x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Ageless Ecclestone won't stand still

Going strong at age 80, the F1 president is still making plans for the sport.

Bernie Ecclestone is still searching for ways to boost interest in Formula One and improve the sport’s season-long spectacle.
Bernie Ecclestone is still searching for ways to boost interest in Formula One and improve the sport’s season-long spectacle.

Be it his backgammon prowess or his long-standing efforts to bolster the Formula One brand, Bernie Ecclestone is immune to stagnation.

Today, F1's commercial rights holder will watch from the sidelines of Yas Marina Circuit as the season reaches what he believes to be the most dramatic close in the sport's 61-year history. For the first time, four drivers will compete in the season-ending race still capable of securing the drivers' championship.

"It's the best season-ending climax that I can remember, certainly," a relaxed Ecclestone told The National from the Formula One Management offices at Yas Marina, where he had earlier enjoyed a battle of wits on the backgammon board with Karl-Heinz Zimmerman, his long-time friend and personal hotelier.

"Everybody keeps talking about [Sebastian] Vettel and [Mark] Webber and whether they are going to swap places, but they are forgetting that maybe [Lewis] Hamilton could suddenly be there in the middle of them," he said. "It's not going to be as foregone as people think."

Global interest in today's race is immense, and local interest is intense. Yet Ecclestone, who turned 80 last month, relentlessly continues his quest to further develop and improve the sport's season-long spectacle.

Formula One has benefited from a revamped points system this season, but the chief executive credits an increase in the number of competitive teams rather than any systemic alterations. He also maintains the implementation of a gold-medal system - whereby each driver to secure a podium finish would be rewarded an Olympics-style medal - would have had the potential to make this season even more enthralling.

Under Ecclestone's medal system - an idea repeatedly dismissed by several of the sport's cognoscenti, including Hamilton and former race team owner Eddie Jordan - the championship would be won by the driver with the most victories.

"If somebody gets third and they have more third places than the others and they have the same gold and silvers, then he wins," said Ecclestone, who was wearing - as has become his custom - a loose white shirt, black flannels and an expression of authority.

"If Vettel won [today] and got a medal, he would win the championship because he would have more silvers than Fernando [Alonso], so it leaves things very much more open."

With the season reaching an exhilarating finish, Ecclestone could be expected to be content to sit back, relax and reap the plaudits. The F1 chief executive, however, is already looking to surpass such excitement next season.

"What we need is for one of the Red Bull guys to win," he said. "If that were to happen we will have five world champions racing next year. That is a little bit why I am supporting those two guys, because that has never happened before."

The chances of such a scenario would be strengthened if Red Bull-Renault opt to deploy team orders, allowing Vettel to influence the outcome in favour of Webber by moving aside and allowing his teammate to win. Riddled with ethical and legal issues, the possible use of team orders has dominated media coverage.

Ecclestone dismissed the chatter as "nonsense", adding: "I mean, what is a team order? Is it when you sign the contract for a driver and you tell him you are No 1 or you are No 2? Is it just before the race, or is it just before the season starts, or is it during the race?

"Cycle racing and all these different forms of sport - it is all strategy. Even running, they have somebody pace-making for them. So it's complete nonsense."

The possibility of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari team losing the driver's championship courtesy of an opposing team deploying tactics is an irony not lost on Ecclestone. He had criticised the Italian manufacturers for their conduct at this season's German Grand Prix, where Felipe Massa moved over to allow teammate Alonso to win and collect seven additional points.

"What was wrong and what started it, really, was in Austria eight years ago when Rubens [Barrichello] moved over to let Michael [Schumacher] win," Ecclestone said. "They did it then and it was Ferrari again this last time at Hockenheim, which was wrong - saying afterwards 'Thank you very much'. That was silly.

"If, by chance, it was necessary for the two drivers to change places and they agreed, they could do it quite easily without people even thinking about it."

The Red Bull team may have the chance to do exactly that this evening, but the race result and the manner in which it arrives is unlikely to derail the plans of the sport's most powerful man.