Bernie Ecclestone: A Short History of F1's Billion-Dollar Brain

Duncan ScottAnalyst IMarch 22, 2011

Bernie Ecclestone: A Short History of F1's Billion-Dollar Brain

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    How is it possible to go from 21-year-old racing driver to a 80-year-old boss of the world's most glamorous and expensive motorsport, and finish with more hair than you started with?

    I don't know.

    But I have been studying Bernie's long and hugely successful career, and I would like to share with you some moments from it.

    It's a terrific story, and would make a great movie, even if Tom Cruise or Matt Damon would have to be beaten with the ugly stick to play the lead. The female roles in the story could all be played by gorgeous stars though, because plain women have always been barred from F1.

    Settle down for a tale more improbable than the plot of Inception, and longer than Avatar, but never forget that the dreamworld of F1 really exists, and everything I tell you is true.

1930 AD: A Year to Remember

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    This is not Bernard Charles Ecclestone
    This is not Bernard Charles Ecclestone

    Here are 10 key facts about the year 1930.

    • It was the first year of the great depression.
    • Scotch tape was marketed.
    • Constantinople was renamed to become Istanbul.
    • Uruguay won the first football (soccer to colonial types) world cup.
    • Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly from England to Australia. It took her 19 days.
    • Frozen foods were first sold commercially.
    • Construction of the Boulder (Hoover) dam was begun.
    • Britain's largest airship, the R101, crashed in France. There were no survivors.
    • The German airship Graf Zeppelin flew from Germany to Brazil.
    • Steve McQueen was born. So was Bernie Ecclestone.

    And so we move on.

Once There Was a Racer

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    1951: A Daring Young Bernie In His Racing Machine
    1951: A Daring Young Bernie In His Racing Machine

    Now we fast-forward 21 years to 1951. A lot has happened since Bernie was born in the English county of Suffolk, which is known to some as "God's Own County." But you would not expect to read about WWII on Bleacher Report, so instead we turn our attention to Bexleyheath in Kent.

    The Ecclestone family moved to there before the war, and Bernie has now acquired a 500cc Cooper F3 racing car. He mostly races at Brand's Hatch, the local circuit, and is not entirely unsuccessful.

    But if racing is dangerous in the 21st century, it was much more so in that long-lost era. After a collision with Bill Whitehouse, who was later to be killed in an F2 crash at Rheims, Bernie was thrown from the cockpit and landed in the public car park.

    Shortly thereafter Bernie retired from race driving.

    He went into a number of business ventures, demonstrating his financial acumen by making a lot of  money.  Bernie was, amongst other things, a Mercedes dealer, and sold cars to stars such as Shirley Bassey. Less visibly, Bernie was a property speculator, and he made a pile of money.

In the Shadow of Death

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    Stuart Lewis-Evans Driving The 1958 Vanwall
    Stuart Lewis-Evans Driving The 1958 Vanwall

    Bernie returned to motor racing in 1957, and at a fairly high level. He became manager of British F1 driver Stuart Lewis-Evans, and also took control of the Connaught F1 team for whom Lewis-Evans raced.

    The Connaught team was not greatly successful, and Bernie returned to the cockpit in a failed attempt to qualify for the 1958 Monaco F1 GP.

    Lewis-Evans was lured away from Connaught to drive for the Vanwall team, although still managed by Bernie. At the last race of the 1958 season, in Morocco, the engine of Lewis-Evans' car seized up, and he crashed. The car burst into flames and he suffered dreadful burns.

    Despite being flown to a specialist burns hospital in England, Stuart Lewis-Evans died. Bernie was so shocked by the event that he quit the sport.

    The other Connaught drivers when Bernie took over were Roy Salvadori, Archie Scott Brown, and Ivor Bueb. Salvadori survived race driving to retire from it, and his name will crop up again. Scott Brown was killed during a sports car race at Spa, and Bueb during an F2 race in France.

    As will be seen, a great many of the people whom Bernie has met during his long involvement with motor racing have lost their lives on the track. Death casts a long shadow over the sport.

Bernie the Driver Manager

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    Jochen Rindt with the great F1 genius Colin Chapman
    Jochen Rindt with the great F1 genius Colin Chapman

    Bernie remained friendly with Roy Salvadori, and through him was introduced to Austrian driver Jochen Rindt at the 1965 South African GP. He became Rindt's friend and manager, and also took a share in the Lotus Formula 2 team. The two travelled to races aboard one of a batch of Beagle Bulldog aircraft Bernie had bought when the manufacturer went bankrupt.

    For the 1970 season Rindt was driving for the brilliant Colin Chapman's Lotus F1 team, and was tragically killed in an accident during practice for that year's Italian Grand Prix at Monza. He was leading the F1 championship at the time and was subsequently proclaimed F1's first and only posthumous champion.

