Bernie Ecclestone: America falsely believes it's greatest superpower

This sport is all about speed. Formula One is one of the riskiest competitions, with great victories often coming along with great tragedies. This year, the event is in Russia, and thousands of fans gathered to watch and see the road battle for the title of champion. But is the Formula One of today the same as it was a decade ago? And what is in it for the pilots themselves? In today’s show we have not one but two special guests. Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula One, and World Champion Lewis Hamilton talk with Sophie Shevardnadze.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Bernie Ecclestone, it’s so great to have you on our show today.

Bernie Ecclestone:  It’s my pleasure.

SS: So, it’s your second time in Russia, Sochi - was it so good last time that you had to come back the second time?

BE: It’s quite surprising how people were always a little bit concerned, about being here for a race and now people can't wait, they’re all happy to be here.

SS: What’s so special about Grand Prix in Russia, in Sochi - because it’s kinda new for everyone?

BE: That’s probably what’s great - because it’s new for everyone. I have noticed from last year, people seem to understand a lot more about Formula One.

SS: I know that you’ve said that “as long as I live, there will be Grand Prix in Russia, Sochi” - is it kind of difficult to do something like that in current political situation? Because, you know, there are so many tensions between West and Russia now…

BE: I don’t think Russia’s concerned about the West.

SS: Russia is not. That’s for sure.

BE: Maybe, the West is concerned, and they should be. 

SS: There was this analyst, his name Andrew Foxall, he’s from the Russian Studies Center, and he said:  “I think Formula One is Putin’s attempt to show Russia’s greatness through sporting events” - would you agree with that? What do you think?

BE: I don’t think Russia needs sporting events to be great and look great. What it does, it exposes to the rest of the world what Russia is - and that’s a difference.

SS: I saw you watching Formula One with Putin last year. What do you think of the man?

BE: Super. I’m his best supporter.

SS: I think one year ago you said about Formula One that it has become too democratic, that everyone just has to be too happy. So there’s no place for democracy in Formula One?

BE: I don’t think there’s any place for democracy, first of all.

SS: Ever? Anywhere?

BE: Anywhere.

SS: It’s funny you say that, because, for me, who is not a Formula One expert - I mean, I’m just an amateur, I’ve just observed you, you’ve just somehow managed to stay this “splendid dictator” in conditions that somehow appear to be a democracy. How do you manage?

BE: That’s because it appears to be a democracy, perhaps, that’s a reason. I think, if you can get people to, more or less, fall in line with what you’re trying to do and support you, then it seems like democracy, which is exactly what democracy should be seeming like.

SS: So, what’s that balance, how do you find that perfect balance between being the perfect manipulator and a perfect moderator?

BE: I don’t know, I think, it’s one of  these things that happens. You can’t teach people to do these things.

SS: You just have to have it in you? It’s something that can’t be taught?

BE: Probably, yes. And you have to have enough courage to do what you think is the right thing to do.

SS: So it’s more about courage?

BE: It’s an essential part, trying to lead people.

SS: So, but we talk about democracy, right? There’s no place in a democracy, like you’ve said, for strong leader, with power - that actually, completely contradicts democracy. You are that kind of guy, who’s really strong and very powerful and very charismatic, in a “seeming democracy”... who do you think is like you in that sense, who’s in that club with you? In the comparison that I’ve just given you.

BE:  Well, I don’t know…

SS: It doesn’t have to be a sports person, just anyone - who do you think is in that club?

BE: You’ve got the perfect person here.

SS: Putin?

BE: Exactly.

SS: Anyone else?

BE: The trouble today in the world is that we haven’t got too many real leaders. If you look at all the countries and try to pick somebody - it wouldn’t be easy. You’ve got semi- sort of people who think they would be doing that, but they are not.

SS: You know, I look at you - you’ve fended off so many challenges throughout your way, while you were boss of Formula One. You’ve got scandals, you’ve got court cases - is it always just pain in the neck or just it gives you adrenaline and makes you go forward?

BE: No, I think, I’ve been lucky.

SS: So, luck is also indispensable for someone like you?

BE: I think, everybody needs a little bit of luck in their life.

SS: How much is “a little bit” for… you know, to be in the position where you are? How much of it is luck and how much of it is your courage, like you’ve said, how much of it is the knowledge that you have?

BE: I never analyzed these things.

SS: You don’t?

BE: I think I’ve been lucky in life, in general.

SS: I don’t know if you’ve been asked this question before, but there are other really great heavyweights in sports, that’ve been there for a long time. We’re talking about Sepp Blatter, but he’s run into considerable trouble and he had to leave his post. As an observer, do you think he should have gone on and fought for it, or it’s a good thing that he’s stepping down? Just as an observer opinion?

