- Ecclestone at 80
Ecclestone on F1 and its future
As weekends go, the last few days in South Korea have been a taxing time for Formula One's ringmaster. The outlook for the fourth new venue in the past three seasons hadn't been a good one.
Severe delays had hampered the building work, to the extent that the event only got the go-ahead from the FIA 11 days before it was due to happen. And while it was a delight to see that the track was ready when I arrived on Thursday morning, the South Korean army had been called in to finish building the temporary stands and a small army of cleaning staff were doing the best they could to make the venue look as attractive as possible.
So when Bernie Ecclestone says he's proud to see Korea happen, you know he means it. As he admits: "I went out on a limb and said it would be ready because I knew it would. The whole world said it wasn't going to happen, people are too quick to criticise and there are so many other places we've been where they haven't criticised. Nobody factors in the fact that it's going to rain for 51 days."
It's a good point. The rain was so bad that it ruined the local cabbage crop, never a good thing when the cabbage-based national dish, Kimchee, is eaten with breakfast, lunch and dinner. They had to turn to China to import enough to satisfy the local tastes.
Ecclestone had himself turned to China in 2002 when he signed a deal with the Shanghai International Circuit to host Formula One from 2004.
"I always believed that we should go East. Twenty odd years ago when I started trying to move East, I always thought that's where the world was going to go. ."
If you take a quick look at the F1 calendar then you can see where that thinking is leading. Of the twenty races scheduled for next season, only nine take place in Europe. There's no Imola, no Magny-Cours, in Germany Hockenheim and Nurburgring alternate, while Spa Francorchamps struggles to cover its losses and meet the fees that governments in India and Korea happily pay. Can Europe afford Formula One anymore I asked? "Well I don't think Europe can afford many things," came the reply.
Ecclestone believes that in Korea and India, people realise how good Formula One is for their country. It worked in Bahrain to help put that small island on the map and Ecclestone insists that it's right for Formula One to move away from its traditional territories.
"We're a world championship now, where before we were a European championship with the odd race outside Europe. And the racing has been good he insists."
Which at times, of course, it has. There's no doubting that the circuit at Shanghai, for instance, has produced some cracking grands prix. But often it's been in front of less than a full house. Would it help to see some home grown drivers coming through into F1 that the local fans could get behind?
The Korean Grand Prix weekend also saw FIA president Jean Todt make a rare appearance in the F1 Paddock.
"Jean has been busy doing other things and has left Formula One to get on with it," Bernie tells me. "Which is quite right because it's in pretty good shape generally, FIA wise. So I think he understands that and I think he's happy we're looking after the championship."
It's been nearly a year now since Todt succeeded Ecclestone's long time friend and ally Max Mosley, so would Bernie like to see Max return and get involved in F1 again? "Yeah, I didn't want him to go. It would be nice to have him back."
But in what capacity? "We could go back to the FIA and FISA. Max could be president of the FIA looking after Formula One and Jean could be president of FISA running the sporting side."
It's a question that elicits a million different opinions in the paddock, but one that a few high-level team sources admitted they would not object to. However, they doubted that opinion would be reflected throughout the F1 paddock and would be amazed if every single team welcomed him back with open arms.
Even if some teams weren't against the idea, one thing that did dominate the latter stages of Mosley's years as FIA President was conflict. And at this present time, does the sport need conflict between the governing body and the teams? Maybe Ecclestone's idea to incorporate Mosley's return is, on his part at least, a calculated risk. After all, taking risks is what he says he does.
"I've taken thousands", he says. "We don't have a big or small one. Actually when I walk out of this office it'll be a risk. I might get run over." But given that the only car in the paddock that afternoon had 'Mr Ecclestone' on the number plate, he was okay.
"People must think whatever they want", comes the rather modest reply. "It's not for me to say what people should think, they will form their own conclusion."
Does he see himself as a modest man? "No, just realistic, keeping your feet on the ground and a level head."
Is that the secret of your success? "I don't know, I work reasonably hard and that's got a lot to do with it as well."
And as for when he should stop and call it a day, predictably there's no timescale or a name of a successor.
"If I feel that I'm not delivering the way I used to or the way I do now, then I'll stop," he says. "I do what I do, not for reward, I do it because if you started a business, and you've grown the business, you like to think you're the only person that can do that, and you like to look after it."
So can anyone else look after it? "Hundreds of them. It's like Miss World, there's always another one."