Ecclestone richly blessed but no angel
If you were a little puzzled about Bernie Ecclestone's sudden about-face over the running of the Bahrain Grand Prix recently, you could do worse than read a new biography of F1's supremo. No Angel by Tom Bower is a hefty tome produced with the Ecclestones' blessing that shines a light into a life that is often surrounded by secrecy and mystery.
What you learn is that Ecclestone is a man who backs winners and has no time for sentiment in business. That is why he will change his position if it suits him. Take one of the few other times that he changed his mind, when he had called for Max Mosley's resignation as president of the FIA after the latter's sex scandal. The book says Ecclestone felt that his 'own career had been built on loyalty and he had betrayed his principles'.
It's all very noble, but the same page of the book also mentions his ongoing battle with the teams, a battle he couldn't win without Mosley. Expediency (and the bottom line) will always win out with the Briton, which is why he would always have run the race in Bahrain until overwhelming public dissent made it better to jump ship.
It's why, under the apartheid years in South Africa, he was always comfortable racing there. Indeed it gave an opportunity to squeeze more money out of a regime craving legitimacy. In that respect there are echoes with Bahrain.
The book also reminds the reader that if you are foolish enough to enter into a bet with Bernie, you will most likely lose. Way back in 1974 in Buenos Aires, Ecclestone - then a team owner - was sitting around the pool with the rest of the F1 fraternity when a German driver swam two lengths underwater. He was challenged to do the same and asked what the bet was. When he was told US$100 by the assembled crowd he asked a friend to get him a snorkel.
More recently Ron Dennis, boss of McLaren, bet him GBP100,000 that the concorde agreement ruling the sport wouldn't be signed. Bernie upped it to a quarter of a million and then said he would sign it. When told that wasn't the bet, Ecclestone claimed 'we never said how many people had to sign it'.
Even if that was a joke, it shows how Ecclestone wrestled control of the sport from the circuits and the FIA. Although lacking in formal education, he's always shown the sharpest of business brains. In deals it's not what's in a contract that will trip you up, it's what's left out. Through smoke and mirrors and an ability to divide and rule, he has built up an empire that some argued wasn't his to build.
As a social gambler he is an ace poker player in the business world. He's said not to enjoy parties or occasions like Christmas and that undemonstrative nature has served him well in his business dealings. It seems he gets his way because his opponents are too confused to draw up a decent battle plan.
Even reading about the labyrinthine wheeling and dealing in the book can leave you with a headache. Retired racing driver Damon Hill is quoted as saying 'the way he can manage to control a lot of very intelligent people and still keep them dancing to his tune is extraordinary'.
Although he has his enemies, it cannot be denied that he has transformed the sport. Even many of his enemies have been enriched beyond their wildest dreams by Bernie's cunning. Television cash and earnings from the circuits have been key, but it's only been made possible by remoulding the sport (and particularly the paddock) over the years into the glamorous, elitist show it is now.
Reading Bowers' book, it was hard to reconcile the hard-nosed character with the man I interviewed once in Abu Dhabi. He couldn't have come across as more ordinary and approachable. But then I didn't have to negotiate with him.
This year's Sunday Times rich list has him as the 23rd richest person in the UK, worth some GBP2.5 billion (HK$31.37 billion). That's an increase of GBP1.1billion on last year. Not bad for the son of a fisherman.