x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bernie Ecclestone, F1's horsepower shows no signs of braking

As Abu Dhabi prepares for the Grand Prix, the billionaire boss of Formula One who shows no sign of retiring. James Langton reports.

Bernie Ecclestone. Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Bernie Ecclestone. Illustration by Kagan McLeod

At a birthday party for Bernie Ecclestone thrown on the eve of last week's Indian Grand Prix, the inevitable question to follow the extinguishing of so many candles was raised. Retirement?

Pausing between mouthfuls of a cake provided by the Ferrari team, the 82-year-old master of Formula One rolled the word around for a bit before replying. "Retirement? Not at the moment. I still feel good. When I feel I can't deliver any longer, I'll say: 'we'll move on'."

As the F1 caravan rolls into Abu Dhabi this weekend, there is no sign that Ecclestone is thinking about moving on anywhere other than Austin, Texas, and then Sao Paulo, Brazil, the final pit stops in this year's championship.

At an age when most men would be content to prune roses and dangle grandchildren, Ecclestone's voracious appetite for everything he most prizes - motor cars, money and even marriage - seems undiminished. It is fair to say that Bernard Charles Ecclestone is not the retiring type.

It is only three months since he made Fabiana Flosi, a 37-year-old Brazilian marketing director, the third Mrs Ecclestone. Ms Flosi, who is 45 years junior to her husband, will have been well aware what she was getting herself into.

On an early date the couple were strolling through the streets of central London when they were subject to a particularly nasty mugging that left Ecclestone with a livid black eye and minus his Dh1.2 million Hublot precision Swiss watch.

Ecclestone's response was not to call the police, but the publicity department of Hublot, then the newly-branded "official watchmaker" of F1. Shortly after, a mugshot of Ecclestone's bruised and battered visage featured in a new ad campaign for the luxury watchmakers. The tag line? "See what people will do for a Hublot".

It certainly takes more than muggers to knock down Bernie. For the last few months he has been living under the shadow of one of those Byzantine legal cases that seem to be as much part of modern grand prix racing as the chequered flag.

The case revolves around Gerhard Gribkowsky, a German banker who earlier this year was convicted of tax evasion and bribery for his part in the sale of F1 to the private equity firm CVC partners.

Gribkowsky, a former chairman of F1, was accused of undervaluing a stake in F1 held by a German bank. He claimed he had done so after receiving a US$44 million (Dh159m) payment from Ecclestone and his family trust, Bambino Holdings, to ensure the deal went through.

Last week the bank, BayernLB, formally demanded compensation from Ecclestone for the US$400m it says it lost on the sale and is threatening legal action to get it. Ecclestone does not deny the payment, but says he was forced to pay out because the German was "shaking him down" over the sale.

Asked about the case last week, Ecclestone described himself as "aggravated" by the claims, which he called "nonsense." His response to being asked if he feared a jail sentence was typically Bernie: "I wouldn't complain about German prisons, but I'd rather not be in one anywhere to be honest."

With a personal fortune estimated at US$4.8 billion (Dh17bn), Ecclestone can easily afford to meet the claim. But the man is not easily parted with his money. Stories of his canniness are legion. He maintains a private jet, but does not serve meals during flights. His eldest daughter Tamara, a socialite who shows few qualms about spending Dad's money, once complained that the jets didn't have bathrooms either. And that she was driven to school as a child in a mere Audi.

In contrast Ecclestone's own childhood was one of poverty. The son of a fisherman from the Suffolk coast in England, the family home had no inside lavatory or running water. When Bernie turned 2 years old, the family moved to Dartford, Kent, where his father found work as a crane operator at the docks.

After earning a degree in chemical engineering after the end of the Second World War, Ecclestone turned his passion for motorcycles into a spare parts business for cars and bikes. At 20, he was racing himself, driving Cooper Mk V in Formula 3 with limited success before moving towards team management.

The turning point in his fortunes was the purchase in 1972 of Brabham for £100,000 (Dh590,000). The deal gave Ecclestone control of a team that had won two drivers and two construction titles, and with Graham Hill as the first choice driver. It also gave Ecclestone a seat at the top table of the F1 Constructors Association (FOCA) and a say in how the sport should be run.

