“It’s like a poker game; if you haven’t got enough money… don’t play the game.”
On the fast track with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone
Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is a polarising figure in the eyes of many. A powerful negotiator and master dealmaker, he has built Formula One into a multibillion-dollar global operation, having identified early on the potential of television to turn the sports property into a worldwide spectacle. In the process he has made billions from his management and ownership of the commercial activities, and earned both fear and respect from admirers and detractors alike. At 84, however, Ecclestone is under assault on several fronts. The futures of two teams – Caterham and Marussia – hang in the balance. Pressure is mounting for a new strategy to tackle Formula One issues, from the spiralling costs and declining television audiences to falling sponsorships figures. Ecclestone, who has fought bribery allegations in London and Munich, has lived through many of the sport’s ups and downs. Our first interview takes place at the Singapore Grand Prix, where he had just signed a seven-year deal with Fox Sports, then a few weeks later we meet in London at Formula One Management’s offices. He reflects on the need to build Formula One into an entertainment property, t he t rends in sponsorships and why he won’t take to social media.
What was your ambition with Formula One?
I was racing when I was 16 years old. I’ve always been racing – motorcycles or cars. After that I was the head of a race team and ran a race team, and then doing what I do now. I took over things in the late ’70s but unlike most of the successful businesspeople who tend to think they’re geniuses, I think most of us are just lucky and happen to be in the right place at the right time. I grasped the opportunities that were in front of me, whereas lots of people don’t but afterwards say, ‘ I could have.’ The people that have become successful have seen an opportunity and taken it, whatever it is. I never thought about being global. It just happened. Things fell into place. Early on I understood that television coverage would be important and I took control of the television side of things and made a lot of changes with broadcasters out there – more or less European and Asia, rather than America. I took control a lot more, so that was important.
What does the Formula One brand stand for?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I suppose it is a major sport and most sports are in the entertainment business. Sometimes we tend to lose track of the entertainment and get caught up a bit more on the technical aspect of Formula One, which I’m not happy about. We are very technical and we need to stay that way but I’d rather see a bit more effort on the entertainment. That normally balances itself. And it will because we’ve just gone through a particular phase, so when we’ve worked that out, we’ll be back to where we were. Obviously for people involved in Formula One for marketing we have a worldwide audience and an audience in the right bracket for people that are perhaps what you might call up-market. We’re different to the football crowd, if you like. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that market at all. Quite the opposite: the football audience is a super market but I think they’re a different type of viewer.
How can you bring more of the entertainment factor into Formula One?
Entertainment is what people want to see. If you asked me tonight to go to the ballet and said it’s fantastic, I would say, it’s not for me. Sure, it’s good entertainment for a lot of people but it doesn’t suit me. If I asked people who like ballet if they wanted to go to a Formula One race, they wouldn’t particularly want to go. We don’t know what people like and don’t like. Maybe if I tried it, I’d love ballet. I just can’t understand the reason why they have these girls dancing on their