Variously called ‘The F1 Supremo’, or ‘The Godfather of Formula One’, Bernie Ecclestone has been in the driving-seat of a multi-billion pound sporting empire that attracts a larger audience globally than any other sport, other than the Olympics and the World Cup. Yet, the fizz has gone out of F1 motor racing and audiences are turning off in their droves, beaten into submission by two-horse races weighed down with rules and regulations. He had a brief career as a driver himself, buying a 500cc Cooper-JAP Mark V and racing it at Brands Hatch in April 1951, with moderate success, dicing against such legends as Les Leston, John Cooper, Stirling Moss and Peter Collins and winning the final. He then bought an ailing F1 team Connaught, and tried to qualify for the British Grand Prix, but failed to make the cut. He then managed a talented young Welsh driver Stuart Lewis-Evans, who was tragically killed at the Moroccan Grand Prix, and, dispirited, he left motor racing for a number of years, before returning to manage the Lotus Formula Two team, comprising Graham Hill and the outstanding Jochen Rindt. After Rindt died at Monza in 1970, having posthumously won the World Championship, in a questionably-engineered Lotus. He abandoned the sport once again, only to return, having bought the Brabham team,with which he won a clutch of races, with drivers such as Niki Lauda, John Watson and Nelson Piquet. Encouraged by this, and the growing interest in the sport, particularly with TV rights, he formed the Formula One Constructors Association with a lawyer chum, Max Mosley .
The money poured in, and Bernie thought that by donating a million pounds to Tony Blair’s Labour Party, he could influence the government’s proposed ban on tobacco advertising, one of the major sponsors of F1 teams and races.This managed to stave of execution for eight years to ‘cool off’, time to find other sponsors, which, ultimately, they did most successfully. This is what Bernie was good at, namely, making deals. At 86, one would have thought that immortal vanity would show some flaws, but, when he sold his rights for £3 billion to Liberty Media, he assumed that he would be kept on as chief executive. While he was reading the cheque, the new owners stabbed him in the back, and they then, rather patronisingly, made him Chairman Emeritus of an organisation that he had formed and shaped over more than 40 years.
It was in 2014 that the Germans prosecuted him for paying a German banker, Gerhard Gribkowsky, a £29 million bribe in 2006 to sell Formula One to Donald Mackenzie, the chairman of CVC, the private equity company who bought control of the sport in 2006, for over £1 billion, less than its true value. He stood trial, but it emerged that the German was blackmailing Ecclestone not to disclose alleged tax evasion in Britain. Bernie settled for £64 million, a sum that he should never have paid, as he was out-manoevered by the lawyers, something he now regrets. Maybe now is the time for the deal-maker to step down gracefully, and see whether the new American owners can resurrect a one-time great spectator sport. He pulled off some amazing deals in his career, including one in which he managed to get substantially more money out of Vladimir Putin than he was offering to stage a Grand Prix at Sochi, in eye-to-eye bargaining, literally.
He has made himself, the teams and individual drivers extremely rich, including Ron Dennis, the po-faced boss at McLaren at the the time, who begrudged Bernie trousering £3 billion, while he only got a few hundred million. ‘The problem with Ron,’ the author Tom Bower quotes Ecclestone, ‘is that he has an inferiority complex. And that’s with good reason. He is inferior.’ Two others who gained enormous wealth merely by doing nothing and standing with open hands are his daughters Tamara and Petra, who have turned the conspicuous display of wealth into an art-form, with the latter’s marriage in Italy to the quiet and unassuming art dealer James Stunt, running up a bill for Bernie of $12 million, including bottles of Chateau Pétrus at a few thousand pounds a pop. Anyone who has seen a cavalcade of two blacked-out Mansory Rolls Royces, like anthracite house-bricks, a brace of blacked-out Range Rovers groaning with overweight minders and a £3.1 million black Lamborghini, leave their Grade-II listed house in Chelsea to go shopping in Knightsbridge, must have been impressed by Stunt’s modesty. Each vehicle has a personalised number-plate with the suffix UNT and passers-by will doubtless use their own versions of word-play. It would seem that money can buy you everything, except good taste.