It's the pits! Why Bernie hates his new biography

The rags-to-riches romp was simple for writer Tom Bower – until his subject saw a section about his ex-wife
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As if Bernie Ecclestone, the 80-year-old workaholic head of Formula One, did not have enough worries with riots in Bahrain threatening the start of the international season, there are also rows on the home front because of an upcoming book.

The biographer, Tom Bower, has a track record of upsetting the people about whom he writes, but when he started work on his latest opus it did seem to be one that might get off the presses with less fuss than usual.

Mr Ecclestone, a working-class boy who made good and become fabulously rich by bringing business acumen to motor sport, is thicker-skinned than a lot of billionaires. When he and Mr Bower discussed the project in its early stages, the writer warned that if he turned up anything bad, he would use it. Mr Ecclestone shrugged off the warning and replied: "I'm no angel", thus furnishing Mr Bower with a title for his new book, which is to be published on Monday. He even took the author around in his private jet.

But trouble began when an extract from the book appeared in the Daily Mail. As usual, when a newspaper buys the rights to a book, the section that was likely to cause the most controversy and upset was given the greatest prominence.

In this case, the newspaper pulled out the story of how Mr Ecclestone ended his 17-year relationship with Tuana Tan to marry Slavica Maric, a feisty Croatian model who stands 1ft taller than the diminutive Mr Ecclestone and was pregnant with the first of their two daughters.

Mr Ecclestone has dominated the world of Formula One for decades. Before he arrived, it was more like an amateur club, but he turned it into a multimillion-pound business. In 1997, he hit the headlines when it was found that he had quietly donated £1m to the Labour Party – a huge sum by the normal standards of political gifts, but for Mr Ecclestone it was not more than a week's income.

Yet at home, his strong-willed wife was easily a match for him. They first met on the Italian race circuit in 1982, when she was 23 and he was 51. Their stormy 23-year union ended in November 2008. The former Mrs Ecclestone and their daughters did not like what they read, causing a rift between the biographer and his subject.

This is not the biggest problem on Mr Ecclestone's plate right now. The 2011 Formula One programme is scheduled to begin on the Bahrain International Circuit on 13 March.

The same circuit was the setting for the GP2 Asia series, but yesterday its organisers announced that they had cancelled the rest of the race weekend because of political unrest. Bahrain's authorities are insistent that the Formula One fixture will go ahead, but that depends on whether political stability has returned to the desert kingdom.

"We'll have to keep our eye on things and make a decision quickly," Mr Ecclestone said yesterday. "I spoke to the Crown Prince this morning. He doesn't know any more than you or I, but they're monitoring exactly what is going on. Next week we will make a decision on what we are going to do."

Another problem is that German prosecutors are investigating the sale in 2005 of 48 per cent of Formula One by a Munich bank, Bayerische Landesbank, to a private firm, CVC Capital Partners. The banker who engineered the deal, Gerhard Gribkowsky, is currently in the same prison that held Adolf Hitler nearly 90 years ago, accused of taking a huge bribe disguised as consultancy fees. The police have not said who paid the alleged bribe. Formula One and Mr Ecclestone have denied any knowledge of payments to Mr Gribkowsky.

With all that to worry about, Mr Ecclestone understandably did not need a family row and is now expected to stay away from next week's party to launch the new book.

For Mr Bower, who declined yesterday to comment about his relations with Mr Ecclestone, it is another in a series of clashes with his subjects. The 64-year-old author – who lives in Hampstead and is married to the former Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley – was a reporter for BBC's Panorama in the 1980s, before branching out on his own as an investigative writer. He has a track record for writing "warts and all" biographies of rich men, many of whom have vehemently objected.

Two years ago, he won a hard-fought libel case brought by the owner of the Daily Express, Richard Desmond, who objected to a single paragraph referring to him in Mr Bower's biography of Conrad Black, the former owner of The Daily Telegraph who was sentenced to jail in the United States for fraud.

Mr Bower's other targets have included Richard Branson, Tiny Rowland, Mohammed Al Fayed, the late Robert Maxwell, Gordon Brown, the Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson and the seamy side of the football world.

Bower's other victims

Richard Desmond Bower's biography of the owner the Daily Express remains unpublished, but Bower won a high-profile libel case against him in 2009.

Robert Maxwell The crooked former press baron was Bower's first living subject. Maxwell tried to intimidate him by setting private detectives on him.

Richard Branson "It is a foul, foul piece of work from the first words to the last – really rotten, nasty stuff" is what Branson said after reading what Bower had written about him.

Harry Redknapp and Brian Clough They may have been heroes to football fans, but in Bower's book, Broken Dreams, they were portrayed as greedy men who were only too happy to pocket bundles of unearned cash.