Former Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone considers Alain Prost to be the best Formula One driver of all time. In an exclusive interview with ABMS and F1 Insider Bernie Ecclestone honors Formula 1, its 1,000th race and its rich history.
How many races did you see in person?
Bernie Ecclestone (88): At least 700. Probably more.
Can you remember the first race?
Yes. I was present at the first race in Silverstone in 1950 (Giuseppe Farina for Alfa Romeo won the race). I raced from 1958. But I did not qualify for the race. That’s why I wanted help for the race in Monaco.
Yes. I wanted faster pilots to qualify with my helmet on. But the race commissioners were too careful.
You seem full of excitement when you are talking of the old days
… Yes, because back in those days Formula 1 was still a passionate gentlemen sport, not a job for making money. Teams and drivers were proud to be part of it. No one thought of dying. These thoughts were just pushed aside.
Like the death of your friend Jochen Rindt in Monza in 1970?
Yes. Someone told me that Jochen had a serious accident. I had no time to worry. I immediately ran to the scene of the accident and saw what was going on. I picked up his bloodstained helmet and drove to the hospital. What I learned there shocked me. Jochen probably fell off the stretcher, and on top of that was initially brought to the wrong hospital. Maybe he would have survived otherwise.
What was so special about Rindt?
His character. I told him to get in the car only when he got paid. He liked that. He often came to my house in England and showed off his money. After that, we played cards all night.
How did things go?
At some point, I became the Brabham team owner. It was so intense that I had to give up all my other business interests. But, actually, I didn’t try to win – just not to lose. So I can never understand why some teams are so desperate to win and do all that, even though they have no chance.
After that, you became the chief Formula 1 promoter.
I had many helpers and good people. Colin Chapman for example or Enzo Ferrari. Without Ferrari Formula 1 would certainly not have grown that big. The most important thing was to get television excited about our sport. At that time, they only broadcasted Monaco. But I wanted them to show every race and sell them that as a package. I have no idea how I succeeded. I was just a simple car dealer. Probably I sold Formula 1 like a used car dealer.
You became very wealthy in the process.
Yes, although I never did for the sole purpose of making money. However, making deals was a kind of competition for me. The more I could get out, the better I felt. That I became rich was just the result of that, but not the drive. My inspiration was to make the impossible possible.
You have a famous collection of Formula 1 cars. Which car do you like most?
None in particular. I have somehow acquired them over the years. They are standing in a hangar at a private airport near London. If I have some time before I take a flight, I’ll look at them.
Who else besides Jochen Rindt was your favorite?
I learned to appreciate Stirling Moss early on. He was extremely talented. A true gentleman, but had to compete against the big Fangio. Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda are also two strong characters. They always tell you straight out what they think.
Niki is special. He was racing again just six weeks after his horrible accident, even though his blood was still running down his face.
Ayrton Senna, on the other hand, was completely different. He was very good with children. Whenever he called me from Brazil, he first talked to my daughter for minutes.
His death in Imola in 1994 must have been a shock.
Yes, our F1 doctor Sid Watkins immediately told me how bad it was. He told me about his extreme head injuries. I told Ayrton’s brother that Ayrton would probably not survive. His brother was angry with me, although I couldn’t do anything. That’s why I was told not to come to São Paulo for the funeral. I flew anyway and stayed at the hotel, watching the funeral on TV.
Accidents like Ayrton’s are the biggest shocks in life. Because no one could imagine that something like that could ever happen to him in a race car. Who knows how many titles he would have won without the accident and whether Michael Schumacher really would have become world champion and not Senna.
Flashback: Ayrton Senna died on May 1st, 1994 after his car crashed into a concrete barrier while he was leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Italy. In lap seven, his car came off the track and struck an unprotected concrete barrier at the Tamburello curve.
The right front wheel ripped off as it crashed into the wall, with a piece of the wheel suspension penetrating Senna’s helmet. He was flown with a helicopter straight from the scene of the accident to a clinic in Bologna. Only a few hours later he was declared dead.
And Michael Schumacher?
Ecclestone: “No question, he has set standards. He brought back Ferrari to the top. But his problem was: he knew no limits. That’s why things happened like in Jerez 1997 or Monaco 2006. The scandals did bring a lot of publicity, but not necessarily the ones we wanted. Yet, he brought many viewers to Formula 1.”
How would you describe him?
You could trust him. If you gave him a job, and you could be sure he would do it.
His comeback at Mercedes?
“It was good for Formula 1, not so good for him. But that’s what I meant with not knowing his limits for himself.”
How good are today’s drivers?
Today’s drivers have much more pressure to perform. In the past, drivers became stars because they simply did. Because they had fun racing. They didn’t want it, they didn’t do anything to achieve it, it just simply happened.
I always get angry when I see today’s drivers running around with other guys who want to sell to the public whatever their drivers do. That’s crazy. They hold recording equipment in front of their faces, and then, in the end, the drivers only say what their sponsors want them to say.
I prefer someone who says straight out what he thinks. When it upsets people? So what! Unfortunately, I have to say that these robot voices started with Michael Schumacher. Michael did not want it consciously, but it happened anyway. I’m just sorry for the drivers these days.
How do you see Sebastian Vettel in comparison to Lewis Hamilton?
“Vettel is underestimated. He has this competitive gene that all successful drivers used to have. Already, when I saw him for the first time in Turkey in 2006 on a Friday’s practice, I knew that. Because I could see it in his eyes. Formula 1 needs a Sebastian who wins. He will fight his way out of his current low – I am sure of it.
And then it will be awesome for him to become world champion with Ferrari as Michael did. I know that he dreams of it. And there’s no reason why, alongside Lewis, Sebastian, too, can win Michael Schumacher’s seven titles. As I said, people underestimate him.”
How important was and is Mercedes for the history of Formula 1?
They did a great job. Both then and now. You can’t blame them for that. When the hybrid engines were introduced, it was all over. Mercedes was just superior in that field. That’s why we should have never introduced these engines.
Formula 1 must remain entertainment. If you ask the fans, they just don’t know much about the technology. They want to see heroes who ride spectacularly and when they have accidents get out and wave to the crowds.
Why did you always refuse to use social media?
For me, Formula 1 was always a luxury restaurant and not a fast food store. I want to watch Formula 1 on big screens, not on laptops or even smartphones.
Let’s change gears! What do you think about budget limits Liberty wants to introduce?
They’ve been talking about that for years. FIA President Jean Todt is doing his utmost. But I do not think it will work. You could never control a company like Mercedes … they do F1 to win. To achieve this they spend money – lots of it.
The integration with a manufacturer is their advantage. Why should they ever give that up? That doesn’t make sense to them.
Finally, how hard was it for you with no place at Liberty Media?
I’m disappointed with Liberty how they treated me. Before I sold, I offered them all my help. I even suggested sharing an office with Chase (Chase Carey, F1 CEO and Chairman). But all I got was a phone call from him.
He wanted to meet me. Then he presented me with a stack of paper – my pink slip so to say. He said I should read everything carefully and take my time. I didn’t feel like it. I immediately signed and was out. I would have done it differently.
*This interview was first published in German at autobild.de/motorsport.