BE: I don’t think he should have ever stepped down, and I don’t think he should have ever been challenged,  because it’s because of him we have a lot of countries around the world that are now playing footbal. And if these people allegedly have been corrupted to make things happen in their country, it’s good. It’s a tax football had to pay. 

SS: It’s really hard to see one single person filling your shoe. I mean, I don’t what it has to take for someone to replace you. Are you ever afraid of what may happen to Formula One when you will eventually leave, someday?

BE: No, they’ll probably find somebody doing a much better job that I’ve been doing.

SS: Come on.

BE: No, maybe in a different way. Maybe, somebody a bit more democratic.

SS: Are you afraid of anything at all?

BE: No, not at all.

SS: You have no sense of fear whatsoever?

BE: No. 

SS: I know that you’ve said that you want to tear up Formula One rulebook. Why?

BE: I think a lot of that technical regulations are too stringent, and it’s really been like an old house and people keep adding bits and pieces to it, and really, nobody knows why we’ve added them. I am as guilty as anybody else; so, I think maybe we ought to tear it and have another book. We’ve become much too clinical with too many rules and regulations, and I think, the drivers, when they go out to start the race, they should be on their own. They shouldn’t have help from the pits, but advice on things.

SS: Also, I couldn’t help but notice that new Formula One regulations proposal for 2017 actually includes to make cars faster, louder, more aggressive looking - I don’t really know what that means, but, I get a sense that it has become more about the show than sports - am I wrong? Formula One in general. Is it all about the appearance?

BE: I think, it has become more about the sport.

SS: You think it’s more about the sport?

BE: ...than show, yes. I think we are in show business. The minute we stop entertaining, we’re in trouble. So people like racing… I think, what our biggest problem is that you and I know pretty well who’s going to be the World Champion this year. It can’t be right. People come to watch racing, to watch anything, and they don’t want to know the result before it starts. That’s the rulebook that I want to tear up.

SS: I am a political journalist, as I’ve told you, so I see everything in a political context - so when I look at Formula One, right, you’re the President, you have the legislative body, which is, you know, gives you regulations, you have the teams that are kind of like the parties:  sometimes they’re in opposition, sometimes they lead… sponsors are sponsors, there are sponsors everywhere, big corporations… Now, I can’t figure out the puzzle about the pilots. Who are the pilots in this construction? Or, who are the pilots to you, personally?

BE: Everyone’s got their place, in what you are just sort of referring to. And we’ve all got a job to do, whatever it is. I can’t drive the cars, so we have to rely on the drivers. The regulators… they should make sure that all the regulations that we came up with are strictly adhered to. So, sponsors come and go, obviously. And the teams come and go. 

SS: But the drivers. I want to know who are they are to you personally.

BE: How I feel about them?

SS: Yes. I’ll tell you why I am asking - because… I am crazy about soccer, I saw once when Jose Mourinho took victory in the Inter-Milan the and then right after he announced he’s leaving, and you had this huge Marco Materazzi and they were just hugging. And at that moment it just had me wondering forever, what is that relationship between the boss and the player? I mean, you and the pilot - where do you draw that line, emotional attachment - is it just a function for you, a pilot, or it is someone that stays in your life forever, no matter what? Do you know what I mean?

BE: You get attached to some drivers. Some drivers are easy to feel attached to. I’ve been close to a couple of good, good friends. So, you are attached to these people. Each of them has got something a bit special. I’ve been talking to Hamilton just now about things he wants to do - and he’s thinking long-term, so it’s good to be able to encourage. He’s come to me to ask me for some things, for him, longer-term, to do. When he stops racing, “what can I do” sort of things. So, it’s good to have that sort of association with drivers.

SS: I can tell that you really like the guy, Hamilton. You always talk about him, you’ve said he’s very good for business, for Formula One.

BE: He’s super.

SS: So, is it not enough to just be a good driver? What else do you have to have in order to be a star in Formula One?

BE: He’s wonderful. He exposes Formula One. All people like him.

SS: Why do you like him?

BE: He’s open, very open-thinking person, and I think he genuinely wants to do good things for Formula One. I think he appreciates the business he’s in.

SS:  You know, even for someone who’s an amateur like me, I’ve always watched these great epic battles take place between different race car drivers; like, for instance,  you had, I don’t know Senna and Prost, Schumacher and Villeneuve - they were like actual giants battling with techniques, and we had movies made about it and videos, and you don’t really see that that much anymore. Why is that?

