Bernie Ecclestone is credited with transforming Formula One into a global, billion-dollar business with races in all corners of the world, but like many organizations, the sport he helped create has come under scrutiny following George Floyd’s death.
Notably from Lewis Hamilton, a six-time world champion and the first and only Black driver to compete in F1, who has been a powerful voice following Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last month.
For his part, Ecclestone, who was replaced as chief executive of Formula One in 2017 after nearly four decades in charge, praised how Hamilton has spoken out for equality.
“Lewis is a little bit special,” Ecclestone told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.
“First, he’s very, very, very talented as a driver and he seems to be now extremely talented when’s he standing up and can make speeches.
“This last campaign he’s doing for Black people is wonderful. He’s doing a great job and it’s people like that – easily recognisable – that people listen to.”
‘Completely stupid taking all these statues down’
However, Ecclestone doesn’t think incentives like The Hamilton Commission will have a tangible impact on the sport.
“I don’t think it’s going to do anything bad or good for Formula One,” he said.
“It’ll just make people think which is more important. I think that’s the same for everybody. People ought to think a little bit and think: ‘Well, what the hell. Somebody’s not the same as White people and Black people should think the same about White people.’
“In lots of cases, Black people are more racist than what White people are.”
CNN challenged Ecclestone over the assertion and he was unable to provide any concrete evidence for the baseless claim beyond saying that he had “noticed” it over the years.
The 89-year-old continued by saying that changing attitudes towards race won’t come “easily,” scorning the dismantling of statues of slave trade figures – a move Hamilton backed when the statue of Edward Colston was torn down in the English city of Bristol.
“I think they need to start being taught at school,” said Ecclestone.
“So they grow up not having to think about these things. I think it’s completely stupid taking all these statues down. They should’ve left them there. Take the kids from school to look and say why they’re there and what the people did and how wrong it was what they did.”
Later on Friday, F1 issued a statement on its website saying it “completely disagreed with Bernie Ecclestone’s comments that have no place in Formula 1 or society.
“Mr Ecclestone has played no role in Formula 1 since he left our organisation in 2017, his title Chairman Emeritus, being honorific, expired in January 2020.”
During his time at the helm of F1, Ecclestone brought in more races in new regions and attracted fresh interest in the sport.
The season preceding Liberty Media’s $8 billion takeover in 2017 drew 400 million unique TV viewers across 200 territories. The 2016 championship saw 21 races in 21 countries and five continents.
In April, billionaire Ecclestone and wife Fabiana Flosi, 44, announced they were expecting a baby. Ecclestone’s fourth child will be born this summer and when the announcement was made, he said he saw no difference “between being 89 and 29.”
The Briton is no stranger to controversy.
In 2009 he praised Adolf Hitler for being “able to get things done” – comments he later apologized for – while he has also backed Vladimir Putin’s controversial policy towards homosexuals and said that women should dress in white “like all other domestic appliances.”
‘Nobody’s done anything’
Reigning world champion Hamilton recently referred to F1 as a “white dominated sport,” while the governing body has just launched the #WeRaceAsOne initiative which seeks to fight the challenges of Covid-19 and condemn racism and inequality.
A task force has subsequently been set up to increase diversity and inclusion in F1, alongside a foundation to help finance internships and apprenticeships for under-represented groups.
Asked whether F1 should have done more to address the issue of diversity and inclusion, Ecclestone said: “I don’t think anyone bothered about it before.
“I think it’s an important issue, but it’s been there so long [and] nobody’s done anything. Why didn’t someone do something two or three years ago?
“They’re too busy trying to win races or find sponsors or something.”
In a recent article for The Times, Hamilton alluded to an incident in Spain in 2008 when he was taunted by fans in blackface.
“I’m surprised that it concerns him,” said Ecclestone reflecting on the incident, adding that he never spoke to Hamilton himself, who was driving for McLaren at the time.
“I’m really unhappy if he took it seriously. I never thought he did. I didn’t think it affected him.
“I don’t know why the people did all of that anyway. Was it against him personally or what they thought?”
As owner of racing team Brabham, Ecclestone invited Willie T. Ribbs to test drive in Portugal in 1986, an audition for a place on the grid which could have seen the American become F1’s first Black driver.
In a recent interview with CNN Sport anchor Davies, Ribbs, who went on to compete in IndyCar and NASCAR, spoke of Ecclestone in glowing terms.
“I don’t even know if Formula One would exist now if it wasn’t for Bernie Ecclestone,” said Ribbs.
“He wanted me in the car. He wanted me in Formula One […] His sponsors at the time were Italian. They wanted Italian drivers, and I totally respect him. I have no issues with that.
“My goal was to be in Formula One, but Bernie Ecclestone made a statement because Bernie Ecclestone put the first man of color, first Black man, in a Formula 1 car.”
It is with a resolve to increase diversity within the sport that the new F1 season gets underway.
The first race of the delayed start to the season will be in Austria on July 5, where Hamilton begins his pursuit of a seventh world championship title that would see him draw level with Michael Schumacher’s record.