For decades, Bernie Ecclestone was Formula One’s puppeteer. Having long since handed over control, instead today he is sitting in his Switzerland home awaiting becoming a father in a few weeks’ time, just months shy of his 90th birthday.
“It’s all very exciting,” he said. “We’d (he and his wife, Fabiana) been looking to make this happen for four or five years. I suppose I’ll give a lot more attention to the little one than I did with the girls (he has three daughters from previous relationships).
“Then I was much busier in business. And the girls are very excited about the whole idea.”
Ecclestone’s mind might be focused on matters close to home, but don’t be fooled: he is still forthright in his opinions that the 2020 season should be scrapped, that the budget cap discussions are “complete rubbish” and that Lewis Hamilton will never move to Ferrari.
Having seen the highs and lows of F1, from the driver tragedies as a team boss to turning the sport into a behemoth it is today, Ecclestone is better placed than most to still understand the machinations of the sport.
As F1 pushes ahead with plans to begin racing in July in Austria with two races, followed by a potential Silverstone double-header, Ecclestone warns 2020 might be a season that never ends.
As ever, the sport also finds itself immersed in politics, most notably concerning budget caps, which were voted through by the World Motorsport Council on Wednesday.
“I thought at the beginning of all this there shouldn’t be a championship this year,” he said. “It’s not up to Formula One to say what’s going to happen. The Government can easily say, ‘Terribly sorry, it can’t happen’ and there might be a second wave of this virus and then everything that’s planned has to suddenly stop.
“This season is not good for anyone and the biggest problem they’ve got is not knowing when this is going to finish. If someone could say that this is going to end in September or October, you can make plans. But how can you make plans? All you have is hope.”
For Ecclestone, the sport’s 70th anniversary year will instead always come with an asterisk, however it plays out over the coming months.
“It’s a funny championship, isn’t it?” he said. “You have the Austrian Grand Prix and the next week the same thing but called something else.
“So, you’ll look at the championship, someone wins and you’re not quite sure what they’ve won. And people will forever say that it was a lucky win because it wasn’t really a championship.”
In whatever form that championship eventually takes shape, Hamilton is the overwhelming favourite to win, and in so doing equal Michael Schumacher’s record seven world titles.
For Ecclestone, the season’s uncertainty will only temporarily take the gloss off Hamilton’s achievements. “If things stay as they are, there’s no reason for Lewis not to win another 10 championships,” he said.
Hamilton is yet to agree terms on a new Mercedes contract and has repeatedly been linked to a move to Ferrari in recent seasons. But Ecclestone is confident that the Briton will see out his F1 days at the German manufacturer.
“There’s just no sense for Lewis to go anywhere else,” he said. “When he leaves Mercedes, he’ll stop. I don’t think he’ll look anywhere else. Why move to Ferrari? He’s with Mercedes and he knows how well it’s run better than most.”
At the end of the season, Sebastian Vettel will vacate his spot at Ferrari to be replaced by Carlos Sainz. And Ecclestone does not expect the German, with whom he is close, to be racing in F1 in 2021.
“I’ve been talking to him quite a bit and maybe he should take a year off,” said Ecclestone. “So, come back in 2022 with the rule changes. It gives him a chance to wait and see how F1 is going to change. But I think what he’d like to do is drive for Mercedes against Lewis.”
The changes to which Ecclestone refers had been proposed for 2021 but, because of coronavirus, have been put back to 2022. And Ecclestone believes the sport’s rule-makers can go even further with their revamp.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to reset the clock,” he said. “There’s millions of things that could be done better. People watch Formula One for competition. They don’t want to go to a race knowing who’s going to win.
“They need to simplify the cars. The engine they have is an incredible feat of engineering, but do the public care how super-efficient that is? Probably not. They just want good racing. Gone are the days when you’d start a race with 16 cars and you’d be lucky if half of them finished. Now everyone finishes and it’s got a bit boring and predictable.”
As for the budget cap, Ecclestone is equally forthright.
“It’s been complete rubbish,” he said. “They were messing about over £5million, which is a tiny percentage of their budget, when there’s other things that need to be done.
“When I owned Brabham, we used to spend a lot less than Ferrari and we still won and they didn’t. It’s about the people, not the money. The money’s become an ego competition rather than a real competition, one guy just wanting to spend more than the other guy. But again, the public don’t care.”
But the key is that Ecclestone still does. He may no longer be pulling the strings, but Formula One remains a huge focus in his life.