Formula 1 technology is used in cars & aircraft industry - F1 head

Formula One drivers come and go, technology advances, new champions emerge - and all for several decades Bernie Ecclestone has been steering the course of one of the fastest sports in the world. Under his lead, F1 left the boundaries of Europe, turning into an international competition, a spectacle worth seeing. But where is it headed next? What does the future hold for the sport as audiences shrink? Will it expand in the East? Is it coming to America? And what role does the money issue play in the fate of the motorsport? We ask the head of the Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Once again, it’s really great to have you on our show, always a pleasure. This time, I’m visiting you, because the last time I saw you was in Sochi.

Bernie Ecclestone: Absolutely.

SS:So I was driving here, and I’m thinking: “My God, this guy has been at the helm of F1 for 40 years!” I mean, that’s more than I’ve lived, and I feel like I’ve lived forever. I know you’ve been asked this question many times, but you give a different answer every time, so I wonder - you tell me, what is it like to be on top of F1 for 40 years? Like, having your own kingdom, ruling it supreme? Do you care about the business side of it, does it excite you anymore?

BE: Honestly, I think, anyone who has been in that position, you accept it.. You don’t think about it, it’s sort of day-to day and that’s just how you get on with it, so you don’t think about ‘you’re this or that or something else’, that’s how it is.

SS: Alright, so you’re saying  that actually being at the helm of F1 for 40 years, it has become like a day-to-day business, and you don’t feel like the king anymore.

BE: I never did.

SS: You never did? Really? That’s hard to believe, because you’re perceived as somewhat of an emperor in this field.

BE: No. I do a job and I hope I’m successful.

SS: What excites you in this day-to-day thing? I can’t be just moneymaking or the new pilots, because they come and go all the time in 40 years. What is it that really sparks things in you?

BE: Being successful in whatever you’re trying to do - that’s my attitude for myself. So wherever that you send me to do a job, if I’m not getting paid, and I’m doing something for you,  I want to be able to do what you’ve asked me to do.

SS: So, I want to talk to you about how people perceive Formula One and why they’re willing to pay so much money to have it in their countries. It’s tens of millions of dollars to host a Formula One Grand Prix in one country. For instance, compared, I don’t know, to soccer championships - you spend a lot of money but you get a lot of money in return. That’s not the case with Formula One, at least in a lot of countries it’s not like that. Why is it so important for them to spend these millions of dollars? Is it, like, prestige?

BE: I’ve just read something, they’re talking about what’s happening in Rio with the Olympics. It’s costing Rio now they say $4.5 bn or something. I think it’s probably costing an awful lot more. And I saw what it had cost England for the Olympics here, in Sochi what it cost there. But it’s worth that for the country, for sure. For the exposure they get worldwide.

SS: So, you think it’s just the question of exposure?

BE: There’s lots of places people haven’t heard of. I mean, Baku, for example - nobody heard of Baku including me before we had the race there and now everybody talks about Baku.

SS: But I know that the hosting, the fees for hosting a race have gone up 20% in the past 5 years, right? Is this scaring countries off or are they still queuing up to be hosts of Grand Prix? I mean, I’m just wondering because the economy has changed so much, so I wonder what happens in terms of F1?

BE: The economy has changed, I suppose, recently, not when people decided to do something. We haven’t noticed any difference at all.

SS: Well, I’ve noticed that Formula One is leaving Europe, or Europe is leaving Formula One - it’s moving other places. Why is it?

BE: Well we are world championship so we need to be in other places. If that’s the case we used to have...years ago we had all the races in Europe so, really, it wasn’t a World Championship as such. Maybe we had one race outside of Europe, but the rest of the races are in fact... were in Europe and now  as we’re spreading all over the world, we’ve had to release some of the races that we had in Europe.

SS: But, when you think about it - you’ve expanded to Asia, you’ve expanded to the Middle East, but when you think about it - Europe has more Formula One fans than any other place in the world. So, isn’t that weird to move out whilst the fan base is very concentrated in Europe? Or am I wrong, or is the fan base growing exponentially in other places?

BE: You’re semi-right, but Formula One sort of started really in Europe and has been going on all for a long time in Europe, and obviously, we’re going to  have a lot more fan base than in new countries. But it’s surprising how many fans we do have in countries now. It just takes time, to build.

SS: So you’re not sad about Europe, actually. You’re happy about leaving the good old Europe and going other places?

BE: Absolutely.

SS: What’s your biggest growing market for a fanbase, right now? What is it, Asia? Middle East?

BE: I don’t know. I’ve moved East and it’s been successful. So, I’m happy to do that.

