Why the creator of ‘Senna’ calls his new Ecclestone series ‘much more challenging’ | Interview


As the world of Formula 1 prepares for the 74th world championship season, there is arguably no individual, no single figure who is more responsible for the sport enjoying the position it is today than Bernie Ecclestone.

Whatever your views on Ecclestone and how his decisions and dealings shaped Formula 1 over decades, it is undeniable that his influence over the sport continues to be felt even today, over five years since his departure as CEO of Formula One Management in 2017.

After writing possibly the most famous and highly-regarded motorsport documentary of all time – the 2010 Ayrton Senna biopic ‘Senna’ – as well as producing the McLaren Amazon Prime series ‘Grand Prix Driver’, film maker Manish Pandey has turned his lens onto Ecclestone with ‘Lucky!’ – an eight-part television series now available on the Discovery+ streaming platform.

Ecclestone ran Brabham before helping to form FOCA

‘Lucky!’ may centre around Ecclestone but it is also very much the story of the world championship, beginning with the first ever points-paying round in 1950 – which a young Ecclestone attended as a spectator – right the way through to when he finally yielded commercial control of the sport. For Pandey, there was simply no more fitting subject for which to base a series on.

“I love Formula 1,” Pandey says, having first got into the sport “about 1978 to 1980.”

“It’s a long time to be in love with something,” he continues. “And he was such a big part of it. He’s not one of these sort of distant managers – Bernie is right there.”

The spread of Ecclestone’s career made him an ideal subject to focus on, says Pandey. “Just on a technical, screenwriting side, he has the most amazing trajectory because he’s a fan and then he becomes a driver and a driver-manager and then he buys a team and then he runs the team and then he takes over the whole thing and he turns it into what he turns it into.

“When you are really wanting to tell a good story and you want to do that, I think you do need fantastic obstacles. Great drama comes from conflict. And there isn’t a moment in his life when there isn’t conflict. And I think big money attracts big conflict, doesn’t it?”

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After earning Ecclestone’s approval and access to his extensive archive during the production of ‘Senna’, a chance meeting with Ecclestone on the Yas Marina grid ahead of the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix planted the seed of the series in the former supremo’s mind, but it took until the pandemic lockdown for the ball to start rolling.

“I remember that summer of 2020, he gave me a call and said, ‘okay, let’s do it. Let’s make this,’” Pandey explains. “So we had to make arrangements.

“It was actually autumn of 2020. There was no vaccine at that time, so he said ‘come to Switzerland’. He owns this very, very beautiful hotel in Gstaad. What we would do is we would meet there and very socially distance – two metres away outside. I’d have a mask, he’d wear a mask and we would have chats.

Ecclestone’s time in F1 spanned over 40 years

“I was basically alone in a room with Bernie Ecclestone because the cameraman, sound guy, were in the room next door. But we soon got into a rhythm and I found myself shooting for three weeks, which I couldn’t believe. There were no boundaries, he said that day one. He said ‘ask whatever you want’.”

Over the course of the three weeks together, Pandey asked so much of Ecclestone that he ended up with more than enough to fill eight hour-long episodes. So much archive footage has been used that the total number of sources passes 50, including ITV, BBC, CNN, Getty and FOM’s own extensive archive.

“The trouble with all of these things is that eight episodes terrified the hell out of a lot of people in terms of potential buyers,” Pandey acknowledges. “’Eight episodes? Wouldn’t that be boring?’ But this man went to the first grand prix on May 13th, 1950. His exit from Formula 1 was March 2017. We’re talking about 67 years.

“He’s five feet or whatever. He’s got only one eye that works properly. No formal education beyond 15. He wasn’t born into an aristocratic family. So, in a way, almost every disadvantage you can imagine, he has. Except he’s got this amazing brain and a brilliant sense of humour. You meet people with amazing brains and sometimes they just don’t get it emotionally – they don’t get people. And in a way, Bernie’s lethal because he’s got this great brain and he susses you out.”

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The subject of the documentary appears full-frame regularly throughout it, addressing the camera and viewer directly. But by allowing Ecclestone to tell his own story in his own way, did Pandey ever worry he was giving Ecclestone free reign to spin his version of events?

