Formula One wife on track for rags-to-riches glory

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Slavica Ecclestone is already accustomed to the very best that money can buy - private jets, fast cars, luxury villas and a lot of large jewellery - but if her husband's plan to float his Formula One Holdings on the stock market go ahead, she will become one of the richest women in the world.

Reputed to have a personal fortune of pounds 200m and an annual salary of nearly pounds 30m, Bernie Ecclestone, is the man behind Formula One racing.

Not a television camera can be pointed at a car, a wheel nut changed in the pits or an advertising hoarding put beside the track without his permission.

However, it has emerged that his wife, Slavica, owns 80 per cent of his company, and if it is floated, as planned, in the autumn, she will net an instant pounds 1.2bn, making her richer than the Queen, whose wealth is estimated at a mere pounds 450m.

The irony is that Slavica, a former Armani model who stands a striking 6ft 2in tall beside her 5ft 4in husband, cannot stand motor racing. She leaves that to the man who effectively controls Formula One, working alone in a grey caravan nicknamed The Lubyanka.

Mr Ecclestone is nothing if not shrewd, and despite a 26-year age gap between him and his wife, he knows that his is the safest pair of hands for his empire. She is very clever and her trusts her.

However, before masked robbers ambushed Mrs Ecclestone recently outside their pounds 2m Chelsea house and ripped a pounds 600,000 ring from her finger, relatively few outside motor racing had heard of the couple.

The daylight ambush put 65-year-old Mr Ecclestone and his 36-year-old wife on the front pages of several newspapers and the extent of his influence in the motor racing world began to be appreciated. Without his say so, television viewers in 70 countries would not be able to tune in to their regular diet of Grands Prix. Mrs Ecclestone has come a long way from her working-class Croatian roots. Her father was a fireman who walked out on her mother when their four children were still young. Slavica left school at 16 to take up modelling and met Mr Ecclestone four years later in 1981 at the Monza motor-racing circuit.

The couple married in 1985 and have two daughters.

The trappings of wealth seem to matter little to Mrs Ecclestone. "I know I can put a pounds 200,000 ring on my finger but it doesn't make any difference to me if I go somewhere in worn-out jeans," she says.

It is all far-removed from her life in Croatia where she had to wait until she was 10 years old before her mother could afford to buy her a proper pair of shoes.

"I will never forget my first pair of shoes," she has said. "I slept with them by my bed so they would be the first thing I saw when I woke up."

Kate Watson-Smyth