SS:I know you want to explore new places, like, South Africa, you’ve mentioned, once, America, what surprising venues you have in store?

BE: We haven’t got a race in Africa, so we could have a race there. You know, as for America, I’m never enthusiastic about America - full stop, about anything - but we need this part of the world, more or less, so we need to have races there. It’s a big country, it’s a lot of people.

SS: But do you think it could be implemented with their mentality? Because, you know, F1 is more of an elitist thing. Do you think it goes well with American mentality? Could there be a mentality incompatibility or not at all?

BE: No, they’re used to having car racing. At bit different from what we have, so, there’s a bit more throws and spills and that’s what Americans like to see, apparently. Unfortunately, Formula One isn’t that and the other race which used to provide that has lost an awful lot of fanbase. So, we’re increasing, and the others sports are going down.

SS: What about Russia? Why is Russia an exciting place to have Formula One Grand Prix? I remember you told me you’ll keep returning as long as Russia will want to host it.

BE: It seems that we’re accepted and we’re happy to be there, we’re happy with the venue, happy with the people we have to deal with. So, we are very happy there, and I just hope we can build a big fanbase.

SS: When I was coming here, last night, I was having dinner with friends, and I was like: “I’m going to interview Bernie Ecclestone”, and we started talking about modern-day pilots, and a lot of people seem to think that modern-day pilots are all about cash revenues, about winning because they want to have more money, and prestige and title comes second. I wonder how do you perceive it, what do you think about the modern-day pilots, do you think they’re all about cash revenues and cash profit?

BE: You’re talking about the drivers?

SS: Yeah, the pilots.

BE: I mean, they do a job, and they’re paid to do a job. It’s as simple as that. So they want the maximum they can get.

SS: But have they changed? You’ve been here, you’ve observed…

BE: I have no doubt in my mind that if we’ve said to somebody, to Hamilton, for example: “Terribly sorry, the company that you drive for is in liquidation. You’re not going to get paid”, he’ll still get in the car and race. But you can’t blame him for accepting what he’s offered.

SS: You’ve done a lot to ease polarization between the teams. I know that’s actually a problem. What measures are you implementing to make sure that the smaller teams don’t suffer while the richer teams take all the trophies?

BE: They don’t. With the richer teams, still… that’s the bad thing for us, really, is that the richer teams get more money than the ones that need it. This is a bit like life probably.

SS: But you’ve spent a lot of time trying to, sort of, ease this polarization, right? What would you say is your biggest victory in that field?

BE:The difficulty is explaining to people that they’re not going to get as much money as they used to get. Normally you have strikes and things like that

SS: But you managed to do that?

BE: Well, they probably thought about it.

SS: I know that you also recently said that it’s not as exciting to watch a race anymore as it used to be, because you know the outcome, you know who’s going to win. If you could right now implement certain rules, what would they be to make it completely unpredictable?

BE: The biggest problem we had is the engines themselves. Mercedes has done a very-very good job with their regulations, so they’ve got, by far, the best engines. So you can expect... this, they’ve got a good team of good drivers, but now it looks very much that people are catching up, because they’re learning a lot more about their engines, and so it could be a bit leveled out. So this year we should see a lot better racing. My comments were really for the race from last year. I don’t want to go to a race and think that I know who’s going to win.

SS: So, is there something more you could do, personally, to make it more unpredictable? Could you implement certain rules?

BE: Nothing. I’m doing what I can. The answer is no. We don’t have handicaps.

SS: What excites you, personally, more: a genius driver or a genius engineer? I mean, if we don’t talk about miracles, but in general, can a bad driver win with a good car or an amazing driver win with a bad engine?

BE: It’s a combination. You need the best of everything. Any little bit missing from that  and they’re not going to be successful.

SS: But is that a 50/50 ratio between the human factor and a technology, or is it more or less… do you know what I mean?

BE: What would be nice to see is the top six guys being able to drive in the same car. That can’t happen, but that is what I’d like to see.

SS: What about the pay drivers? We see more and more of them because they bring sponsors to the team - do you need to find a sponsor in order to be in the team, or if you are very talented, you’ll get noticed and you’ll find your way in the team anyways?

BE: Some of teams, down the grid a little bit, they are not desperate, but are looking to get more revenue so they can build. Therefore, if the driver can come along, that’s capable and can bring money - they’re happy to take him.

SS: There’s been this continuous competition between Nico Rosberg and Hamilton, right, even though they’re on the same team. I know that you’ve said it’s better if teammates compete, because it creates more spectacle, but what do you think is better for the team itself - that they compete or actually make way for each other, like, for instance, Irvine and Schumacher  did. They haven’t competed, they made way for each other but it was a teamplay.