“I think it would have been a shame with this to have done what we did with Senna, which was to have no talking heads,” Pandey explains. “I think the risk in this was to just have one.

“A lot of people said ‘oh how can you just have one point of view? Where’s the conflict going to come from? Aren’t you worried it’s going to be terribly partial?’ And my feeling is it should be partial. But you should be smart enough to be aware of being spoken to and you work out what you think you’re hearing versus what you’re seeing.

Ecclestone was CEO of FOM until 2017

“I think it’s a much more challenging series in some way than ‘Senna’ was a film. ‘Senna’ had a classic three-act paradigm – he’s so fantastically good looking, the stuff that was happening on track is so damn heroic and you look at him when he’s very upset about something and you really feel it.

“With ‘Lucky!’, we’re looking at an Englishman who’s 92 years old now who’s talking to you in a very quiet voice, basically looking you in the eye and explaining, one episode at a time, the things that I think were important to make up this story. If that isn’t the real Bernie, then whatever this facade is, it’s so deep that that tiny bit, maybe it’s only accessible to his immediate family.”

Ecclestone’s notoriety has been forged not just through his decisions at the helm of Formula 1 over so many years but also through his history of controversial public comments. From sexist remarks about women, to defending his former driver Nelson Piquet for using a racial slur towards Lewis Hamilton, to apologising for saying he would “take a bullet” for Vladimir Putin after the Russian president invaded Ukraine, many fans outraged by Ecclestone’s more abhorrent comments have questioned whether he should be receiving such a spotlight to begin with. But after getting to know the man behind the comments, Pandey believes it is justified.

“I’m fully prepared for people who basically have read a précis of a headline from 2009 or some aspect of a perceived spat between Bernie and Lewis from 2022 and just sort of go, ‘well, you shouldn’t be making a show about somebody like this’. But, as you can see, I’m not white and my politics are actually very centre-left. If I thought Bernie was any of the things that people are saying he is… there are loads of other stories to tell. I’d very happily tell them and they are a lot less controversial. The thing about Bernie is he can be controversial, but I’ve never quite worked out why.”

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Today, Formula 1 is very much in vogue with the film and television industry. As much responsibility as Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ holds for that, it’s hard not to look back to Pandey’s ‘Senna’ and the wealth of further documentaries and films that followed it as having an impact on how many projects are currently in the works today. Pandey believes whether you’re a new fan to the sport or a lifelong enthusiast, his new series will have something for you.

“In a way I’m really glad we’ve made ‘Lucky!’,” he says. “If you appreciate something at a very superficial level, I think that’s fine. You may develop a deep love for this, or you may not.

The 92-year-old still visits the paddock

“I think what’s great about ‘Lucky!’ is it joins the dots to now. I think if you’re really big ‘Drive to Survive’ fan and you watch ‘Lucky!’ and you see how it all started, you can tie it right up to Lewis Hamilton. I think we’ve done something really, really good. We’ve taken the excitement – the froth, if you like – and we’ve put the Guinness underneath it.”

Near the end of Pandey’s time with Ecclestone, the pair even had the chance to watch a grand prix together. After spending so much time in his company, getting to know the man who was so central to Formula 1 for so long but is now so removed from the sport he helped build, the final question to ask is how he feels about what has become of F1 in his absence.

“Does Bernie look at Formula 1 now and get wistful? I’m sure he does, at times,” Pandey contemplates. “But I’ve never met a 92-year-old with a fuller life, I can tell you.

“He’s just so busy. He still trades cars. He’s got a two-year-old boy that he’s very, very devoted to. His wife is now a vice president in the FIA. He is a very, very, very busy man. He gave me eight-and-a-half weeks of the most precious commodity he has – time. That’s, for me, the kind of absolute miracle of this series. He opened up. Right to the bottom of the deepest trench? I don’t know. But did he open up enough? Yes. Have we made some sense of this entire journey? I think we have. Is it really compelling journey? Yes.

“Does he watch Formula 1 now and occasionally think ‘I could’ve done better’? Probably. But I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and goes to bed at night with that same fire in his belly about this business. This business has moved on. And so has he.”

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