Ecclestone: I might retire at 85

Formula One head is in irrepressible mood at Indian Grand Prix, as is Vettel, who takes pole

It was business as usual on the impressive Buddh International race track here in the city's remote Uttar Pradesh district, but there was rather more happening off it than was the case recently in Japan or South Korea.

Perhaps that was because Bernie Ecclestone, 82 today, dropped in to stir the pot a little.

First there was the little matter of the Bavarian bank, BayernLB, which is suing Ecclestone for $400m (£248m). The bank is demanding compensation over the sale of Formula One to the equity company CVC in 2006.

Some might say that is typical of a bank, wanting to pass their own misjudgment off on to somebody else, and an amused Ecclestone was among them.

Then he neatly sidestepped the vexed matter of the political storm in a teacup that Ferrari caused by carrying the Italian Navy burgee on their cars in support of two marines who, allegedly, shot and killed in February two Indian fishermen in the mistaken belief that they were pirates.

But he was only warming up. He was soon having to deny increasing rumours that he planned to step down from his position as the F1 ringmaster.

"Eventually I'm going to go, one way or another," he said chirpily. "But as long as I feel I can deliver, and the shareholders are happy for that to happen, I'll stay.

"When we decided some time ago that we were going to consider a flotation the obvious thing was, 'Well, what's going to happen about Bernie?' So we put in the prospectus that we're going to find a head-hunter to try and find someone. That was a couple of years ago.

"But now as long as I feel I can deliver – and they're happy for that to happen – I will stay. I'll tell CVC [F1 owners] exactly if I'm going to turn it in when I'm 85 or something like that, which will give them plenty of notice."

The Indian Grand Prix, which was inaugurated last year, is another of Ecclestone's "new" races, born from the need to cast further afield in search of governments able and willing to invest upwards of $150m in creating the necessary infrastructure and then to pump in another $40m each year (plus a 10 per cent annual escalator) for up to seven years to put their country on the sporting map.

China and South Korea have both met with qualified success, but though they have a similarly immature motor-racing heritage, India have embraced the sport and, even more crucially, welcomed it.

Next year's planned event in New Jersey has been postponed for a year, which means it should come on stream at the same time as Russia. And Ecclestone freely admitted that the days of European countries staging races could thus be numbered. "We'll keep trying to move forward," he said. "We're a World Championship. We'll probably lose two or three more races in Europe as we have to move on."

He merely shrugged at the suggestion that could mean perming any four from Monaco, Britain, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Germany, with a laconic, "Who knows?" Which means that he probably does, but isn't telling.

Out where things were not such a grey area, Sebastian Vettel made life a trifle difficult for himself after making a mistake on his first run in the final qualifying session, but his subsequent lap was fast enough to stay ahead of Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber by a tenth of a second.

Closer than expected, another few tenths adrift, the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button lined up ahead of the Ferraris of former points leader Fernando Alonso and team-mate Felipe Massa.

"Third is a great position to start from, especially as our long-run pace seemed to be relatively good compared to others yesterday," Hamilton said. "Ferrari potentially look very good too, so we all look very similar on race pace and ours will be better than the last one we did. I look forward to a race where we don't have any issues and can fight for the win."

If Ferrari can't do that themselves, to keep Alonso in the fight, a McLaren victory could be their next best hope of limiting Red Bull's points-gathering spree.

Leading grid positions

1 S Vettel (Red Bull) 1min 25.283sec

2 M Webber (Red Bull) 1:25.327

3 L Hamilton (McLaren) 1:25.544

4 J Button (McLaren) 1:25.659

5 F Alonso (Ferrari) 1:25.773

6 F Massa (Ferrari) 1:25.857

7 K Raikkonen (Lotus) 1:26.236

8 S Perez (Sauber) 1:26.360

9 P Maldonado (Williams) 1:26.713

10 N Rosberg (Mercedes) (no time)

Television coverage from 8am, Sky Sports F1

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