The most powerful and insanely dominant person in the sport, Bernie has proven his superiority and exceptionality in many ways over the long years of his unique existence. This imposing figure has become the symbol of what a devoted person can do in a specific industry and how to prevail in various business markets of the world. If one has to put a quote next to Bernie, it can be a quote of absolutely any kind – from philosophers to footballers – and Bernie will make it work. This time, let’s take the easy road and cite a Batman movie, finding out whether the quote is true in this particular situation: “you either die a hero or you live long enough to become the villain”. Bernie Charles Ecclestone has definitely outlived any doubts about his power, he always lands the No. 1 position in our “TOP 100 Most Powerful People In F1” list, so a season-finish sit-down with mister Formula 1 himself is what we at Paddock magazine were very much looking forward to throughout the 2013 season.
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Where to begin?
It’s no secret to every mechanic, investor and fan that Formula 1 has had many progressives, transforming a disorganised and dangerous gentleman’s pursuit into a global sporting phenomenon, but none possessed the vision and tenacity of our cover story hero.
Beginning as a driver manager in 1957, he soon bought the F1 Connaught team, but when Stuart Lewis-Evans, whom he managed, died, after his Vanwall’s engine blew up during the Moroccan Grand Prix, Bernie left the sport. A few years later Ecclestone returned after meeting Jochen Rindt. The two became close friends and business partners, with the Briton running the Lotus Formula 2 factory team, for which Rindt raced alongside Graham Hill. In 1970 Rindt was leading the World Championship for Lotus when he was killed at Monza, he became the sport’s only posthumous World Champion, but the loss of such a close friend and ally caused a devastated Ecclestone to once again withdraw from the sport.
No one thinks their team is going to be last at the beginning of the season.
Two years later and clearly addicted to motorsport, Ecclestone returned to buy the Brabham team from Ron Tauranac. A highly-organised businessman, he set about changing the company’s organisation, alienating Tauranac in the process, but eventually achieving great success with the help of South African designer Gordon Murray. Under his charge, the team won World Championships with Nelson Piquet in 1981 and 1983. One of the close friends of Paddock magazine, Tony Jardine, former driver and former Formula 1 assistant team manager, currently contracted to Sky Sports as a presenter and pundit on their coverage of F1, told us that he would pick Bernie Ecclestone as the Team Owner at any time, but Bernie had his best years of managing tactics during the Brabham period. “He supplied all funding and a high degree of influence that no one else could provide. His interference level was quite low because he left the best guys in the business do their job without telling them what do to, and that turned out to work spectacularly well for him”, Jardine stated.
Bernie’s dominant talent could be felt very clearly: as a team owner in the mid-seventies, Ecclestone organised the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association (later FOCA) with Frank Williams, Colin Chapman, Teddy Mayer, Ken Tyrrell and, significantly, Max Mosley. Aiming to protect the interests of the privately-owned teams against race organisers and manufacturer-owned teams such as Ferrari, F1CA came to blows with the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile, eventually leading to Ecclestone’s elevation as a key player in representing the commercial rights of the teams, and the now-infamous set of Concorde Agreements. Having successfully handled the fall-out from transferring the ownership of commercial rights from FOCA to his own company, Formula One Promotions and Administration, later Formula One Management, Ecclestone, to put in simply and boldly, had control of Formula 1.
It gets interesting
Following a planned flotation in 1997, Bernie began selling shares of FOM’s parent company SLEC Holdings to a variety of investment groups to raise capital. It was an uncomfortable period for Formula 1 as a number of factions wrestled for control. In 2004 Ecclestone was sued by the three main investors – Bayerische Landesbank, JPMorgan Chase and Lehman Brothers for diluting their control of the sport by ultimately placing SLEC Holdings under the ownership of Bambino Holdings, a Jersey-based company whose beneficiaries are members of Ecclestone’s family. 2005 saw CVC Capital Partners acquire stakes in Bambino Holdings and Bayerische Landesbank, a move that was later ratified by the European Commission in 2006.
CVC own a majority and controlling stake in Formula One, however, Ecclestone remained CEO of the respective companies thanks to his investment in Alpha Prema, a company set up by CVC to hold the assets of Bambino, i.e. SLEC, which runs Formula 1. Remaining at the heart of all Formula 1 controversies, Ecclestone’s influence on the sport transcends any contractual statements. He has retained control during the FISA-FOCA power struggle and averted the certain disaster of a breakaway series during the summer of 2009.
I couldn’t be happier about Red Bull – the results speak for themselves.
