On the eve of this year’s Formula One season the talk in the paddock at the Australian Grand Prix is not all about the racing but also about the very future of the sport... and one man – as he has been since 1978 – is in the middle of it all.
F1’s billionaire boss Bernie Ecclestone – he of the glitzy pre-race grid walk, the poker face and the Andy Warhol-style moptop hairdo – is as much part of F1’s furniture as the cars and the pit lanes. He is still in the driving seat despite turning 84 last year and, rather than winding down, Ecclestone is as involved as ever. But as the pre-season chat revolves around finances – who can afford to compete, host races or pay their drivers – Ecclestone claims to be powerless to intervene.
Average annual team budgets have accelerated to a record £150m, sending two outfits – Caterham and Marussia – into the wall last year and there are several others at risk of following them; the German Grand Prix looks like it won’t happen; Sauber are rowing over who should drive for them because some drivers can attract better sponsorship... but Ecclestone seems unperturbed.
“What can we do about the teams? Their companies are in the shit because they spend more than they have got,” he tells The Independent in his softly spoken tone. “They can spend less money. It’s nothing to do with us. We can’t control people’s spending. It’s the same in every sport.
“In what I call the good old days, all it took was having a chat with the people that had the money, like Colin [Chapman, Lotus founder]. Now they come along with lawyers and can never agree on anything. The real difference is attitude and people. You used to have proper people. Now you get suits with short pockets, not deep ones.”
Caterham will not return to the grid this year but Marussia exited administration last month and are now known as Manor and backed by the former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King. But are they financially sound? “I don’t know whether they have got the money to race,” Ecclestone admits, but does say they can’t afford to miss any more grands prix after missing three last year. “They can miss three races per contract so they would be history if they miss any more.”
He is even less sure about the future of the German Grand Prix, which will be dropped because of dwindling ticket sales unless there is an 11th-hour rescue. “The German Grand Prix is dead at the moment,” he says. “It won’t get replaced if it doesn’t happen. As with any race, if it is cancelled it is cancelled. There’s not much we can do.”
Although the sport’s 10 teams were paid a record £484m in prize-money last year, the three top performers – Ferrari, McLaren, and Red Bull Racing – took 46 per cent of it. Ecclestone says that he is happy to give the minnows more but all of the others would have to agree.
“Yes, absolutely I would be happy to change the prize-money distribution if everyone agreed to it but it’s not going to happen,” he says. “It isn’t fair that the top teams get so much. Lots of things are not fair in this world, though. It’s not fair that kids are starving when other kids are throwing food away.”
Ecclestone’s relaxed attitude to the plight of the small teams cuts to the core of Formula One’s business model. Giving the top performers the richest rewards may seem like a dreadful idea because it means they are always likely to win. However, except for Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull, the majority of the others have changed names over the past five years alone, so haven’t built up as much goodwill with fans. The sport has not been damaged by their changing identities and this is largely thanks to the performance of its most well-known names.
Last year after heated battles with his team-mate Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton steered Mercedes to the title and Ecclestone expects a repeat in 2015. “I’m sure Mercedes is going to walk it this year, but if they have got two guys in the team that are racing each other it is good. It’s a two-horse race then. If they are both racing like they did last year it is good and I’m happy.”
And so are the punters, if the figures are anything to go by. Formula One is the world’s most-watched annual sports series and had 425 million television viewers last year, it makes £1bn in annual revenue and Ecclestone has amassed a £2.7bn fortune from it.
Not bad for the son of a trawlerman who started out buying and selling on London’s Petticoat Lane market and who epitomises the rags-to-riches story – although he still eschews some of today’s modern conveniences. For Ecclestone it’s still Post-It notes and fax machines. Emails come in the form of scanned fax page attachments. He doesn’t have a bodyguard and doesn’t live in a palatial home but instead has a modestly sized penthouse flat at the top of Formula One’s 10-storey headquarters opposite Hyde Park, in central London. He even gets bottles of milk delivered every day. He has allowed himself a mobile phone, though, and in a nod to his role as the sport’s sheriff his ring tone is Ennio Morricone’s theme tune to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Before Ecclestone got the keys to the billionaire’s club from owning the rights to Formula One he ran the Brabham team and won the Championship twice with Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet. Ecclestone was even more unconventional then. As he began to juggle running Brabham and the sport he used The Star pub near to the team’s headquarters in Chessington, Surrey, to hold business meetings. It was the setting for negotiations with John Bannon, the then premier of South Australia, for the first Australian Grand Prix in 1985.
Sadly, his two favourite characters from his decades in the sport are long gone: star drivers Ayrton Senna and James Hunt. “Senna was the most complete driver, because he managed to stay with a winning team for longer than anybody. James, I suppose, was my favourite character. I miss most of those people from when we had our F1 team, they were different people to today. Not worse, different. You couldn’t have those kind of privateers now. I wouldn’t be prepared to do it.”
Ecclestone says Formula One is on track to get a female driver after a 23-year absence. Last month Spain’s Carmen Jorda became development driver for Lotus ,joining Scotland’s Susie Wolff, the test driver for Williams.
Neither has yet taken part in a race but Ecclestone says it is “inevitable that there will be another female driver. Though the women will never get a fair crack because they will be taken for other reasons. Women would be taken for the fact that they can maybe pull in some sponsors.”
It’s all about the money – as ever.
Additional reporting by Luke Smith
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