BE: I want to tear that book up for that reason, because, although, Louis is very talented, his car is so much better than anybody else’s, but as guy’s that are driving in the same team, but someone from another team -  so there might be a whole bunch of people down there, that are maybe as good as him, and they never going to be exposed for people to ever know:  that’s what’s wrong.

SS: Who would you say is the best pilot of all time? I am even not asking about today, but, like, for you?

BE: I had a guy, he was a partner of mine in buisness, called Jochen Rindt, he’s Austrian, he won the World Championship - but he was dead when he won the Championship, if you like, because he won it and he died after on in the Championship.  We were very close friends, and he was a very talented driver.

SS: What made him so special that you think he’s the best pilot ever? Just the fact that he was your close friend?

BE: He delivered what he had to. That makes champions, you know, in anything, in tennis, or whatever:  the champions, when they had to deliver, they delivered.

SS: What do you think of Russia’s Daniil Kvyat?

BE: Nice guy. Very-very talented, and he’s one of the guys I am talking about. He’s somebody, who, if he was in the same car as Lewis, maybe could deliver. He’s just at the moment in wrong team.

SS: Now we see Formula One sort of moving to the east - you have Russia, you have Azerbaijan, you have Singapore, Bahrain. Do these racetracks bring more fans, more money? What’s this movement eastward all about?

BE: We’re are a World Championship, always been a World Championship. We were based more or less based in Europe - so it can hardly be a World Championship. So when the opportunity arose to move, I mean, I tried to have a race even in 80s. So, I’ve always wanted to move this way.

SS: Is there something wrong with Europe, with the old places, like Germany and France? Why move away from Europe?

BE: I think Europe is a thing of a past anyway. I think it would be a nice for people from China and even here, to visit, and look how the old times were, you know. It’s not going anywhere.

SS: What other places would you want to see Formula One take place then?

BE: We ought to try and be for a little bit in America.

SS: That’s kinda hard, in America?

BE: It’s hard for me.

SS: Why?

BE: I’m not very enthusiastic about America, so…

SS: Why not? You certainly can’t say that America’s the thing of the past.

BE: Really… the biggest problem with them is that they believe greatest sort of power in the world.

SS: Yeah, that’s what they are based on. They’re teach every kid that…

BE: No, believe, not in reality, it’s being a belief. And it’s difficult, because, they are a big island, so they are a bit isolated; they are slowly starting to learn what other people in the world do.

SS: If there’s anything else you could have done, except for Formula One, what it would be?

BE: I could have continued in my old profession, I was a used car dealer, so I could have continued doing that. I bought a race team and decided I was going to retire from business, travel the world and look after my race team, but I got caught up in things.

SS: Bernie, it was great talking to you, thank you very much for this interview, and we hope to see you every year in Russia.

BE: For sure. As long as you want me here, I’m here. As simple as that. 

SS: Thank you a lot.

BE: And, you know too much about Formula One for a political journalist.

SS: So we were talking to Bernie Ecclestone, right, the boss of Formula One, and he obviously thinks, for some reason, that I know a lot about Formula One, which I really don’t, but he thinks I know so much, I should speak to Lewis Hamilton - you mean, Lewis Hamilton, who has dated the best looking woman in the world, yep. I figured, it would be a crime not to speak to him. So, he came, like, 7 minutes, right after Bernie - it was like a surprise interview. So, I asked him, how he found the tracks at the Russian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton: The track is challenging, when we arrived here, we were so well taken care of, it’s so beautiful, I didn’t actually know that Russia had this kind of area. I knew they had beautiful city like St. Petersburg and Moscow, but I never knew they had a seaside… I don’t know, I hadn’’s not really shown to us in Europe.

SS: So what do you think you would see, like, white bears walking on Red Square?

LH:  When you’re growing up in UK, for example, and you see Russia and Moscow in movies, for example, it’s usually cold, people have their wooly hats on, so you don’t actually realise how beautiful this city or the place is when it gets warm.

SS: Would you ever come back not for racing, but just for fun?

LH:  I really want to go to Moscow and St. Petersburg, mainly to Moscow to do some sight-seeing. I’ve been there and I’ve driven through for, like, a day, and worked, but I’ve never really went backpacking. So, that’s my goal. You’ve such a beautiful architecture there, so I’d love to see a bit more culture.

SS: Tell me something. Like I've said, I'm not a Formula One expert, but I know about you, because you're a star - so your background is not like regular race car driver's background. You didn't have it handed to you you weren't a rich kid who had his private car - you had it much harder than the others. That's what I think. Does it make you feel… do you feel the advantage, because you had it harder and you had to overcome more obstacles to get where you are right now?

LH:  I see it is a strength and I see it as an advantage. It was, definitely, difficult for us and the family. My dad had four jobs at one stage just to keep me go carting, and, we went into a sport… I was ultimately white-dominated sport, so to get in, we had to put in work.

