True to form former Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has emerged with some provocative soundbites ahead of a new season, this time in a wide-ranging interview with Corriere de la Serra the 88-year old had a lot to say about the circus that has set up tent in Melbourne for this weekend’s season opener.
Ecclestone famously ruled over F1 for decades, transforming it into the high profile sport it is today while pocketing billions for his efforts, his mark on the sport will be felt for years to come and, to this day, he is not shy to lob a “Bernie grenade” into the paddock and watch the fallout.
In January 2017 he was unceremoniously deposed and replaced by a triumvirate, namely Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches led by Chase Carey.
Of the changes since his departure, Ecclestone said, “Only the people have changed. The circuits are the same, also the structures and everything we have built over the years.
Asked if a return to the helm at some point in the future, the octogenarian replied, “No, it would be a mistake to go back, even if I had the chance. Why should I change that again, trying to change Liberty?”
As for the problems Liberty Media have faced, he said, “Today it is all the more difficult, you can see a lot more variety, the television system has changed and the ratings have fallen.”
Can the trend be reversed? “Yes, if the [F1] competition improves. In the past few seasons, we knew before it started that Hamilton would win. How do you sell that product? F1 is Ferrari and Ferrari is F1, if Ferrari wins the World Championship it is the best that can happen in F1.”
“They should have won it last year, they had the right car, but [Sergio] Marchionne’s passing left a huge void. Even Vettel felt lost, he was not happy with how the team was managed and he made mistakes that he would never have made in other conditions.”
“Maurizio Arrivabene tried to change a few things but he wasn’t aligned with the right people inside Ferrari. Mattia Binotto is very different, he has been working there for 25 years. He understands the company and the people he works with, and makes decisions quickly.”
“Ferrari is special and must be protected. Enzo Ferrari told me in negotiations: Let’s put the commercial aspects under the table, let’s talk about sports. I miss him and Colin Chapman so much, if there was a time-machine I would use it only to meet them again.”
“I believe that with Vettel this time Ferrari will win. I am very happy about the atmosphere in the team and about the car. Although Hamilton remains the favourite.”
Asked to expand on his relationship with Vettel, Ecclestone explained, “We are friends, we talk and we exchange advice. We spent New Year together in Switzerland. He is very intelligent, with many interests in every field, but he is reserved. As soon as a race finishes, he returns home to his wife and children. He is the opposite of Lewis.”
“Hamilton is unique. He’s the best and the worst for F1. The best because he knows how to promote this sport like no other and the worst because he takes away attention from F1. He doesn’t do anything wrong, but the other drivers have to wake up and show their personality.”
On the other side of the coin is Fernando Alonso who has walked away from the sport at the height of his prowess because no winning team had a place for the Spaniard.
“It’s a great loss,” said Ecclestone before adding with a laugh, “In 2020 maybe he will return to Ferrari…”
He also gave his views on the downfall of former giants Williams and McLaren, observing that the once mighty teams are “no longer in the hands of supercompetitive men like Ron Dennis and Frank Williams. They have to find another Ron and another Frank to be great again.”
On the eve of the new season, the unification of Red Bull and Honda is one of the main talking points with Ecclestone claiming some credit for the partnership, “I had suggested this alliance to Red Bull three years ago: Honda is competitive by nature, it’s enough to see their motorcycles.”
Formula 1 is currently pondering and planning the ideal power unit package for the future, hybrid turbo the current era which is sure to make way for an electric or semi-electric F1 engine at some point.
But Ecclestone has a simple solution, “I would cancel these rules: they cost a fortune and are not needed. Penalty if you change the engine, what nonsense, and who cares about saving gasoline? Let them drive.”
“Sometimes they ask me which one was the best driver of the last thirty years and I say, Prost. He got into the car and drove, he had very strong teammates and was impervious to external problems. Alain could have won more, he was unlucky.”
FIA president Jean Todt has forged a stronger bond with Carey and his men than he had with Ecclestone. The diminutive pair were more light sparring partners than partners, the F1 supremo marginalising the President as much as he could. It was an unholy alliance that prevailed until Liberty were handed the keys.
Ecclestone elaborated, “Jean did a good job of convincing Liberty that they need the FIA to change things, but F1 could even exist without the Federation… teams and promoters could write the rules themselves and run using another name.”
“Personally, I’m not for democracy, we need a dictator who says: Here are the rules. If you go to a ballet you already know which shoes you have to wear.”
With regards to Mercedes, he predicted they will remain as an engine supplier but added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they stopped running the team. Whether it happens or not, the team’s governance is so solid that it can start any new adventure. Toto and Niki have done an incredible job.”
In the late seventies, Ecclestone owned Brabham who at one point were powered by Alfa Romeo engines, the combo winning a couple of Grand Prix races in the process.
The Italian marque is now back and Ecclestone recalled the time he was their partner, “We worked well: they didn’t speak English and we didn’t understand Italian. So we never argued. I am happy to see Alfa again: I advised Marchionne to bring them back to the track…”
Big Question: Is Bernie still relevant to F1 under Liberty?