In the wake of the storm that was whipped up by remarks he made suggesting racist abuse aimed at newly-crowned Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton was merely 'a joke', Bernie Ecclestone has sought to clarify his comments by insisting that 'anyone who does this sort of thing...are third-rate people'.

The sport's commercial rights-holder - who played a part in Hamilton's graduation to F1 with McLaren-Mercedes last year - had seemed to brush off obscene insults written about the 23-year-old on a Spanish 'voodoo-style' website entitled Pincha la Rueda de Hamilton (Burst Hamilton's Tyre) as 'nonsense' and 'probably meant as a joke', adding that he didn't 'think it had anything to do with racism' [see separate story - click here].

It was the second such incident in F1 in 2008, after Hamilton - the sport's youngest and first-ever black title-winner - had found himself on the receiving end of jeers and taunts during a test in Barcelona back in February, from spectators wearing black make-up and clad in T-shirts with 'Hamilton's Family' written on the front and 'Alonso No. 1' on the back, in reference to former team-mate and bitter rival Fernando Alonso.

The Stevenage-born ace, however, clearly disagreed with Ecclestone's appraisal [see separate story - click here], and anti-racism groups such as Kick It Out were also quick to condemn the Formula One Management chief, believing his words were tantamount to condoning such actions.

Leading anti-racism campaigner Paul Elliot even went so far as to argue that Ecclestone 'should resign' as a consequence of what he had said. Referring to the Barcelona episode in particular, however, the 77-year-old told the BBC that the 'joke' remark had been misconstrued.

"I meant they were a joke, clowns," he explained. "I've spoken with Lewis' dad Anthony and he understands; everything's fine.

"I deal with Lewis and his dad all the time. We are good friends and I play cards with Anthony. I have even had many black people come up and shake my hand and thank me for helping Lewis get into F1.

"People should remember I was the one who pulled F1 out of South Africa in support of Nelson Mandela because of apartheid before these people knew anything about racism, so no one can say I am against black people.

"I've dealt with people all over the world for many years and I have no feeling with regard to religion, race, colour, creed or whatever.

"If I had had the opportunity, I would have got those guys that blacked their faces up, dragged them into the paddock, asked them to explain themselves and introduced them to Lewis and then seen what they had to say, but the police said, 'Don't do it'.

"Anyone who does this sort of thing against Muslims, Jews or whoever, are third-rate people."

"We won't put up with that in Formula 1," he added in an interview with UK newspaper the Daily Mirror, branding the abuse 'disgusting'. "They are cowards. They are nothing, they are nobodies."

The F1 supremo also found an ally in recently-retired Red Bull Racing star David Coulthard, who claimed the whole situation was 'trying to be built into something much bigger than it is'.

"What happened in Spain because of those four guys, I'm sorry, but it hardly represents a nation of racists," the Scot reasoned. "I've seen some people having a pop at Bernie for trying to play it down, but what would you expect him to do? He is the ringmaster, the guy that has created this amazing foundation of business success that enables all of us to earn our pennies.

"We're all talking about Lewis being the first billion dollar sportsman - well that is on the foundations of what Bernie has created. To turn round and try to get Bernie to offer an apology to Lewis is just ridiculous.

"F1 may have many failings, but it does not come close to the racism you see in people's first love, football."

"We don't want to say anything that will inflame the issue," urged a McLaren spokesman. "We want to be able to let Lewis enjoy his win in peace."

The FIA added that it 'has consistently made its position clear' on the issue of racism.