Bernie Ecclestone has described Lewis Hamilton's decision to put his affairs in the hands of a management company dealing primarily in showbusiness figures as "a disaster". Speaking to the Guardian, the Formula One supremo criticised the 2008 world champion for splitting with his father, who had looked after him throughout his career until they parted company just before the 2010 season.
Discussing the current generation of top drivers, Ecclestone described Sebastian Vettel, who won his second title in a row last month at the age of 24, as "super – a nice guy, very talented, good for the sport". Ecclestone also had kind words for Jenson Button, Hamilton's McLaren team‑mate and the runner-up to Vettel. "I'm very happy with Button this year," he said. "He's done a really good job and he's been much better as a person with the public than he was when he was the world champion [in 2009], which is good, because he's a nice guy."
For the 26-year-old Hamilton, however, it had been "an uphill year", Ecclestone said. "I think he had some personal problems during the year which affected him quite a lot. A lot to do with these things, it depends an awful lot on the people you surround yourself with, and who are in a position to influence you. I think he just fell into a lot of people that I think weren't good for him. When his dad was looking after him, his dad was a bit more … obviously it didn't suit Lewis, which was why they split, I think he didn't appreciate how much help his dad was."
After considering options, Hamilton signed a management contract in March with XIX Entertainment, run by Simon Fuller, the inventor of Pop Idol, whose clients include David and Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Lopez, Will Young and Andy Murray.
"I think it's a disaster," Ecclestone said. "He gets to meet people that probably he wouldn't have met, and [who] have probably the wrong sort of influence on him. He's at the age, perhaps, and he has the amount of money, where when he's influenced, he can carry things through, which he wouldn't normally have done."
Fuller masterminded Beckham's move to Los Angeles in 2007, supervised the successful transfer of Pop Idol to American television and has his own star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hamilton has often flown to Los Angeles during this year to be with his girlfriend of four years, the singer Nicole Scherzinger, from whom he split in October, a few weeks after reports that they had become engaged. His season was marked by erratic driving and numerous collisions with rivals as well as the two grand prix wins that took him to fifth place in the final standings of the drivers' championship.
Ecclestone was critical of Hamilton's decision to invite the rapper Ice-T into the McLaren garage during this year's Montreal Grand Prix. Ice-T made a film of the visit which later appeared on YouTube.
"It's our fault, because we tend to encourage celebrities," Ecclestone said. "It's good. Not so much for those of us who get our hands dirty but for all the sponsors who turn up with their guests and like to say: 'Oh, we saw whoever-it-was.' They forget they've come to watch Formula One. The difference is that we can handle them, because we're not directly involved. He [Hamilton] sees somebody like that, he admires the guy, so he'll start copying a little bit what they're up to."
The 81-year-old Ecclestone also dismissed recent reports that headhunters have indentified Sir Stuart Rose, the former chief executive of Marks and Spencer, as a replacement to be appointed by CVC Capital Partners, to whom Ecclestone sold Formula One's commercial rights and for whom he now works as a £1.25m-a-year employee.
"It's all rubbish," he said. "There's no headhunter. We're looking. If somebody turns up that we think can get the job done, super. We'll have to find somebody. Or, if for any reason I'm not here, maybe things will be run in a different way. Maybe there will be four Ecclestones doing different parts of the job. I'm lucky enough to be able to travel the world on a handshake. There's a little bit of respect because I've been around a long time, and people trust me because I've never cheated people. I can do things that it wouldn't be easy for a new guy to do. And I'd like to live a little bit longer."
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image: © Nick Webb