because somebody else [Mercedes] had the engine, wouldn’t let them have it, because they didn’t want competition.

CT: So if you could write the script of F1 going forwards, would you limit budgets and help the smaller teams to get the competition back?

BE: No, I’d just make sure they all had, firstly, the same power – it’s good that they’ve got the same tyres, so now it’s a case of do they need to build their own chassis or not? We said in the meeting some time ago, when there was the liquidator of one of the teams unfortunate enough to spend more than they got, and I was saying then… “I’ll tell you what I’m prepared to do. I’ll supply all of you with engines and chassis, and give you £35 million a year to race,” and this guy was the liquidator. He said, “We want to be constructors.” [bangs table] I thought [air out of teeth] I could see the problems we have.

EJ: Bernie, for someone to take over from you in these 25 years that you’re talking about, it’s going to be near impossible. Surely you need to take somebody on and guide them through that, Bernie. Do you need to take somebody on fairly soon?

BE: To do what?

EJ: To learn from you. Because who knows what you know?

BE: Yeah, but I’m no teacher. And I think, you know, the way I do things would be difficult to teach somebody to do. They need to get another good used car dealer. That’s what they need. Find a good car dealer.

I think if you said to me who I think has been the greatest driver… I’d say Prost.

EJ: What’s the worst decision you ever made?

BE: I’m thinking about it, because I’ve made so many. I don’t think there’s any one worse than the other. They’re all pretty bad.

EJ: Selling Brabham?

BE: No. Probably when I gave things to Slavica, you know the shares of the company, and things like that. And she put it all in trust and the trust sold the shares. Um, would I turn the clock back if I could and so I still owned the company completely? Probably yes. It probably wasn’t a good decision, but it was the decision that had to be made. Was I happy that I made it? No.

EJ: There’s only one picture of a car in your office. I think it’s Carlos Pace in the Brabham BT44. Is that an indication of what the greatest time in Formula One was for you?

BE: Well, I think so, yeah, sure. Not the car. The people that we were dealing with. Not the people in Brabham, the people like you, Ken, Colin Chapman, Mr Ferrari, all those people… yeah.

EJ: And the greatest driver? Jochen Rindt your favourite ever… the greatest driver?

BE: Well, because we were very close, and we were partners, and we were friends and everything, I would say Jochen, yes, but I think if you said to me who I think has been the greatest driver… I’d say Prost.

EJ: And most people would say, er, Senna or Michael. Are you doing that just to be controversial, or what reason do you give for that?

BE: No, because Michael had a lot going for him, team-wise, and he always had another driver in the team who was helping him. For a certain period, it was the same for Senna, whereas Prost never had that luxury. He always had competitors with him. I mean, he had Senna, and he had a few other people. So I think you’d have to say perhaps – it’s difficult to say – but if you go across the whole lot, I’d think I’d probably have to say Prost.

EJ: Which of all the cars in your collection is the one that if the place was on fire you’d want to save first?

BE: I think maybe the BT49 which Nelson won the championship with. Probably, only because of that reason, I suppose. But otherwise I don’t get excited about cars.

EJ: Bernie, thank you for your time today. 

BE: My pleasure.