BE: I think when this happens is because the guy that’s helping the other guy can’t compete against him anyway. They don’t help each other otherwise. They accept the fact that maybe they’re not as quick, but they don’t help.

SS: So, it’s sort of a play. They don’t want to admit that they’re losers, so they put it on like a teamplay.

BE: No, they probably got somebody that writes all the excuses for them as to why they’re not winning.

SS: So, basically, anyone who can compete, will compete till the very end, right? They won’t make way for your partner driver to win?

BE: No, not at all.

SS: There’s like tenths of seconds that determine the final outcome of the race and so much money is spent on research and new technologies. Can you take these know-hows, these technologies and use it outside of Formula One? Can that be a new business opportunity?

BE: The manufacturers, like, for example, we’re talking about Mersedes - they use a lot of the information they get out of races in their cars that they sell, and I suppose the same with Ferrari. And also, it’s strange, a lot of aircraft things come from Formula One, where composite materials that are proved in Formula One are now used in aircraft.

SS: Any other fields? Other than cars and aircrafts?

BE: Not the engines, but lots of things that they learn.

SS:I know that you’re not a fan of social media. I wonder - why? Because, now that the whole world is going into that, right, everyone’s going in it. I don’t like social media, but I had to sign up on instagram, because it brings me likes and brings me advertisement, brings in money - why are you so cautious about it? Maybe you know something we don’t know and we should pull out too?

BE: I’ve always been told this is for the younger generation, and I have passed that. I think I shouldn’t get involved, but now, actually, as a company we are… it is becoming very successful,  the amount of interest we’re getting. Whether that’s going to generate anything that is good for the company - I don’t know. So, really, from that point of view, I’m supporting it.

SS:You obviously charged TV companies millions of dollars for the right to broadcast, and you can’t just film even a short clip and put it up on social media. I know Hamilton has been defying that.

BE:Yeah.

SS: Is he not being penalized for that?

BE: I think it’s great for people to do that.

SS: Yeah?

BE: I don’t mind it.

SS: So can I go out there and put a little clip and I’m not going to get sued or something?

BE: Well I will say you’re broadcasting within inside the circuit where you don’t have the rights. We wouldn’t shoot you or anything like that. In fact, the worst thing is, we can’t stop you. If you went and did that, we can’t stop you because you can film now and broadcast it on social media.

SS: But do you feel like it can, maybe,  bring more popularization to the wider public if you were allowed to put, like, 5-second clips, because everyone is so crazy about social media, everything happens there now, you know?

BE: Maybe, it’s going to. It depends on what people put out.

SS: So, I know you already…

BE: Secretly, I look, and I don’t see anything on there that would make me want watch Formula One.

SS: Let’s wait a little longer and see where this thing goes.

BE: I’m sure people are going to use it a lot better than they are at the moment.

SS: I know you have the onboard helmet cameras. What other things do you have in store for spectators, so they can be like, “Wow”?

BE:We’re looking all the time at improving what we’ve got. The cameras on the helmets never worked too well.

SS: What works, what do you want to see up next?

BE: Well, the normal onboard cameras work well, obviously. As we find and see things we try and make sure it happens for us.

SS: Do you want see, like, this technological breakthrough you have in mind really work?

BE: No.

SS: Nothing major?

BE: When it happens and if I know about it, we’ll look into it for sure.

SS: I want to quote one of your favorite pilots, drivers, Lewis Hamilton. He has recently said that “F1 fans have great ideas and some of the people who make decisions don’t have the best ones”. Do you agree with him? Do you feel like you should listen to fans more, that they could actually improve this sport?

BE: I’ll tell you what, generally in life, ideas are cheaper by the dozen.  it’s implementing the ideas that’s a difficulty, and these people that say things like that, they don’t know what they're talking about. I don’t know how, all these fans’ ideas - how do you put them into practice.

SS: So now, we come to the eternal question. People, stakeholders always wanting to overthrow you for some reason, to replace you. Why would they want to replace you?

BE: Replace me?

SS:Yeah, replace you, get rid of you - why would anyone want to get rid of you?

BE: They probably think they get on with somebody who’s going to live a little bit longer.

SS: I don’t think that’s the case.

BE: I don’t know, I don’t believe anybody really and truly thinks about getting rid of me, other than… But if they do, I’m happy to go. If somebody comes up with a better proposition, somebody who could do a better job than I do, I’m happy to go.

SS: I’ve heard you say once that “people have more chance of getting struck by lightning than getting rid of me”. That, I believe. But would you ever want to let go after this - that, I don’t know. I don't think you’ll ever would want to let go, would you?

