Bernie Ecclestone: The ringmaster of Formula One

The wily Ecclestone has F1 motor racing in the palm of his hand. But what happens when he calls it a day?

by Edward Gorman
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

In the ground-floor waiting-room of Bernie Ecclestone's London office in Prince's Gate, overlooking Hyde Park - the nerve centre of the multi-billion pound business that is Formula One - are two objets d'art that sum up a man with a reputation as one of the world's great dealmakers.

The first is a bronze sculpture that you cannot help but touch. It depicts one million dollars, stacked in four neat piles of cash. The second is another bronze, this one of two disembodied hands locked together. Because you have seen the money, you know immediately that this is not a handshake of greeting, but rather the moment when a business deal is done.

The two pieces speak volumes about Ecclestone - a self-taught entrepreneur who has made a huge fortune doing deals and who, as he says himself, has done it all on his word. In this exclusive interview for MT, in which Ecclestone talks candidly about his business methods and his long and controversial career, the 78-year-old Formula One tsar says that he would like to be remembered as a man whose word was his bond.

'I just hope that my reputation is of someone who is straightforward, honest and straight down the line, which is different to somebody who is going to screw people - because I haven't done that. My reputation is worth more to me than money. I'd like to be remembered as the "handshake guy", the one who did it all on a handshake.'

Ecclestone also reflects on the lack of any sort of official honour from his native country, his work ethic, and his feelings about his old friend Max Mosley, the embattled president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the world governing body of motorsport. Recent revelations about Mosley's penchant for sado-masochistic sex with prostitutes have caused one of the biggest crises in Ecclestone's career and strained to breaking point the 40-year friendship between the two.

It is Friday in the paddock of the Formula One circuit at Hockenheim near Frankfurt. Ecclestone is ensconced at the desk of his sinister-looking mobile office, from which he runs Formula One at every race weekend throughout the season. The man who occupies 24th place in the Sunday Times Rich List - with an estimated fortune of £2.4bn - is, as usual, dressed in uniform: crisp white shirt with Formula One emblems on the collar, black trousers, spotless black buckle-down shoes and a grey bomber jacket. He has spent the day in the paddock, meeting team owners, drivers and sponsors, as part of the build-up for Sunday's Grand Prix, oiling the wheels of a business that grosses more than £100m per race.

Behind him is an array of screens. One is tuned to a satellite news channel, others show footage from the circuit, where cars in a support race are circulating. Still more show data from the race. There are also a couple of fax machines - anachronistic, but Ecclestone swears by them.

With the background hum of racing cars, it feels like the cockpit of an aeroplane. Ecclestone, with his trademark Paul Weller-style grey hair plus big round glasses, is at the controls. He talks quietly into his phone and fiddles with a piece of paper on which the vital statistics of Formula One are recorded - a list of races and the global television audience generated by each one: Brazil, 185 million; US, 122 million; and Britain, 130 million.

These are big numbers, and spotting the massive potential of television for Formula One is one of the masterstrokes that have made Ecclestone so rich and his sport so successful. As a budding team-owner back in the late 1960s, he saw the shambolic way the championship was being run, each team making separate deals with each race promoter. Ecclestone persuaded all the team-owners to agree to his doing all the deals on their behalf - and taking a hefty percentage of the action in return. He began negotiating television deals in each territory, and then sponsorship deals on top of those - taking his cut on each, of course. Between-times, Formula One's benign dictator was buying property and anything else he could make a buck on: cars, boats, planes, hotels, failing businesses ...

We talk about The Deal, and his way of doing things. It is what everyone talks about when Ecclestone is mentioned: that he's a wily and mischievous individual with an almost mythical reputation for making money. Sir Frank Williams, the owner of the eponymous Formula One team, has known Ecclestone since 1969 and calls him a brilliant dealmaker. 'He is one of those people, damn them, who will almost never make a financial mistake. He is very gifted. Some of it is instinct, but some of the stuff he buys, you just think "how did he get it for that price?" Of course, he is always very liquid, and he's mentally very organised and astute. Some people have got the knack. They just know how to deal with people and know when they are dealing with a fool or someone who doesn't know the value of what they are selling or buying.'

Another source who knows Ecclestone well, but prefers to remain anonymous, says the deal is what Ecclestone lives for. 'Money, the deal, doing the deal, it's his version of backgammon, the game that he plays. He cuts through the bullshit and reaches the commercial conclusion of what's going on more quickly than anyone else.'

