An interview with Bernie Ecclestone, "I'm a pussycat"
As heard on BBC Live Five
September 5, 2004

In an interview with Des Lynam for BBC Radio's Five Live, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone talked candidly about a number of issues regarding Formula One.  Lynam introduced him as fabulously wealthy and the most powerful man in motorsports.   They say he is one of the few men on earth who could write a check for one billion pounds and not have to clear it with the bank manager.

In response to the claim by the average fan that F1 has become boring, Ecclestone said; "Rubbish.  Apart from Germany, "every race, other than in Germany, attendances have been up," he retorted. "And in Germany, where the attendance was only down by around 5%, something like that, this was due to the fact that they are in a little bit of a recession.  "It's one of those things, a newspaper says 'it's boring', pretty soon someone else copies it and says 'it's boring', soon they're all saying that 'it's boring." [Reminds us of all the claims in the media last year that Champ Car was dead.]

"If Ali was still fighting and you knew fool well that he was going to knock his opponent out in the second round, you'd probably say 'it's going to be boring', but you'd still go watch the fight."

"People say it's boring because Michael Schumacher wins, I wish he'd won all the races. Because then, at every race, people would be watching to see if somebody beats him. There's always that anticipation that someone will beat him "Further down the field, the rest of the racing is super," he added.

On the issue of overtaking, Ecclestone  said. "It is something we're really looking into, but in all honesty there are lots of different schools of thought. Some say pit-stops causing drivers to wait and do their passing in the pits, while at the same time the design of the cars makes overtaking difficult. Then there are the circuits. There's always a lot of passing when it rains," he said. "Another factor is the soft rubber used for the tires, when it is worn off it causes 'marbles'. If drivers go off line onto the 'marbles' they lose grip and can go off, that's why they all prefer to stay on the simple line, the racing line.  There are quite a few things we can do," he revealed, "including harder tires, in order to make it a little easier to overtake.  In the rain there are no marbles and the drivers pass."

On the subject of qualifying, "The anomaly is that at a Grand Prix we spend two whole days trying to find out which is the quickest car," he said. "Then we put them at the front of the grid. They're the quickest, so why do we expect them to be overtaken? We know what's wrong, but we don't know what's right.

"What I am trying to do, is that drivers would get points for qualifying, so if you are the quickest you get rewarded, but the actual starting grid for the race is decided by ballot. Maybe the driver who is quickest could end up at the back of the grid, or maybe he could end up at the front, it would be down to luck.  That would liven things up for sure.   But, we would probably get the drivers complaining, 'it's not fair', 'I'm quick but I'm halfway down the grid, it's not my fault'," he added. "Then there's the team owners, all they want to do is win."

Is he still as fascinated with F1 as when he started? "Yes," he replies. "In all honesty it hasn't changed very much. All this nonsense about overtaking, it hasn't happened that much before. Whereas if you look at something like motorbikes where there are lead changes every lap, nobody watches it. It's quite strange. I think people like the idea of can the driver catch the guy in front, rather than the certainty that he will.

Asked how he achieved his extraordinary, successful life, Ecclestone says, "I've been lucky," he replies.  "I've always been a bit of a wheeler-dealer, since before I was sixteen. It's just one of those things, I'm still wheeling and dealing, but in different amounts," he admits.  And does he enjoy wheeling and dealing? "Yes," he responds. "I like the business side of things, though I don't like doing bad deals.  If you ask me to do a deal for you I will do the best I can, even if I don't get paid."

He then reflected on his early days, racing before he had a license, moving from bikes to cars.

"I bought the Brabham team in 1970, and soon people were saying 'would you mind doing this', 'could you do that'. People relied on me, and thought that I'd do the right thing for them, which hopefully I did.

"It's about getting people's confidence," he continued. "When Mr Ferrari was around he was a big supporter of me and Colin Chapman (Lotus), a big supporter.

Asked if he regarded himself as "ruthless", Ecclestone, he shot back, "no."  "I'm decisive, if I say I'm going to do something I do it, you've got to be as good as your word.  Providing you're fair and honest, you're halfway there. In all honesty I'm a pussycat, I'm a real pushover... if you push hard enough.

