As F1’s intriguing new season rolled out on Monday at the start of testing, a sad reflection of the past was being eased into the media margins.
The weekend’s sporting websites had carried stories of various pronouncements from Bernie Ecclestone, issued last Friday during a briefing in his London office with six F1 reporters from national newspapers and agencies.
Rather than discuss the ensuing theories – F1 should go all-electric; Toto Wolff is to blame for many of F1’s alleged ills; Sergio Marchionne’s threat to withdraw Ferrari should not be taken lightly – it is more pertinent to try and fathom the motives driving the former F1 boss.
In the past, massed media calls to Kensington would be rare, Bernie preferring to leak his agenda to a favoured journalist in the knowledge that the rest would have to follow through and give the coverage he wanted. It was simple and efficient, with little time lost dealing with various media outlets and their annoyingly invasive questions.
Not only did Friday’s briefing take more than two hours, the journalists present were further perplexed by the offer of lunch. It was the equivalent of Ron Dennis inviting Max Mosley to a lakeside picnic at the McLaren Technology Centre. But when Ecclestone proffered the view that races were being charged too much by F1, the purpose of his mission was unintentionally confirmed.
The screwing of Grand Prix promoters has indeed been one of the outstanding issues of the past few decades. But hearing such opinion from the man who seemingly added zeros to contracts at will, simply because he could, actually suggested his words were aimed at attracting attention rather than being worthy of meaningful discussion.
And that's a shame because Ecclestone’s penchant for shooting from the hip ought to be better value than Liberty Media’s apparent lack of direction over major issues and the fumbling of minor ones (Grid Girls being a case in point).
By chance, I had been to Bernie’s office on the previous Monday to conduct a film interview on an entirely different F1 subject (all will be revealed in a couple of months). Because this had an historic rather than a contemporary context, Mr. E was relevant and interesting even if, as ever, some of his responses were deliberately brief and enigmatic.
But the visit to the former F1 headquarters was revealing in another sense. Up until 2017, the understated building – particularly at this time of year – would have been the hub of our universe with every detailed non-technical decision emanating from the little man behind the big desk. Interview appointments would be difficult to come by, Ecclestone’s day filled with meetings and phone calls as the F1 world came to his door.
Now, the office has a ghostly presence. The reception desk is unmanned; the corridors empty; the internal phone, with its array of vacant extensions, silent and unblinking. The spectral sense is accentuated by racing ephemera and portraits of drivers such as Nelson Piquet hanging on ebony panelled walls long since out-dated by the fast-moving world of interior design.
If that is the undeniable impression that affects an occasional visitor, how must it be for the man whose very essence has been driven and informed by all that went on within these walls? You can only begin to imagine the feeling of having spent more than 40 years establishing, nurturing and building this empire only to come in tomorrow morning, and the day after that, to receive a silent reminder that it’s gone – and with no friendly forwarding address made available to the now redundant former owner.
Bernie Ecclestone may have his faults – and many of them have been outlined in these columns over time – but he has also done much to raise F1’s profile from the shambling mess of the 1970s. You can understand what must be a desperate reluctance to let go even if the recently manufactured headlines merely serve to underline the painful but inevitable need to move on.