SS: So was it your dream to do that?

LH:  It was my dream to be racing  driver, yeah. My dad sacrificed everything, absolutely everything, to make sure that food was on table but also so that we could drive… such an expensive sport, so...You do see, sometimes, there are drivers that may have talent, but others surpass them because they have more financial backing rather than a talent to come through. So, I was very fortunate that I was able to come through. I think, today, to get that harder as a kid, driving a car that was slightly worse than other kids had, enabled me to be champion that I am today.

SS: But you are, like, the youngest world champion. You were, like, 21 when you won?

LH:  I was 23 at the time.

SS: At the time, I mean, back then you were surrounded by huge  maitres like Schumacher - when you won that, did you even understand the caliber of what was going on?

LH:  I did not. 2008 was my second year and I really wasn't... I wasn't able to enjoy, I didn't really understand what the hell has just happened. I don't know why, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I did last year. I was 29 and I was able to just absorb it, enjoy the fruits of my family’s labor and my own, was a great feeling.

SS: I know that you're very often compared to Ayrton Senna - the way, you drive, you're a star, you're rough and tough - who is your Alain Prost, you would say? Is there such person out there?

LH:  I would imagine someone like...I think, Alonso, is, probably. It might be Alonso, it might be Sebastian - those two are exceptional drivers, with whom I'm looking forward for some stage-racing close up.

SS: I was talking earlier to Bernie, that even for an amateur like me, I've always observed these epic battles between Prost and Senna, and Schumacher and Villeneuve - you don't really see that much anymore, and we wondered why. Why do you think that is?

LH:  It’s difficult in Formula One, because every team builds own car, and every team starts at different time in terms of development, every team has different budget, and it is how you interpret the rules. One year, the team will interpret the rules the right way, and it happens to get off on the right foot, like Red Bull did a couple of years ago, Ferrari did many years ago, McLaren did also, and last year, we got it from the right foot with these new rules, and it's difficult for others to catch up, because you're constantly developing through the years, so...which is a shame. But you know, there are times when you do get to see battles - Ferrari has been very quick at some races this year, so...but overall, we come up with a better package and myself and Nico did at our best, because, naturally, you'd want to win the World Championship, so...

SS: You know, the way Bernie talks about you, he's fond of you, not just because you're a good driver, but he just likes you, and I feel like you have something in common. You're all about breaking the rules.

LH:  About breaking…?

SS: Breaking the rules.

LH:  Breaking the rules.

SS: Yes.

LH:  I don't know...

SS: What would you change in Formula One rules? He's not happy with the current Formula One rulebook.

LH:  I don't know... he’s done pretty well for himself and for the sport -  we wouldn't be here today without his genius. I think, I guess, Formula One needs to be more accessible, particularly for the fans, more engaging with fans. In terms of racing, we need to make cars that, the car in front has the best air force, the car behind has slightly less, and further more, but if they give us more mechanical grip, maybe we ought to have more… If you ever seen a golf cart race, they go around like this, and they have lots of overtaking, because they don't have aerodynamics, it's just mechanical grip - so I think, at some stage, we're going to do some changes for 2017, where perhaps we can start getting close ad have more racing - that’s what makes wheel-to-wheel racing, where you see people touching almost, but making it through.

SS: What comes next to you? I mean, I'm sure you thought about you can't be race car driver all your life, and that's, like adrenalin rush that you get there, you don't get anywhere. Have you though what you're going to do afterwards, and not kill yourself from boredom?

LH:  No, true. I try to keep myself energized doing lots of different things. I'm very-very open-minded, I do all sports I can possibly do outside, I ride bikes, I ride buggies, I do hiking, rock-climbing, so I don't know...nothing, will, perhaps ever come close to what Formula One car feels like, but there's so much more to do in the world, and there's not enough time for us all... So, for me, it's really about exploring. I think, I'm in a fortunate position to get back to kids, so that’s something I would want to do, whether it’s create an opportunity in racing, or whether it's music or football..

SS: Would you like your son to be a race car driver?

LH:  If he’s driving and he’s good at it, then, of course I will do everything as my father did.

SS: They want to take you away from me. Last question. I know that you've said:  "If I weren't a race car driver, I would probably be a soccer player". Do you think you'd be just as successful, would you be like Messi?

LH:  No, no, I was never that good. He's pretty amazing, but, to be honest, I would have tried to be a soccer player, but I don't think I would've been top soccer player, like, that awesome player, but... I don't know I would probably follow in the family’s buisness:  IT or something like that.

SS: Thank you so much for this interview. Great talking to you.