Ecclestone is all revved up

He is the most powerful figure in Formula One history and has changed the landscape. Yet this year's line-up is giving him goose bumps.

After so many years in the world of Formula One, firstly as a mechanic and then as a team owner, and subsequently now as the sport's chief executive, it is rare these days that Bernie Ecclestone expresses any emotion other than calm composure.

But get him talking about this year's world championship and that emotion changes rapidly to one of excitement. It is the prospects for the new season that has made the 79-year-old giddy, with the first race in Bahrain on Sunday and the opening day of practice taking place tomorrow. His appetite has not been whet like this for a good few years and he relishes this season's prospects with a sense of delight rarely seen in public view.

"We've got all the best drivers in the best cars with the finest teams," he says. "And that is a guarantee of a season to remember. Four champions. Amazing. I can't recall when we last had such promise and I reckon this could be the greatest season of all time." Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and last year's champion, Jenson Button, make for a very strong grid, and Ecclestone is delighted, especially with the return of the seven-time champion Schumacher after three years away from the sport.

"He is the guy everybody will want to beat and, knowing Michael as well as I do, he will put up one heck of a fight to make sure he keeps his reputation as a born winner and the greatest, most successful driver of all time," he enthuses. "Then just look at the other teams. Lewis Hamilton, the ex-champion, and Jenson Button, the reigning champion, in McLarens. They are like a mutual admiration society - but there will be no love lost when the lights go out.

"The same goes for the Ferrari lads, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, another two drivers who reckon each other but who will get stuck into each other as hard as they will into the other guys out there. "Add that great kid Sebastien Vettel, a real top-class talent, and his well-vitalised teammate Mark Webber in the superb Red Bull outfit to the mix and the expectation of thrilling wheel-to-wheel action just gets stronger. I can't wait."

After years where it was all too easy to predict the favourite for the drivers' championship, Ecclestone says it is nearly impossible to say who will win this year. "I can see any one of those guys I have mentioned being regular winners and it is impossible to call the odds on who will finish with the title come Abu Dhabi [November 14]," he adds. "If there is a real winner, it must be me as the commercial rights owner."

Formula One has changed dramatically in recent years, with new races popping up every year. The most recent addition was the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, staged for the first time last November at the Yas Marina Circuit. "I have made my judgements and lived or perished by them. I have moved our sport into areas some people thought would never work. Bahrain is one and a fantastic success story that is, and there is Abu Dhabi, too, another fabulous show," he says. "We are showbiz par-excellence, first and foremost, and I insist that the venues are world-class. And when you work out the massive advantages in tourism and global recognition for whatever region a race is set the returns for the outlay are fabulous value for money."

Ecclestone charges between US$20 million (Dh73m) and $40m to licence a venue and then monopolises the track advertising. Last year the Bahrain Grand Prix was a sell-out with 42,000 spectators that generated more than $500m for the kingdom. Martin Whitaker, the promoter and an old friend of Ecclestone and once the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile's (FIA) media chief, runs the Bahrain event.

"Bernie does everything right. Sport is going more and more global and with TV sparking even more interest it is important to make sure the show, and its stage, is spot on," he says. "We are in for a fabulous season and it is our privilege to get it all underway. Let's hope our race can be the benchmark for the rest of the year." It may not be to every hard-pressed team's liking financially but Ecclestone would love to see a 20-race series - one more than this season's schedule - with India due to have a race next year and Russia still lobbying hard for a place on the grid.

"There's hardly a country in the world that doesn't want a Grand Prix. If you could see the list of requests I have in my office you'd hardly believe it. It is mind-boggling," he adds. "If this season lives up to all expectations I won't be able to get into my office for the sackfuls of mail asking, no pleading, for permission to hold a Grand Prix."