Bernie Ecclestone is credited with turning Formula 1 into a global, billion-dollar business with racing in every corner of the world, but like many organisations, the sport he helped create is under scrutiny after the death of George Floyd.
Notably lewis hamilton, six-time world champion and the first and only black driver to compete in F1, who has been a powerful voice after Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last month.
Hamilton joined the protests, mounted The Hamilton Commission to increase diversity in motorsport and called f1’s “biggest stars” to “stay silent… in the midst of injustice.
For his part, Ecclestone, who was replaced as Formula One’s chief executive in 2017 after nearly four decades in charge, praised how Hamilton has spoken for equality.
“Lewis is a little special,” said Ecclestone, who now has an advisory role in F1 as president emeritus, told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.
“First, he is very, very, very talented as a rider and he now seems to be extremely talented when he is standing and can make speeches.
“This last campaign he’s running for black people is wonderful. He’s doing a great job and it’s people like that – easily recognizable – that people hear.”
“COMPLETELY STUPID TAKING OUT ALL THESE STATUES”
However, Ecclestone does not think incentives like the Hamilton Commission will have a tangible impact on the sport.
“I don’t think it’s going to do anything bad or good for Formula One,” he said.
“It’s just going to make people think what’s most important. I think it’s the same for everyone. People should think a little and think, “Well, what the hell. Someone is not the same as whites and blacks should think the same about whites.
“In many cases, blacks are more racist than whites.”
CNN challenged Ecclestone about the claim and he was unable to provide any concrete evidence for the unfounded claim beyond saying that he had “noticed” it over the years.
The 89-year-old went on to say that changing attitudes towards race will not come “easily,” scorning the dismantling of statues of figures in the slave trade – a move Hamilton supported when the statue of Edward Colston was toppled in the English city of Bristol.
“I think they need to start being taught in school,” Ecclestone said.
“Then they grow up not having to think about these things. I think it’s completely stupid to take down all these statues. They should have left it there. Take the kids at school to look and tell them why they’re there and what people did and how wrong they did.”
During his time in charge of F1, Ecclestone brought more races in new regions and attracted new interest in the sport.
The season prior to Liberty Media’s $8 billion acquisition in 2017 attracted 400 million unique viewers in 200 territories. The 2016 championship had 21 races in 21 countries and five continents.
In April, billionaire Ecclestone and wife Fabiana Flosi, 44, announced they were expecting a baby. Ecclestone’s fourth child will be born this summer and when the announcement was made, he said he saw no difference “between 89 and 29 years.”
The British is no stranger to controversy.
In 2009, he praised Adolf Hitler for being “able to do things” – comments for which he later apologized – while he also supported Vladimir Putin’s controversial policy towards homosexuals and said women should dress in white “like all other household appliances.”
“NOBODY DID ANYTHING”
Current world champion Hamilton recently referred to F1 as a “white-dominated sport”, while the governing body has just launched the #WeRaceAsOne initiative that seeks to tackle the challenges of COVID-19 and condemn racism and inequality.
A task force was later set up to increase diversity and inclusion in F1, alongside a foundation to help fund internships and apprentices for underrepresented groups.
Asked if F1 should have done more to address the issue of diversity and inclusion, Ecclestone said: “I don’t think anyone has cared about that before.
“I think it’s an important issue, but it’s been there for so long [and] nobody’s done anything. Why didn’t someone do something two or three years ago?
“They’re too busy trying to win races or find sponsors or something.”
In a recent article for The Times, New York, Hamilton alluded to an incident in Spain in 2008 when he was insulted by fans with blackface.
“I’m surprised this concerns him,” Ecclestone said of the incident, adding that he never spoke to Hamilton himself, who was driving for McLaren at the time.
“I am very unhappy if he took it seriously. I never thought so. I didn’t think it would affect him.
“I don’t know why people did all this anyway. Was it against him personally or what did they think?
THE NEAR ADVANCE OF RIBBS
Owner of the Brabham team, Ecclestone invited Willie T. Ribbs to the test drive in Portugal in 1986, a test for a place on the grid that could have seen the American become the first black F1 driver.
In a recent interview with CNN Sport anchor Davies, Ribbs, who went on to compete in IndyCar and NASCAR, spoke of Ecclestone in brilliant terms.
“I don’t even know if Formula One would exist now if it wasn’t for Bernie Ecclestone,” Ribbs said.
“He wanted me in the car. He wanted me in Formula 1 […] His sponsors at the time were Italian. They wanted Italian pilots, and I totally respect him. I don’t have a problem with that.
“My goal was to be in Formula 1, but Bernie Ecclestone made a statement because Bernie Ecclestone put the first man of color, first black, in a Formula One car.”
It is with the determination to increase diversity within the sport that the new F1 season begins.
The first race of the late start of the season will be in Austria on July 5, where Hamilton begins his quest for a seventh world title that would tie him with Michael Schumacher’s record.