The F1 chief executive told The Times that Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull’s billionaire owner, had tired of the sport and could pull the plug imminently on his four-times world champion team.
“He has probably had enough of everything going on,” Ecclestone said. “I am doing everything I can to make sure Red Bull stay with us, but things need to come together quickly. He is serious when he says he will quit if things don’t improve.”
As the war of words over the future of F1 heated up, Ecclestone deflected the news broken by The Times yesterday that Force India and Sauber, two of the smallest teams in the sport, had called in the EU competition commission to look into what they called an “unlawful” system of payouts.
Donald MacKenzie — chairman of CVC Capital Partners, F1’s controlling shareholder, which is named specifically in the complaint to the EU — was the first man into Ecclestone’s office yesterday morning. He then called Bob Fernley, Force India’s deputy team principal, to ask why the complaint had been filed.
Force India and Sauber want the EU to investigate the payments system that hands out 65 per cent of F1’s total prize money to five selected teams, who also then dictate the rules of the sport. If the EU takes on the case, the results could be devastating if the payments are found to be illegal.
Ecclestone was unfazed last night, declaring that he was not worried how the £550 million annual prize pot was divided up.
“It doesn’t matter to us who gets the money and how it is spent,” he said. “That is up to the teams. If they want things doing differently, then we will do it differently.”
Red Bull are one of the five teams — with Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Williams — who get special treatment under a prize-money system skewed in their favour under what is described as “heritage payments” for F1’s most successful and historic teams. Red Bull, whose first season was only in 2005, qualified for the second-highest “special” payment last season with £46 million — about £25 million more than Mercedes, the world champions.
Ecclestone’s most urgent priority is to keep Red Bull in F1 by finding an engine supplier fast.
Mateschitz has threatened to pull Red Bull and Toro Rosso, his junior team, out of the sport unless they can find a top-class engine supplier for next season.
Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, spent almost an hour on the phone to Ecclestone after the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday evening, explaining his fears that the team he turned from outsiders to world champions are on the brink.
Renault, Red Bull’s engine partner through the title-winning years from 2010 to 2013, has severed ties with the team and is now forging ahead with a deal to take a majority stake in Lotus. But that means no more Renault engines for Red Bull.
Horner’s problem is that his team are too great a threat to Mercedes and Ferrari — the remaining viable suppliers — who do not want to give Red Bull an up-to-date engine fearing that they would be beaten at their own game. Ecclestone is now trying to broker a deal with Ferrari that would mean Red Bull using 2015 engines next season, but then using up to date power packs in 2017.
“Red Bull obviously want the best engines so they can compete, but Mercedes and Ferrari don’t want to do that because they fear what will happen,” Ecclestone said. “It is not ideal but Mr Mateschitz will have to be patient. We definitely do not want them to leave.”