Saturday 26 May 2018

F1 chief Ecclestone: Drivers are just 'windbags' in no position of strength

F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone (Lars Baron/Getty Images)
F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Daniel Johnston

If the drivers have found their voice, then they could do with speaking up. Particularly given that Bernie Ecclestone shows no sign of abandoning his customary verbal grenades, the latest being to accuse them of saying only what their teams tell them to, describing some as "windbags".

The sport's stars rode into battle amid a febrile atmosphere in Bahrain, brandishing their carefully-worded letter, their protestations of deference, framing their attack on F1's disastrous qualifying system - which astonishingly will get a second outing today before Ecclestone and the FIA meet the teams tomorrow to decide what to do next - as all about process rather than individuals. They were the epitome of deference.

Unfortunately, they have walked into a public relations fight with a man who has spent decades throwing caution to the wind, with seemingly little concern for the consequences.

About the only driver prepared to speak with any stridency was Sebastian Vettel. The four-time champion, whose Ferrari stopped yesterday with 10 minutes to run because of a loose wheel nut, said the sport's bosses would get it wrong even if they were selling ice cream and everybody wanted one flavour.

But all his admirable intervention earned him was a withering put-down from Ecclestone. "Do you think he's going to win this race?" F1's ringmaster asked. "He should go to his boss and tell him the same thing. They've been running an ice-cream shop for a few years now."

Ecclestone went on: "The drivers can say what they like. They can't do anything. Everyone has got an opinion. They haven't got any strength.

Handily, Niki Lauda, the Mercedes chairman, walked in to Ecclestone's office to field the 85-year-old's accusation. The three-time champion pointed the finger of blame at Alex Wurz, a fellow Austrian former F1 driver who now runs the Grand Prix Drivers' Association. Wurz has become increasingly vociferous since taking over in October 2014.

"Mr Wurz got together and spoke in the name of all the drivers," Lauda said.

"It's all bull****. This is Wurz alone. He was the master of this. We had nothing to do with it."

In the wake of the qualifying shambles, the drivers have been demanding a greater say; a seat on the F1 Commission, the sport's rule-making body. Ecclestone wants them nowhere near it.

"Some of them are [windbags]," he added. Which ones? "The ones that are."

Only in Formula One would you get this sort of interplay between the sport's executives and its stars.

But this is not simply knockabout fun. It is a fight about the future direction of the sport.

"People have fallen out of love with the sport," reigning champion Lewis Hamilton said. "It has the opportunity to be the greatest sport in the world, which is what it should be."

His compatriot, Jenson Button, did his best to voice mild opposition to Sky's exclusive TV deal, which will mean Formula One is no longer on terrestrial television from 2019.

"Social media lit up the day it was announced," Button, the most experienced driver on the grid, said. "With pay TV, it's not cheap for most of the fans of the sport. Football is a massive sport, bigger than F1. And if they have the choice to pay for one or the other they'll go for football."

Unless the drivers become more mutinous, issuing threats rather than open letters, do not expect much to change for now.

In the meantime, perhaps Ecclestone is right that there is no such thing as bad publicity, because otherwise there would be little to say about yesterday's running.

Mercedes were dominant in morning practice, Nico Rosberg leading from Hamilton. Kimi Raikkonen was third, nearly two seconds adrift. Ferrari need to have something up their sleeve. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports F1/ Channel 4, 6pm

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