High cost of divorce looms over billionaire Bernie

The unlikely marriage of the diminutive Formula One boss and his Amazonian wife may soon be over.
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Slavica Ecclestone, wife of the Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, has moved out of their £10m Chelsea home, setting off speculation yesterday that a hugely expensive divorce case is in the offing. She left the weekend that Lewis Hamilton secured the world championship at the Brazilian grand prix. She is now reported to be living in a flat by the Thames, owned by the boyfriend of their 19-year-old daughter, Petra.

If the Ecclestone marriage has broken down, it could produce one of the largest divorce settlements in history. Mr Ecclestone, a self-made man, is reputed to have accumulated £2.4bn from the television rights and other spin-offs from Formula One. But he has made over the bulk of his huge fortune to his wife, who is not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes. When he made £1.9bn from a bond issue in 1999, the money was put in off-shore trusts controlled by Slavica.

The couple married 24 years ago, and have always seemed an unlikely team. She is a Croatian-born former Armani model; he is the son of a North Sea trawler skipper, who left school to work at a gasworks at the age of 16. The age gap between them is 28 years. When they first met, at the 1982 Italian Grand Prix, two years before they married, he was 52 and she was 24. There is also a 10in gap in their heights, he being 5ft 4in, and she is 6ft 2in.

Despite their wealth, the couple have avoided living ostentatiously. Slavica likes to do the housework, and their older daughter, Tamara, has revealed that when she and her sister were children, their mother would not have a dishwasher. But they do have a yacht, a jet, and a small hotel.

Yesterday, Mr Ecclestone was reported in the Daily Mail as saying: "The reason she has moved out is because they are doing building work next door and it is impossible to live in the house. She can't stand the noise. I don't know if she wants a divorce or not. She has moved into an apartment, belonging to Petra's boyfriend. We have people in the house taping the noise so we can go to the council to get something done about it."

Despite his huge wealth and fame, Mr Ecclestone notoriously refuses to employ an adviser on handling publicity. Calls to his office yesterday were taken by a receptionist who undertook to pass on messages. This absence of professional advice has sometimes led him into trouble. Last week, he made light of racist behaviour in the audience in Barcelona in February, aimed at Lewis Hamilton, saying that it was "a joke rather than abusive".

He has since defended himself against any imputation of racism by saying that it was his decision to pull Formula One out of South Africa because of apartheid, and that he had discussed the matter with Hamilton's father, Anthony.

The first time that Mr Ecclestone's fame spread to people with no interest in motor sport was just over two years ago, after he secretly donated £1m to the Labour Party. It was one of the largest political donations ever made in Britain, although it was less than a week's gross income for Mr Ecclestone at that time.

He later went to Downing Street and successfully lobbied Tony Blair to obtain an exemption for Formula One from an EU-wide ban on tobacco sponsorship of sport. The Labour Party was ordered to return the money.