The Governor of Grand Prix

from The Daily Telegraph

Despite being the man who turned Formula One into a multi-million-pound business, Bernie Ecclestone managed to keep a low profile until his £1 million gift to the Labour Party threatened to turn him into a household name. In a rare interview, he tells Robert Chesshyre what happened over tea at Number 10.

LOOK up the name 'Ecclestone' in Who's Who and you will find only Jacob Ecclestone, a former official of the National Union of Journalists. You will not find his namesake, Bernie, the tsar of Formula One motor racing and a great commercial potentate. Consult the phone book for Formula One Administration Ltd or Formula One Constructors' Association, Ecclestone's companies, and you will also draw a blank. If you do manage to track down their number and dial it, you will be greeted, not with their names, but by a receptionist saying cryptically that you have reached 'Treble six, eight.' You could walk past their office itself on the edge of Hyde Park and have no inkling that one of the world's most-hyped sports is largely organised from behind its plate-glass facade. The head of MI5 and the headquarters from which he works are more publicly identifiable than the boss of F1 and his base. Yet despite this careful camouflage, Bernie Ecclestone, now 67, finds himself a household name.

The British Grand Prix is only a week away, and in the 12 months since Michael Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve and co last roared round the track at Silverstone, his shadowy world has been flooded with light, causing Ecclestone, like some rudely disturbed mole, to stumble blinking to the surface.

He was at the eye of a funding storm that blew the previously sure-footed Labour Government off balance; he has been the subject of City speculation over the much-delayed flotation of F1 as a public company (once expected before last year's British GP), and, anticipating that flotation, has been catapulted into the Top 10 in Britain's Rich List. His wife, Slavica, a 6ft 2in former model nearly 30 years his junior, fought (and won) a libel case in her native Croatia against a writer who falsely alleged in a local paper that as a teenager she had been a 'honey-trap' spy.

Ecclestone would have made wonderful material for Dickens. The novelist would have plucked him from life and plunged him into the heart of a novel teeming with power, money, intrigue, romance, politics and revenge. Ecclestone comes from that shrewd, knowing class, wedged between the Cockney and the bourgeoisie - so well understood by Dickens - who rise and fall by their wits. After all, he is the boss of a sport with an upper-crust history, a wheeler-dealer who has strayed from his second-hand car lot beside the A2 to take on, defeat and dominate the grandees of grand prix.

I asked for an interview more in hope than expectation. Ecclestone agreed to see me, but would not allow me to follow him around and observe him at work. Was he sure? 'I've never been more sure of anything in my life,' came the reply. I tried flattery. 'You have, from time to time, been kind and accessible to journalists.' 'I can't remember when I've ever been kind to a journalist,' he said. 'Something must have slipped by somehow by mistake.'

Ecclestone was born in Suffolk in October 1930, the son of a trawler skipper who moved to the Kent fringes of London when Bernie was eight. He left school at 16 and worked for a gas company, studying part-time for a degree. He raced motorcycles before he was old enough to ride on public roads. Abandoning gas, he went into the second-hand motorbike (and later car) trade, and graduated to F3 racing cars. He was a moderately good rider and driver, and has said, 'I led most of the races I entered. I either fell off, or the car exploded, or I won.' Stirling Moss, a racing peer of Ecclestone's, told me, 'He was not a great driver, but not bad either.' But he was a great entrepreneur. 'I've been wheeling and dealing since I was 11, buying and selling fountain pens, bicycles, what have you. Then I went into motorcycles, cars, property - whatever was about. I don't remember what I put in my passport; 'company director', probably. It covers a multitude of sins.'

Still in his 20s, he built the second largest motorcycle business in the country. His car operation became Weekend Car Auctions, which was bought by British Car Auctions. He married young (a union that ended long before he met Slavica), and had a daughter, now a mother in her 40s. One of his friends who met his first wife could not even remember her name. 'She kept very much in the background,' he said. After several crashes, he quit driving. 'I had woken up four or five times in hospital. I realised that I didn't want to risk lying in bed for the rest of my life looking up at the ceiling.'

Business boomed, and in 1957 he bought Connaught, an ailing GP team. However, when a friend, Stuart Lewis-Evans, was killed (though not in a Connaught) at the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix, Ecclestone returned once again to company directing. But he had the F1 bug bad, and by the late Sixties he was back as manager of Jochen Rindt, the Austrian driver who in 1970 was killed at Monza having already won enough points to secure that year's world championship. This time Ecclestone did not walk away. He bought the Brabham team, which, under his leadership, won two world titles with the Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet.