    Rindt had been a friend as well as a business associate, and Bernie again turned his back on the lethal F1 circus. But he was not gone for long.

    A name to note: Rindt's mechanic during his last season was one Herbie Blash, who formed an association with Bernie that has lasted to this day.

The Brabham Years

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    Clockwise from top left, Bernie with Carlos Reutemann, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Nikki Lauda
    Clockwise from top left, Bernie with Carlos Reutemann, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Nikki Lauda

    In 1971 Bernie bought the Brabham F1 team from Ron Tauranac for a reported $120,000. Forty years later that sum of money might seem laughable.

    Tauranac had founded the Brabham team with fellow Australian driver the great Jack Brabham. He stayed on as Bernie's designer for a while, but there was soon a parting of the ways. Tauranac left the team in early 1972, and engineer Gordon Murray was promoted to the chief designer position. Herbie Blash became Team Manager in 1973.

    During his time as Brabham boss Bernie employed a raft of famous motor racing names to drive his cars. Graham Hill, Carlos Reutemann, John Watson, Nikki Lauda, Ricardo Patrese, Elio de Angelis, and Nelson Piquet were just some of Bernie's wheelmen.

    Ayrton Senna was considered for a seat at Brabham, and succesfully tested for the team at the Paul Ricard circuit in 1983. It has been reported that Nelson Piquet would not consider him as a partner and convinced Italian food firm Parmalat, Brabham's main sponsor, that an Italian driver should get the second seat. That Italian was Teo Fabi. Who?

    As we now know, being turned down by Brabham let Senna's career take him to McLaren and three world championships; no driver can become a legend without being in the right car at the right time.

    At the time of Senna's death in 1994 there was some ill-feeling against Bernie by Senna's family, and he was not allowed to attend the funeral. That seems to have blown over, and Bernie is now an advisor to the Senna foundation.

    Bernie has been quoted as saying that he rates Senna as the best ever F1, capable of besting Michael Schumacher if they were in identical cars. I have no opinion on that eternal debate.

    Under Jack Brabham the team had won two constructors world championships, in 1966 and 1967. During Bernie's reign the highest team placing was second, but Nelson Piquet won two of his three world championships with them.

    Bernie sold Brabham for $5,000,000 in 1988, by which time his new career as F1 supremo was well under way, as we shall see.

Old Friends

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    Bernie with Max Mosley in 1976
    Bernie with Max Mosley in 1976

    Bernie's long friendship with Max Mosley, another former driver, was first forged in 1971, when Bernie bought the Brabham team. As a team owner, Bernie attended a meeting of the Grand Prix Constructors Association at which Mosley was representing the March team of which he was part-owner.

    Mosley has said that from then on the two operated as a team within GPCA. As we now know, the duo went on to become joint ringmasters of the F1 circus.

    Mosley's background in racing is important to the history of F1. Like Bernie, he had lost an awful lot of friends and colleagues by the time he rose to a position of power. Few people alive today can say that they drove in the 1968 Hockenheim race in which Jim Clark was killed, but Mosley was there, driving a Brabham-Cosworth prepared by Frank Williams; he was placed ninth.

    Bernie and Mosley knew motor racing as drivers and as team managers, they came to their eventual high positions with both extremely thorough knowledge of the sport and acute funeral fatigue. They made F1 a lot safer, and should be given all credit for that.


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    Bernie with FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre
    Bernie with FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre

    In the New Testament, Timothy 6:10 tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil.I would dispute that, and the Old Testament does not tell us that Adam was tempted by cash, but certainly the pursuit of wealth and its twin sister power has played a significant role in the history of F1.

    Through the 1960's and 1970's the sport of F1 was split into two camps. On one side were the 'garagistas', the independent British teams, while on the other side were the 'grandees', the traditional manufacturers Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Renault.

    The garagistas formed the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) in 1974 to represent their interests against the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile), which was and remains the supreme governing body of world  motorsports. FOCA demanded and got appearance money for all teams, but this was only the first round of the battle, because it was becoming apparent that the real cash potential of F1 lay in the income from TV rights to the sport.

    In 1978 Bernie became head of FOCA, and Max Mosley its legal advisor. Now the stage was set for a protacted battle over the issue of who controlled the sport's commercial rights, ie the income received from televising F1 races.

    The innovative garagistas represented by FOCA perceived the FIA as being obstructive to them, and thus favourable to the technically conservative grandees. Note that the term FISA/FOCA war arose because F1 was governed by the FIA's subsidiary arm FISA (Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile).

    It is way beyond the scope of a brief slideshow to fully document the FISA/FOCA war, suffice it to say that the final conclusion of it came in 1987, when a new company headed by Bernie was formed to manage F1 commercial rights. That company was first named Formula One Promoters Association, but that changed to the FOM (Formula One Management) we know and love (or hate) today.

    Bernie had inflicted a comprehensive defeat on his adversaries.

