Bernie Ecclestone, 85, heads up F1
Ex-Ferrari boss: "Bernie is a fantastic person"
Billionaire Bernie Ecclestone has led the world’s biggest motorsport for the last four decades but, at the age of 85, is it time for Formula One to look for a new driving force?
At the start of 2016, Ecclestone claimed F1 was “the worst it’s ever been” after two years of Mercedes dominance, and that he wouldn’t bother buying a ticket.
“Sooner or later, F1 has to think how to replace Bernie,” former Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo told CNN’s The Circuit ahead of this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.
“Bernie is a fantastic person. It will be impossible and a mistake to find one man to replace him – it’s important to think of a new governance.”
Di Montezemolo is not alone in his opinion that it is time for a sea change.
The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, in a statement signed by world champions Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button, has also called for the sport’s structure to be changed.
“The drivers have come to the conclusion that the decision-making process in the sport is obsolete and ill-structured and prevents progress being made,” the drivers said in March.
Di Montezemolo’s manifesto for change in F1 includes splitting the governance of F1 among a trio bodies with distinct responsibilities.
“For F1 it is better to have three different but clear owners,” says the Italian, who took the top job at Ferrari in 1991 and presided over Michael Schumacher’s unparalleled period of dominance between 2000 and 2004.
“One is the FIA, which is mainly in charge of rules and political power like a football federation, then the teams, who are the players, and then a commercial owner to promote the sport and increase its clients. To overlap is a big mistake.
“You need a small group of people, very strong in each department with someone in charge who knows F1, who has a feeling of what the market needs, of what the tifosi, the fans need.”
Di Montezemolo says F1 needs to have a five-year plan which focuses on clear goals.
The charismatic businessman may have reluctantly stepped down as Ferrari president in 2014 – “I was very sad,” he reveals – but he still has strong views on how to drive F1 forward.
“You need social network activities, a novel way to bring F1 closer to the public, a marketing plan to become popular in the United States,” he says.
“America is the key market to work on but you need to maintain a strong presence in historic countries like Germany, Italy, Belgium, Japan and the UK.
“We need to put this together with awareness of history but with a lot of innovation. With clear goals and good people.”
After studying law at Columbia University, Di Montezemolo returned to Italy and became Enzo Ferrari’s assistant before being promoted to manager of the iconic company’s racing team in the 1970s.
He was thrown straight into an intoxicating world where heroic drivers such as Niki Lauda and James Hunt were driving for glory in an era when the dangers were almost as high as the speeds.
He says the sport needs to remember its history as it strives to remain relevant in the 21st century.
“F1 has to remain an extreme sport,” Di Montezemolo insists. “Today the cars are too slow.
“I was totally unhappy when I heard the music of the engine was not as in the past, not because I’m nostalgic but because every sport has its ingredients. Can you imagine Italy without pasta?
“F1 is extreme technology and extreme performance. Safety is our first goal, but you need the music of the engine, you need more contact between the public and the drivers … there are lots of ingredients.”
Asked by CNN whether he was the right man to get F1 back on track, the 68-year-old responded: “I would be the best in the world to do this, but maybe it’s time for someone else.”
Rome Olympics bid
In the inner sanctum of Di Montezemolo’s office in Rome, it was clear, for now, he has enough on his plate leading the capital’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics.
“Rome is another challenge, a different challenge” he says. “We have a competition with (Hamburg), Los Angeles, with Paris and Budapest but Rome is Rome.
“We can count on many important ingredients, including Rome’s magic and Italy itself.
“We want to present an event with three different ingredients; the best festival of sport, the culture and history of Rome and last but not least innovation.
“Rome is the capital of Italy but I see in the town people who are really happy to finally to have a goal, a challenge because passion, capability to organize and the art of welcome is in our blood.”
Golf and rugby sevens have been added to the roster at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but could motorsport muscle its way onto the Games’ starting grid?
“Why not, why not?” Di Montezemolo says. “To put together the Olympics tradition with very strong, innovative technology could be an intelligent possibility in the future.
“It could be F1 or it could be something else? But motor racing is part of the modern world.”