Ron Dennis, the team principal of McLaren Mercedes, whose new driver Lewis Hamilton has captured the imagination of the British public, is another to acknowledge Ecclestone's business acumen. 'Bernie is extremely shrewd, but he's very intrepid too. People who have done, or attempted to do, deals with him are often astonished by his ability to negotiate the optimum percentage of what may be available.'

Ecclestone cannot see his own talents as clearly as others do. Without any trace of immodesty, he compares himself to one of the greatest painters of all time. 'Assume I'm Picasso and you say to me "How do you paint, why do you choose those subjects and why do you choose the colours you use?" It's the same thing with me. It's impossible to explain.

'I don't like the word "deal", but if you sent me out to conduct business on your behalf, I would do the very best I can. If I'm not paid, that doesn't matter - that's nothing to do with it. I would still try to do what you wanted me to achieve without making the other people unhappy. I don't know if anyone would argue with this, but the people I have done business with I can go back to. I can always go back to them and they can always come back to me and we can talk.'

The son of a trawler skipper from Lowestoft, Ecclestone was born near Bungay in Suffolk and left school at 16. He had established one of the biggest car dealerships in the country before taking Formula One by the scruff of the neck in the '60s and '70s.

Despite the complexity of relationships and the huge sums involved in F1, he doesn't like agreements or too much paperwork. 'I don't need contracts. I'm being a bit cynical now. I think the reason we have contracts is that the other people that we deal with ... it's not that they are not honourable, but they don't see that when you have done a deal verbally and shaken hands on it, it's a deal.'

And, so he claims, money is not important to him. 'I don't think about the money. I've never really gone out to make money. It's been a by-product of what I do. If I am trying to do deals and I make money out of it, that's how it is, but I don't go with that idea in mind.'

If Ecclestone has built a reputation as dealmaker and a man who knocks heads together, he is also regarded as a master of the business meeting, strutting and manipulating, in a class of his own. He can, by all accounts, be polite, charming, businesslike or ruthless, as required. At a recent coming-together of senior managers in Formula One, one relatively new addition to the sport's top table seemed to question Ecclestone's motives in front of the others. This newcomer was subjected to a thorough dressing-down in return, which Ecclestone had no qualms about delivering in front of everyone.

Nick Fry, chief executive of the Honda Racing F1 team, has watched Ecclestone at first hand over the past seven years. He has noticed that, despite his advancing years - Ecclestone underwent heart bypass surgery in 1999 - the sport's ringmaster retains an excellent command of detail and is always on top of his game. 'He spends a lot of time talking to people and so he manages to establish the position of a large number of individuals. Then he plays one off against the other and, once he's got the lie of the land, he is able to steer the meeting - using the people whose position he knows - in the direction he wants to go.

'The other thing he's very good at when meetings aren't going his way is either to steer them onto a different subject or bring them to a halt.'

Fry notes another favourite Ecclestone ploy. 'It is a Bernie speciality. He will call one person outside for a chat. It is very impressive, because it makes the person who is being called outside feel special, while it really gets the tongues wagging inside the meeting as to what is going on.

'In this sport, because it is so competitive, everyone tends to get a little paranoid, and he uses this technique to a tee. I'm not sure it would wash in a big corporate environment, but in Formula One it is very effective - people are left wondering what's going on.'

Ecclestone denies any forethought, however, and says he just does it all off the top of his head. 'I never go into a meeting with pre-planned ideas, because you never know what the other people are going to do. You might offer them seven and they only wanted five.'

His reputation as big player has not made business meetings any easier, he says. 'It makes it more difficult; if you're a top gun, there is always somebody ready to draw on you. They go in thinking they are going to get screwed, so they are more cautious than they would be with someone who hasn't got a reputation.'

Tidiness is an obsession, as is not wasting time. Asked how he relaxes, Ecclestone replies: 'In the office.' Despite owning the obligatory super yacht/private jet combo, he hardly ever takes holidays and has always ignored the conventions of Saturday and Sunday in favour of more work. He is notorious for not delegating - 'why accept second-best?' he says - and for continuing to deal with every issue in fine detail.

His Croatian wife, Slavica Radic, a former model who stands over a foot taller than her diminutive husband, often chides him for overworking. She wants him to spend more time with her and their two grown-up daughters, Tamara and Petra, at home in Chelsea. But the 'up at six and in the office till six' routine continues; there is no sign of retirement for a man many believe will be carried out of Formula One only in a box. The succession plan is said to be in place but is yet to be revealed.