Lynam then if Bernie thought his schoolmates would be surprised at his success. "I don't know," said the 73-year-old. "I haven't kept in touch with them, not out of any particular choice, but just because I've lost track. I'd like to hear from some of them."

"There is a lot of luck in being successful.  You have to be lucky enough to have the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time to take the risk to be successful.

Asked if there was another career that he might like to have tried, had he not succeeded in what he is doing, he replied. "If I could turn the clock back in time, perhaps a barrister (lawyer). It's good to be in a position where you're arguing a case and trying to win, it's competitive."

Asked about his personal fortune - Ecclestone was again quick to respond. "It's not my money," he said. "It's my wife, I'm married to a rich wife."

Asked the importance of money, he replied: "Basically, money is a way of keeping score of how well one is doing. It's the barometer of success.  A measure that I am doing a good job.  I do not have the money people say I have, I have given much of it away to my wife."

He then attempted to portray the Ecclestone house as "a pretty average, bigger than the average, but not much". Slavica, we were informed, does what other mothers and housewives do, washing, cooking and ironing, while the kids usually wait until the sales before they buy new clothes.  She does not spend a lot of money.  We will leave our money to our kids and we give a lot to charity."

Asked about his heroes, Bernie replied that he was lucky to have had many of them drive for him. "Lauda, Graham, Piquet and Pace, all those guys. Jochen Rindt was another. In those days I was attached to those guys, and one or two of them died, you get attached to these people, nice guys."

Asked how he coped with the deaths, he pauses. "I fell out of 'being involved at that .time' for a little while,". "That's how I coped, or at least tried to cope. It was a little silly really; it wasn't going to bring him back.

"In those days we used to lose two or three top drivers every year, when Senna was killed it was big shock to everyone. Things have changed a lot thank God.  People want to see accidents; they don't want to see anyone hurt.

Asked about the lack of 'characters' in F1 these days, Ecclestone replied: "I don't know if there's a special tablet that you give someone to make them a 'character'. First these guys make a lot of money, they're also protected by sponsors, they don't have to be characters, just simply say nice things.  Fifteen or twenty years ago half the field were characters, but that doesn't happen anymore," he admitted.

"I'd be upset if I was a driver and I had to listen to journalists - we get around 800 at each Grand Prix - all asking the same silly questions. Nobody comes up with anything original, so I guess they get fed up in the end.

"What is it that makes the best drivers the best?" asks Lynam. Most of the guys that become world champions are 'up together' and bright," replies Bernie. "They know the way to win, and they want to win. You ask me why I want to make money, why does Schumacher want to win? He's made a lot of money, and although there is a chance he can get hurt, he still wants to win, he doesn't want to be second.  He wants to win."

Asked about the lack of British drivers in F1 at present,  "Any drivers coming up through the ranks, if a driver is good he will get a shot. Button is good, he will get his shot   The lower teams expect them to have some sort of budget available," he says, "and some guys just don't have it. In other countries they support their drivers.

"Minardi," says Lynam. "What's the point of them being in it?" "It's commercially alright, otherwise they wouldn't do it," replies Bernie. Also, the guy that runs Minardi is an enthusiast, he loves racing. He likes being there. However, every time he goes to a circuit he knows that his cars will be last, or least the odds of his cars being anything but last are slim.  I don't know how they do that"

"And Jaguar," says Lynam, "doesn't their failure reduce their product value?"   Absolutely.  They shouldn't be there, they really shouldn't," says Ecclestone. "Someone's got to be fifteenth and eighteenth and tenth, you can't all be first. At least they should be competitive.. We've seen that McLaren's had a lousy year this year, but at least they've still looked competitive. Jaguar has never looked like that."

He's then asked what's the future holds for Grand Prix racing. "If you'd asked me ten years ago I would have said I don't know," he replies. "F1 continues because the brand is so strong. It's like the Olympics. If you think of and analyze the Olympics, you'll find that the various sports are held every weekend. What makes the Olympics special, what has broadcasters and sponsors queuing up is the brand. It's the same with F1.  America has just paid a fortune for 2012 and there might not be one American there."

