Features - Interview
MARCH 1, 1992
BY JOE SAWARD
Bernie Ecclestone is the man who runs Formula 1. Grand Prix racing has made him very rich - and he has made the people in F1 rich. Today he controls a worldwide sport, with billions of television viewers - and billions of dollars.
Ecclestone has come a long way since he bought the Brabham F1 team from Ron Tauranac in November 1971. Under his guidance the team won 22 victories and three Drivers' World Championships. At the same time Bernie emerged as the leader of the F1 teams and led the way in the battle with the international automobile federation which gave them more of a say in the running of the sport and also gave them more money.
It was a fight which lasted from 1975 - with the first demands being made for appearance money - until March 1981 when FISA and FOCA signed the Concorde Agreement. In the course of the fight, in January 1978, Bernie was appointed the president of administration and chief executive of FOCA. Max Mosley of the March F1 team, was appointed the FOCA legal advisor and the two led FOCA into the famous FISA-FOCA war. They were ranged against a FISA led by Jean-Marie Balestre. In the end, having taken F1 to the brink, FOCA won the television rights, the FIA and FISA agreed to take a slice of the profits.
Since those heady days of confrontation Ecclestone and Mosley have moved closer to the mainstream. Bernie was appointed the FIA Vice-President (Commercial Affairs) in March 1987, which meant that he became responsible for marketing and promoting all the FIA championships. And Mosley, once Bernie's lieutenant at FOCA became head of the FISA manufacturers' commission and, last autumn, defeated Balestre in the elections for the FISA presidency.
The rebels of the FISA-FOCA War in the early 1980s have now become the establishment. They remain the men who pull the strings.
Ecclestone is small and wiry. He peers at the world through thick spectacles with a piercing scrutiny. F1 is his show - and he likes to do it right. He's a perfectionist. He would be a mean poker player. He's also a workaholic. He lives above the FOCA offices in a luxury penthouse overlooking London's Hyde Park. He guards his private life closely. At Grands Prix he hangs out in the sinister two-tone grey FOCA bus from where he watches F1 operating. When he emerges he is always dressed in a crisp white shirt and grey slacks with knife-edge creases. He likes the word "professional" - both in terms of the image it suggests and the money it brings. Money, however, can no longer be the motivation. Bernie likes to wheel and to deal and to win. The thrill is in doing the deal and he's very clever when it comes to doing that.
One thing you can predict about Ecclestone is that you can never predict how he is going to react. At the moment F1 is in a flap about fuel and tyres. What does Bernie make of these issues?
"There are only small details to be discussed and the regulations will have universal blessing as planned," he says.
Neat. Slick. Very Bernie. But, of course, there is more to it than that. You have to pin him down.
"The smaller tyres will shorten the braking distances," he says. "In addition the cars will be more difficult to drive as they will be affected by less downforce and grip. I believe this puts more emphasis back on the ability of the driver and less on technical performance. As a result we will see more equal races. The differences between the larger and smaller teams will be reduced and - more importantly - we will offer a greater spectacle."
Getting the teams to agree to change at the Maranello Summit in June must have been difficult.
"Naturally the teams are concerned at losing any advantage which they have fought for. At the moment probably Elf is producing the best fuel. It is pretty logical that neither Elf, Williams nor Renault have any interest in changing the fuel which they are currently using. There are other teams which do not want to lose all the work and advantages which they have gained. But after some discussions all the teams were of the opinion that there were obvious advantages to be had from modifying the regulations. It will be best for the sport. For example, the fuel which is being used today in F1 bears no ressemblance whatsoever to the fuel which people can buy for their cars at fuel stations. I do no see any sense behind advertising for fuels which cannot be purchased. Therefore I cannot see the reasons for the fuel companies getting excited over this change in the regulations. I don't understand either that they are saying that by changing the regulations we are taking away the opportunity to advertise their products.
"In addition the engine manufacturers cannot be happy with the current situation. It must be acutely annoying for Renault to hear everyone saying that the fuel is the most important factor and not the engine. In my opinion F1 needs special cars, engines and drivers - what it doesn't need is special fuel."
Looking at F1 in a more general way, the economic recession is certainly making a lot of teams suffer. Surely cutting costs would be a good policy.
'What is currently experienced is one of those natural ups and downs in the world's economy. Today the economy is not good, tomorrow it will be better. Perhaps it is true that in the past some teams have not spent their money wisely, at least they will learn to do so now.
"Difficult times for the economy also create a period of selection. The poorly-organized teams have to go while the better-organized will survive. I am sure that we will lose some teams, but similarly we will gain some. That is nothing new. It has been happening for years."
But how can you sell F1 to big companies when it costs so much money?
"You tell them about the price-to-performance ratio which they can achieve in F1. There is no other motorsport category which gives so much advertising for such a small level of investment."
But what about the interest in the sport, particularly when one driver - in his case Nigel Mansell - is winning everything. That cannot be good for the sport?
"I don't see a problem. All I can do is remind you of boxing in the days when Muhammad Ali was winning everything. He as winning everything but people kept watching. At the beginning of last season, everyone was saying that nobody could beat Ayrton Senna and that the championship was over. Now there is somebody who is beating Senna and Mansell is in the same situation as Senna was last year. This is the attraction - everyone is now waiting for Mansell to fall or fail and for someone to beat him."
Some people in the F1 paddock argue that successful drivers are under such strains that it becomes impossible to cope. In recent seasons we have seen the emergence of talks about sabbatical year and - this year - Alain Prost is doing just that, taking a rest from all the pressures.
"The drivers don't lose their skill or class but rather their motivation. This has obviously happened with Ayrton Senna. I don't see this as really being a dramatic situation. Mansell was the first to announce his retirement and then came back again. Alain Prost has made a break for one year and will, I promise, be back again next year in a state which I can only presume will be highly-motivated. I cannot see Senna retiring, but if he does then he will certainly be back again."
What about getting American drivers into F1 to try to promote F1 in America - where it makes almost no impact at all.
"I would prefer to see F1 drivers from a variety of countries," says Bernie, "but I cannot see that having two Americans in F1 will help to increase the popularity of the sport in the USA."
What about getting F1 and CART closer together. Is that really possible?
"That is very difficult to see. We are working at two different levels. I don't want to be unfair but the CART series at its maximum is on a level with F3000."
What about F1 cars at Indy then?
"A super idea, but very difficult to carry out. I assume that oval races are too dangerous for F1."
Is taking F1 to Indy part of a future plan?
"I don't have any fixed plans," he says. "F1 is constantly changing and my aim is to be flexible enough to realise when it is time to make changes and then see those changes through before it is too late."
It is a most un-Ecclestone-like answer. Of course there are plans, perhaps not specific ones, but Bernie and Max - for the two are as much a double-act as Laurel and Hardy once were - know exactly in which direction they are pushing. Everyone else has to wait and see. There is no doubt that Bernie loves this kind of mystery. It makes others feel uncomfortable and you sense that he likes it that way.
Ecclestone personifies the kind of pushy business-minded professional who have made F1 what it is today. They are clever, ruthless and very successful. They are built for speed, not comfort. If this style of management is uncomfortable for the folk who have long relied on the enthusiastic amateur approach - as personified by ex-FISA president Balestre - that is tough. Times are changing.
If Bernie Ecclestone hadn't come along it would have been someone else., but it is doubtful whether they would have achieved as much as he has.