Bernie Ecclestone’s interview in the Times last weekend has brought a furious response from politicians and virtual silence from the F1 community.
Most people in F1 don’t really want to get drawn into it, as they argue he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be in the first place.
What most people don’t understand is why he did the interview. He didn’t appear to have a key message to sell, such as “I know the breakaway threat looked bad, but F1 is now in the best shape it’s ever been in, ” or something of that kind.
There are suggestions that it may have been to help his old friend and colleague Max Mosley and suggestions to the opposite. It certainly aroused some uncomfortable memories of last year’s News of the World headlines and their Nazi association, which Mosley successfully challenged in court.
But actually I think what has happened here is extremely timely in the current debate about F1 and what direction it should take next in terms of governance.
Ecclestone has spoken to Bild newspaper, the German equivalent of the Sun to say that he has been misunderstood,
“All this is a big misunderstanding,” he said. “In the interview we were talking about structures and that it can sometimes be good to act and make strong decisions without reservation. I wasn’t using Hitler as a positive example, but pointing out that before his dreadful crimes he worked successfully against unemployment and economic problems.
“It was never my intention to hurt the feelings of any community. Many people in my closest circle of friends are Jewish.”
Ecclestone himself is Jewish and on his Saturdays off he can be seen in a very famous London cafe with his largely Jewish friends, drinking coffee and discussing.
Although he has got into trouble for choosing some poor examples to illustrate his point, he seems to have been trying to make the wider point that democracy is on the wrong path, that politicians today are more concerned with their image, distracted by the 24 hour news cycle, than they are with getting things done. He believes that the best system of government is where people put their faith in dictators and trust them to make tough decisions and get things done.
In this his start point is his own experience in motor sport and it has some interesting reflections on the current situation in F1 with an uneasy truce currently in place between the teams and the men who run the sport.
It has been proven over the years in motor sport that the best way to run a racing series is by a ‘benevolent dictatorship’. This is true at all levels. Someone needs to get things done and make decisions and the rest abide by them. Series run by the teams themselves don’t really work, like CART in the USA for example.
F1 is where it is today because it has been run by a dictatorship and for many years the team owners like Ron Dennis, Frank Williams and even Luca di Montezemolo were quite happy to go along with it because their series became the biggest motor sport show on Earth.
But now times have changed and that is what the F1 power struggle is all about.
The key to it is the ‘benevolent’ bit. If a tough, strong, but fair leader is in charge then things get done and it works, as long as everyone is treated equally. The teams feel that this is no longer the case and they are highlighting instances like the selection of new teams, (with today’s allegations in the Telegraph that having a Cosworth engine contract was a requirement for entry) to show that this system of governance has gone down the wrong track.
What the F1 teams want, motivated by the manufacturers, is a more democratic F1. This is why Max Mosley’s message to the FIA members is that their institution is under threat because the Formula One Teams Association thinks it can run the sport itself. History would suggest that it would be a mistake for them to try to do that and I think it is what Bernie was trying to say (obliquely) in the interview with the Times. But the problem is, he chose some bad examples to illustrate his point.
His words have hurt many people it seems, but I think what will hurt him about this episode is the impression that he is out of touch, an accusation levelled at him over his response to the racism incident where Spanish fans mocked Lewis Hamilton.
The interesting thing will be whether anyone in F1 seeks to capitalise on this episode or whether the teams will remain focussed on Mosley and his ‘retirement’ in October.