In an astonishing outburst, F1 commercial rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone has lambasted 2010 newcomers Lotus, Virgin and Hispania (HRT) as 'cripples' and 'an embarrassment' – and accused them of doing 'nothing' for the sport.
The British billionaire's remarks are even more extraordinary given that he played a leading role in trying to attract new entrants onto the grand prix grid this season by way of financial incentives. However, almost eight months on and the best of them – Lotus – is still languishing around 1.5 seconds adrift of its closest rival and some 3.5 seconds shy of the outright benchmark. HRT is regularly more than five seconds off the pace, and none of the three have come even close to scoring points.
Whilst acknowledging that with Red Bull gearboxes and hydraulic systems and a widely-anticipated engine-supply deal with Renault, the ambitious, Anglo/Malaysian Lotus effort deserves to remain in the top flight for a second consecutive campaign, Ecclestone criticises Sir Richard Branson for not investing more money into Virgin – and makes no mention at all of Hispania.
“They do nothing for us,” the recently-turned 80-year-old told the Financial Times
. “They are an embarrassment. We need to get rid of a few of those cripples. Richard should put some money in there (Virgin), shouldn't he? He could do what (Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz) has done and put some money in.”
Ever the canny businessman himself, Ecclestone went on to confess that he would like to see one of Red Bull Racing pairing Mark Webber or Sebastian Vettel clinch the drivers' crown this season, as there would then be five world champions in the field in 2011 – a factor that could only serve to boost F1's popularity.
Adding that there is 'no truth' in rumours that he is lining up disgraced former Renault F1 managing director and 'Singapore-gate' protagonist Flavio Briatore as his successor on the commercial front – with speculation that GP2 Series director Bruno Michel and Prodrive chairman David Richards are similarly in the running to eventually assume the helm – he explained that he has no intention to retire despite his advancing years, vowing to stay 'as long as I can deliver'.
“Somebody will emerge when I'm not there,” he mused. “I think two or three people may come out of the woodwork, but I don't think it could be carried on in the same way as it has.”
Finally, having attempted to float F1 on the stock market back in 1997 – only to be blocked by a number of teams' refusal to sign a long-term contract in the absence of a higher percentage of the sport's income, controlled by his Formula One Management (FOM) company – and again in 2000, when he was scuppered by an anti-trust investigation that had been launched by the European Commission the previous year, Ecclestone insisted he would never try to do so again.
“There's no way I would sit in front of a load of share-holders,” he urged. “It wouldn't float under me.”
F1's parent company Delta Topco is owned 5.3 per cent by Ecclestone, and 63.4 per cent by private equity investor CVC Capital Partners, who likewise are understood to be uninterested in selling a business that is worth in the region of £3.8-£4.4 billion.