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Exclusive interview with Bernie Ecclestone

Exclusive interview with Bernie Ecclestone
28 Nov 2007
On-track thrills, off-track controversy and a nail-biting finale - the 2007 season had it all. Now that the dust has settled and Kimi Raikkonen’s reign as world champion is underway, it is finally time to reflect.

Who better to review the year than Formula One Management CEO Bernie Ecclestone? We spoke to him exclusively to discover his unique perspective on the season, the continuing courtroom dramas and the future of the sport…

Q: How would you review the 2007 season?
Bernie Ecclestone: It was a nice one. Sometimes it was raining and sometimes it was sunny. But to be serious this season had an awful lot of interest. The racing was better than it had been for a long time because there was more competition.

Q: Are you happy with Kimi Raikkonen as champion or would you have preferred Lewis Hamilton to have won the title?
BE: What has happened was quite good. Hamilton has had a lot of exposure, which has been fantastic for him and for Formula One. At first Kimi was a little bit in the background, but when you think about it, that he won six races against four for Lewis, he is entitled to be world champion isn't he?

Q: Is Hamilton the best rookie you have ever seen?
BE: I suppose so, the answer has got to be yes. He has been outstanding.

Q: If newcomers and 22 year-olds are competitive right away, and if Michael Schumacher is immediately faster than the rest in his first test after a year-long break, is Formula One racing too easy?
BE: The rest being who? With testing, you never know, but with racing you do know. Lewis was racing against all of the rest. The guy is talented, I tell you. He sat in a very good car and only the Ferrari was on the same level. Both those things together saw him winning.

Q: How could he give away 17 points over the two last races?
BE: McLaren lost the championship rather than Ferrari winning it. It was lost in the last two races. If McLaren in Shanghai had called Lewis in a lap before he might have dropped two or three places but he would still have won the championship. The mistake in Brazil in my opinion was obviously gearbox trouble, but also the move afterwards to switch him onto a three-stop strategy and to give him soft tyres. He lost a lot of time doing that, but that is a matter of opinion.

Q: The season ended in controversy. Do we meet too often in the courtroom?
BE: I talk often about the good old days, and probably they weren't good old days. But at least we used to sort these problems out by ourselves. Nowadays every team has got five lawyers, three doctors, two masseurs, a psychologist, and all of them want to work. So if there is the chance to cause trouble, they do cause trouble. Without all these people the teams would not need to do all this and we would have solved the problems internally.

Q: Is it detrimental to the sport, when every other day we have to wait until ten o'clock at night to get the final results?
BE: Absolutely. I do not understand why the stewards need so long to do their job. We should put a time limit on these matters to be sorted out. I suggest you have an hour to do a protest and then the stewards have an hour to decide about it.

Q: We have had a McLaren spy story and with Renault we will probably have another one. Is this Formula One racing’s new disease?
BE: There has always been spying ever since I have been in Formula One. It is once again an issue with the structure that we have in this sport. But it is a little bit more complicated than it was. In the old days, one guy would employ somebody and they would take the information he brings with him. In a way it is still happening today. Red Bull employed Adrian Newey. Why did they do that? They took him on board because he’s got years of information about what to do and what not to do. I do not imagine he came with any drawings, but he came with all this knowledge in his head.

Q: But where is the limit?
BE: We cannot stop that. If I am running a private hospital, I would employ the best surgeons I could find. If I hear about a guy who had done 30 heart transplants successfully somewhere else, then I am going to employ him, because he has proven that he can do it. You haven't bought anything except knowledge. I cannot tell you to forget everything you have done.

Q: Should the FIA be involved?
BE: They should keep out of it. I did tell Ron Dennis, when the whole mess started, to report to the police that there was a case of theft. Tell them that there is an employee in the house who is receiving or purchasing stolen property. If it was dealt in that way we would not have had the problems we faced this year.

Q: What lesson has been learnt from it all?
BE: It should be a matter for the police and the court. They have much better tools to find out the truth.

Q: Do you think Renault are in trouble?
BE: I do not know the extent of what they have done and what they have not done. I think the difference between them and McLaren is that McLaren were getting information over a period of time, rather than somebody stealing a lot of drawings in one go.

Q: McLaren still face the investigation of their 2008 car. Is it possible that we may start next season with the risk of another scandal?
BE: I hope not but it could happen. As a photographer I own the copyright of the pictures I take. Whether it can be said that the design of anything is their copyright I do not know. As a designer I would say yes.

Q: We had this kind of problem in 1978 when Arrows built a copy of a Shadow. It was all sorted out without a lot of noise…
BE: It could be as easy today. When the information became available to Ron Dennis that something was going on in his company, he should have called Todt and said ‘Listen Jean, something funny is going on, let's get together’. They would have met, both would have informed the police, who then would have investigated the matter and we would have known what really happened.