Team ownership made him a member of the Formula One Constructors' Association, then little more than a travel agency transporting GP teams around the world. In those days, F1 was run by aristos and amateurs - decent but ineffectual chaps in blazers, cravats and slacks. Most team bosses were more interested in lap times than business. Lord Hesketh, who owned an FI team, said, 'Bernie would say, "This is the way we should do it", and every-one else said, "OK, Bernie, get on with it." '

The key was spotting the coming power of television, which has since changed the face of all professional sports. By uniting the teams and securing and marketing the global TV rights, Ecclestone created a powerful structure that could bargain with circuits and broadcasters from a position of strength. Tim Clowes, a friend of Ecclestone's who has handled insurance for F1 cars since the days of Moss, said, 'Bernie appropriated the sport to his benefit - and to the benefit of everyone else. At the time they were hugely grateful. The teams tend to forget that without Bernie and the TV he engendered they would be unknown.' Ecclestone also tamed motor sport's governing body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).

In a turf war that threatened to split F1, he inserted his own lawyer, Max Mosley, son of Sir Oswald, into the FIA. Mosley later became FIA president, with Ecclestone vice-president in charge of promotion. By the mid-Eighties, Ecclestone not only held the commanding heights, but owned them and most of the view from the summit as well. He prefers a handshake to a contract, and carries in his head the detail that most tycoons keep in filing cabinets or on disk. He is autocratic, firmly of the opinion that committees are a waste of space. BBC had been the F1 broadcaster since 1953, but Ecclestone replaced them with ITV at a stroke - increasing the five-year revenue from £7 million to £70 million. When asked how the deal was done so quickly, Andrew Chowns, who negotiated for ITV, said, 'It's Bernie Ecclestone and that's it. I haven't known him long, but I find him incredibly decisive.'

Ecclestone grinds small. Little in F1 escapes him. He is said to choose the colour of the loo paper at grand prix venues, where he sets up his HQ in a grey mobile home, surveying the world he controls through tinted windows. Known as 'Bernie's bus', on race days it is the hub of the paddock. Once he occupied the penthouse at Alembic House, the eyrie high above the Thames that is now home to novelist and would-be London mayor Jeffrey Archer. With Slavica and their daughters, Tamara, 14, and Petra, nine, Ecclestone today lives in a house in Chelsea valued by the tabloids at £2 million. But despite his wealth - in 1996 he paid himself more than £1 million a week - he is unostentatious.

On race days, he wears well-laundered open-neck white shirts, pressed slacks and loafers. His grey hair falls forward in a somewhat dated fringe. He has a fleet of cars, including a Ferrari and a Rolls, but he usually drives an Audi estate. Family life is simple and revolves round the kitchen table. A friend of Ecclestone's, passing late one night, was amazed to see him washing up and his wife doing the ironing. He and Slavica do eat out, but prefer familiar places like San Lorenzo. They like to stick to what they know. He may circle the globe like Ariel, but he remains vividly English.

Clowes told me of a time he flew to the French GP in Ecclestone's plane. 'Bernie turned up with carrier bags full of sandwiches and sausage rolls. We ate them on the way. When we arrived, he gathered up the remains and put them back in the bags. I said, "What on earth are you going to do with that, Bernie?" He said, "You don't think I'm going to eat any of that French rubbish, do you? These'll do me for the weekend." ' Mosley has said, 'His great talent is that he can extract more of the potential from a deal than most people. Anyone can get 80 per cent, a lot can get 90 per cent, but Bernie will get closer to 100 per cent. This is extremely valuable in something like F1, where nobody knows what anything is worth.'

When F1 shows signs of flagging, Ecclestone steps in, moving drivers around like chess pieces. He engineered Schumacher's move to Benetton in 1991; together with Renault, he stumped up cash to bring Nigel Mansell back to F1 after Ayrton Senna's death; he encouraged Williams to hire Villeneuve. He helps weaker teams through lean spells. However, some of the less flattering descriptions that have been applied to him by journalists are as follows: 'benevolent despot'; 'little Caesar'; 'godfather'; 'Napoleon'; 'pugnacious' and 'Machiavelli'. The general picture conjured up in the press is that the boss of F1 is clever and astute, responsible single-handedly for the enormous commercial success of his sport, but that he is also a ruthless, secretive man, loyal to his friends and an implacable foe, a control freak capable of intense rages and likely to tear press passes from the necks of people who displease him.

