By Paul Weaver
My high noon appointment with Bernie Ecclestone was precisely one hour before the start of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Formula One’s old ringmaster had summoned me to his offices in the paddock. He was clearly unhappy. Along with everyone else in Austria for the previous race I had quoted an agency report and said that Ecclestone had described F1 as “crap”.
Not so, he wanted to tell me. In discussion with engineers on the topic of the new(ish) hybrid engines he told them that they had given him “a shitty product to sell”.
But, it transpired, Ecclestone just wanted to have a natter about the sport he has presided over for four decades. And it is clear that the sport’s chief executive, who will be 85 in October but has not suffered any decline in his mischievousness, wanted to make known his views about the whole vroom vroom (sotto) business. And engines clearly preoccupy his attention.
The 1.6-litre V6 hybrid power units introduced last year have never really been to Ecclestone’s liking. They have always been too quiet for him, for one thing. “If I had a clean sheet piece of paper the first thing I would do is make an engine that is not as complicated as the current one is,” he told me. “We need another Cosworth to supply teams.” Cosworth, funded by Ford, powered F1 cars to 176 victories – making it second only to Ferrari – between 1963 and 2003 and as recently as 2010 supplied four teams, Williams, Lotus, HRT and Virgin.
“If we had a simpler engine it would allow other people who wanted to make engines to come in. Look at Toyota, who I know – maybe – would be interested in coming back into Formula One. But no way would they come back with this power unit. They know that they would be in trouble before they start. If Ferrari are in trouble what chance have they got?”
The Mercedes power unit has dominated F1 this season as it did in 2014. But Ecclestone has misgivings. “Mercedes have got a super team, a super engine which is an incredible piece of engineering. But if you and I and go the grandstand and ask a spectator ‘How many cylinders has that engine got?’ one or two might get it right. And then you ask them what capacity it is. They don’t know, and they don’t care. They couldn’t care less.
“They want to see Williams winning, Ferrari winning, Red Bull winning – they want everybody to have a chance of winning. At the moment people like Vijay [Mallya] at Force India spend an awful lot of money and have got zero chance of winning. And it’s not on. Let’s tear the bloody rule book up and start again.”
Ecclestone is also worried that the drivers are not enjoying it as much as they once did. “I speak closely to most of the guys and they say the same thing: ‘It ain’t any fun any more.’ Because they’re on the limit but they’re not on their limit, if you know what I mean.
“When you get in a car and you’re on it and somebody says ‘be careful, you’re going to run out of fuel!’ We’re not a sport for saving fuel.
“Somebody said to me the other day that the way we’re going anyone will be able to drive these cars. A kid will be able to drive it, or anyone who has mucked around with PlayStation and can listen to instructions.”
It is also clear that Ecclestone and the other little big man of Formula One, the rather too consensual FIA president Jean Todt, will never see eye to eye.
“The trouble is we have an FIA president who wants everyone to agree. And that’s not possible. We don’t want to have to have a committee before you do something. That’s what we’ve got, and you’re never going to do anything that way. We need someone who will turn the lights on and off, whoever that is. But it’s going to happen. We’re going to make it happen.”
The problem for Ecclestone is that he cannot be the dictator he once was. The sport’s majority shareholders these days are CVC Capital Partners, for whom Ecclestone works. The leading teams also have more control than they did. The teams are calling the shots, when it comes to rules and regulations, and that cannot be the best way forward.
Most people are agreed: the best thing that could happen to Formula One is for it to be sold by CVC, who bought it for £1bn in 2006 and have made five times that much since, while failing to reinvest their huge profits in the sport.
So will F1 be sold, I asked Ecclestone? “There are genuinely people who want to buy,” he told me. “And CVC’s job is buying and selling companies. Donald Mackenzie is the major shareholder and he doesn’t want to sell. He loves the business and he loves Formula One. But he’s very good. He wants to get the sport in the right hands. He won’t sell it for a lousy price, but the people who are interested aren’t offering a lousy price.”
The Miami Dolphins owner, Stephen Ross, is one of the potential buyers. “That would help us in America for sure,” said Ecclestone. “The guy involved is already in that business.” At Silverstone on Sunday, though, Ecclestone did not give me the impression that he was about to go anywhere.