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Sunday 11 August 2014


Ordinary bloke in the fast lane pulls another one

In a story that fits Bernie Ecclestone to a T, Somerset Maugham wrote of a new vicar who sacked the long- standing verger because he was illiterate. Years later, on learning his secret, the ex-verger’s banker asked this now wealthy businessman where he would be if he could read or write. “I’d be verger of St Peter’s” was the reply.

The son of a trawlerman and a dominant mother and 5’ 3” (“Small people have to fight to survive”, he would explain), Ecclestone left school at sixteen for a job at the local gasworks and although a rubbish motor-bike racer, he revolutionised Formula 1 and became a billionaire through pulling strokes. Take this story his biographer, Tom Bower, places in 1974.

Killing time at a hotel pool with a few colleagues, Ecclestone belittled a diver who swam two lengths underwater. When someone pointed out that it was more than he could do, Ecclestone said: “Right, what's the bet?”

“One hundred dollars.”

“Let's get the bet exactly,' said Ecclestone. “You're saying I can't swim two lengths underwater?” Heads nodded.

“Right,” said Ecclestone. “Go and get me a snorkel.”

Had Ecclestone had a decent education he might have ended up a lawyer rather than a billionaire of enormous power. For it was as he sold used cars and motorbikes and kicked around on the edges of the then gentlemen’s niche sport of motor-racing, that he saw and grabbed commercial opportunities. It was Ecclestone in the 1970s who did a deal with teams that - in exchange for an annual payment to them - he would negotiate the television rights and who convinced TV companies that rather than paying for individual races, they should buy F1 as a package. This development massively boosted the sport’s popularity and Ecclestone’s bank balance and along with other smart and courageous deals put him squarely in charge of F1. A self-confessed workaholic and a control freak (domestically, straightening paintings, curtains and ornaments is an obsession), he sits in his motor home at Grand Prix events not to view the races but to watch on CCTV who is talking to whom in the paddock.

Everyone has his Achilles heel and Ecclestone’s was a 23-year-old Croatian model 28 years his junior and a foot taller than him whom he met in 1982. Divorced, he had been in a harmonious relationship for 17 years, but he found Slavica Malic - angry, loud and tough - irresistible. Despite her poor English, she knew how to negotiate. When she became pregnant she told him that he would never see the baby unless they lived together. And despite his antipathy to marriage (“Marriage is like going to the nick. Not very exciting. If it flies, floats or fucks, rent it” was a frequently expressed view), in 1985 he caved in.

He liked beer, egg and toast and supermarket shopping. The new Mrs Ecclestone loved luxury and bling (she once bought a $35,000 handbag), bitterly resented his failure to enjoy society or his money, sometimes in a rage roughed him up and was so jealous she wouldn’t let him see his daughter by his first marriage. “She seems to love terrorising me”, he told a newspaper. But Ecclestone loved her and their two daughters, transferred around €2 billion to an offshore trust in Slavica’s name and was amazed and horrified when she divorced him in 2010.

The family trust has made their daughters Tamara and Petra - socialites who dabble a bit in TV (Tamara) and fasion (Petra) - enormously wealthy and a byword for conspicuous consumption. Each had weddings costing €15 million, Petra is trying to sell her Hollywood mansion for more than €100 million and Tamara has been seen wheeling her baby around in five different prams, one of which has been customised with Swarovski crystals and a silver nameplate.

Meanwhile, Daddy has married a tall Brazilian lawyer 46 years his junior and at 83 is still president and chief executive of Formula 1. Charged in Germany with bribing a German banker (who is serving eight years for accepting the bribe) with €33 million over a share transaction, after four months in court, Ecclestone has been allowed to put a stop to proceedings by paying €75 million. (Fear not, he has another few billion in the bank and the interest piles up daily.) After what he calls “three-and-a-half years of aggravation”, now he’s getting back to fulltime work.

This was another in a long line of strokes and no, doubt, there will be more. As the sportswriter Jonathan Liew put it, “Before long, the tall shadow of the Grim Reaper will doubtless emerge behind him. And when it does, it would be no surprise if Ecclestone turned around, reached for his chequebook and with a loud, affected sigh, barked: ‘All right, then. How much?’”

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards