Ecclestone wouldn't pay to watch current F1
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Bernie Ecclestone is in extravagant form. He extols Vladimir Putin, a president he admires, and calls for Jean Todt, the head of Formula One's governing body and a president he despairs of, to hand over responsibility for the sport.
But let's start at the beginning. Ecclestone is in his five-storey offices opposite Hyde Park. The windows to the outside world are opaque mirrors, what else?
Art — some Formula One-related, some linked to money, including a sculpture of piled up dollar bills, some of it art for art's sake — hangs on the walls of a building that would not displease Bond villain Blofeld.
Ecclestone can be forgetful when he wants to be. Sometimes he plays up to his age — 85 — and pretends not to understand what is being asked of him. But whenever he chooses to be he is as sharp as a pin. This is the mood we found him in ahead of pre-season testing, which roars into life in Barcelona on Monday.
After a playful, 'What are you up to?' he sits down on one of the racing car-style chairs around an uncluttered table, and launches into a monologue: 'I think I can say that I'm a bit of an exception in Formula One today — I have a vested interest. I want to do what is best for Formula One.
'I don't need the job. I don't need the money. Most of the participants are only thinking about what's good for them in the short term. Long term for most of those people is two or three races. The result is that Formula One is the worst it has ever been. I wouldn't spend my money to take my family to watch a race. No way.
'What's the point when you pretty much know — and the bookmakers know, and they're not stupid — that Lewis Hamilton will probably put the car on pole and more likely than not win the race, and the other Mercedes will be on the podium?'
But is Ecclestone not responsible for what is taking place? After all, he is chief executive officer of Formula One Management, the sport's ringmaster and immovable overlord.
The root of the problem, he says, lies in the decision-making process that he introduced three years ago, by which Mercedes and Ferrari hold what amounts to a veto on any new regulations.
Between them they supply engines to eight of the 11 teams, who are naturally reluctant to vote against their suppliers' wishes. That means that at the F1 Commission, a body comprising 26 members and requiring a vote of 18 for a motion to be passed, the two big engine manufacturers can regularly get their way.
Self-interest is served, with progress relating to the sport's competitiveness — a tweak to regulations here and there — hard to come by. And this arrangement is set in stone until 2020.
'This sort of thing is what is commonly known as a cartel,' said Ecclestone. 'And cartels are illegal. We are running something that is illegal. On top of all that it is anti-competitive.'
Two of the smaller teams, Sauber and Force India, have brought the dubious situation to the attention of the European Commission, but Ecclestone said: 'The Commission may get involved but we are big boys and we should be able to sort it out ourselves.'
But what can he do to rectify a predicament that still has three years to run? 'I have something in mind,' he said with a twinkle.
What might that be?
'I don't get mad, I get even,' he said, now deadpan. 'I've had to take people out and show them a few graves. There's still room there.'
One serious, and urgent, plan is to redefine the role of Todt, the former Ferrari team principal who oversaw Michael Schumacher's years of dominance before he succeeded Max Mosley as FIA president in 2009. At first, the Frenchman's emollient approach was welcomed as an antidote to Mosley's combativeness. Now his inaction is widely seen as a handbrake on the sport.
'Jean, unfortunately, has become a diplomat,' said Ecclestone. 'He wants everyone to be happy. It's a nice way for a president to think but it doesn't work like that. You can't make everyone happy.'
Todt has been appointed the UN secretary general's special envoy for road safety, an area of life- saving to which Ecclestone feels Todt should confine himself.
'Jean is doing a very good job for road safety. He makes a big effort. He travels the world meeting people. But his interest in Formula One is purely a result of being president of the FIA and the fact that he is expected to be there for Formula One. He doesn't look to do anything that might destabilise what he really wants to do in the UN.
'He should carry on with the other stuff, but hand over responsibility for Formula One to someone else. I am going to speak to him about it.'
Who should take over Todt's Formula One brief, then?
