Lewis Hamilton trails Max Verstappen by eight points with two races to goRed Bull’s Verstappen could dethrone Hamilton in Saudi Arabia this weekend Former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone wants the title battle to go to the wireThe 91-year-old plans to attend the the final race in Abu Dhabi next Sunday
Few things put the current Formula One bosses on red alert more than this inbound ‘royal’ inspection. Nor will anyone elicit a greater number of craning necks or photographers’ shots than the man in question.
Such is the visitation by Bernard Charles Ecclestone, 91 years young, father of a 66-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. And two other girls, both in their thirties, about whom you may have read from time to time.
Petra and Tamara’s dad is scheduled to end his long on-the-spot isolation from the sport he created as a modern, billion-dollar phenomenon by attending, as we can reveal today, the final race of the most captivating season of recent memory taking place in Abu Dhabi next Sunday.
He will, as it stands, sit out Saudi Arabia’s inaugural grand prix this Sunday, the penultimate round at which Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will, if results go his way, dethrone Lewis Hamilton from his long and serene reign as world champion.
Bernie Ecclestone wants Lewis Hamilton’s title battle with Max Verstappen to go to the wire
Bernie Ecclestone plans to attend the the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi
Ecclestone’s absence from the first part of the Middle Eastern double-header is no surprise as he has been away from the paddock since Covid engulfed the world. His last trip to Formula One was to Abu Dhabi two years ago.
I spoke to him this past weekend in Ibiza, where he is living along with his 45-year-old wife Fabiana, a Brazilian lawyer who dotes on him and is a significant figure in her own right. She flits in and out in the background of our conversation, attending to his every concern in their sleek, smart pad in the Balearics.
Are they chasing the last rays of sun in southern Europe? No, it is 15°C outside — a passable temperature, and maybe an improvement on storm-lashed Britain — but the slightly warmer climes are not the reason for their shelter on brighter, distant shores.
‘I’m doing a little bit of property development here,’ he tells me. ‘It’s not for the weather that we are in Ibiza. I have things we need to do in business. We will be heading back to Gstaad for Christmas.
‘As for London, we left there thinking Covid might be over in two or three months, and because it wasn’t we decided to operate out of Switzerland. When will we go back to London? No idea. We’ll have to see how the world changes over the next few months and make a decision then.’
Ecclestone’s duties now include helping bring up his little son Ace — formally Alexander Charles Ecclestone, born last July. He and Fabiana have also just bought the farm next to the coffee plantation they own, a 25-minute helicopter hop from Sao Paulo, Brazil — purchased in 2012 for £8million and bigger than Monaco.
There is no scaling down or any gentle retreat into retirement.
It is nearly five years now since the multi-billionaire was replaced as Formula One supremo when the American conglomerate Liberty Media took control of his life’s work. His enthusiasm for the spectacle he shaped is undiminished and each race weekend he switches on Sky TV to follow it all.
‘I watch every practice and whatever is going on,’ he says. ‘Sky do an exceptional job. I keep in touch with a lot of the people involved.’
Former F 1 supremo says the fans probably want to see somebody else be world champion
So the big question: Lewis or Max for the title? ‘Either of those two,’ he says, deadpan.
Hamilton trails Verstappen by eight points with the final two instalments to be played out. The momentum is with the Englishman following wins in Brazil and Qatar; the arithmetic is with the Dutchman, victor in nine races to Hamilton’s seven so far.
‘It is difficult to say which one will prevail,’ Ecclestone continues. ‘I think it now depends on a little bit of good or bad luck that either of them bumps into.
‘Generally, the public — and this is nothing against Lewis, he has done a first-class job — probably wants to see somebody else be world champion. That is the feeling I get from people.
‘Lewis has been a bit luckier until now. Whether that luck will remain or run out we’ll have to see.
‘Max as champion would be good for Formula One. Mercedes have been great, but it would be good if someone else came to the fore.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen could dethrone Lewis Hamilton in Saudi Arabia this weekend
‘Max presents himself very, very well to the public. New kid on the block sort of thing, though he has been performing well for a few years but was largely unknown.
‘People wonder if they will crash but if they do it won’t be intentional. It could happen but I don’t think either of them will do anything silly or drive in a way that could cause an accident.
‘If it does happen it probably won’t be anything to do with them. That is what I am saying about luck and it could be the difference between being champion or not.
‘It’s been a good championship, what we have been waiting seven years for. That’s why I hope it goes to the wire and whoever is luckier is world champion in 2021.’
