Bernie: I rejected old ally

Ecclestone reveals he denied former Ferrari boss di Montezemolo the chance to run F1

LONDON • Bernie Ecclestone dismissed a plan for Luca di Montezemolo, the deposed president of Ferrari, to oversee the running of Formula One.

The charismatic Italian, who led Ferrari through the team's greatest years, was on the verge of heading the sport this season as F1's owners searched for a successor to Ecclestone. Instead, di Montezemolo is leading the bid by Rome to secure the 2024 Olympic Games.

He is one of Ecclestone's oldest friends and allies and F1's chief executive acknowledged last night that he would have been "a good front man".

However, Ecclestone did not believe that di Montezemolo would have the all-consuming interest in running F1 that has helped to turn the Briton - known simply as "Bernie" - into a legend among sport administrators.

Pointing to a pile of documents in his office at F1's headquarters in Kensington, London, Ecclestone said: "The problem would have been that he would have been up front but he is not a day-to-day, hands-on guy.

"He is not going to go through piles of paper. Luca would have taken the first piece of paper and decided it was nothing to do with him. All these things have to be dealt with and I don't know whether Luca would have wanted to do that."

The fascinating revelation lifts the lid on the fevered machinations that took place late last year. Then, CVC Capital Partners, the lead shareholders in the F1 business, were seeking a replacement for Ecclestone to run their £1 billion (S$2.1 billion) sport.

Paul Walsh, the former chief executive of the Diageo global drinks business, was being lined up to take Ecclestone's job of running F1 day-to-day. That bid was quickly seen off by the wily ringmaster in a brief meeting at his Kensington headquarters. Walsh was offered a place on the Delta Topco board of directors that run F1 as compensation but turned it down.

Ecclestone told The Times that the board believed that "(Walsh) maybe was not good enough".

However, another source said Walsh was never given a chance to move in by Ecclestone, who choked off CVC's strategy.

Di Montezemolo, now chairman of Alitalia, was the next best choice and had the chance to lead from the top. Ecclestone said di Montezemolo was brought on to the F1 board last December as the chairman-in-waiting.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the former chief executive of Nestle, was board chairman but in failing health. Di Montezemolo was seen as the ideal replacement.

"Luca was the right man for the job," Ecclestone said. "He is a good front man for any sport or business.

"Peter is okay now but Luca could have been the chairman if Peter had stepped down."

Ecclestone, 84, and di Montezemolo, 67, would have been an intriguing and powerful combination at the top of F1. Still, critics would argue that their combined age of 151 hardly puts them in the vanguard of a campaign to promote the sport to younger fans.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2015, with the headline 'Bernie: I rejected old ally'. Print Edition | Subscribe