'I get up because there is always something to do. I am a fire-fighter. Slavica says to me: "I don't know why you are doing this - it's not to get a few quid. Why are you making all this effort?" But in the end I think she understands. She sometimes thinks I am a bit over the top - you know, a bit dedicated. But I don't think I could do anything half-cock. You've either got to do it properly or not do it, one or the other.'

He now runs Formula One on behalf of CVC Capital Partners, the private equity house that bought all but 16% of the shares in the business in November 2005 (the remaining stock is still owned by Ecclestone and his wife). Through the mirror glass, he ruminates briefly on the creature he has conceived: the Formula One paddock, with the immaculate team transporters lined up on one side, inch-perfect just as he decrees it, and the ever more ambitious-looking team motor-homes on the other.

'I don't think about it too much, because I think a lot of people have benefited from the way I have run things and operated. I am very proud looking at where we are now, seeing what's happened and what we have achieved from what we were. I can only be thankful to the people I have been working with who have trusted me through the years. Every now and again you get people who are a bit bitter and twisted because they haven't done it themselves, but in general everybody's pretty happy.'

It's a curious fact that, despite his evident success and the immense popularity of F1 around the world, Ecclestone has never been officially recognised by the British establishment. Some say that in his early days he employed some unorthodox business methods. There have, over the years, been lurid allegations - which he has flatly denied - that he was involved in all sorts of shenanigans. Some believe that his disastrous £1m donation to the Labour Party in 1997, returned amid a furore over claims that the Blair government was going to give Formula One an easy ride on tobacco sponsorship as a result, may have completely blown his chances.

Friends say stories about the hard man are exaggerated. Williams says he never 'overstepped the mark'. Another source puts this side of his image down to the mythologising of the man. 'There is a perception of him being a bad boy. He likes to play it up, but actually he's not. He's a very generous and genuine guy, but he would hate anyone to know it.'

On the subject of honours, Ecclestone himself has always said little. Questioned by MT, he reveals that he was once offered a CBE but turned it down. He also says the donation to Labour has nothing to do with his lack of recognition - which, he claims, does not bother him at all. You do have to wonder, though.

'It does not affect me - not in any shape or form. I have been given honours from all different countries, including the highest honours that can be given to a foreigner. These people have volunteered these awards. You'd be surprised at the people who have written to our Government, all sorts of people, including prime ministers, suggesting I should be knighted. And (the Government) wrote to me suggesting I should get a CBE. I thanked them very much indeed, but said I was too busy at the moment. I didn't want other people begging for me. If they (the Government) thought I had done anything good for the country - which I probably haven't - they should have come along like the other places. I would like to know how many people have received awards of this kind who haven't had to hustle for them.'

Over the years, Ecclestone has dealt with many crises - drivers dying on the track, teams going to the wall, sponsors pulling out, court judgments going against him on how the business should be run - but he has never had to confront anything like the recent Mosley scandal. Those who know him well believe this has taken a heavy toll on Ecclestone, torn between his loyalty to Mosley on the one hand and his duty to the business and sport of Formula One on the other.

For weeks he kept his counsel on the affair, before joining those publicly calling for Mosley to resign, which the FIA president has steadfastly refused to do. After months of warfare between them, they have agreed a truce of sorts. Ecclestone is hoping his friend will stick to his pledge of retiring in October next year, when his current mandate runs out.

'It's been difficult because Max and I were friends and have been through a lot of things together over such a long time. I genuinely, sincerely believe that, after all this had come out, he should have resigned. Not for my good, because I would rather have Max there as president than somebody I don't know. But I was being told on an hourly basis that he should go. Lots of different people were saying: "We don't think we can continue to stay involved in Formula One if Mr Mosley is president." It would have been nicer if he had stepped down. Anyway, he didn't, because Max is Max, and although I did everything to make sure he did, I knew he wouldn't.'

Now in the twilight years of his career, Ecclestone knows he cannot go on for ever but he has no plans to 'retire and buy a chateau', as he put it. Perhaps the exit of Bernie and Max will be an opportunity for a new, more contemporary version of F1 to emerge.

The sport he has done so much to create will continue without him but, in the paddock, people are already worrying how they will fare when he has gone. Ian Phillips, the director of business affairs at the new Force India team and a former Formula One journalist who has known Ecclestone since 1971, thinks a shock is on the way. 'The thought of Formula One without him fills me with horror. A lot of the things that we find frustrating at the moment - like who can have paddock passes and who can go on the grid before the start of a race and who can't - will be easier. But will deals get done and decisions get taken? No, they won't. Bernie is a democratic dictator: he goes through the motions of democracy and then tells you what it's going to be and what's going to happen.'

