Bernie Ecclestone: The goblin driving a hard bargain with the future

The 74-year-old billionaire behind the commercial success of Formula One is battling for control of its complex empire as he faces the threat of a breakaway world championship
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The Independent Online

There is a rumour, entirely groundless of course, that Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial rights holder of Formula One, was the mastermind behind The Great Train Robbery. As I wait for him in a meeting-room at his swish but discreet offices opposite Hyde Park, I wonder whether I will have the guts to bring this up. In the press cuttings I have scrutinised, and from my conversations with people who have encountered him, the 74-year-old Formula One tycoon has been variously likened to a rattlesnake, a cobra, a crocodile and a shark. "Slippery as a fish" is the most complimentary natural history analogy I can find. Plainly, this is not a man to accuse of being a master criminal; not if you don't want your head bitten off.

There is a rumour, entirely groundless of course, that Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial rights holder of Formula One, was the mastermind behind The Great Train Robbery. As I wait for him in a meeting-room at his swish but discreet offices opposite Hyde Park, I wonder whether I will have the guts to bring this up. In the press cuttings I have scrutinised, and from my conversations with people who have encountered him, the 74-year-old Formula One tycoon has been variously likened to a rattlesnake, a cobra, a crocodile and a shark. "Slippery as a fish" is the most complimentary natural history analogy I can find. Plainly, this is not a man to accuse of being a master criminal; not if you don't want your head bitten off.

When Ecclestone finally enters the room, he does not disappoint. There is a cursory, unsmiling handshake and a "let's get on with it". My colleague David Ashdown, who is here to take his photograph, is told that he can't. Ecclestone says curtly that he wasn't expecting a photographer, so there will be no photographs.

Our meeting, then, starts inauspiciously. I put the train heist question on indefinite hold. But gradually, an approximation of charm emerges. After 20 minutes, Ecclestone suddenly tells David that he can take pictures. And after 45 minutes, he is actually chuckling. It would be stretching a point to say that the cobra has become a teddy bear, but he does seem to have lost his venom. I seize my moment. This nonsense about The Great Train Robbery, does it amuse or irritate him?

A smile, thank God. "There wasn't enough money on that train; I could have done something better than that. No, I'll tell you where that [rumour] came from. Roy James, the guy who drove the getaway car, had been a racing driver. That's why they wanted him in the getaway car. Anyway, Roy was very friendly with Graham Hill, and when he came out of prison, he asked me for a job. I owned [the racing team] Brabham at the time, but I wasn't going to let him drive for me. Instead, I gave him a trophy to make; he'd also been a silversmith and goldsmith. That's still the trophy we give to the promoters every year. He made it. The recipients don't realise that."

Ecclestone smiles, even more broadly this time. To my surprise, I find myself immensely engaged by him. But then you don't make billions merely by being ruthless; you have to seduce people as well. And a sense of humour doesn't go amiss, either. Ecclestone clearly has one, if the sculpture on the window sill is anything to go by. It is a goblin, sitting on an upturned flower pot, grinning malevolently and cocking a snook at the world. The two other sculptures alongside it, a handshake cast in bronze and a stack of $100 bills, leave no doubt that the goblin is meant to represent the diminutive Ecclestone, a snook-cocking genius.

Which brings us to the two gigantic issues facing him in Formula One, issues which he will need all his goblin-like cunning to resolve. One is his diminishing control of the empire caused by the sale of his family's 75 per cent shareholding; the other is the confrontation with the teams threatening to break away and create an alternative championship.

Of these, the former is the bigger headache. "Let me make this clear," he says. "I didn't sell anything myself. I gave the shares to my wife, who put them in trust as she was advised to do, and the trust sold them. I wish it hadn't. There are three banks involved and the banks don't get on with each other. There is a level of mistrust among the shareholders and I hope we get that sorted out. But really I don't care who the shareholders are. I'm here, salaried, to do my best for the company."

Ecclestone is surely being disingenuous when he says he doesn't care who the shareholders are. But whoever they are, in the opinion of least one team boss, he continues to treat Formula One as "a personal fiefdom". I ask him how he responds to such a charge?

"I feel terribly sorry for the stupid people who say things like that. As I say, I'm here salaried." But the notion of him as a kind of benign dictator, that's not make-believe, is it? "Listen, I knew most of these guys when they were mechanics. A lot of them I've been lending money to for years, and suddenly they've all got two or three houses and boats and aeroplanes. I'm happy with that. I'm not jealous of them. But one would have to wonder, if that hadn't happened, what they'd be doing now? We don't know, do we?"

Is he saying that he feels entitled to more appreciation for building Formula One into the monolith it has become? "I'm saying that I feel sorry for jealous people. If I wanted to be jealous of someone I'd be jealous of Robert Redford. I'd want to look like him. But it ain't going to happen, so what's the point?"