A few days after our initial phone call, at an hour when most people are having breakfast, I am waiting in a small room in the F1 nerve centre. One wall has photos of sleek, American touring cars; sculptures decorate the window sill; beyond the blind is a courtyard dotted with potted shrubs. The door opens. A tiny man in a button-down white shirt, blue tie, blue trousers and shiny, well-worn, lace-up black shoes, wearing tinted glasses, shakes my hand and offers coffee. I am surprised by how small he seems in the flesh: he must be about 5ft 3in. But one soon forgets his size. Mosley, who is probably half a foot taller than Ecclestone, once said, 'When I talk to Bernie, I always imagine that I'm talking to him eye-to-eye.'

We walk down a corridor to his ground-floor office. It is an enormous panelled room, with a large desk to one side, and two sofas facing each other in front of a plate-glass window overlooking a garden. Ecclestone speaks quietly in a distinctive, flat voice, occasionally abandoning what he appears to be about to say in favour of a more pressing thought. Some put this trait down to obfuscation. He told another journalist, 'If I don't particularly want to tell somebody something, I try not to. If I can be evasive, I will be.' My sense is that although when it suits he readily clouds issues, this is also the way his mind works, leaping swiftly from point to point. His grammar is sometimes fractured, but, as he says himself, he went to school during the war and left early. He is sharp, can be funny and his tongue, I suspect, is more often in his cheek than he is given credit for. He uses his hands like punctuation, clapping to emphasise points, and engages an interlocutor with his full attention.

Why, I ask, is he not in Who's Who? 'They send me these silly forms. For what reason would I want to be in Who's Who? I'm just a guy doing a job.' It is a theme to which he returns. His bottom line is that he is an ordinary fellow who made the best of his breaks. 'I've never had ambitions to do anything, to be honest. There's a big chunk of luck in being in the right place at the right time. When something comes flying past, you grab it [he makes a grabbing motion] rather than waiting until it's gone and saying, "Christ, I should have done that." So that's what happened to me. I've been lucky.' When especially lucky? 'Since I was born.'

There are two views on Ecclestone's business methods: that he is a ruthless tiger, or that he finds it useful that people should think he is a ruthless tiger. When I asked one prominent F1 figure whether people should be frightened of Ecclestone, he replied, 'You are now getting into an area where I don't want to comment. You'll probably find that most other people don't want to either.' One Ecclestone watcher told me, 'People are afraid of him because he wields total power. He is a dictator. People in motor sport are aficionados, and he can take away their livelihood and their enjoyment with a nod of the head.' Others scoffed at the idea that he would hurt anyone. 'I don't think he'd be likely to kneecap you,' said Stirling Moss, laughing. Asked if Ecclestone was frightening, Gordon Murray, who worked with him for 15 years as the Brabham designer, replied, 'Not at all, not in that sense.' I ask Ecclestone if he has ever harmed anyone. 'You could safely say that you couldn't find anyone that could say I'd harmed or disadvantaged them.' Physically? 'In any possible way. People make stories up. Most of them don't know me, have never met or even seen me.'

He himself raises an apocryphal story I had read - that he masterminded the 1963 Great Train Robbery. 'I didn't rob the train. Wasn't part of that.' Why was the link ever made? Ecclestone says that one of the gang, Roy 'The Weasel' James, a racing driver before his arrest, wrote from jail to the late Graham Hill who was driving for Ecclestone. On his release, James wanted to get back into the sport, and approached Ecclestone, who told him that after 12 years inside, he was pursuing an impossible dream. 'I asked what he did before he got locked up. He said he was a silversmith. He needed money, so I got him to make us a trophy. That was it. Suddenly I was involved in the Train Robbery.' Ecclestone successfully sued, after a book and a magazine made the allegation.

Damon Hill recently told Esquire magazine, 'The way he can manage to control a lot of very intelligent people and still keep them dancing to his tune is extraordinary.' His technique? 'The same old tricks: he works on people's fears and insecurities. He's a bit like a female spider. Lots of people think they're close to him, but they're in danger of being eaten.' So he is clearly not a man to be trifled with. 'Quite right,' Ecclestone replies now. Is his reputation for being someone to be afraid of fair? 'Probably.' Why cultivate it? 'I don't cultivate it. It's a matter of fact.' What are the consequences of crossing him? Ecclestone turns the question round. 'If somebody crossed you, would you be happy?' I mutter that I might not be happy, but there would be limited lengths to which I would go. He pounces, 'That's it exactly... the limited lengths. It depends how bad they crossed you what the lengths would be, presumably. I think that if you're a man, you can't sit back and let people take pot shots at you.'

Peter Mandelson has said that the Ecclestone/tobacco affair was the Labour Party's worst own goal in its first year of office. The damage was done not just by the incorrect but popular impression of a businessman paying the party a large sum of money and getting a favour, but by the fumbling way the Government handled the fallout.