While Brabham's fortunes rose, thanks to stars such as Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet, Ecclestone increasingly turned his attention to the business of Formula One. By the end of the 1970s he had forged a close relationship with Max Mosley, the son of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, who was both a lawyer and part owner of the March racing car manufacturer.

In the early 1980s, a bitter war between the sport's governing body, the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile, and Ecclestone and Mosley's FOCA saw the team owners emerge triumphant, clutching the prize of the TV and promotion rights.

Under the Concorde Agreement of 1981, and due to be renegotiated for the sixth time in the new year, FOCA won the right to televise races, and in turn leased it to a new organisation, Formula One Promotions and Administration, owned by Ecclestone.

Media reports generally refer to Ecclestone as the "supremo" of F1 as a quick solution to unravelling the Gordian Knot of his business empire and the Formula One Group, of which he is president and CEO. But however complicated, the end result is brilliantly simple. Everyone has become very rich, and no one more so than Ecclestone.

His relentless promotion of the sport has pushed it into new markets such as Abu Dhabi and Moscow, where he shook hands with President Putin after signing a deal for the Russian GP. Sentiment rarely seems to play a part, ditching old established circuits for venues in China and India in the pursuit of a global audience measured in the hundreds of millions.

Outside racing his personal life can seem as complicated as his business dealings. With one marriage behind him, in 1982 Ecclestone was introduced to the Croatian model Slavica Radic in the pits of the Italian GP. He was 51, she was 24, but more was made of the disparity of the couple's appearance (she is 30cm taller). A frequently repeated joke was that they were the same height when Ecclestone stood on his wallet.

After marrying in 1985, the couple raised two strikingly statuesque daughters, Tamara and Petra, before a divorce three years ago that was reported to have cost Ecclestone around a quarter of his fortune. Accounts of the relationship describe it as tempestuous. The girls are said to have refused to attend their father's third wedding out of loyalty to their mother.

Generally though, Ecclestone gets things his own way. Still, these days there are those who wonder how much longer he will last, particular if his dispute with the Germans gets ugly. Ecclestone, who underwent a triple coronary bypass in 1999, remains in good heart.

He might, he now thinks, reconsider his retirement in three years' time. By then Ecclestone will be 85. But there's no rush.

The biog

October 28 1930 Born in Ipswich, UK

1946 Leaves school at the age of 16

1949 Racing debut in the Formula 3 series

1957 Buys two chassis from disbanded Connaught F1 team

1958 Enters Monaco and British GPs but does not qualify; leaves racing after death of driver Stuart Lewis-Evans

1965 Meets driver Jochen Rindt and later becomes his manager

1972 Buys Brabham F1 team for £100,000

1978 Becomes FOCA chief executive

1981 Helps guide Nelson Piquet to driver's title

1982 Meets second wife Slavica Radic

1984 Daughter Tamara is born

1987 Sells Brabham for US$5m; sets up Formula One Promotional Association; becomes FISA vice-president of promotional affairs

1988 Daughter Petra is born

1995 Granted F1 commercial rights

1996 Transfers ownership of F1 business to Slavica Ecclestone (SLEC)

1997 Causes controversy with £1m donation to Labour Party

1999 Undergoes triple heart bypass; sells 12.5 per cent of SLEC to Morgan Grenfell Private Equity for $325m

2000 Sells 37.5 per cent of SLEC to Hellman & Friedman for $725.5m

2001 Kirch Group buys 25 per cent stake from Ecclestone for $987.5m by borrowing from BayernLB, JP Morgan and Lehman Brothers

2002 Banks take 75 per cent stake in SLEC as Kirch Group goes into administration

2005 CVC Capital Partners buy banks' SLEC stake and that of Ecclestone, who remains as F1 CEO

2007 Buys 20 per cent of QPR and becomes majority shareholder in 2010; sells stakeholding in August 2011

2009 Divorce with Slavica finalised

2012 Marries for third time; involved in court case with BayernLB over payment of $44m to former chief risk officer Gerhard Gribkowsky