Does he still have the same control over the sport as in previous years? "Not really," he replies, a hint of sadnes. "We're far more democratic now. We have to listen to other people, which is good and bad. Most times bad.

"We've got ten teams," he continues, "ten people each thinking of what it is you want to do and how good is it for them. None of them are looking at the bigger picture, what's good for F1, what's good for F1 in five years. They only think of 'what's good for me at the next race'."

"Will F1 cars continue to get faster?" asks Lynam. "The Federation is trying to slow the cars down," replies Bernie. "I'd like to slow Ferrari down, that's all.

"F1 should be all about cars having a lot of horsepower, the cars have 900 HP now, that's what I'd like to keep. However, the circuits need to keep changing to keep up with this, you need bigger run-off areas, but that means the public is further back, which is also bad.  I'm against regulations anywhere,  I think there should be a weight and engine capacity, and that's that, but it's probably not practical."

We then move onto one of Bernie 'pet subjects', Silverstone. "There are constant stories in the media that you're not happy and that you intend dropping the race from the calendar," says Lynam. "What's the truth?" "What you've read," relies Bernie.

"And do you have the power to do that," asks Lynam. "Yes," says Bernie, "absolutely."

"So what's the problem?" he's asked

"People come from all over the world to build new race track," Bernie replies. "They come to London to meet and immediately say 'can we go to Silverstone'. I reply 'don't go there, it's not what you're looking for'. It's like an old house. If you go to look at it it's not what we want.  Go and look at Barcelona, go and look at the modern tracks.

"I'm quite ashamed of the fact that that's all England has got to offer. Most of the teams are here, F1 grew up in England, and what have we got to offer? Silverstone.  People get stuck in the mud.

"We've put money into Silverstone, the government built the roads and things, and the owners (the British Racing Drivers' Club) have done virtually not too much,  very little, other than build themselves a nice clubhouse. They treat it as a gentlemen's' club."

Asked if a London Grand Prix is a viable alternative to Silverstone, Ecclestone is convinced it is and dismisses the question of safety issues. "Monaco's safe," he says We've had races in Detroit, Dallas and Adelaide, they were safe. It could be done, it would be OK.

"What we want Silverstone to do is to bring the circuit up to 2004 (standards), not 1996 or before that," he adds.

It's pointed out that F1, unlike any other sport, is still allowed to advertise tobacco, and that the sport can't afford to lose this money.  He accused Bernie of trying to bribe the government to allow tobacco advertising.

"We don't need to lose it," he replies. In July 2005 we lose tobacco advertising in all of the EU.  We don't need to lose it. I do not believe that a non-smoker will look at a Marlboro logo on a car and decide to go out and buy a packet of Marlboro. If the signs are that powerful, for every sign we put up for tobacco we will put one up saying you will die.  However if they believe that this is possible, we will put up banners saying 'if you smoke, you'll die'. For every tobacco sign, we'll put up another that says 'if you smoke, you'll die'.

Asked who he has suggested this to, Ecclestone replies: "The EU, all the Health Ministers."  "Will they buy it?" asks Lynam. "I think, they're thinking about it," Bernie replies.

He tells a story of meeting a couple of schoolgirls, both fans of F1 and doing a school project. He asks them not to smoke in his office, to which the girls reply that neither of them smokes. 'But I thought everyone who watches F1 smokes' he tells them. 'No it has nothing to do with it' they reply.

He talks (again) briefly of his own racing career, admitting that he didn't relish the idea of injuring himself and spending the rest of his life strapped to a bed.  "If could be as good as Schumacher I'd love to drive today, however I wouldn't want to be a Minardi driver."

Asked what he wants to do over the next ten years, he replies: "If I can survive the next ten years I want to hopefully continue doing what I'm doing now.  I am happy what I'm doing"

"You don't want to retire," asks Lynam. "No," says Bernie, "I don't want to die."

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