Formula 1 Expert & Columnist
Interviewing Bernie Ecclestone...
Sky Sports' Rachel Brookes recalls her experiences of putting the questions to F1's inimitable outgoing ringmaster
Last Updated: 06/02/17 4:53pm
My first encounter with Bernie Ecclestone was one I will never forget.
It was my first race working for Sky Sports News HQ and my first time in a Formula 1 paddock.
The paddock can be an intimidating place. When you arrive it feels as if everyone else has known each other for years. You are not sure where to stand, where to sit or if you are welcome in any of the hospitality units.
You are, of course, but gaining the confidence to just walk in and get a drink takes a while. Eventually you realise that everyone is in the same boat. Working in an incredibly glamorous sport all over the world watched by millions and with access fans can only dream of.
But also, at the end of the day, you are away from home working long hours and suffering jet lag and you all have that in common. It creates quite a bond and one that lasts.
So I can see why Mr Ecclestone has stayed in the sport for 40 years - that and an awfully large bank balance probably helped a little too!
But back to that first meeting, at the Chinese Grand Prix in 2012.
The Bahrain race weekend was one week away and there were protests taking place in the country.
In 2011 the race was cancelled due to the unrest and now here in 2012 there were calls for it to be cancelled again. There was a meeting between the team principals and Bernie in his hospitality unit in the paddock and I waited outside along with about 10-15 other journalists.
Contrary to other sports, traditional 'doorstepping' is not common in Formula 1. In F1 you usually ask permission to doorstep - which I realise defeats the purpose but that's just the way it's done.
So we requested permission to 'doorstep' Bernie as he came out of the meeting and it was given. I looked at the other journalists around me, many I recognised from their bylines and some I didn't know.
But those I did had been in F1 for a while and I was confident they would be putting questions to Bernie and I would struggle to get a word in, so the plan was to keep my microphone in the scrum to catch Bernie's answers but realistically I wasn't expecting to be able to ask a question.
I had a couple in mind if I did manage to get a word in though. As the minutes passed I became increasingly nervous.
Then he emerged, stopped on the steps for a moment and then started walking. We all started following him as he walked down the paddock but….silence, no-one was asking a question!
So I asked my first thinking the others would jump in with theirs off the back of his answer. I asked how the meeting was and Bernie replied it had gone well. Again no one asked anything else, so I went again.
"Did any of the team principals have any concerns?" I asked. "No nothing," he replied. Still no-one else said a word. "Definitive decision then?" I asked. "This race is on the calendar, has been for some time. We will be there, the teams will be there, are happy to be there," came the response.
"Are you going to the race, Bernie?" I ventured, and as I did so saw the dictaphones surrounding him push further into the throng desperate to catch his answer.
"Pardon?" he replied.
He had stopped and was looking right at me. "Are you going to the race?" I repeated. "To where?" he said. "In Bahrain," I replied. I could see the wide eyes and open mouths around me waiting for his response.
He turned to me: "What a stupid question, you're going to get a stupid answer, what would you expect?" With that he was off walking down the paddock.
As it was, Mr Ecclestone didn't go to every race, unsurprisingly for a man in his eighties. Also on the day of the Bahrain GP his wife was running the London marathon and some of the media had heard he was planning to support her. Only now he would have to go to Bahrain whether it had originally been his intention or not.
A few of the journalists commented to me after that it was a great question but I could see they were glad they weren't the ones to ask it. If you look at the photo you can see the reactions of the other journalists to my question as they strained to make sure their microphones caught his response. Some even went as far as to say they hoped my pass still worked the next morning, such is the aura around Bernie Ecclestone, and the fear of upsetting him!
At breakfast the next morning I saw some colleagues from another channel and they asked how I was feeling and if I was nervous about getting into the paddock that day. I have to be honest, I hadn't slept much and I was optimistically putting it down to jet lag, but I knew my restless night had a fair amount to do with the previous day's encounter. As it was, I made it through the gates and have done every day since, but the trepidation never subsides.
More recently I went to his offices in London to interview him.
As I walked from the tube station the two guys in front of me were smoking heavily (and I don't think it was just tobacco!) and try as I might I couldn't escape their exhalations. I slowed down, I sped up, I tried to get past but all to no avail. So as I arrived at Bernie's offices I was terrified I was carrying with me a dubious aroma.
Clearly my second meeting was going to go as well as my first! Once inside we were shown into a room with Formula 1 memorabilia all around. He really does love the sport and have a great passion for it.
He came in and sat down, and said he was full of cold so wouldn't sit too close. He then asked me what I was going to ask him so I mentioned the topics I had planned. "I tell you what you should ask me," he said, and he went on to mention topics he thought I should cover. To be fair they were very similar but one thing was always clear. When Bernie had a point to make it, he would make it, and often use you as conduit.
But we never minded, he was always great to interview and you never knew what you were going to get from it but it was always insightful.
I remember one time in Canada when Martin Brundle had been due to interview him but the time kept changing and eventually it looked like it wasn't going to happen. Martin left the track and we were all packing up when a call came that Mr E could see us now. Ted was dispatched at very short notice to do the interview - but such was the rapport between them that on Sunday Ted got an even bigger surprise.
"You're doing the podium Ted" - Mr Ecclestone had enjoyed their chat so much he picked him for the podium interviews after the race.
In Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago I was presenting our final practice show with Johnny and Mr Ecclestone walked past, as he did so he grabbed Johnny's microphone and ran off with it. Not just walked, he picked up his pace and went off down the paddock with it, while we were live on air.
Johnny went chasing after him and luckily got it, and himself, back just in time for the next link but it was another example of the cheeky nature that is in contrast with his intimidating aura.
My final interview with Bernie came last year in Mexico. Again I was live with Johnny, this time presenting The F1 Show in the paddock. It was his 86th birthday so we had let him know we wanted to wish him a Happy Birthday as he passed where we were. As he approached we gave him our best wishes and he replied: "Two things I don't do for sure, don't have sex in the open or do interviews!"
Whatever the future of F1, Bernie Ecclestone kept his eye on the ball for 40 years. That's an incredible term of office for any executive, let alone one in charge of a sport like Formula 1.
Thanks for the memories, the paddock will miss you Bernie.