He doesn’t take kindly to me calling him a cripple. It didn’t take long. Hardly did my Financial Times interview hit the news stands or my phone starts to make orgasm sounds: Branson’s ringtone. I’ll have to ask my beautiful assistant to put him back under my generic ringtone again, Once upon a Time in the West, or else one of these days he’ll call on the wrong moment and I’ll have some explaining to do.
Anyway, he was livid. “Bernie,” he rages, “Did you actually call me a cripple? By name? In the FT, of all places? What have I done to you? It’s uncool!”
Well, I say, I called your team a cripple. That’s not the same thing. And I did mention you by name as someone who should have a couple million quid to spare. Which in my book is positive. And I did compare your with Dieter Mateschitz, what’s wrong with that?
“I don’t bloody care if you’ve compared me to bloody Mateshit or anybody else for that matter. What matters is, you’ve ridiculed my racing team and put me on the spot as some kind of pauper! People’ve already started to ask me if it’s true that I just pay them enough to stay alive and nothing else. The bloke I bought the FT from actually forced me to take the change!”
Look, I tell him, you put a team on the grid of the world’s most prestigious racing series. That comes with obligations. You race with the fastest teams on the planet, people expect you to keep up. Not muddle along at the back of the field, endangering traffic. It annoys the drivers in real cars. Not to speak of frustrating your own lads.
“Bernie,” he says, “If it hadn’t been for me, the team wouldn’t’ve even been on the bloody grid. Remember a year ago? You were happy that someone put up the money to keep them in business. ‘Business’ meaning, I might add, running a Formula One team on a 40 million quid budget cap, including a 5 mill subsidy. Budget cap courtesy of your old pal Max Mosley, 5 mill subsidy coming from you. That leaves 35 mill to be put up by yours truly. Except, once the money was on the table everybody’d suddenly forgotten about the cap, and old Max was nowhere to be seen. But I haven’t forgotten. I have a memory for these things. The budget was 35 million quid, and a budget is a budget. So stop making it sound like I’m not keeping up my end of things. A deal’s a deal and I expect the same of you. And besides, what have I done to deserve this?”
Now I’m the one who’s pissed off. Listen, Swinging Dick. What you’ve done to me? 15 Million quid is what you’ve done to me. And between the three of you it costs me 15 million quid a year as you so aptly point out. Every year, until and including 2012. You and the other paupers. That’s 45 million Sterling.
I’d be happy to part with those sums if I got some quality in return. But I’m not seeing much progress. F1 has a reputation to defend, and so have I. That means 24 blisteringly fast racers on the track, 20 times a year. Not 18 plus a handful of pathetic stragglers. You’re an F1 team owner now. You’re supposed to do whatever it takes. You’re supposed to have balls the size of Bridgestones. If that means coughing up another 25 mill, stop playing around with toy rockets, act like a man and cough up the dough. Or sell the outfit to someone who can. And that silly budget cap was never my idea in the first place.
Now he backs down. “Look, Bernie,” he says. “Tony’s struggling. Carabante’s struggling. We all do our stinking best. I’ll see what I can do, but I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment, what with rocket launches and spaceports and such. So please get off my back, will you Bernie?
Trust me, I tell him. The last place I want to be is on your back.