Q: Fernando Alonso was one of the losers this year - did anything he do benefit his reputation?
BE: We don't know what he was promised when he was employed by McLaren. At the time he signed Hamilton had not even driven a Formula One car. So if they said to him, ‘Don’t worry he is a rookie and a nobody, and you are a world champion and our number one’, he probably went there thinking he was going to get the same treatment Michael Schumacher got at Ferrari. Then he suddenly found out that it wasn't like that, and worse, that maybe there was more attention given to Lewis than to him. In this case he might have felt overshadowed. So I suppose that started the problem.

Q: Aside from Hamilton which other new drivers impressed you?
BE: I always have been a supporter of the Polish kid, Kubica is his name. He has done a good job. Vettel is going to be bloody good. I find it good that the drivers from the lesser ranks are starting to shine.

Q: Is it time to say goodbye to drivers like Giancarlo Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher?
BE: Both have been in decent teams for quite a time and should have performed better than they have. They ought to give very serious consideration to whether it makes sense to move into a less competitive environment. Maybe if they change teams they’ll get a bit of a wake-up call.

Q: How could Renault drop that far back in one year?
BE: I think they missed Fernando Alonso. He was like Michael for Ferrari - a big driving force for the team. The top drivers do motivate the team for sure and they give the engineers better information.

Q: What did the Japanese teams do wrong?
BE: They are governed from Japan, which you can't do. There is a big time difference between Europe and Japan, and the general culture there is different. They are happy to wait rather than be courageous. They are terribly conservative in their way of going about things. I think in Formula One you can't be conservative.

Q: Honda reacted to their disappointing season with the appointment of Ross Brawn. Should Toyota have done something similar?
BE: Sure, but who would they get? There are not many people like Ross around. But then you have to say that nobody knows how good the Toyota actually was. Maybe the Toyota was a good car and maybe it was just that the drivers did not get the most out of it. If I was them, I would try to get somebody like Michael Schumacher and ask him to come over for three days, drive the car, and tell me what he thinks.

Q: What about Alonso?
BE: Why not? Look at the situation at Renault in 2005 and 2006. With just Fisichella they would never have known how good their car really was.

Q: As a spectator, what was the best Grand Prix of the year?
BE: Monaco always comes close to the top, doesn't it, because it is Monaco. Apart from that, there have been quite a few Grands Prix where you could say ‘that was a good race’.

Q: There has been an ongoing discussion about what is a constructor and what is a customer team. Will you allow teams to buy cars from other squads?
BE: We know what a customer team is. I don't think it should be allowed to happen. When I go and buy a complete car from somebody else and race it because I am afraid to compete on my own against the manufacturers, then we will soon have four McLarens and four Ferraris on the grid with all the problems such a situation provokes. If the championship is at stake, they are going to help each other. We should go back to where we started and have constructors. If you are not a constructor, you should not be in Formula One. You should be obliged to build and design your own car.

Q: Next year we get rid of all the electronic driver aids. Will that help the racing?
BE: Difficult to say. The big problem we have is that the tyres are a bit soft. They produce so many marbles that by the end of the weekend there is only one line to race on. Therefore the drivers follow each other on that line. The only exception is in the rain, when all of a sudden you have many lines to drive. That is why rain produces the best racing. Whether removing these driver aids will help the situation, I don’t know. I suggest that the promoter cleans the track on Saturday night to prepare for the race in order to create conditions like in the rain and that the tyre manufacturer perhaps supplies harder tyres. You lose grip from the tyres but if you then improve the mechanical grip from the car, you will get better racing.

Q: Next year we will have two new Grands Prix at Valencia and Singapore. What do you expect from them?
BE: It will be interesting, in particular Singapore at night. And Valencia will be fantastic too. The venue there is incredible.

Q: Will we end up with 20 Grands Prix?
BE: Who knows? It is for the teams to think about it. Nobody can ever pay them what it costs them to run. For sure, we do not want 36 races like in NASCAR. Maybe 18 would be a good number.

Q: That means fewer races in Europe…
BE: We go where the markets for the manufacturers are, where they are going to sell their cars in the future. Formula One is a big car showroom. We will race in India, probably Russia and Korea too.

Q: Are you sad, that we lost the United States Grand Prix?
BE: America is a continent as big as Europe. In order to have the same impact as in Europe we ought to have eight races over there. To have just one Grand Prix in the States does not make Formula One popular.

Courtesy of Michael Schmidt (auto-motor-und-sport online)
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