Richard Williams on Tom Bower’s exploration of motor racing’s big boss
Men who bluff and bully their way to enormous fortunes are Tom Bower’s special subject. His targets have included Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohammed al Fayed, Conrad Black and Richard Branson, so it was probably inevitable that Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire ringmaster of Formula One, would one day wander into his authorial cross-hairs.
The son of a Suffolk trawlerman, Ecclestone was already sharpening his legendary commercial acumen in the school playground. Bower is not the first to tell the story of how he would complete two paper rounds before setting off for school; the money he earned would be spent on buns, sold on at a profit to his classmates. The deals are somewhat larger now. His most recent coup – executed last year, shortly before his 80th birthday – was to sign an agreement under which the Russian government will pay his organisation 0m over seven years for the privilege of holding an annual grand prix in Sochi, a Black Sea resort, while spending probably as much again on building a circuit for the purpose. The deal was concluded in a private 15-minute meeting between Ecclestone and Vladimir Putin, the latest world leader keen to do business with the beguilingly sinister 5ft 3in impresario.
Putin is probably one of the few people in the world who is not frightened of Ecclestone. Another would be Slavica Malic, a 6ft 2in Croatian model who, in Bower’s gruesomely entertaining account, became the second Mrs Ecclestone in 1985 and secured a £750m divorce settlement – probably around a quarter of his total wealth – after leaving him 23 years later. Elsewhere, and particularly within the Formula One paddock, his power is absolute and questioned only by those with no regard for their future in the sport.
That power was accumulated over a period of more than 30 years, during which, as Bower accurately notes, Ecclestone “transformed Formula One from a mere enthusiasts’ sport into one of the world’s most watched entertainments”. After buying the Brabham team in 1971, on terms typically favourable to himself, and reorganising it with characteristic rigour, Ecclestone recognised that here was a little world ripe for the taking. With the assistance of Max Mosley, a qualified barrister and former driver and team owner, he assumed leadership of the teams in a war for control waged against the governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, an organisation of blazered blusterers unused to being challenged. Deploying skills developed as a successful dealer in the tough postwar second-hand car trade, he made offers that amateurs could not refuse.
Ecclestone’s great vision – which would set an example for sport in general, notably the English Premier League – was to see that the future lay in television rights, which had previously been distributed piecemeal and for peanuts, and to move his sport into the emerging markets outside Europe. When he successfully renegotiated the broadcasting rights, having leased them from the FIA, assigned them to his own company, started to charge real money and distributed a proportion of the proceeds to the teams, nobody objected. Even a minor percentage of something was better than the practically nothing they had been getting, and eventually that minor percentage made all the sport’s leading participants very rich men indeed. Ecclestone himself, of course, had been getting richer still.
The key to his ultimate triumph was the election of Mosley as the president of the FIA. Together they battled the EU over the ban on tobacco sponsorship, and fought off the European competitions commissioner’s disapproval of Mosley’s extraordinary decision to extend his friend’s lease on the sport’s commercial rights to 100 years. An accomplished double act, suave patrician and brusque street-fighter, they specialised in keeping their opponents on the wrong foot, often expressing divergent opinions on some contentious issue or other before effortlessly reuniting in victory.
About 10 years ago Ecclestone saw the chance to make a real killing from his unique domination of a sport into which sponsors, equipment suppliers, motor manufacturers, broadcasters and governments were pouring billions. In a series of complicated manoeuvres, through which he sold and took back the commercial rights three or four times and pocketed several billion pounds in the process, the ownership of Formula One’s revenue streams ended up in the hands of a private equity firm which made the purchase with the aid of £2.9bn borrowed from RBS’s Fred Goodwin. The new owners employ Ecclestone as chief executive at a salary of £2.5m, plus fuel for his £40m private jet, on the unarguably correct grounds that no one else can do the job nearly as well as a man now in his ninth decade.
Bower does his best here, but Formula One’s business dealings have always been camouflaged by smokescreens of secrecy and evasion, and to understand fully the events described between pages 223-237 and 260-267, for example, you would probably need to be Ecclestone himself, sitting at the centre of a web of holding companies with tax-shelter addresses. Somewhat clearer, although not new, is the description of his success in making further fortunes by toying with the existence of the British Grand Prix, an event he treats with the refined cruelty of a particularly vicious cat holding a fieldmouse between its paws.
Ecclestone himself has not been left entirely unscathed by success. His nose was bitten off by a Las Vegas casino owner’s Alsatian dog a few years ago, and he has been expensively mugged outside his London home on a couple of occasions. The most recent assault took place at the end of last year, when his £25,000 watch was among items snatched by thieves. Since no opportunity to make money can be neglected, a few days after the incident the watch’s manufacturer took out a newspaper advertisement showing his badly bruised face next to the slogan: “See what some people will do for a Hublot”.
Nothing, however, has damaged him as badly as his encounter with New Labour in 1997, when he was invited to make a £1m-donation to Tony Blair’s election campaign and encouraged by Michael Levy to turn it into an annual unrepayable “loan”, on the clear understanding that Downing Street would reciprocate by helping Formula One in its fight to maintain its income from tobacco companies. In exposing the squalid machinations and duplicities of Blair, Levy, Peter Mandelson, Derry Irvine, Gordon Brown and their functionaries, Bower allows Ecclestone to emerge as the victim, the great manipulator caught, helpless and humiliated, in a net of politicians’ lies.
Bower is not at ease with the language or the history of motor racing. Teeth will be ground at the assertions that 96 spectators were killed in the appalling crash at Le Mans in 1955 (the correct number is 83), that the Renault team copied Ferrari in introducing turbocharged engines in the late 1970s (the reverse was the case), or that the original venue for the 1981 Las Vegas Grand Prix was to have been the Bellagio hotel (which was not built until 1998). Important names are misspelt, sometimes repeatedly, including those of the car dealer John Coombs (not Coomb), the Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne (not Marchione) and the engineer Alan Permane (not Permayne), who was “Witness X” in the notorious Crashgate hearings of 2009. These and other errors are mere details, perhaps, in Bower’s attempt to paint a sweeping portrait of a very unorthodox tycoon, but they do tend to undermine faith in the description of more complex matters.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies Ecclestone’s modus operandi as amusingly as the apparently coincidental publication, a couple of weeks before No Angel, of another biography. Susan Watkins, the wife of Formula One’s long-time resident surgeon, is an old friend of Ecclestone and her book, completed in 2005, was intended to be the authorised version of his story. The subject, however, exercised his right to suppress the manuscript, which disappeared into limbo. Now, having granted Bower an unprecedented degree of access to his intimate circle, he has also quietly permitted the appearance of Bernie: The Biography of Bernie Ecclestone (Haynes), which inevitably paints him in an almost wholly favourable light. Thus, with the minimum of effort, a little thunder has been stolen from a book which had been expected, on Bower’s past form, to contain more explosive revelations than turns out to be the case. Look after the small victories, Ecclestone might say, and the big ones will take care of themselves.
Richard Williams’s The Death of Ayrton Senna is published by Penguin.