Faber & Faber, £18.99, 432pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone, By Tom Bower

The main title of this extraordinary book was supplied to Tom Bower by Bernie Ecclestone himself – he's clearly a man comfortable in his own skin. "First get on, then get rich, then get honest," he's apparently fond of saying. Since publication, the Formula One mogul has claimed that Bower broke a promise not to mention his family. But would Britain's best investigative writer really agree to ignore an aspect of his subject's life that could be so revealing? What's particularly odd about the complaint is that Ecclestone's relationships with his parents, wives, partner and daughters constitute just about the only area of his life from which he emerges with any credit.

To be fair to Ecclestone, he granted otherwise more or less complete access: when friends and associates approached by Bower rang him for advice, Ecclestone told them to tell the truth. Bower wonders whether he might regret such openness. Surely so, given that he comes across as mean, vindictive, professionally amoral, gratuitously nasty and thoroughly unpleasant. He has a sense of humour, but its barbs are lethal. He's fond of pranks, but they're never funny and always seem designed to mess with people's heads.

His rise from second-hand car dealer to racing driver, team owner and ultimately one of the richest, most powerful men in world sport is utterly gripping. One almost admires him for being so totally, ruthlessly, his own man – addicted to deal-making, with a razor-sharp mind and an unerring ability to home in on rivals' weaknesses. He's a billionaire whose idea of the high life is a night in front of the telly watching wildlife documentaries, and whose idea of haute cuisine is egg on toast smothered in brown sauce. He flies celebs around in his $78m jet but provides no lunch other than a packet of Smarties he finds down the back of a seat.

Only one man ever got the better of him, it seems: when his £1m donation to the Labour Party came to light it was inevitably linked with the exemption he had obtained for Formula One from the ban on tobacco sponsorship. The ensuing scandal was malodorous, but Tony Blair's Teflon manoeuvrings made even Ecclestone look like a chump.

Out of the massive wealth of empire-building, rival-crushing detail that Bower packs in, two anecdotes keep coming back. One concerns the former world champion Niki Lauda, who had driven for Ecclestone's Brabham team. He was on crutches after a hip operation and asked Ecclestone for a second pass to the paddock at a Grand Prix so his son could help him round. Ecclestone turned him down.

The other concerned Rob Bain, organiser of the British Grand Prix in 2002. There were problems for Ecclestone on the way in, a steward somehow failing to recognise him. As he was sorting the problem out, Ecclestone ordered him off the circuit and withdrew his accreditation for his own race.

As the grubby world of motor racing was expertly dissected by Bower, I began to feel soiled. The exhaustive detail of the deals, machinations and double-crosses that fuel Formula One is mesmerising - and, in truth, slightly wearing. But Bower has performed an important job in getting it all on record. I started out fascinated by Ecclestone. By the end I was simply repulsed.

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