Bernie Ecclestone – How one man came to own a sport

bernie ecclestone TGJ

In a recent interview with Tatler magazine, Formula One legend Eddie Jorden said affectionately “anyone who has had a business, sold it four times, has never brought it back, has never lost its control, and still owns it is pretty special. And do you know the most important thing? He never f**king owned it in the first place”. He was speaking of course about Bernie Ecclestone, and in only a few sentences he managed to sum up why this man is so special. What makes this feat even more special is where the man actually came from.

Bernard Ecclestone was born on the 28th October 1930 to parents Sidney and Bertha Ecclestone. His father was a fisherman and his mother, like so many back then, was a wife confined to the home. Wealth was not something that Ecclestone was born into. However, what is clear from reading about his early life, was that his parents were extremely careful with money, his mother demanded that Sidney hand over his wages on pay day and no unnecessary spending ever took place. It was this up bringing that quickly rubbed off on Ecclestone in the school yard, he earned a reputation for trading and even bargained with GI’s through the camp fences to deliver messages to their local girlfriends in return for chewing gum. It was here that Ecclestone first learnt the negotiating skills that would become so formidable in the future.

Whilst at school Ecclestone never missed the opportunity to make money and during the school holidays he would take jobs doing the newspaper round or picking vegetables on nearby farms. At age fifteen Ecclestone took his matriculation exams and ironically failed in all subjects except maths. This was in 1946 when he was reluctantly sent to Woolwich Polytechnic to study physics and chemistry. This did not interest him in the slightest, but it was here that he was introduced to motorbike racing at Brands Hatch. Competitive and with a love of engines, this was the beginning of Ecclestone’s motoring career.

Age sixteen and passed the legal leaving age, Ecclestone left school and reluctantly got a job at the local gas board under his father’s instruction. Most of his time though was spent scrolling through the classifieds, looking for motorbikes and parts that he could sell at a profit. Soon this side business began to earn him more than his wage at the gas board. It was around this time when he approached Les Crocker, the owner of Harcourt Motor Cycles in a shopping centre in Bexleyheath for a job. Soon Ecclestone gained a reputation locally as a shrewd business man and always had the most immaculate showroom in the area.

From here Ecclestone’s ambition grew at a fast rate. First he moved across the road to Compton & Fuller where he was at first declined a partnership, however in his persuasive manner he made Fred Compton an offer he couldn’t refuse, he agreed to rent the four court and give him a percentage of the profits. It was only a matter of time before Ecclestone’s bike sales began to out do Compton’s car business. After a while the business became very one-sided, however this did not bother Ecclestone as he managed to persuade Derek Fuller, Compton’s partner, to sell his share of the business to him. It was then Ecclestone persuaded Compton to get involved in racing. It was 1950 and motor enthusiasts had converted an old RAF base into a racetrack that would become Silverstone as we know it today. Ecclestone wanted involvement in the sport, not because of his love of racing, but he said it would be good for business and he was right, Compton & Ecclestone became known everywhere in the South of England.

Ecclestone himself gained racing experience in the 500cc Formula Three Series, acquiring a Cooper Mk V in 1951. However he only drove a limited number of times, mainly at Brands Hatch. His confidence took a knock when he collided with Bill Whitehouse and landed in the car pack outside of the track.

After his accident Ecclestone temporarily left racing to pursue a number of lucrative investments in real estate whilst still keeping up with the lucrative car business. His Bexleyheath car business grew inexorably and Ecclestone was buying up neighbouring dealerships and refurbishing them with the smartest show rooms around. It was at this time when Ecclestone began to start earning serious money and he also began to start enjoying it too. He changed his tailor to the fashionable Edward Saxton on Savile Row and most Saturday’s he took his wife at the time to the Park Lane Hotel for supper and then he headed to Crockfords to play Chemmy. At Crockfords he found himself gambling against the likes of Lord Beaverbrook and other famous personalities of the day. He soon became famous at the club for his fearless gambling. The second hand car salesman started to become part of the establishment, and a respected part at that. Before long he was not only dining with some of the most famous people of the day but also selling cars to them too.

