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Bernie lays down the law

NEWS STORY
21/01/2009

There's a recession, businesses are going bankrupt and sponsorship budgets are hitting the wall. So how does F1's head honcho Bernie Ecclestone respond to the F1 teams' financial woes? "We don't need to pay more. We've got to give them less," he said yesterday in a feature for the Financial Times written by Pitpass' business reporter Chris Sylt. The two met over lunch and by all accounts it was quite an experience.

Sylt has met some of the world's wealthiest businessmen, from interviewing Prince Alwaleed a Saudi investor with a $21bn fortune (whose son was once behind a bid to buy Minardi) aboard his yacht in Cannes to having lunch with hotel magnate Sir Rocco Forte at London's Savoy hotel. However meetings with Ecclestone are unlike any other. Sylt spoke to him over lunch at Ecclestone's local London pub which he visits religiously when in town and, as ever, Ecclestone had no entourage in tow - just him and his chauffeur who drives a shiny Mercedes.

Sylt has known Ecclestone for years and has a lot to thank him for - in 2003 he personally hired him. The banter between the two extends to a friendly punch by Ecclestone on Sylt's arm at the end of the interview telling him to remember to drop him a line. Despite F1's famous secrecy, Ecclestone relishes in-talking about the business he has meticulously built up.

One much-overlooked question arising from Honda's F1 pullout is what will happen to the prize money it earned last year. It won at least $30m after finishing ninth last year and is owed around $20m from backdated prize payments. These will be paid to the teams when they eventually sign a new Concorde Agreement.

The previous Concorde expired at the end of 2007 and the teams now rely on a commercial memorandum of understanding (MOU) which, according to an insider, provides that "all money be distributed, even if there are fewer than ten teams." However, the MOU is not legally binding and when asked whether Honda's prize money will be distributed to the teams Ecclestone told Sylt "I don't know. You might as well say if five teams stopped, would the other five get a lot of money?" If the teams are expecting the money they may have to think again or sign a Concorde Agreement pretty quickly.

"We pay the teams a lot of money but I don't know what they give us," says Ecclestone adding that the best way for them to save more money would be to introduce a budget cap. "I think that's the best idea," he says.

This has previously been mooted in F1 but the logistics of monitoring budgets has been a roadblock. Ecclestone has a solution: "the only way you could really do it is with a form every six months where teams undertake that they have not done any of the things that are illegal and infringement of this costs $100 million."

He adds that Honda could have benefited from this. "If I was Honda putting the money up, I would have said, there is 120 million for you to race. If you can't do it, stop. They stopped because they were ninth. Pouring money in like there was no tomorrow." says Ecclestone adding "they didn't even look for sponsors. Painted the car green. It was an easy way out for the agency that couldn't find the sponsors. An easy way out for the team."

It has been well-publicised that Ecclestone thinks no one will notice Honda's departure from F1. "You wouldn't miss them would you. The races they finished and where they finished," he says. However, in F1 all are far from equal.

"It's bad for me to say this, but the only team we would really say we would miss is Ferrari. I wouldn't want to lose McLaren for sure. I wouldn't want to lose Williams," he says, adding that he nevertheless thinks none are at risk. And he doesn't seem to think that this is because of the recent raft of cost cuts.

Not one to mince his words, Ecclestone exhibits rare hesitation when asked whether he thinks that the cost cuts for 2009 will be enough to save the teams.

Suggesting that he thinks the cost cutting measures may not actually take place he says "I don't think...I'm doubtful whether it will ever...I hope it happens. I hope it happens." And although the FIA is widely credited for creating the cost cutting measures Ecclestone says otherwise.

"Reducing the use of the windtunnel was my idea," says Ecclestone explaining that "the moment you reduce it, you reduce the necessity to make the parts."

Some would say that reducing F1's focus on technology and making it more standard is destroying its DNA. Ecclestone is in two minds. "Depends what it is. I think, buy all the brakes from the same people. I'm a great believer that brakes are too efficient. Nobody outbrakes anybody any more," he says, but even he is cautious as to whether anything can stop F1's exploding expenditure. "You can't stop them spending money that they have," says Ecclestone.

So it seems there is a limit to his power after all.

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