On the eve of the United States Grand Prix Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has taken a swipe at America while coming out in support of beleaguered FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and once again declaring his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Ecclestone said in an interview with state-funded Russian TV network RT, that he did not “think there’s any place for democracy, full stop. Anywhere.”
Asked what he thought of Putin, who presented the winner’s trophy to Britain’s world champion Lewis Hamilton at last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, Ecclestone said: “Super. I’m his best supporter.”
Turning to America, Ecclestone said: “We (Formula One) ought to try and beef up a little bit in America. It’s hard for me. I’m not very enthusiastic about America.”
“The biggest problem with them is I think they believe they’re the greatest sort of power in the world. Believe. Not in reality but in belief.
“And it’s difficult, because, they are a big island so they are a bit isolated. They are slowly starting to learn about what other people in the world do.”
The Russian station headlined the interview: “Bernie Ecclestone: America falsely believes it’s greatest superpower”.
has defended Sepp Blatter’s record as FIFA president and questioned why the 79-year-old Swiss should have to step down from the scandal-mired soccer body.
The 84-year-old also spoke out against democracy and said he was “not very enthusiastic about America”.
“I don’t think he should ever have stepped down,” Ecclestone said of Blatter, who has been in office for 18 years and been suspended for 90 days amid the worst corruption scandal in FIFA’s history. “And I don’t think he should have ever been challenged.
“It’s because of him we have a lot of countries throughout the world that are now playing football and if these people allegedly have been corrupted to make things happen in their country, it’s good. It’s a tax that football have had to pay.”
Blatter, who took the World Cup to Africa for the first time, was re-elected in May but then succumbed to an international outcry and is due to step down in February.
Ecclestone faced bribery allegations of his own in a German court last year, eventually paying a $100 million settlement to avoid a lengthy trial and preserve his innocence.
The diminutive billionaire is no stranger to controversial comments, causing a storm in 2009 when he told a newspaper interviewer that Adolf Hitler was someone who was “able to get things done”.
The Briton, who subsequently apologised unreservedly for that comment, has compared himself to a dictator in his sport and expressed his admiration for ‘strong leaders’.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Bernie Ecclestone, it’s so great to have you on our show today.
BE: It’s my pleasure.
SS: So, it’s your second time in Russia, Sochi – was it so good last time that you had to come back the second time?
BE: It’s quite surprising how people were always a little bit concerned, about being here for a race and now people can’t wait, they’re all happy to be here.
SS: What’s so special about Grand Prix in Russia, in Sochi – because it’s kinda new for everyone?
BE: That’s probably what’s great – because it’s new for everyone. I have noticed from last year, people seem to understand a lot more about Formula One.
SS: I know that you’ve said that “as long as I live, there will be Grand Prix in Russia, Sochi” – is it kind of difficult to do something like that in current political situation? Because, you know, there are so many tensions between West and Russia now…
BE: I don’t think Russia’s concerned about the West.
SS: Russia is not. That’s for sure.
BE: Maybe, the West is concerned, and they should be.
SS: There was this analyst, his name Andrew Foxall, he’s from the Russian Studies Center, and he said: “I think Formula One is Putin’s attempt to show Russia’s greatness through sporting events” – would you agree with that? What do you think?
BE: I don’t think Russia needs sporting events to be great and look great. What it does, it exposes to the rest of the world what Russia is – and that’s a difference.
SS: I saw you watching Formula One with Putin last year. What do you think of the man?
BE: Super. I’m his best supporter.
SS: I think one year ago you said about Formula One that it has become too democratic, that everyone just has to be too happy. So there’s no place for democracy in Formula One?
BE: I don’t think there’s any place for democracy, first of all.
SS: Ever? Anywhere?
SS: It’s funny you say that, because, for me, who is not a Formula One expert – I mean, I’m just an amateur, I’ve just observed you, you’ve just somehow managed to stay this “splendid dictator” in conditions that somehow appear to be a democracy. How do you manage?
BE: That’s because it appears to be a democracy, perhaps, that’s a reason. I think, if you can get people to, more or less, fall in line with what you’re trying to do and support you, then it seems like democracy, which is exactly what democracy should be seeming like.
SS: So, what’s that balance, how do you find that perfect balance between being the perfect manipulator and a perfect moderator?
BE: I don’t know, I think, it’s one of these things that happens. You can’t teach people to do these things.
SS: You just have to have it in you? It’s something that can’t be taught?
BE: Probably, yes. And you have to have enough courage to do what you think is the right thing to do.
SS: So it’s more about courage?
