On Wednesday I went to the headquarters of Formula One Management at Princes Gate to interview Bernie Ecclestone for Australian Network 10 Television.
We spoke of many things and I put to him some of the questions I’ve heard from fans – not least at the recent FOTA Fans Forum events we organsised – to do with F1’s reluctance to expand into social media and where the balance lies between entertainment and sport.
* Sebastian Vettel’s current domination of F1
* The balance between entertainment and sport
* His sparring match with Jean Todt
* His attitude to F1 content on the internet and mobiles
* The NewsCorp bid for F1
* The succession plan
* Why he thinks F1 doesn’t need a new Concorde Agreement
You can listen to the full interview at the bottom of this post on Soundcloud, with a very interesting exchange about the Senna movie and what it has done for F1. But here are some of the highlights.
Looking ten, fifteen years down the line, Bernie, who do you see running F1? Who would be the right custodians of this sport?”
“It’s something that has to develop on its own. I used to control a lot more than I do at the moment because we’ve let things go a little a bit to other people, we’ve become too democratic. I still think that if I wasn’t around you’d need someone who was going to run things a little bit like I run things.
You mean a ‘Benevolent dictatorship?’
“Yes. That’s what happens with the winning teams. If you run a team like a democracy you’d be in trouble. When Todt was with Ferrari with Michael and Ross, it was like that. Now it’s more Italian and very democratic.”
Do you see your stewardship of F1 as just a chapter in the story of the sport or the whole book?
“It’s one of those things, we’ve grown together.”
In a fragmenting media landscape, can you get more revenue from Social media, internet, mobiles?
“You hear a lot about these things. When we do a deal with a broadcaster we give them the rights to broadcast by whatever method they wish in their country. So if they want to broadcast through a mobile phone – which in effect is a small television, even more so with these pads and what have you – but they don’t seem to want to do it. People still want to turn the TV on.”
Could a new owner of F1 take the content and create more revenue streams on new media?
“I’ve no idea what they would do. Anything that could be done, we’re doing it. We’ve looked into it. All these different methods of broadcasting. The minute we allow other people to broadcast by other means it would upset the people we’ve got (TV) contracts with.”
NewsCorp/Exor came out recently and said they’re interested in buying F1’s commercial rights. Have they been in touch with you about their plans?
“I don’t think they have any plans.”
Are they appropriate people to run F1?
“Most of the people that are involved in F1 think that it would be wrong to have something as strong as the Murdoch group which is very strong, obviously involved, because we built the business up through free to air TV and I think the minute we moved away from that we might find ourselves in trouble. We’d have to wait and see. Also it would be wrong to have Exor, who own Ferrari basically, in there. Because they’d have a big influence over the rules.”
Would NewsCorp’s involvement in the phone hacking scandal in the UK be a problem here?
“Its’ nothing to do with us. They are not hacking our phones! We have nothing they’d want to hack for!”
At the moment we have FOTA but also this new group of four bosses of Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren, who are having higher level conversations. What’s your read on that?
“I don’t know why they have these meetings. They have a lot of meetings and don’t seem to achieve anything. Those people you mentioned, the bosses, they only got together to see if they don’t want Exor and Murdoch to be involved. They said, “If they are going to get involved, maybe it’s better that we are.” They should approach CVC and see if they can buy the company if they want to.”
What about succession, Bernie? What’s the plan?
“If I’m gone, or rather when I’m gone, somebody will emerge. We’ve got a good enough group around us that would run things without any problems.”
Would I be right in thinking that your chosen successor works in this building? (I have in mind Sasha Woodward Hill, his in house lawyer)
“I wouldn’t choose the successor. (That would be CVC) Yes, or if Murdoch’s bought the company by then they would choose the person who took over from me.”
The Concorde Negotiations are on now, will it be resolved by the deadline, the end of 2012 or is there a danger it might not be?
“The Concorde Agreement is a magic sort of thing. It came about as a sort of peace treaty with the FIA (in the early 1980s). It’s sort of grown and people think it’s a magic document. It isn’t. The important thing in that document is what the teams get paid. All the other things are dealt with by the rules and regulations. So really there is no need to have a Concorde Agreement.”
What about this season? With DRS wings and Pirelli tyres it’s been a season full over overtaking and action, how do you feel about it, can you have too much of a good thing?
“Apart from Sebastian winning everything it’s an incredible season. Having said that people want to know who’s going to beat him. We just had a tennis match and it was magic for people to see Nadal get beaten.
“We’ve got to thank the tyre company for this. When I did the deal with Pirelli I said to them ‘I want you to make a tyre that won’t go the whole distance of the race, I’d like to see one that goes a third of the race. They’ve done a fantastic job, because it’s just as hard for them to do that as it is to make a tyre that will go for ever.”
All sports face the dilemma of where the dividing line is between sport and entertainment. What are your guiding principles when you think about your sport.
“It’s the same for everybody. We need people to not go to an event and known what’s going to happen. When they go to a race they’re talking about all sorts of things, not mechanical things, but about the drivers; who’s going to win and who’s not going to win. That’s why all races that are held in we conditions are that much better.”
The Pirellis are making the racing more exciting, but it’s hurting the qualifying spectacle because the drivers prefer to save a set of tyres rather than go out for another run. Is that a price worth paying?
“Easy to overcome that; another set of tyres.There’s ways we can get around it. I don’t think it’s that big a problem. It puts more pressure on people to deliver if they’ve only got one lap to deliver in.”
You’ve been quite vocal lately about the new generation engines for 2014. Particularly the sound. Why is that such a big thing for you?
“Different engine, we were talking about a straight four, now we are talking about a V6 single turbo. Nobody knows if we are going to get a similar sound that we get from the V8s. I hope that we do.
People love it (the sound) they come to an F1 race and it’s magic. (The high pitched sound?) Yeah. We had the 12 cylinders that sounded fantastic. As long as it’s got a lot of noise. People love to go for the noise.”
You were a keen supporter of Jean Todt for the Ferrari job and for his FIA presidency campaign. But now you seem to be sparring with him, over things like this engine.
“The only argument I have with Jean is what I’ve said. He was right in his thoughts about promoting F1 as a being message about the green environment, which is complete nonsense in my opinion. Because it’s so easy in so many ways. I told him ‘All we need to tell the teams not to have such big motorhomes and then there’d be less trucks bringing all the equipment there and there’d be less fuel used.’ But it’s not the message people want to see. So then I said, ‘Why don’t we reduce the races by 10% if you want to use less fuel?’
“It’s like KERS which was brought in to give a message to people. Problem is we keep it a secret; the only time anyone talks about the KERS system is when it doesn’t work. Nobody ever talks about why it’s there in the first place. So we have to be careful. We don’t want to reduce the appeal to people going to see Formula 1.
“There are so many ways, that we could give a message; there’s the world touring car championship for cars that you see on the road. You can buy them and it is 1.6 litre turbocharged. With Jean at the moment, that’s the only problem I’ve got. We have no problems other than that.”
Viewers in Australia can see some of this interview on Sunday and more on the RPM show next Wednesday.