Malaysia Grand Prix: floundering F1 chief has few answers to myriad problems

Bernie Ecclestone 2012 Bahrain

Bernie Ecclestone admitted he is largely helpless when it comes to solving the myriad problems facing Formula One, after a meeting with team principals here on Friday.

He even asked reporters for help. “All you bloody crowd have been complaining about everything, so let’s hear it. If you were in my position, apart from leaving, what would you do?”

The sport’s notably candid chief executive arrived for Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix with F1 in a state of incipient crisis. Against a background of falling viewing figures and collapsing sponsorship, there was a faltering start to the 2015 season in Melbourne this month.

More than half the teams are struggling financially and a quarter of the 20 cars failed to make the starting grid in Australia. One team, Manor, their cars in pieces, were unable to run. Another, Sauber, were in danger of having their cars seized by bailiffs on the eve of the race. Meanwhile, a dominant Mercedes team coasted to another one-two finish just before their “home” race in Germany in July was wiped from the calendar. “We need to do a lot better,” said Ecclestone.

When asked what he had told the team principals, he replied: “I know what we did – we arranged the next meeting date. We’re dealing with a lot of people and they’ve all got different ideas. We have to wait until we get to Bahrain [next month] to see where we are.”

Ecclestone had one idea: the return of double points – the most unpopular feature of the 2014 season. He said: “I’d like to see double points back. Last year we didn’t know who was world champion until the last corner of the last race. I’d like to see it extended to the last three races.”

When someone suggested that F1 should tear everything up and start again, Ecclestone said: “I agree [but] we can’t. We’ve signed contracts, we can’t tear them up, unless they all agreed. The trouble is we’ve got an old house and we keep repairing it. It’s not really the way to go.”

Many F1 followers would like to see CVC, the private equity firm, sell its majority shareholding in the sport, because of the amount it takes out of the £1.5bn business compared to what it puts back in. Surprisingly Ecclestone, who is employed by CVC, appeared to agree. When asked about rumours that Red Bull could be about to buy the sport he said: “I’d be delighted. They [CVC] would be as well. Their business is buying and selling companies, so if somebody comes along with a good offer then I’m sure they’d sell. They’d have to.”

In defence of Ecclestone, it should be remembered he is not as all-powerful as he once was. He sold F1 to CVC, who now call the shots. Meanwhile, the big teams have become even stronger and have a bigger say in the running of the sport than they once did. Should they be involved in making the rules? “No. It’s completely wrong,” he said.

Ecclestone will be 85 this year. So did he need help? “It’s like Sinatra is going to retire, and we need somebody to sing alongside Sinatra? When I’m gone, whoever does what I’m doing will probably do it in a completely different way and might have a few people helping them. So you’ll have to wait until I get fired or die – and then we’ll see.”

He discussed wind tunnels, prize money, engines, wet races and changes to the format of the GP weekend, including points for qualifying and pole – with the pole-winner starting “maybe, 12th on the grid.” Social media still bewilders him. And what did the teams think? “It’s difficult for them,” he said. “We’ve only been talking about it for five meetings!”

At times, it sounded like the longest resignation speech in history; on other occasions this was an old man floundering as he attempted to get a grip of a sport where he was once the undisputed ringmaster.

Even as he was talking, disquiet continued. Renault held a press conference in which the managing director, Cyril Abiteboul, said the manufacturer was considering its future, including quitting F1, or buying the Toro Rosso team.

Renault has been embroiled in a row with Red Bull since Mercedes dominated the Australian GP. The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, delivered a stinging rebuke to the manufacturer after the race, describing it as being “in a mess” and that its engine was “undrivable”.

While Ecclestone was responding to rumours that Red Bull could buy the sport, Horner, sitting alongside Abiteboul, said a Renault exit would force Red Bull out of F1 too, as there would not be an engine for them to use. Horner had called for something to be done about Mercedes’ dominance, raising fears after the season opener that interest would wane in the sport and he referred again to “worrying signs” from races such as Melbourne.

Ecclestone, though, was not worried about Mercedes’ domination. “I’ve no complaints or problems about Mercedes. The complaint I’ve got is the others not doing the same.

“Mercedes have done a good job,” he added. “They’ve the best engine, best chassis, best team, two of the best drivers, so they are entitled to win. It’s the others that need to get going. It’s no good blaming the people that are doing a good job.”

There was also a warning that next year’s German Grand Prix could be lost, even though Hockenheim has a contract for 2016 and 2017. “It doesn’t make a difference. A lot of people have a contract,” he said.

“The trouble in Germany was the Nürburgring spent an awful lot of money which they borrowed,” he added. “They forgot to pay it back, and that caused a few ripples. It sent a bad message.” There were also fresh hints that Monza could lose its famous race.

It was vintage Ecclestone; vintage chaos; vintage Formula One.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Weaver in Kuala Lumpur, for The Guardian on Friday 27th March 2015 22.00 Europe/London

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