Ecclestone returned to racing in 1957 as manager of the driver Stuart Lewis-Evans and purchased two chassis from the disbanded Connaught F1 team. He continued to manage Lewis when he moved to the Vanwall team, this was until the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix when Lewis’s engine exploded, causing him serious burns and six days later he succumbed to his injuries. Later he became manager to Jochen Rindt and a partial owner of Rindt’s 1970 Lotus Formula 2 team. On his way to the 1970 World Championship Rindt died after a crash at the Monza circuit, though Rindt was awarded the championship posthumously.

It was in 1972 when Ecclestone really made his mark with the purchase of Brabham from Ron Taurance for £100,000 and began decades of long advocacy for team control of F1. This lead him to form the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) with Frank Williams, Colin Chapman, Teddy Mayer, Ken Tyrrell and Max Mosley.

The Brabham team achieved little in the 1972 season, but Ecclestone was looking to the long term and in 1973 promoted Gordon Murray to chief designer. The young Murray produced the triangular cross-section BT42, the first of a series of Ford powered cars, with which Brabham would take several victories in 1974-1975. Despite the success of Murray’s Ford powered car, Ecclestone signed a deal with Alfa Romeo to use their powerful but heavy flat-12 engine from the 1976 season. This move was financially beneficial, however it resulted in Brabham falling to the back of the field in the 1976 and 1977 seasons. In 1978 Ecclestone signed the Austrian world champion Niki Lauda, who was intrigued by Murray’s radical BT46 design.  Towards the end of the season in 1978 Ecclestone signed the up and coming Nelson Piquet and formed a close tie with the driver. They continued successfully together until 1985, when Piquet was unhappy with the money Ecclestone offered him and he left to go to Williams. The following year Murray who had designed cars for Brabham since 1972 and scored 22 GP wins left also to join McLaren. It was the end of an era but for Ecclestone it was just the beginning. Having brought the team for $120,000 he eventually sold it for $5 million to a Swiss businessman. From here Bernie became increasingly involved in the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) and began to see the potential of the all important television rights that would cement his place in Formula One for good.

In 1978 Ecclestone became chief executive of FOCA with Max Mosley as his legal adviser. Together they were an unbeatable force and negotiated a series of issues with the FIA, as well as the television rights for the races. FOCA was originally formed to represent the British teams as only when together they could compete with the bargaining power of the likes of Ferrari.

The President of the FIA was a man named Jean-Marie Balestre and was Ecclestone’s number one enemy. Max and Bernie together had a dislike of Balestre’s lifestyle, he was accustomed to the utmost luxury and on FIA expenses too. He would travel in Rolls Royce’s, stay in presidential suites in the best hotels and hand out unlimited hospitality tickets to his friends. This infuriated Ecclestone and on top of this Balestre gave advantages to the European teams by banning such things as skirting on the British cars. This began what would later be known as the FISA – FOCA war, and someone had to win.

This war involved both Balestre and Ecclestone trying to out wit each other. It was like the most exciting game of cards ever and really showed everyone what Ecclestone was made of. He put his own money at risk a number of times and had to continually convince the British teams to support him. He threatened to boycott races and even got armed guards to hold Balestre at gun point in Spain. Balestre on the other hand banned British teams and issued fines, amongst many other tactics.

What Balestre didn’t have was Ecclestone’s ability to show no weaknesses and the skill of massaging others ego’s, Balestre simply had to much pride to tell others they were great and Ecclestone was able to manipulate Balestre by using his weakness, pride being one of them. Balestre was a vain man who loved attention and Ecclestone knew this. Ecclestone would threaten to boycott races in France, which he knew would cause Balestre discomfort as he would feel embarrassment in front of his home country, therefore resulting in him meeting Ecclestone’s demands, even if it was only for one race.

When Balestre would try and negotiate with the other British team owners, Ecclestone would quickly ring them up after and in a short time have them siding with him again. Once, Mosley and Ecclestone at a crucial point in the war, checked into the same hotel and tracked Balestre’s conversations, finding out that he was negotiating with Lotus boss Colin Chapman. Knowing that Chapnam would convince the other British owners to side with Balestre, Ecclestone quickly called Chapman and convinced him to stay on his side, playing to his vanity by praising his designing genius, needless to say it worked.

