Owen Evans speaks exclusively to Bernie Ecclestone about the deals, confrontations and court cases that have marked his career in Formula One
What do you think your legacy will be?
I don’t like this sort of question as there is always the assumption that I am going to die.
Team principals, rights-holders and former employees have all told us about your positive impact on Formula One, but how do you see it?
I’m doing a job. I’m happy that up to now I have been successful in what I do.
Is the deal-making still as enjoyable as it used to be, or are there too many people wanting to have their say now?
Yes, sure. If you sent me to do a job – whatever it was – I would do the best I could possibly do. Forget whether I am getting paid or not, whatever I am doing I will do it the best that I can. I am fortunate that the shareholders are very helpful to me. They are very positive and support me completely. Recently I stood down from the board – hopefully just for a couple of months – but I continue doing my job on a day-to-day basis, it’s just that I pass on the final signature now.
“Bernie doesn’t give things, you have to fight for them,” McLaren Racing team principal Ron Dennis once said. Do you think you are a tough negotiator?
Not really. I try to be happy with whatever agreements I have made with people, and make it so they are happy as well. It’s not easy though. If you buy something at auction the buyer will always think they have given too much and the seller will always think they have given it away too cheap. You’ve got to hope that everybody is more or less happy. I’m still on super-friendly terms with nearly everyone I have ever dealt with. What I am most proud of is the fact I do deals with handshakes that I stand by regardless of whether the terms are good or bad for me. I’m also happy that all the guys who ever drove for me when I was at Brabham are still good friends.
Who’s the most difficult person you’ve ever had to do business with?
There have been so many different negotiations that it would be difficult to say one person has been more difficult than another. In most things that happen [successfully] you will always have difficulties to overcome. I am in the fortunate position that with most of the things that occur are seen and then handled, so it’s rare that a new problem comes my way and I think, “my God, I’ve not handled something like this before”.
Has playing off the sport’s big egos been the key to your success?
I wouldn’t say it was a case of playing people against each other, I would say it was about trying to get people to agree with what I believe is the right way to go.
What do you think Formula One would look like without you leading it?
No idea. I haven’t got a clue. Could be a lot better run for all I know.
What about your eventual replacement? Should it be one person or a group of people? Should it be someone from outside the Formula One industry?
To find someone – as in one person – to do what I have been lucky enough to be able to do would be impossible, because I think the board would need to be a lot more hands-on than they are at the moment. But that’s only because if they let the new guy loose and he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t be very good. At least with me they know that what I am doing is in the best interests of the company.
You said once that Formula One should be led by someone who can “fly by the seat of their pants”, and not a “collection of suits”. Does that still stand?
Absolutely. I think in the future there will be a few people who will handle what I am currently doing on my own – probably all in a different way – and we just have to hope that it all knits together. This is always the problem, you have all these people in a company and they all have different ideas. It’s like getting in the car to go somewhere, and one person says, “I’d rather go this way”, while the other passengers go, “no, no, no…my way is quicker”. And that is exactly what could happen.
Tom Bower, the author of No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone, says that he thinks your major regret is not receiving a knighthood in recognition for what you have done for motor sport. Is that true?
Not at all. I always think in the good old days when someone came back to England after capturing a country or something, they would say to the king or queen, “this is what I have done”. Today, I think a lot of people get recognition they shouldn’t. Some people get recognition for things that are not good for our country.
In 2012 you were quoted as saying new electric cars are “lawnmowers” and the idea that something like Formula E could threaten Formula One was “stupid”. Do you still feel that way?
I don’t know anything about it [Formula E]. Like everyone else, I have been told what could happen, but I haven’t got any confirmation from countries saying, “yes, we are going to hold a Formula E event and this is the date, and this is what’s going to happen.” Until somebody comes out of the closet and says these things it’s pretty difficult to properly assess it.
Do you have any regrets?
Probably when I gave my shares away to my wife [in 1996 Ecclestone transferred ownership of the Formula One business to former wife Slavica, pictured left], and she put it into a trust, and then the trust sold part of it. If I could go back I wouldn’t do that. There was nothing bad about the fact I was giving away all these shares to my ex-wife – nothing bad about that at all – it’s just the fact that all that money has gone through a few pairs of hands now, and that has made it harder to keep on running the company while looking after all the politics that came about after it happened.