'No idea,' said Ecclestone. 'That's up to the FIA.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is a man that Ecclestone would like to see in charge of European politics
'At the last World Council one of the vice-presidents put forward a motion that Mr Ecclestone and Mr Todt could do whatever they needed to do to sort out Formula One, and that was passed. I said, "Jean, we can now do what we want". "Ohhhh," he said. "We'll get sued". I told him not to worry. If people sued us, we would pay the costs of everything. If there were damages to pay, we would pay the damages. So we had a loaded gun. But he said he didn't want that sort of problem on his watch.'
On a cabinet on the far side of the room are three picture frames. One is of Ecclestone receiving an honorary doctorate from Imperial College. The other two show him in discussion with Putin, who personally negotiated the staging of the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi.
Is Putin someone Ecclestone still admires? 'Absolutely. He's the guy who should run Europe. He will sort out this other business that is going on in Syria. The good thing is that he does what he believes to be right and he stands by it. It's hard to talk him out of anything.
'I speak to him when I need to. I like to do business with the people who switch the lights off, not the assistant's assistant. That's the only way to get things done. I've said before that I don't much like democracy. Nothing gets done. I do quite like David Cameron. I didn't think I would, but he has done what he thinks is best for Britain in the EU negotiations.
'I respect that, but I want us to leave Europe. It doesn't make any difference to my business. It doesn't make any difference to anyone here. I know what we give the EU, but not what it gives us back.'
Ecclestone is the master of dropping a bombshell and watching everyone scurry for cover. Although he thinks there is 'no chance' that Formula One's cumbersome decision-making process will permit agreement on rule changes for 2017 by the deadline of March 1 — a surely elastic timescale — he revealed a revolutionary plan that he wants in place for the opening race of this season in Melbourne on March 20 — mixed grids.
'We need more competitive racing,' he said. 'I would keep qualifying as it is. The guy who is quickest would still have his number of poles recorded for history. But then he could start, say, 10th based on his pole and where he stands in the championship. We are looking at exactly how we could do it.
'The guy who is third fastest in qualifying would start, say seventh or eighth. That is better than totally reversed grids because all you get with them is the man at the back getting past the slower guys at the start of the race. This way makes it competitive between guys of similar speed. It won't be easy to get past people.
'The big thing is that it would create debate. I would say, "I think the pole man will win for this reason or that". You say, "No, I think so-and-so will win because..." That's what we need. I don't know if we can get it through in time. We'll see.'
Ecclestone has made no obvious concessions to age. He still works the same hours as ever, leaving the office at 6-6.30pm 'when my eyes have gone', and takes his thoughts home with him. He went with his young Brazilian wife, 38-year-old Fabiana, on a Christmas break to Switzerland, but he does not see the point of skiing, despite half-owning a ski resort in the Swiss Alps. 'I like the hot chocolate while you wait.'
Is he in good nick? 'Yes,' he said, adding, after a pause: 'Physically.'
But what about mentally?
'Sure, people can take me on mentally if they want, but I am fine.' Talk turns to a mutual acquaintance whose mental faculties are disintegrating. 'It's terrible when you know it's happening to you, but fine if you don't.'
So does he forget things?
'You know, I do have Alka-Seltzer,' he said gravely, using his own word for Alzheimer's. 'But only when I want to.'
He has not been to visit Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world champion who remains badly stricken at his home by Lake Geneva more than two years after he hit his head in a skiing accident.
'That's the last thing I would want to do,' he said. 'I hardly ever go to funerals. I like to remember people when they were alive and well. I hear mixed reports about Michael, but I only want to see him again when we can speak face-to-face and have a nice discussion.'
What of his fortune, estimated at £2billion-plus: what will he do with that when he goes? Perhaps he could leave a legacy to Silverstone to have the track renamed the Bernie Ecclestone Circuit?
'No way. I don't want to go before I have spent everything. Then I don't care. They can put me in a cardboard box. Some advertising on the side would be nice. Then they can stick me in the oven.'
- Daily Mail