Indeed, although Ecclestone does own up to envying "the Frank Williamses and Ron Dennises of this world", insisting that he would much rather be running an individual team, as he did Brabham, than the whole shebang. "They see a result. They go to Imola and they know if they've done well. In this job, everything is long-term."

Speaking of long-term, what of the threat of an alternative circuit, the proposed Grand Prix World Championship? Does he take it seriously?

"Look, when I built Formula One, I'd come up with ideas and people supported me. Now, everybody wants to have an argument. Colin Chapman, Mr [Enzo] Ferrari, those were historic people. They didn't rely on lawyers, they didn't know what lawyers were. A lot of what's going on now stems from the fact that they [the team owners] are terribly jealous, of me and of each other.

"The fact is that democracy doesn't work that well... When I built this sport I wouldn't tolerate compromise. It's a lot more difficult now.

"Now, you ask me about the GPWC. I don't think it will happen and I don't think they even want it to happen. You know, we never invited the manufacturers into Formula One. They saw it as a showcase, like an enormous car showroom for them to sell their products, and the way they're acting at the moment they're dirtying the glass, so people can't see in... Unfortunately, these people have the mentality that 90 per cent of 50 is better than 70 per cent of 100. It all stems from the fact that their arithmetic is not very good."

This disdain does not include Ferrari, however, with whom Ecclestone seems cheerfully in cahoots. I invite him to rebut the frequently levelled charge that he habitually loads the dice in Ferrari's favour.

"Complete nonsense. The rules are there for everybody, the finance is there for everybody. The split of revenue, percentage-wise, hasn't changed for 25 years." OK, but what of Ferrari's dominance? Some say that the team's recent lack of success has made Formula One more interesting. Might the sport not have been better off without them these last few years?

"Of course not. If you and I travel the world and mention BMW to someone, they'd probably think of a road car. Say Ferrari and they will immediately think of Formula One. They've been in it since 1950. Ferrariis Formula One. And the reason they win is because they're so organised.

"As for Michael [Schumacher], superstars are good for sport, if only because people want to see them get beat. Tiger Woods has been great for golf, for the same reason."

Ecclestone dismisses the idea that Schumacher, whose highest finish before yesterday's second in the San Marino Grand Prix was seventh in Malaysia, is accelerating over the hill. "Michael's like me. He will stop only when he realises that he can no longer deliver." And yet, his immense respect for Schumacher notwithstanding, he also cites the German as one reason why Formula One has lost some of its personality.

"The drivers don't give the public a fair shake," he says. "They're taking a lot of money out of the business, and I'm delighted for them, but it would be nice if they signed a few more autographs, gave a few more interviews. Schu is a culprit. I think he does an interview with himself, and if someone wants an interview he just plays them the tape. He's a very nice person, but people don't understand him because they can't get close enough. Drivers who were more outspoken, like Eddie Irvine and Jacques Villeneuve, were good for you, the media, and good for us. But now, if drivers say something a bit borderline, the team owner screams at them because the sponsor screams at him, so nobody says anything. In the 1970s the guys didn't give a damn what they said and did."

The implication being that the Seventies were the good old days? He shrugs. "Maybe in 20 years people will say that these are the good old days."

Either way, nostalgia is not Ecclestone's thing. He does not dwell, as a self-made billionaire might be entitled to do, on his origins as the son of a humble trawler skipper. And not since the day he left has he revisited the Suffolk village where he spent his early childhood. "What would be the point?" he says, genuinely mystified, when I ask. However, some have cast him as a man entirely devoid of sentiment, and this is wrong. He lets slip that he still reads the Daily Express for no better reason than that his late father used to, and that because the old man liked Oxford to win the university Boat Race, so does he. Nor is it true, he says, that he was remote from his parents. "I looked after them. I didn't live near them, but I kept in touch."

As for his own children, I ask whether he is worried that their lives are so much cushier than his was at the same age? "Yes," he says. "To tell you the truth I feel terribly sorry for them, as I feel sorry for all people who will never have to give something up for what they want. I'm streetwise, and my kids aren't. But saying that, my wife is very strict with them about what they spend, and how they behave."

Which is not altogether different, it occurs to me, from the way Ecclestone has run Formula One all these years. I ask him, finally, whether he has ever wanted to get his mitts on other sports? Roman Abramovich has become a good friend; has he ever fancied buying a football club?

"Not football, no. But I looked at tennis years ago. I think tennis needs a complete change in the way it is run, and I talked to them but they weren't interested." Some will shudder at the idea of tennis under Ecclestone's control. To me it seems like an opportunity missed.

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