Bernie Ecclestone interview: No chequered flag in sight for the ageing ringmaster of F1
The man who turned F1 into a glitzy, multibillion pound product is so old-school he can't work an iPhone, but, he tells Christian Sylt over lunch in Hyde Park, he has no plans to quit, he's not a big spender and why Justin Bieber wanted a picture with him in Monaco
Friday 06 June 2014
Bernie Ecclestone is tucking into a beefburger in a plush hotel in Knightsbridge as he considers the question. "I think a successor is important," he finally says, "but I've not been looking for someone. If I saw anybody [who I thought was up to it] I would ask them."
But the Formula One chief executive will not be popping that question any time soon. Despite his 30 years in the driving seat and being in his 84th year, his foot is still hard on the pedal. The man who has overseen the transformation of the sport just keeps going.
"The reality is," Ecclestone continues while we enjoy lunch with his wife, Fabiana Flosi at the Hyde Park Hotel, "as long as I am involved with a company that's involved with Formula One, I want to control the company. I am not looking at retiring."
Despite his age, and the fact that he is defending himself against bribery charges which could lead to him being imprisoned for up to 10 years, Ecclestone still works nine to six, five days a week and perhaps surprisingly, Flosi, 46 years his junior, doesn't want him to slow down. "I don't want Bernie to retire," says Flosi, a charming Brazilian lawyer whom Ecclestone married in 2012. "I want him to do whatever makes him happy."
For years rumours have swirled about his replacement, with the most frequently mentioned names including Christian Horner, principal of last year's champions Red Bull Racing. But Ecclestone is still in the thick of the action. He is championing a change to the new V6 engines, which have lost the high-pitched scream Formula One is famous for and have led to Mercedes dominating every race so far. "They are trying to change the sound of the engines as soon as possible," he says between sips of water.
"We can't and we shouldn't change any regulations that would damage Mercedes. They have built an engine to the regulations. The regulations were wrong." He adds that the saving grace of Mercedes' domination is that the rivalry between their drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, which exploded at the recent Monaco Grand Prix, is good for business.
Ecclestone's origins lie far from the glitz of the Riviera. The son of a trawlerman, he has been a driven man with an eye for business since his youth. "When I was a kid I used to work on Petticoat Lane buying and selling," he says in his softly spoken tone. "I was a fountain pen specialist. In the war years I used to go into the bakery, buy the limited amount of cakes and take them to school in a case. In the break time I sold them."
Leaving school at 16 he established one of the UK's biggest car dealerships while dabbling in driving in his spare time. He first made big bucks in the used-car business but the precise moment he hit that million pound milestone doesn't stick in his mind. "It was just a few more zeros in the bank account," he says, his poker face unflinching.
Ecclestone then bought the Brabham team in 1972 and won the drivers' championship twice with the Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet at the wheel. At the time, Formula One races ran as ad hoc events. Each team made separate deals with each grand prix promoter and television coverage was sporadic since races could be cancelled at the last moment if there weren't enough cars to fill the grid. Ecclestone seized the opportunity to change this.
In 1981 he convinced the teams to sign a contract – the Concorde Agreement – committing them to race at every grand prix. It gave the broadcasters a guarantee that races would take place and in turn they were committed to showing them. Ecclestone took a cut of the proceeds and in 1995 his salary of £58m made him the world's highest-paid executive. At the end of the year the governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), handed the rights to the sport directly to Ecclestone's company Formula One Management (FOM). It gave him the keys to the empire.
Ecclestone's trust has made an estimated £2.4bn from selling stakes in FOM and it now owns 8.5 per cent, with 5.3 per cent in Ecclestone's hands. But the most recent payday came in 2006 when investment firm CVC took over the sport and its purchase is the source of Ecclestone's legal trouble, with accusations in Germany that he paid a £26m bribe to former banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to steer the sale of Formula One to CVC as it had agreed to retain him as boss. He denies the charges. But Gribkowsky is serving eight years in prison for receiving a bribe and the judge who convicted him is leading the panel which is deciding Ecclestone's fate. "It's five judges and the others are like jurors. I'm happy with him," he says. "I don't get emotional over situations. Take them and do the best you can."
If he wasn't so well-known, with his Andy Warhol-style white moptop and round glasses, it would be hard to tell that Ecclestone is a billionaire. He doesn't have a bodyguard and doesn't live in a palatial home but instead has a modestly-sized penthouse flat on the top floor of F1's 10-storey headquarters opposite Hyde Park. He is chaffeur-driven these days in a Mercedes people carrier with blacked-out windows but that is because it's easier. He even gets bottles of milk delivered to his doorstep every day.
"I'm not a big spender," Ecclestone says. "I spend when it is necessary. When I'm at home if there are lights on in a room and I'm not in it I go in to turn them off." He adds that he is "not impressed" by anyone simply because of their wealth or status. One of his strengths is treating people the same way regardless of their standing.
At the Monaco Grand Prix, pop superstar Justin Bieber made a beeline for Bernie to take a "selfie" with him. He was just another fan to Ecclestone. "I had never met him before. He was there performing and he came in to have a look around and have a chat," he says matter-of-factly. The bottom line for Ecclestone is what someone can do for him and in the case of Bieber his photograph promoted F1 to the singer's 52 million Twitter followers – that's more than those of every driver in the sport combined.
Ironically for someone who runs one of the world's most high-tech sports, his business methods are decidedly antiquated – he still uses fax and does million-dollar deals on a handshake. He recently had a short-lived stint using an iPhone but has switched back to an old handset with speed-dial numbers of friends and family taped to the back. "The iPhone is gone. I know how to use this one," he says pointing to his old handset, "so I resurrected it but one day it's going to go."
"I have a heart attack every time it falls in case he breaks it," adds Flosi, who is far more tech-savvy than her husband. "If you want to know about Instagram ask Fabiana and she will tell you what is on it," he says before questioning the value of Twitter. "What would that person sitting there use Twitter for? I could put anything on Twitter."
Flosi is a fan. "A friend opened a Twitter account for me," she says. "I don't understand how to use it but you get to know lots of things with it. You get to know the results of the football... even information about F1. Everything goes first on Twitter then everywhere else."
It is heartening to know that, although she is married to the boss of the sport, Flosi gets her F1 news from Twitter. Old-school to the end, Ecclestone clearly doesn't take his business home with him. And that's where Flosi and Ecclestone head. I notice he hasn't paid the lunch bill – before realising he has a tab. "That's when you know you're rich," he says. "You can just get up and walk out of the restaurant."
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