BE: It’s an essential part, trying to lead people.
SS: So, but we talk about democracy, right? There’s no place in a democracy, like you’ve said, for strong leader, with power – that actually, completely contradicts democracy. You are that kind of guy, who’s really strong and very powerful and very charismatic, in a “seeming democracy”… who do you think is like you in that sense, who’s in that club with you? In the comparison that I’ve just given you.
BE: Well, I don’t know…
SS: It doesn’t have to be a sports person, just anyone – who do you think is in that club?
BE: You’ve got the perfect person here.
SS: Anyone else?
BE: The trouble today in the world is that we haven’t got too many real leaders. If you look at all the countries and try to pick somebody – it wouldn’t be easy. You’ve got semi- sort of people who think they would be doing that, but they are not.
SS: You know, I look at you – you’ve fended off so many challenges throughout your way, while you were boss of Formula One. You’ve got scandals, you’ve got court cases – is it always just pain in the neck or just it gives you adrenaline and makes you go forward?
BE: No, I think, I’ve been lucky.
SS: So, luck is also indispensable for someone like you?
BE: I think, everybody needs a little bit of luck in their life.
SS: How much is “a little bit” for… you know, to be in the position where you are? How much of it is luck and how much of it is your courage, like you’ve said, how much of it is the knowledge that you have?
BE: I never analyzed these things.
SS: You don’t?
BE: I think I’ve been lucky in life, in general.
SS: I don’t know if you’ve been asked this question before, but there are other really great heavyweights in sports, that’ve been there for a long time. We’re talking about Sepp Blatter, but he’s run into considerable trouble and he had to leave his post. As an observer, do you think he should have gone on and fought for it, or it’s a good thing that he’s stepping down? Just as an observer opinion?
BE: I don’t think he should have ever stepped down, and I don’t think he should have ever been challenged, because it’s because of him we have a lot of countries around the world that are now playing footbal. And if these people allegedly have been corrupted to make things happen in their country, it’s good. It’s a tax football had to pay.
SS: It’s really hard to see one single person filling your shoe. I mean, I don’t what it has to take for someone to replace you. Are you ever afraid of what may happen to Formula One when you will eventually leave, someday?
BE: No, they’ll probably find somebody doing a much better job that I’ve been doing.
SS: Come on.
BE: No, maybe in a different way. Maybe, somebody a bit more democratic.
SS: Are you afraid of anything at all?
BE: No, not at all.
SS: You have no sense of fear whatsoever?
SS: I know that you’ve said that you want to tear up Formula One rulebook. Why?
BE: I think a lot of that technical regulations are too stringent, and it’s really been like an old house and people keep adding bits and pieces to it, and really, nobody knows why we’ve added them. I am as guilty as anybody else; so, I think maybe we ought to tear it and have another book. We’ve become much too clinical with too many rules and regulations, and I think, the drivers, when they go out to start the race, they should be on their own. They shouldn’t have help from the pits, but advice on things.
SS: Also, I couldn’t help but notice that new Formula One regulations proposal for 2017 actually includes to make cars faster, louder, more aggressive looking – I don’t really know what that means, but, I get a sense that it has become more about the show than sports – am I wrong? Formula One in general. Is it all about the appearance?
BE: I think, it has become more about the sport.
SS: You think it’s more about the sport?
BE: …than show, yes. I think we are in show business. The minute we stop entertaining, we’re in trouble. So people like racing… I think, what our biggest problem is that you and I know pretty well who’s going to be the World Champion this year. It can’t be right. People come to watch racing, to watch anything, and they don’t want to know the result before it starts. That’s the rulebook that I want to tear up.
SS: I am a political journalist, as I’ve told you, so I see everything in a political context – so when I look at Formula One, right, you’re the President, you have the legislative body, which is, you know, gives you regulations, you have the teams that are kind of like the parties: sometimes they’re in opposition, sometimes they lead… sponsors are sponsors, there are sponsors everywhere, big corporations… Now, I can’t figure out the puzzle about the pilots. Who are the pilots in this construction? Or, who are the pilots to you, personally?
BE: Everyone’s got their place, in what you are just sort of referring to. And we’ve all got a job to do, whatever it is. I can’t drive the cars, so we have to rely on the drivers. The regulators… they should make sure that all the regulations that we came up with are strictly adhered to. So, sponsors come and go, obviously. And the teams come and go.
SS: But the drivers. I want to know who are they are to you personally.
BE: How I feel about them?