Bernie Wins the Peace

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    Bernie and the late Ken Tyrell enjoy an exchange of views.
    Bernie and the late Ken Tyrell enjoy an exchange of views.

    Not everyone was happy with the settlement of the FISA/FOCA war, and one who grumbled was the late Ken Tyrell, a much-respected F1 veteran.

    Under its terms, 47 percent of the TV revenues were split between the teams, 30 percent bolstered the FIA's coffers, and 23 percent went to FOM, ie mainly to Bernie. FOM also received the large fees paid by promoters to stage F1 events.

    It seemed to some in F1 that something strange had happened. The man whom they had appointed to take up arms for them in gaining a larger slice of the money pie had ended up with much bigger slice on his plate than any of them. The simple explanation for this seems to be that Bernie was smarter than any of his fellows.

    In 1993 Max Mosley became president of the FIA, and FISA was scrapped. With Mosley, other of Bernie's circle moved to important roles at the FIA. Charlie Whiting, who was Nelson Piquet's mechanic at Brabham and latterly chief engineer at the team, became FIA Race Director and Safety Delegate.

    Herbie Blash, who had been Bernie's Team Manager at Brabham, became the FIA's Deputy Race Director  in 1995, a role that seems mainly to consist of escorting the top three drivers in each race to the podium, but which doubtless commands and impressive salary.

Bernie the Family Man

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    Clockwise from top left: Bernie with Dora Tuan Tan, Petra and Tamara, Slavica, Missy Mallick.
    Clockwise from top left: Bernie with Dora Tuan Tan, Petra and Tamara, Slavica, Missy Mallick.

    You have probably never seen Bernie's first wife Ivy or their daughter Deborah who was born in September 1955. And it's a racing certainty that you've not seen photos of Bernie and Ivy's grandchildren. The privacy of Bernie's first family has been protected with astonishing effectiveness.

    That first marriage was not a long one, and after it failed Bernie lived with Dora Tuana Tan, a Singaporean of Chinese extraction, from about 1965 to 1982.

    It may be extremely difficult to find photographic evidence that Ivy and Dora ever existed, but Bernie's second family is familiar to the public gaze.

    In 1982 the divorced Bernie met Croatian model Slavica Radic at the Italian GP. She was 24, he was 51. Some have claimed Slavica is much taller than Bernie, but they are the same height when he is standing on his wallet. In 1984 the two married at Kensington and Chelsea registry office; Max Mosley was a witness. They must have been well-matched in some ways because they were together until 2009.

    Two lovely daughters were the issue of Bernie and Slavica. Tamara was born in 1984 and Petra in 1988.

    Nobody should think that growing up in the Ecclestone household was easy for those girls. I quote Tamara; "Our jets don’t have bathrooms and my mother drove me to school in an Audi." No bathrooms on their jets? It's shameful.

    Now divorced from Slavica, Bernie likes to cut a dash with a fine young woman. Clad in tight jeans and a trendy shirt, he is the oldest swinger in town.

Hello Sailor

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    The Petara
    The Petara

    Bernie is currently on his third yacht. All have been named Petara, an amazingly clever combination of his daughters' names. Petra plus Tamara, get it?

    Pictured is the current Petara. She was built in Turkey by Proteksan-Turquoise in 2005 and has accommodation for 12 guests and 13 crew. Powered by twin Caterpillar diesels, she can speed along at 18 knots and carries enough fuel to cross the Atlantic.

    For more information, kindly consult a yachting site.

F1 Life After Bernie

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    Fama Semper Vivat
    Fama Semper Vivat

    I have no evidence that Bernie is actually immortal, so must assume that one day his time as F1 supremo will come to an end.

    It is difficult to assess what Bernie's F1 legacy will be. Under his rule the sport was totally transformed, but many of the changes would doubtless have happened anyway due to the increased dominance of TV in sport.

    The all-seeing eye of the world has wrought profound changes over every sport that has allowed it to watch. For example, before Bernie took control an F1 mechanic was a scruffy individual, usually with a cigarette hanging from his lip. Bernie made the teams smarten up and adopt uniforms, because that looked better on TV. Without Bernie, would the teams still be dressed like anti-war protesters? That seems unlikely.

    As I write this, Bernie remains the man F1 fans love to hate, especially since Max Mosley no longer has a direct role in the sport. We loathe the new tracks he has introduced, and we resent him taking F1 away from its roots. But when the devil we know has gone, F1 will not fall into the hands of fans, but into the clutches of those whose sole interest in it will be how much cash they can wring from our sport.

    Just like Bernie? Not really. Sure, Bernie has profited wherever he could, but he has been a racer at heart all his life, and I for one do not doubt his love for the sport. In the future, when bean-counters and all the odious apparatus of corporate rule are cutting the heart from F1, then maybe we shall see Bernie in a new light.