He had been expected to come back with a bang, to make an outspoken and possibly controversial return to the F1 arena that was once his personal fiefdom. But when Bernie Ecclestone toured the paddock at Bahrain’s Sakhir Circuit on Friday he was harder on himself than he was on the men who supplanted him as F1’s ringmaster.
“No, I was an idiot,” he retorted when asked whether it was a compliment that it had taken three men – Chase Carey, Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches – to replace him.
“Never met Sean, I met Ross for 10 minutes this year and I knew him from the past obviously, and I feel sorry for Chase being thrown in the deep end.”
He said he felt envious that Carey has the sort of budget to play with that he, in his later years, did not have access to, that the American has greater wiggle room to do the sort of deals for which he himself had once been legendary, but he added: “I wouldn’t want to be having to deliver to a public company today. I feel sorry for Chase having to do that.”
Asked what he thought the new owner, Liberty Media, would do with the sport, he replied: “Nothing disrespectful, but there’s very little I could have done, or you could do, it’s the racing that’s been bad. If we have Ferrari going well and Red Bull going well, it will come back again and the public will be interested.”
He became almost penitent when asked if he missed his old job.
“Well it’s strange, I convinced these people to build this place” - he gestured at the paddock and surrounding circuit - “and all the other places, I charged them too much for what we provided so I feel a bit responsible. So when they ask me things I try and help them. Nothing to do with Liberty, and it went on my watch, we didn’t deliver the show that we charged them for. It’s probably why so many circuits have dropped away. People can’t make it work.”
He was, he said of the deals he made, “A used car dealer.” But he shied away, he said, from the idea that Liberty have of 25 races in a season.
“I tried hard not to go there,” he said. “It would cost a fortune to do that. The teams are going to need another team. Twenty would be plenty.”
He doubted, however, that Liberty could make their purchase pay on 20 races.
“It doesn’t seem to me that they are doing things for money, which is good, whereas I was. I was running the company to try and make money for the shareholders. It doesn’t seem that’s the thing that’s driving them. Chase wants to get more happy spectators I think.
“Yeah, they want a return on investment, but you can tell stories for a few years: it’s going to get better next year. It’s not short-term, but it’s not for a few years when people start thinking you haven’t done what you thought you would have.”
And who’ll win the championship this year?
The reply came crisply and concisely, Ferrari’s resurgence notwithstanding.
And with that he clambered back on his golf cart, and was whisked off to the next bunch of waving microphones and tape recorders.
Gone, but certainly not forgotten.