SS: Yes. I’ll tell you why I am asking – because… I am crazy about soccer, I saw once when Jose Mourinho took victory in the Inter-Milan the and then right after he announced he’s leaving, and you had this huge Marco Materazzi and they were just hugging. And at that moment it just had me wondering forever, what is that relationship between the boss and the player? I mean, you and the pilot – where do you draw that line, emotional attachment – is it just a function for you, a pilot, or it is someone that stays in your life forever, no matter what? Do you know what I mean?
BE: You get attached to some drivers. Some drivers are easy to feel attached to. I’ve been close to a couple of good, good friends. So, you are attached to these people. Each of them has got something a bit special. I’ve been talking to Hamilton just now about things he wants to do – and he’s thinking long-term, so it’s good to be able to encourage. He’s come to me to ask me for some things, for him, longer-term, to do. When he stops racing, “what can I do” sort of things. So, it’s good to have that sort of association with drivers.
SS: I can tell that you really like the guy, Hamilton. You always talk about him, you’ve said he’s very good for business, for Formula One.
BE: He’s super.
SS: So, is it not enough to just be a good driver? What else do you have to have in order to be a star in Formula One?
BE: He’s wonderful. He exposes Formula One. All people like him.
SS: Why do you like him?
BE: He’s open, very open-thinking person, and I think he genuinely wants to do good things for Formula One. I think he appreciates the business he’s in.
SS: You know, even for someone who’s an amateur like me, I’ve always watched these great epic battles take place between different race car drivers; like, for instance, you had, I don’t know Senna and Prost, Schumacher and Villeneuve – they were like actual giants battling with techniques, and we had movies made about it and videos, and you don’t really see that that much anymore. Why is that?
BE: I want to tear that book up for that reason, because, although, Lewis is very talented, his car is so much better than anybody else’s, but as guy’s that are driving in the same team, but someone from another team – so there might be a whole bunch of people down there, that are maybe as good as him, and they never going to be exposed for people to ever know: that’s what’s wrong.
SS: Who would you say is the best pilot of all time? I am even not asking about today, but, like, for you?
BE: I had a guy, he was a partner of mine in buisness, called Jochen Rindt, he’s Austrian, he won the World Championship – but he was dead when he won the Championship, if you like, because he won it and he died after on in the Championship. We were very close friends, and he was a very talented driver.
SS: What made him so special that you think he’s the best pilot ever? Just the fact that he was your close friend?
BE: He delivered what he had to. That makes champions, you know, in anything, in tennis, or whatever: the champions, when they had to deliver, they delivered.
SS: What do you think of Russia’s Daniil Kvyat?
BE: Nice guy. Very-very talented, and he’s one of the guys I am talking about. He’s somebody, who, if he was in the same car as Lewis, maybe could deliver. He’s just at the moment in wrong team.
SS: Now we see Formula One sort of moving to the east – you have Russia, you have Azerbaijan, you have Singapore, Bahrain. Do these racetracks bring more fans, more money? What’s this movement eastward all about?
BE: We’re are a World Championship, always been a World Championship. We were based more or less based in Europe – so it can hardly be a World Championship. So when the opportunity arose to move, I mean, I tried to have a race even in 80s. So, I’ve always wanted to move this way.
SS: Is there something wrong with Europe, with the old places, like Germany and France? Why move away from Europe?
BE: I think Europe is a thing of a past anyway. I think it would be a nice for people from China and even here, to visit, and look how the old times were, you know. It’s not going anywhere.
SS: What other places would you want to see Formula One take place then?
BE: We ought to try and be for a little bit in America.
SS: That’s kinda hard, in America?
BE: It’s hard for me.
BE: I’m not very enthusiastic about America, so…
SS: Why not? You certainly can’t say that America’s the thing of the past.
BE: Really… the biggest problem with them is that they believe greatest sort of power in the world.
SS: Yeah, that’s what they are based on. They’re teach every kid that…
BE: No, believe, not in reality, it’s being a belief. And it’s difficult, because, they are a big island, so they are a bit isolated; they are slowly starting to learn what other people in the world do.
SS: If there’s anything else you could have done, except for Formula One, what it would be?
BE: I could have continued in my old profession, I was a used car dealer, so I could have continued doing that. I bought a race team and decided I was going to retire from business, travel the world and look after my race team, but I got caught up in things.
SS: Bernie, it was great talking to you, thank you very much for this interview, and we hope to see you every year in Russia.
BE: For sure. As long as you want me here, I’m here. As simple as that.
SS: Thank you a lot.
BE: And, you know too much about Formula One for a political journalist.