BE: When I’ll feel like I could not deliver anymore, then I’ll stand down. It’s like a boxer - when they can’t win, they should hand their gloves in and do something else.

SS: Formula One doesn’t have, like, an army of decision-makers, but at the same  time, this business is so difficult to control, they’re just so many spectrums, right, you have to manage the personalities, you have to create this spectacle, you have to allocate the money,  you have to negotiate with each circuit - do you do everything yourself? Do you always have the final say in everything?

BE: I do, yeah.

SS: Are there instances where you, sometimes, delegate decision-making to other people?

BE: I’ll tell you what - the art of delegation is the art of accepting second-best.

SS: Because, you know, we hear stories, like, for instance, Lotus who couldn’t figure out their cash issues and then they left their pilots locked out of the hospitality suits, and then you paid for them to be fed. I mean, there was also this instance with Caterham that had to fly to Abu-Dhabi and you took care of that as well? So do you really have  to take care of tiniest details like that?

BE: The tiny details are the most difficult and the most important. The big things look after themselves.

SS: Also, you’ve said that the most important thing in this whole Formula One thing is if you can make a deal with a handshake.

BE: Yeah.

SS: How does that work? I mean, so much money is involved and making this on trust… I mean, how do they go along, together?

BE: Easy.

SS: Really?

BE: I like to deal with people that I know I can… When we have agreed ssomething, that’s what it will be. So that’s a handshake for me.

SS: So it’s an intuitional thing?

BE: I don’t need to have a contract, if I feel comfortable with the people I’m dealing. If  don’t feel comfortable with the people I’m going to be dealing with, I’d rather not deal with them.

SS: So you’re relying solely on your intuition and experience, basically, yeah?

BE: Yeah. Because if people want to get out, it’s easier to get out of a contract than, if you’re an honorable person, getting out of giving your word.

SS: I know you’ve said that women in Formula One, they can’t be taken serious when it comes to sports. But, in executive positions they could actually make good chiefs because they’re less emotional and they don’t have these huge egos that men do. Could you ever trust a woman to be a head of Formula One?

BE: Yeah. Sure.

SS: Really.

BE: Absolutely. We can trust a woman to be Prime Minister of England again.  The last one we had was very good. So, I hope, if we will have a new one, it’s going to be just as good.

SS:We were talking to Bernie Ecclestone, the legendary leader of the Formula One group, and now, there aren’t many women in Formula One and only a handful had ever made it to trek level. Is the dream of becoming a Formula One Grand Prix racer an unachievable goal for a woman? Well, we ask team Renault development driver Carmen Jorda.

CJ: I’ve been racing since I was 11 years old, and I think it’s very hard to be a woman in this world, because, we can see that it’s a male-dominated sport, and so that’s why it makes it so complicated for women to make it happen.

SS: Do you feel like you would never be able to be just as good as men, just because, you know, women are more fragile physically and there are physical limits to us?

CJ: My coach always tells me: “Look, just know that you’ll never going to be physically at the same level as Hamilton” and that’s the reality, because we’re not naturally the same physically prepared and we’ll never be as strong as a man. Motosport requires really, really high demand at the physical level, because the G-force makes you be really… not tired in the car, but you have to maintain the level, during 2 hours that there’s the race, so...

SS: But of you know that you’ll probably never be at the same level as Hamilton because that’s what dream of every race car driver is, it’s to be like the champion - then, what motivates you  to stay in the sport, if you know initially that you will never be that strong?

CJ: Well, when I was 11 years old I never thought about that, but I would just keep fighting. Of course it’s difficult, but that’s why I’m hoping to do a Formula One test soon, and that will be a really big step for me. So, I really think, why not to have a Formula One women's championship, because that would really be a good part, to have women in motorsports.

SS: So you think it should be separated for women and men?

CJ: Yeah, definitely, because otherwise a woman is never going to be a champion. Yeah, there could be a woman, racing, it could happen, but she’s never going to be a champion. And why not? We deserve to be champions as well.

SS: Yeah, I was talking to Bernie and I asked him could he ever give the helm of Formula One to a woman, because he doesn’t think that woman can be taken seriously in F1 in the sports part, but he does think that a woman could be a good executive manager. Do you think a woman can be a head of Formula One?

CJ: Yeah, why not. I mean, if he says so, why not? I agree with him that a woman is not going to be taken seriously because physically we’re not as strong as men. The problem is, that people think that because we’re in a car there’s no physical demand, but actually, there is, and there’s a huge disadvantage here.

SS:Thank you very much for this wonderful blitz interview. Good luck with everything.