Quotes attributed to the Formula 1 boss can be seen as either ridiculous politically incorrect gaffes or carefully crafted statements, designed to raise the commercial profile of the sport and strengthen his position as ultimate ringmaster of Formula 1. An incisive-minded F1 expert Adam Hay-Nicholls once creatively contributed to the pile of opinions exclusively for our magazine: “Bernie Ecclestone? He’d push his mother down the stairs for a fiver. And look, it’s so clean around here. Plus that Martini sponsorship will come in handy. Santé!” It remains to be seen what will happen when Ecclestone eventually relinquishes control, but it’s doubtful that just one person could, again, lead Formula 1 single-handedly.
Try to take a look at the 2013 season through Bernie’s eyes and imagine that Formula 1 is your child (it’s certainly not a young baby by far). So the child is celebrating a birthday that you have probably forgotten anyway, you’re not going to the kid’s school concerts any more, you’re far past the kid’s puberty and college. Basically, the level of detailed interest has probably shrunk. Well, not necessarily.
Bernie tries to keep it as sharp as it is humanly possible at the age of 83 and he stays with his business-child at all times: “I was completely satisfied with my hopes for the 2013 season – there has been very good racing. I couldn’t be happier about Red Bull – the results speak for themselves. What a team! The only thing I was in need for during the whole season was a few more days of holiday”, Bernie laughs. Talking about teams, we at Paddock have a tradition of asking important people about their fantasy ones. Usually, legends like Jackie Stewart and Mario Andretti pick personalities like Ayrton Senna, Alex Wurtz or Pat Symonds. Bernie, as this may come as no surprise to you now, picked each and every member of his fantasy set from this year’s Infiniti Red Bull Racing – drivers, car, team owner, team designer and team principal.
This season saw two of the sport’s biggest deals – Emirates and ROLEX. The deal with Emirates Airlines was the so-needed update for pessimistic experts saying that Formula 1 is no longer in a position to attract big players. The deal itself is worth around 127 million pounds, but Bernie is more positive about the ROLEX deal. And why shouldn’t he be? It’s ROLEX, pretty much the owners of the time, and the deal is worth approximately 220 million pounds. Did you hear any gossip about Formula 1 not being able to dine with the big players after that? “The partnership with ROLEX is something that everyone is interested in and everyone in Formula 1 has been waiting for. I think that people investing their time in this sport in any way should rightly be excited about it. ROLEX has incredible sporting heritage and therefore Formula 1 is the best place for a company like that to be”, Ecclestone states. What’s the future of this partnership? He smiles: “Very good”.
On the subject of the races again, Bernie has one hope that he cherishes and will carry to the next season. Despite his compliments for Infiniti Red Bull Racing, he opens up: “I would actually really like for Ferrari or McLaren to win again”. He is positive that the competition for second and third places was intense and interesting for everyone this year, but he would like the battle to move to the first and second position. Not so long ago many fans turned away from the sport because of Schumacher’s constant winning. Isn’t Bernie afraid that the same is going to happen with Vettel? “Not at all. I said before that the competition is still on and Sebastian Vettel is simply a brilliant addition to the spectacle. And he will be next year”, Ecclestone says.
Bernie is mostly agitated for the 2014 Formula 1 Grand Prix in Sochi, Russia: “This is something I’m greatly looking forward to. I’m sure that Russia will be a very thrilling bonus to the 2014 calendar”. He reckons this Grand Prix is also going to do well in terms of local hospitality. As for the failure with the Indian Grand Prix and obstacles in the way of getting it done, Ecclestone says that the reasons were obvious. He waits for the future by keeping it simple: “Well, everything is now in the hands of the government”.
People are always curious if they are going to see more perspective drivers from the USA next year? Formula 1 supremo is pretty strict on this: “Probably not. There is a very good explanation for this – those drivers just have to be outside the US, where they can get more valuable competition. Competition is key, everyone knows that”.
There were questions flying around during the season about the new tyre regulations. Is it better to have several tyre suppliers or is the one-for-all deal the cure? Bernie nods at the question and replies: “I think that what we have now is ideal”. He is more excited about the role that TV plays in the sport – the role is constantly growing bigger and the sport is changing as well. Does he think it is fair that only ten out of eleven teams get the “TV money”? Bernie smiles again and explains: “You know, this is what they agreed to when they entered into the FIA Formula One World Championship. No one thinks their team is going to be last at the beginning of the season”. True. Everyone wants to be number one and everyone thinks they could act like a proper number one if needed. But in Bernie Ecclestone’s situation, do people sincerely really think they have the psychological, financial and influential capacity to hold the entire sport in their hands?