Ecclestone’s involvement in Formula One dates back to the 1950s, which is to say the start of the world championship itself. So who is the greatest driver ever?
‘It is very difficult to assess,’ he says. ‘(Juan Manuel) Fangio had one-year contracts and could step out of different cars and jump into the best. It doesn’t make him any better or any worse than anyone else — it is just a matter of fact.
Hamilton trails Verstappen by eight points with the final two instalments to be played out
‘I believe that Alain Prost was the best. He had to drive with a lot of difficult co-drivers and when the race started he was on his own and had to look after the tyres and everything else. These guys today are fortunate in that they get more information over the radio than they should — about their competitors, the use of the tyres and all of that.
‘So the drivers have their hand held by people in the team. There are times Lewis had information given to him about tyres, and overruled the advice. That is as it should be. It shouldn’t be down to information over the pit wall or, worse, in the factory in Italy or Britain. It should be him, or any of the drivers, deciding everything.
‘I’m a bit disappointed in the way the races have been looked into by the authorities this season. All these instructions, “Don’t go over the white line, don’t do this, don’t do that”. We might as well make the regulations say, “Don’t race”. I say that because when the lights go out, these guys have to race. Sometimes one of them will take more of a risk and that’s what makes racing interesting. Not going a little bit off the track — it makes hardly any difference because they all have the same opportunity to get an advantage.
‘I have been wondering for years and years about giving out gold and silver medals,’ he adds. ‘I already have them made. Jean-Marie (Balestre, president of the governing FIA before Ecclestone and Max Mosley defenestrated him) was against the idea. I have always thought it would be good if you are retiring as a driver to say you won more gold medals than others. It would be a nice feeling. People could understand that.
‘Having 12 medals is a lot better than saying I have 342 points.
‘The other thing that concerns me is the number of races we have. It detracts a lot of interest. People will decide what are the big six or eight races and glamorise them. The others will be forgotten. Buried, in fact. They are better off concentrating, as we had in the past, on 16 or 18 races rather than 22 or 23. They should be in the right areas of the world.
‘The current bosses (led by Stefano Domenicali) are doing the best they can under the circumstances. It is easy to have opinions and harder to carry things out.’
There is a contentious background to the Ecclestone-Hamilton dynamic. They took differing stands on Black Lives Matter. Hamilton called Ecclestone ‘ignorant and uneducated’ for saying he does ‘not care if people are yellow, green, brown or pink’.
Ecclestone is hardly woke. He doesn’t care for political correctness. As far as he is concerned, he is broadminded, tolerant, open to all creeds and colours. How are relations with Hamilton?
‘I haven’t spoken to Lewis for months,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing really that we have too much in common about that we want to discuss. I respect him and all the things he is trying to do, but he has to respect and believe that other people — and I am not just speaking about myself — have opinions. He can’t rely on the supposed fact that his opinion is the single opinion that people should look up to.’
One of the most evangelising things Liberty have done under their stewardship of Formula One is to introduce the Netflix documentary Drive to Survive, showing the behind-the-scenes background to the sport: a vicious nest of political vipers, as it happens. Has Bernie watched any of the three much-lauded series?
‘I can honestly say, no. People criticise me for not bringing Netflix in when I was looking after things. There is one problem with that. It didn’t exist then. I spoke to Apple about doing a series but they didn’t want to at the time.
‘People have told me Netflix is good but that some of it may be a bit manufactured. I get everything I need from Sky. They are 100 per cent brilliant and don’t do silly gimmicks.’
As for the fractious relations between the two rival bosses, Christian Horner of Red Bull and Toto Wolff of Mercedes? Ecclestone is a close pal of the former and hardly an advocate of the latter.
‘I think the problem is that Christian relies a little bit on facts,’ says Ecclestone. ‘For example, the fact is that Mercedes have been much, much quicker on the straights than Red Bull in the last few weeks, especially in Brazil. Christian believes that it was due to the rear wing they were using. So it is either that or the engine power.’
He adds, tongue vaguely in cheek: ‘I can’t believe that it is the engine power. Because when they supply engines they have to guarantee to the teams they supply that it is the same engine they give them. That may not be true and what about the wing? Was it a little bit different from the regulations, I don’t know?
‘Christian has believed those two things weren’t entirely correct. I think both of them would tell as much truth as they believed — or wanted to believe is true.
‘I’ve always thought people have been as honest as they can afford to be. That is what a few years of experience has told me.’