Dennis at McLaren Mercedes believes Ecclestone is a man whose uniquely dominant role will never be matched in future. 'The late Ken Tyrrell (F1 team owner) often used to say: "There'll never be another Mr E" - and he was right; there won't.

'Bernie came into Formula One at a time when it was being run like a cottage industry, very different from the global multi-million pound enterprise it is today. No sport is still run that way in the 21st century. That being the case, it may well be that no individual operating in any sport will ever acquire the power and influence Bernie has wielded over Formula One these past 30-odd years.'

Williams adds his own rather more succinct summary: 'We'll all be a little bit richer, but we'll all miss him enormously. Certainly, I will.'

1930: Born near Bungay, Suffolk, to a trawler skipper and his wife. When Ecclestone is eight, the family moves to Bexleyheath, Kent.

1947: Takes a job at the local gasworks, then enters partnership with Fred Compton (Compton & Ecclestone), trading spare parts for motorbikes.

1949: Drives in the 500cc F3 Series (at the wheel, above). Following an accident that catapults him into the car park, Ecclestone retires from the cockpit.

1957: Manages Weekend Car Auctions, then returns to car racing, purchasing assets of F1 Connaught team. Ecclestone becomes manager of driver Stuart Lewis-Evans, who dies in a crash during the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix.

1971: Ecclestone buys the Brabham racing team for £100k, and starts to build an F1 team. In partnership with BMW, Brabham goes on to win the World Championships in 1981 and 1983.

1978: Becomes president of the Formula One Constructors' Association (Foca), with Max Mosley as legal adviser. Establishes Formula One Promotions and Administration (Fopa) and secures the right for Fopa to negotiate Grand Prix television contracts.

1981: Plays dealmaker in the first Concorde Agreement, ending a battle between rule-making body the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile (Fisa) and Foca. It obliges teams to compete in every race, making the sport more reliable for broadcasters. It also grants Foca the right to televise F1 races, a right then leased to Ecclestone's Fopa.

1984: At an F1 promotional event, diminutive Bernie meets Croatian six-footer Slavica Radic. She speaks only Croatian and Italian; he speaks only English. He's 28 years older; she's not interested. But Ecclestone pursues her doggedly, and Slavica agrees to become his wife. They remain married today, with two daughters.

1997: Scandal erupts as journalists discover that Ecclestone has donated £1m to the Labour Party, just as it is announced that F1 will be exempt from a forthcoming ban on TV tobacco advertising. The party returns the cash, saying the exemption was intended to prevent the UK's loss of F1 to Asia.

2000: By now, Ecclestone has a network of companies that have the exclusive right to sell and market the TV rights of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). The FIA agrees to lease him the rights for the next 100 years.

2004: Ecclestone sells one of his London residences (unlived in) at Kensington Palace Gardens to steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal for £57.1m, making it the most expensive house ever sold.

2005: The first American Grand Prix is a debacle. Only six cars start after 14 drivers walk out in a row over tyre safety. Ecclestone bears the brunt of the bad publicity.

2006: CVC Capital Partners buys a majority interest in SLEC Holdings and forms the Alpha Prema company. Ecclestone uses the proceeds to buy into Alpha Prema and remains CEO of the F1 group.

2007: In September, Ecclestone and fellow F1 tycoon Flavio Briatore buy lowly Queens Park Rangers Football Club. In December, Lakshmi Mittal acquires 20% of the club.

2008: The Sunday Times Rich List ranks Ecclestone as the 24th- richest person in the UK, with an estimated fortune of £2.4bn (down from third-richest in 2003). Mosley, president of the FIA, is involved in a sex scandal, and despite pressure from Ecclestone and others, refuses to step down. CVC Capital partners is rumoured to be considering selling its share (75%) of the commercial rights to F1. How much longer will the 78-year-old Bernie carry on?

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

A leadership thought: Treat your colleagues like customers

One minute briefing: Create a platform where others can see their success, says AVEVA CEO...

The ignominious death of Gordon Gekko

Profit at all costs is a defunct philosophy, and purpose a corporate superpower, argues this...

Gender bias is kept alive by those who think it is dead

Research: Greater representation of women does not automatically lead to equal treatment.

What I learned leading a Syrian bank through a civil war

Louai Al Roumani was CFO of Syria's largest private retail bank when the conflict broke...

Martin Sorrell: “There’s something about the unfairness of it that drives me”

EXCLUSIVE: The agency juggernaut on bouncing back, what he would do with WPP and why...

The 10 values that will matter most after COVID-19

According to a survey of Management Today readers.