It began in 1996 when Tony Blair and his family went to the British GP as Mosley's guests. Hill drove him round the circuit, and Mosley took him to 'Bernie's bus'. 'He came across as being enthusiastic, sincere,' Ecclestone says now. 'I said to him, "If you wanted to be a Conservative, I think you'd still get the same votes as you're going to get for Labour." I could see that he was probably more conservative than Major. He was just doing what Mrs Thatcher started a long time before.' After this congenial meeting, Labour fundraisers targeted Ecclestone. Six months later he gave Labour his (then unknown to the wider world) gift of £1 million. In May last year, after the election, Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, made a pledge to ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship. Last summer that firm rock splintered. Dobson, it was hinted, had spoken out of turn.

On October 16, Ecclestone and Mosley visited Blair at Downing Street. Two weeks later, rumours of a U-turn swirled round Westminster - instead of a total ban the Government decided to co-operate in an EU directive that would allow F1 eight years to wean itself off its £250 million annual tobacco sponsorship, followed by the yet more sensational gossip that Ecclestone had made a large donation to Labour.

For one long November weekend, the party's spin doctors lost the plot. Labour referred the donation to Lord Neill, the parliamentary standards watchdog, who shocked the party (and Ecclestone) by advising them to return the money. Blair apologised on TV in terms that had echoes of Richard Nixon's 'your president is not a crook', though his apology was more for the way things were done than for the deed itself.

The £1 million was returned to Ecclestone - though he stylishly didn't cash the cheque for nearly four months. As the letter he wrote to Lord Neill in May revealed, he felt he had been hung out to dry. He said the money was given because Blair promised to keep down top tax rates; to reduce Labour's dependence on unions; and because he disliked the Tory 'demon eyes' poster campaign. He says now that he doesn't regret his attempt at generosity. 'But I do regret the inference that people have put on it. I was upset by the way it was dealt with by the Labour Party and the fact that it had been denied that I had given it.' He says he has never given money to the Tories. (A figure of £14 million spread over several years appeared in several papers.) 'That's rubbish, absolutely not true.' What was talked about at the Downing Street meeting? Did he ask for exemption from a ban on tobacco sponsorship? 'No, I wasn't asking for anything when I was invited to go and see him. We had a general discussion about life. I don't remember because I didn't record the conversation, and I don't remember things that are of little, if any, importance to me. I went with Mosley, and he did most of the speaking. It was nothing to do with asking for anything from anybody. It was him being polite, that's all. I think the meeting was set up after Silverstone when they said it would be nice just to catch up and have a cup of tea.' So there we have it. All that kerfuffle was, after all, just a storm in a tea cup.

Most people in F1 believe the sport can survive on less money, even if it means Schumacher scraping by on $5 million, rather than $25 million. Ecclestone thinks that other industries will step in with sponsorship once tobacco has gone. He has ploughed £100 million into digital, pay-per-view TV, which allows viewers to choose between six simultaneous channels. The equipment fills 26 trucks, and follows the F1 circus around the globe. Between races it is housed at Biggin Hill airfield, where Ecclestone keeps his two Lear jets. At present, pay-per-view is available only in continental Europe. 'It will be three years before it fully kicks in. When this really starts to grow, there will be a lot more revenue.'

When The Sunday Times elevated Ecclestone to sixth in their rich list, it was on the basis that F1 was to be floated and that - according to the paper's valuation - the Ecclestones (most of the assets are in Slavica's name) stood to gain £750 million, which, together with their estimated existing fortune, would have made them worth £1,500 million. News of the flotation (which, under the umbrella of Formula One Holdings plc, would include all Ecclestone's operations, including digital TV) was leaked 15 months ago, and anticipated deadlines have come and gone, leading some in the City to believe that it won't happen.

Nicky Samenco-Turner, an automotive industry corporate financier with a lifelong interest in F1, told me, 'Everything that could possibly have gone wrong has. Floating a company is not like filling up with petrol. You don't pay a bloke some money, say, "Thanks very much", and drive off. In reality you have to go through the mill and have your soul blanched.' In Ecclestone's case this has also involved him taking a certain amount of flak. Only last month he issued proceedings for libel against the magazine Business Age after it questioned his business methods with a front page headline 'Can you trust this man to run a public company?' superimposed on a photograph of him. After years of playing with his cards against his chest, as the potential head of a public company, Ecclestone now finds himself playing a game in which the cards are laid face up. He says he is unfazed. 'We are extremely transparent to all the people we need to be transparent to. We are running this company as if it were a public one.' The flotation, he insists, is still on: 'We never had a time frame.'

