Kevin Garside: Why F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is cosying up to Russia president Vladimir Putin
And why he doesn’t give a wheeltapper’s cuss what you might think of it
It was a typical day in the life of Charles Bernard Ecclestone: from a court case in which his character was shredded by a judge – purveyor of bribes, unreliable witness, at odds with the truth, that sort of thing – straight into the arms of Vladimir Putin, offering robust support for Russia’s antediluvian legislation on homosexuality.
A man who cares about how others see him could not survive the ridicule, which offers a rather large clue towards how Ecclestone has managed to make his unique way in the world, acquiring en route the most feted measure of a man’s standing in society, unimaginable wealth.
Unwitting paeans to abhorrent political figures are a feature of Ecclestone’s bizarre public pronouncements, proclaiming at various mad moments the merits of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban on the grounds they get stuff done. There has been some wholly indefensible commentary, too, on women, Jews and race that would have gone down a storm at the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club in 1970s Britain. He is therefore an easy target to lampoon, and for the intelligentsia something to be removed from the bottom of their shoes.
That’s OK because Ecclestone has nil regard for their sort, either. Intellect, learning, academic expertise come way down the list of attributes he most admires. If there is ever a need of that kind of thing – lawyers, accountants, tax advisers, engine builders, circuit designers, et al – he buys it in like any other commodity.
Ecclestone is not an educated man. There was some muttering about studying chemistry at Woolwich Polytechnic but no mortar and gown to support it. The kind of intelligence Ecclestone has is not certificated by convention. He has an intuitive understanding of the human condition, an absolute grasp of the base impulses that push and pull at the soul. There is no moral tap dance from him to reconcile riches with conscience.
There can be few powerful figures who care less about being heard. Most can’t wait to offer their twopenn’orth on any given subject, to demonstrate how clever they are. Ecclestone does not care enough about what you might think of him to bother with impression management. He is utterly without ego. This allows him to whistle while he works without batting an eyelid when his name is dragged through the midden as it was last week.
The idea that Ecclestone is furiously scheming in his Kensington bunker to counter the negative PR associated with the High Court judgment of Mr Justice Newey or Putin in some kind of Team Nigella frenzy could not be further from the truth. It’s all about the deal with him, and, as is common among those of his ilk, the means nearly always justify the ends.
It is worth remembering Mr Justice Newey dismissed the claims made against Ecclestone by a German media organisation that the acquisition of Formula One in 2006 by CVC Capital Partners from the German banks that part owned it cost them $140 million (£84 million) in commission, the second such victory following a similar outcome in New York. He has his hands full in Courtroom Battle III, scheduled for Munich in April, where he faces a jail term if convicted of making a corrupt payment to facilitate the CVC deal. In the meantime it’s business almost as usual.
The Winter Olympics was just one part of Russia’s Sochi-led assault on the geopolitical senses. Formula One is the next element of the global soft-sell programme designed to fill our heads with positivity towards the new Russia. Ecclestone has persuaded Putin that it is just what he needs to help create the sense that Russia is up to speed and at one with the rest of the world.
A new circuit is under construction adjacent to the Sochi Olympic Park. When the ice rinks have melted, the workers will crack on at the facility that is scheduled to host the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in October. There is still plenty to do. That’s what Ecclestone’s arm around Putin was all about last week, protecting his interests, massaging relations, making sure the work is done on time.
Ecclestone did not get rich by accident. He has a pathological infatuation with detail that goes beyond lining up noughts to the left of the decimal point. One media delegate still has nightmares about not informing news outlets about the place of Jarno Trulli, who had climbed one in the middle of the starting grid as a result of a penalty to another driver. It was barely worthy of dissemination, and definitely unworthy of Ecclestone’s time, but he wanted it recording and busied himself to make sure it was.
Without Ecclestone, Formula One might still convene among hay bales with a round of sandwiches between sessions. It certainly would not be the multibillion-pound, global sporting property it is. That is not to defend him or his methods, only to recognise the remarkable achievement of a most singular mogul.
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