He’s F1’s driving force and one of Britain’s richest men. ShortList’s Andrew Dickens finds out what keeps Bernie Ecclestone’s engine ticking over
Roman Abramovich is probably quite proud of owning a football team. However, it’s not the same as owning an entire sport. That honour goes to Mr Bernard Charles Ecclestone — Bernie to his friends. At 81, the seemingly unstoppable F1 supremo is one of the oldest people we’ve interviewed in ShortList and, with a net worth in the region of £2.6bn, he’s alsoone of the richest. Ahead of the new F1 season, we tapped the brain of a genuine business mogul.
How do you see this season going?
I believe the Ferrari’s going to be more competitive, so that will be a step in the right direction. McLaren is more competitive than at the beginning of last season. In general, we should have some good races.
Last season there was an on-going spat between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa. Are disagreements like that good for the sport?
These things often happen. Sometimes it comes more to the surface because of the press.
There’s always a clamour for more excitement, more overtaking in the sport but these bring risks. How do you strike a balance?
Well, you don’t. I think that with F1, for people, it’s not knowing what’s going to happen [that’s exciting] rather than the overtaking. It’s “Can he win? Could the other people stop? Could there be a mistake? Will he overtake?” There’s always a big question mark.
Do you think that people have forgotten the more dangerous days of motor racing?
You’re right — these days if you get big accidents, they undo the safety belt and get out. It’s good, but the danger is always there. Things can happen, but we don’t want them to and we do whatever we can to make sure they don’t.
Do you think modern drivers have become slightly blasé?
Yes, because the cars are so safe now they take more risks.
Did you see Senna? How did it make you feel?
Well, it was just a good film. What happened, the way he was killed, was just bloody unlucky.
Senna was very much a character, a maverick. Do you think that the sport needs more people like that?
Yeah, we’re short of characters at the moment. You’ll see that young Sebastian [Vettel] will become a character before long. He’s been around, he’s won a couple of championships, so he’ll be more confident.
Many sports are now embracing the global market. Do you think you were ahead of the game with that?
Yeah, I’m pretty pleased that we were. One of the things I say when people ask why we’re successful is that some time ago I thought the secret to success would be getting worldwide television coverage.
Many sports have gone for abridged versions, such as Twenty20 cricket. Is that something you could see happening in F1?
No, I think it’s a traditional sport. We’re like the 100 metres race. It’s not 90 metres or 110. People know what they’re going to see.
You were a driver in the Fifties. Would you swap your business success for a world title?
I don’t know. Probably not.
What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur?
Be honest and honourable, and if you make a deal stick to it. A word is exactly the same as a signature.
What keeps you going after all these years?
Every day there’s a fire and I have to put it out, so that’s about it [laughs]. And the nice thing is that I wake up in the morning and I don’t know where the fire will be, but I know there’s going to be one.
Have you ever considered retiring?
No, not at all. As and when I do, I’ll stop. When I know I can’t deliver, I will find something else to do. There’ll be other fires to put out. As long as I’m fire-fighting, I’m happy.