According to him, it had been the teams - Ferrari in particular - rather than he who wanted the flotation. Why? 'Because they think, "What's going to happen when Bernie dies? It would be nice to have a board there." That was the idea.' I tell him that I heard that the teams felt they would not get their fair shares. He is dismissive: 'The teams have a history of trying to extort money from every possibility. Our set-up vis-a-vis them has not changed, except they get a larger percentage now than ever.'

The real spanner in the works is European competition law. Before F1 can float, it needs a clean bill of health stating that the sport is conducted according to provisions of the EU Treaty. To this end FIA and FOA (Ecclestone's commercial company) have submitted to Karel van Miert, the competition commissioner, the agreements they have with circuit owners and broadcasters. On the face of it, F1's cosy portfolio of contracts - involving deals for exclusivity and tying parties down for years ahead (which is where the chief value of what Ecclestone has to offer lies) - may fall foul of some EU laws.

Ecclestone argues that his deals are simply good commercial practice. He tells me that he could sort out the EU problems 'this morning if we wanted to', adding, 'We are a law-abiding company; we have done exactly as the law says.' What about the threat to take F1 out of Europe? 'I've never threatened anybody in my life. The FIA is saying, "We could move our championship outside Europe, because they're challenging the FIA's authority to run motor sports." ' He adds, 'Americans seem able to do what they like in Europe without being punished, while Europeans get in trouble. So you've got to say, well, maybe we're better off being American.' Autosport magazine recently published a feature under the headline 'What's wrong with Formula 1?' Mechanical failure apart, whoever reaches the first bend first usually wins - and this year, that tends to be McLaren, with its obvious technical superiority. Last month's Montreal Grand Prix, with its fluctuating fortunes, was a glorious exception.

This season the F1 regulations were changed, in part to make the cars more competitive. The cars are narrower and run on grooved tyres. Nonetheless, the motorcade usually persists. Moss told me, 'It's very difficult to say that a sport should be more dangerous, because you are accused of wanting to get people killed. I don't want people killed. But I do want them to realise they are in a dangerous sport and to drive accordingly.' Murray said modern circuits, with their short straights and tight corners, are as much to blame as the cars. Was Ecclestone responsible for this sanitisation? 'Absolutely, though it's not just him. The circuits are the product of the modern commercial era, which Bernie orchestrated.'

Ecclestone argues that there are just as many shunts as in Moss's day; the difference is the drivers (on the whole) don't get killed because they are far better protected. Might the F1 bubble burst? 'Nothing has changed; it has always been like this. People don't just go to see who'll win; it's the whole scene.' Moss is an Ecclestone fan. 'He is an extremely competent person; he could take over any part of the operation. Maybe he couldn't actually drive the cars, but he'd be closer to it than you would be. You need a control freak. Generals win battles because they are control freaks and can organise.'

Ecclestone accepts he is obsessed with detail. 'If I went into your house and saw a crooked picture, I'd probably straighten it. If you're not built that way, you're not going to pay attention to detail, to things that are more important.' What is he most proud of? 'What I've done, I've done honestly and correctly. I've never done anything bad to anyone in my life. I've never cheated anybody. If I do a deal, I don't need to write it down on paper. Everyone knows I won't go back. Even if something terrible happened the next day, which was a disadvantage to me, I'd never back out. I'm proud of that.' Anything to be ashamed of? 'No. No.' Too good to be true? Who knows? Many countries outside Britain have honoured Ecclestone. Does he, therefore, crave recognition here, a knighthood perhaps? 'I'd have to give it some serious thought if it was offered, because they're a bit behind the times. But forget Ecclestone. When you see what F1 does for this country, the jobs it creates, the money it brings in, the taxes it raises, then ask what recognition has it got.'

Money apart, what drives the man who drives F1? Outside work, his family are his main interest. 'He is a marvellous family man,' said Clowse, 'he is devoted to his kids.' Ecclestone also collects, in a relaxed way - cars, pictures, Chinese ivory. But another friend said, 'He is totally hobbyless. That's why he won't let go.' 'I do what I do because I'm a builder,' he says. 'I like to create things, and see them happen. I like to see the people I do business with succeed. I'm very proud that all the teams do well. I don't have a problem with someone flying around in a bigger plane than I have.' Ecclestone watchers tell me that they think he is mellowing. They cite a TV interview, snatched on the grid of a recent grand prix. Initially, Ecclestone looked far from comfortable, but he soon hit his stride and joined in some joshing and stood by while both Slavica and Tamara spoke to camera. 'Is this a fresh beginning?' I asked him hopefully. 'Definitely not. It will get worse probably.'

© Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1997.