In Defense of Bernie Ecclestone: Shut Up And Drive

So, good on the F1 drivers for letting us know what they really think of the powers-that-be in Formula 1. Right? Not so fast, writes Andrew Maitland.

It’s too dismissive to simply agree that F1’s ‘gladiators’ – the human beings who get strapped to the four-wheeled cannons that can roll and flip through gravel traps as Fernando Alonso’s did in Melbourne – have a right to start signing official letters that are critical of grand prix racing.

Firstly, it’s important to understand the history of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA). It started life, remember, when the drivers were moaning quite legitimately about authorities not caring about the straw bales that lined the circuits. Sir Jackie Stewart was an early warrior, hated by many in his time as he organised race boycotts in the name of staying alive in F1’s deadliest era. “First I hit a telegraph pole and then a woodcutter’s cottage and I finished up in the outside basement of a farm building,” said the Scot, recalling a crash that inspired his GPDA work.

Today, the GPDA has no reason to complain about safety — indeed, the very first thing Alonso did after brushing the gravel off his fireproof overalls last Sunday was to thank the FIA for forcing teams to build cars that can be thrown off high-rise buildings and simply have the smashed bits bolted back on new. And according to Nico Hulkenberg, who only recently put up his hand to run the GPDA someday, the FIA is going way too far with the ‘halo’ concept on the basis that it “looks horrible”.

Not afraid to tell you he's number one.
Not afraid to tell you he’s number one.

In fact, the GPDA had been completely abandoned by the drivers until 1994, when the strong smell of death returned to the paddock. So today, while many drivers actually campaign AGAINST the latest safety innovation, it is now the way the sport is run from a business and rule-making point of view that the drivers are turning their attention to.

As they point out in their letter, it could be argued that they have a right to do that. “We drivers love our sport!” they insisted, not forgetting to add the exclamation mark. Critical they may be, but the drivers do love F1 in its current form. Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel – three of the 2016 Zeitgeist’s biggest critics – collectively pocket at least $100 million a year, according to even the most conservative of guesses. That’s almost $1.5 million for Hamilton PER RACE (note the omission of an exclamation mark), in contrast to the mere thousands collected by the likes of Sir Stirling Moss in the 50s, when cars without seatbelts and helmets made of leather were the arguments of the day. “Well, good luck to them,” Moss, now 86, said this week when musing the mega-millions. “They are very lucky. If I could, I would!”

Grand Prix Drivers Association
Grand Prix Drivers Association

‘Lucky’ is not really right. F1 is the global phenomenon it is today because of the risks taken by Bernie Ecclestone some decades ago to wrestle control of the sport from cronies like Jean-Marie Balestre and turn it into a business worth billions. He put his own money at risk, threatened boycotts, and even had FIA officials held at gunpoint at one stage amid the fabled FISA-FOCA war. Today, it is Ecclestone’s daughters who are spending dad’s millions, but it’s not really fair to say they are lucky. Daddy made that money quite legitimately.

Now, approaching four decades after Ecclestone and Max Mosley revolutionised how F1 is run, Hamilton wears the logos of multinational corporations on his chest, zips around the world in his own shiny red jet, and dares to complain that big bad Bernie has banned him from filming iPhone footage inside the paddock for his next embarrassing Snapchat video. All while his employer Mercedes and the other team bosses collect a cool billion every year thanks to how Ecclestone and his paymasters at CVC divvy up the wads of cash.

That is not to say that the F1 establishment – the ageing Ecclestone, the absent Jean Todt and the money-shovelling CVC – does not deserve criticism. The drivers are even right that the strike-rate of bad changes since the height of the Michael Schumacher glory days some decade ago has been close to 100 per cent. If not billions, there are at least a million things to complain and worry about. But is it the right of the Stewart-championed drivers’ union of super-safe 2016 to do it?

After all, major sections of the F1 media described the GPDA as having “slammed” and “blasted” the sport’s authorities with their “defiant views” late on Tuesday. But so weak was the drivers’ defiance in reality that not a single person – not Ecclestone, not Todt, not anyone at CVC – was actually mentioned by name or even deed. Could it be that, from the dizzy heights of private jets and $1.5m per race pay-cheques, the drivers want to whinge and moan on the one hand but remain ever-so-careful to avoid biting the hands that feed them?

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