Bernie Ecclestone has dismissed the increasingly militant stance taken by Formula One’s drivers, insisting they are only repeating what the teams have told them to say about the way in which the sport is run.
Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Alex Wurz, all directors of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA), last week wrote a letter on behalf of all members in which they asked “the owners and stakeholders of F1 to restructure its governance”, which they described as “obsolete and ill-structured”.
But Ecclestone, the sport’s chief executive officer, is in typically belligerent form and he turned up the temperature before Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix when he said here on Friday: “The drivers can say what they like. They can’t do anything. They are only saying what their teams have told them to say.”
When asked whether they should be represented on the F1 Commission his reply was succinct: “No,” he said. And when asked if the drivers were windbags he replied: “Some of them.”
His message, however, did not chime with that of the current world champion, Lewis Hamilton, who, despite not being a member of the GPDA, insisted that all the drivers were concerned about the sport’s direction. “I was in the [recent] meeting when we all sat and collectively stood together. There are occasionally issues where a united front is necessary and that was one of them. We don’t want to be the decision-makers.
“All us drivers are doing what we do today because we love cars, we love racing, we love wheel-to-wheel. It was the wheel-to-wheel racing that excited me, and it’s hard to have that today.
“When you’re now driving and you’re not being challenged in the way you should be and the decisions that have been taken for the rules are taking it in the wrong direction, we can’t just stand still and let it happen. People have fallen out of love with the sport.”
Ecclestone, together with the FIA president, Jean Todt, will meet the teams here on Sunday to thrash out a solution to the new elimination qualifying system, which flopped badly on its debut in Melbourne two weeks ago. In Q3, in what should be an exciting climax to the qualifying hour, there were no cars running for four minutes.
Wurz, the president of the GPDA, was adamant the letter was “not a knee-jerk reaction” to the “fiasco” over the change of qualifying rules, adding: “This statement was well-considered and planned between all drivers for quite a while and discussed again in Melbourne.”
But the drivers are known to be upset by the changes to qualifying. Vettel said here on Thursday that Formula One should not feel proud of its decision to retain the new system this weekend.
“Put it this way,” said Vettel, “if you sell vanilla ice cream, but everybody who comes to your shop is asking for chocolate ice cream and the next day you open, you expect to sell chocolate ice cream but instead you just sell vanilla ice cream again. I’m as disappointed as anyone that we didn’t go back [to the old qualifying system].”
The new approach to qualifying was introduced in an attempt to mix up the grid rather than improve the qualifying show itself, which most people were in favour of. After the experiment in Melbourne all teams were agreed a change had to made. They were then taken aback when, in a meeting with the FIA, they were given the chance to vote only on a compromise system, with elimination in Q1 and Q2, and a “normal” Q3. When this did not receive unanimous agreement (Red Bull and McLaren voted against) there was a default to the Melbourne position which had been agreed by everyone before the start of the season.
When Ecclestone was asked on Friday what system of qualifying he would prefer he said: “I suggest leave qualifying exactly as it was and don’t touch it and then add a time on. So if somebody is on pole, you can take the results of the previous race or the championship, and add two or three seconds or whatever the amount is, to the time of the qualifying. You will find maybe the guy who is on pole would be 10th on the grid or eighth, and that will go all the way down.”
Earlier in the day Ecclestone had launched another criticism of his sport, which he had lambasted in the week leading up to Melbourne.
“We are not putting on a very good show,” he said. “Imagine if people turned up to watch the Rolling Stones and Mick [Jagger] couldn’t sing and the others couldn’t play their instruments.” He also described the new turbo hybrid engines, now in their third year, as “a disaster”. He added: “Mercedes have done an incredible job with that power unit. It is unbelievable. But it is not F1. I didn’t find anything wrong with the V8s and neither did anyone else.”
Not for the first time Formula One has gone into a race weekend with the sound of engines drowned out by angry voices.
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