Bernie Ecclestone, 82, is president and chief executive of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration, which own and operate the Formula One racing series. He also owns a minority stake in the company. After being involved in Formula One on and off during the 1950s and 1960s, Ecclestone has worked full time in the series since the early 1970s, first as owner of the Brabham team and then as the series promoter.
Since the 1980s, he has become the sole promoter of the business of Formula One, selling television and other promotional rights and negotiating races around the world with circuit owners. He has also been involved in several sales of the series, culminating in the sale in 2005 to CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm. Ecclestone spoke recently in his motor home at the racetrack with John F Burns of The New York Times and Brad Spurgeon of the International Herald Tribune.
There has been quite a lot of nervousness about the state of some of the Formula One teams, and whether they are financially viable...
How long have I been, really, in Formula One running the teams? 1970? Myself, when I had money invested — nothing’s changed — Frank Williams (owner of the Williams team) used to come and borrow money from me to pay for his engine bills.
Nothing’s changed. You go back to the Brabham days, when I really got involved in things. Dear old Frank used to come and borrow money, and he paid it back right on the dot. That’s how it was. There have been very rich teams, and teams that are struggling. Nothing’s changed. Just the amounts have gone up. The principles have all been the same. Formula One team owners always spend more than they’ve got. And they have to find the money.
Would it be accurate to say that there was more turnover of teams in the '50s, '60s, and '70s than there has been in the past 20 years?
Yes. I was looking the other day, and I think since 1950 when the championship started, I think there have been 54 teams in Formula One. We’re 10 now. Ferrari have been around, Frank’s been with us, McLaren’s been with us — the others have come and gone.
The critics say there are not enough teams, that half of the teams are in a very powerless financial state. And then there are more complicated questions about CVC and the amount of revenues of Formula One...
...of which they get 62 percent. The difference is, we control what we spend, and they can’t. Because if you look at it, very few of them are business people. If you look at their history and what they’ve done, it’s pretty clear. They spend too much, it’s as simple as that. All of the teams in Formula One, including the ones at the back of the grid, could and should be making a very good profit. I can’t help them. If you give all of them 25 percent more next year, you’d be sitting here with me at the end of next year with the same stories.
I’m not aware of any other sport, or indeed of any other enterprise, where the control of the commercial rights has been done by a contract lasting for a century or more, as does yours with the International Automobile Federation for the rights to Formula One. And some people say there should never have been a 100-year contract, that too much power is invested in you. What do you think?
Everybody is entitled to their opinion. There’s not much I can do about it. It’s because we’ve got a 100-year agreement that people can count on benefiting from what we receive now. If we didn’t have any agreements, it would be back to the old days when I pulled things together, when they wouldn’t know what they were going to get race by race. I used to go and collect the start money for Vanwall (team), and negotiate the start money, which they didn’t know they were going to get.
You are referred to as the tsar. Do you see yourself as a dictator?
No, I regard myself as being very lucky. I’m 83 years old — I am not 83, I hope I will be 83 years old — and I’m still alive and well, and hopefully can still manage our companies.
Does it worry you that people look at you and see you as being the tsar, the single dominant figure who controls the finances, who heavily influences every aspect of the sport?
There can’t be too many people who have ever held a position in a sport such as you have now.
I don’t know. I’m sure there has been. I’ve never thought about it like that. I’m doing a job, and I do the best job I can do. If you tried to run this whole business democratically, it wouldn’t work. Half of the people don’t agree with each other anyway. To get something done it would take two months where we need an answer in two days.
Who is the person whom you most admire?
Oh, in our business, I had a lot of respect for, obviously because he helped me a lot, Mr Ferrari, Colin Chapman, people who go back a long way with me and were very supportive and very helpful, so I have a lot of admiration for them.
You are renowned as being a man who doesn’t have foibles of the tabloid press kind; you are not seen squiring around 18-year-old women, you don’t seem to have a taste for superfast cars, this is the most modest motor home that I have been in around here.
I like to think that I’m very practical. This (motor home) does exactly what we need. I’ve always got too many things to do. So many things I want to finish, they keep piling up, and never get finished.
What do you want to do? What do you want to do with Formula One?
There’s lot’s of different things. Don’t forget that our business is a business that really is very technical. The cars are technical. I’m not too excited about the current regulations.
The new ones?
Yes, the new ones.
So why did you let that happen?
Because I’m not a dictator. The one that could have stopped it, really, was Ferrari. Ferrari had a veto over a lot of these changes when they were made, and they didn’t veto it. If they had, I’d have completely supported it. But as they didn’t ...
What have we not asked? If you were a correspondent interviewing the tsar of all motor racing, what would you ask him?
I’d say, “Can I leave?”