These dirty tricks were normal on both sides, Ecclestone had a mantra that was ‘act now, threaten later’, which is most probably why Balestre called him a mad man on a number of occasions. What this resulted in though was everyone taking Ecclestone seriously. He was and still is a man you don’t want to mess with.

Another string to his bow was his personal relationships with the tracks and the governments of a number of the host countries, most notably King Juan Carlos, who granted him permission to take control of the circuit from Balestre in the 1980 Jarama grand prix, in Spain. Ecclestone was able to threaten that the race would be boycotted due to these personal relationships and everyone believed him. There were times when Ecclestone would bluff with immense skill, such as the South Africa Grand Prix in Kyalami. Balestre had declared that the race would not count towards the championship, but Ecclestone urged the teams to take part saying that he would cover the costs, he even used his own tyres from his warehouse as sponsor Goodyear refused to provide tyres due to the illegitimacy of the race. It proved to be a close call for Ecclestone and he later admitted that he could not afford another pirate race like that. But it didn’t matter as he had succeeded in his aim, so much so that Enzo Ferrari was also now sure of Ecclestone’s determination to win.

In the end Ecclestone won, although Balestre would call it compromise. This was formed in the shape of the Concord Agreement, whereby essentially the FIA agreed to more equally distributed funds and technical regulation changes. The teams agreed to appear in every race in the world championship and the FOCA teams also agreed to share travel expenses equally amongst all teams who score world championship points.

The real outcome of the Concord Agreement lead to the inclusion of Ecclestone and Mosley on the FIA committee, which allowed for the commercial aspects of Formula One to grow significantly over the late 1980’s. The FIA still harnessed the power of the rules and regulations, whilst Ecclestone took charge of most if not all commercial aspects of Formula One. This resulted in Bernie himself profiting massively. However, what is also worth noting is Ecclestone made alot of other team bosses massively wealthy at the same time. Ecclestone had rooted his ownership of Formula One, but as we know and love, the controversies didn’t end there and each season there are politics galore, and who is the man they all turn to for answers? Bernie Ecclestone. Ecclestone thrives off this and says that politics are good for the sport as they create press and larger viewerships, which of course leads to more income.

Formula One still remains very secretive and is run by the select few, described as a cake that gets shared between the teams. For those involved, they are very protective over their slices getting smaller. This is where Ecclestone comes into his element, whilst he still makes a huge amount of money out of the sport, the sport needs him more than he needs it. He protects the teams investments, resolves disputes and manages negations. Others have claimed that the sport would be more profitable without him and that Ecclestone is out of touch, however the majority are unsure.

Ecclestone is one of the shrewdest businessmen alive and by looking back over his early life you can see what made this man who he is today. When his closest contemporaries and friends are asked how he did it, even they don’t know. This mystery Ecclestone has created for himself is arguably his greatest tool, as the less people know about him the easier his battles and negotiations are.

Bernie Ecclestone has become a billionaire, not by inventing something or creating something. He took a sport that already existed and saw its potential before anyone else even gave it a thought. Over the years he has taken the product that is Formula One and developed it into the worlds second most successful sport. Ecclestone has gone from relative poverty to crossing the globe in his private jet and mixing with celebrities and statesmen alike. His success is not judged by his fortune, however large, but by his success in turning a sport into a multibillion pound global business and by fighting off takeover bid after takeover from those who want to seize control from him.

In our view there are very few people on this planet who could do what Ecclestone has done and what he continues to do. The question we ask is in a sport where financial greed is rife, who will takeover Bernie’s position when he retires, that is to say if he retires. Who can control all the personalities that make the sport such a spectacle, the negotiations for each circuit and how all the money is allocated? The answer to this question is one that no one knows. For the time being Formula One will continue to evolve and the man behind it, shall remain shrouded in mystery, just the way he likes it.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Gentleman’s Journal. To subscribe to the print edition of the Gentleman’s Journal go to thegentlemansjournal.com/subscribe.

Further Reading