Too early to write Ecclestone's obituary

He might be 83 and facing trial for bribery in Germany, but we shouldn't rush to pen the Formula One mastermind's epitaph

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 January, 2014, 8:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 January, 2014, 9:44pm

It was not exactly an illustrious career. In 1958, an English driver of marginal skill made his debut on the Formula One circuit. He was diminutive even by the waifish standards of race-car drivers and the only things less impressive than his physical stature were his results.

In two races, the Monaco and the British Grand Prix, his official line was a "did not qualify" and "did not start." And so ended the F1 driving career of Bernie Ecclestone. He would, however, manage to carve out a significant role in the sport.

Over the past 40 years, Ecclestone has stridden colossus-like over F1 and transformed it into a multibillion-dollar industry by controlling virtually every facet of it.

For better or worse, and there is no shortage of worse, Ecclestone is an inspirational figure
Tim Noonan

His personal wealth is reputed to be over US$4 billion and he seemingly has many more detractors than supporters who have long been put off by his unapologetically dictatorial methods.

But at 83 years of age, he is just as outlandish and outrageous in his comments and behaviour as he ever was and while there are many tsars who have commanded their lucrative sport, there is only one Bernie. Nobody has done it as long and as well as him.

Last week's announcement that German prosecutors will formally charge Ecclestone for allegedly making a US$45 million bribe to a banker who has already been convicted on a bribe-related offence, may have finally derailed the reign of the F1 supremo.

Despite fighting three other bribery charges, Bernie claims he is innocent and will spend as much money as it takes to prove it. If convicted he could face up to five years in prison, but there is virtually no one who believes that he will do any time behind bars. While justice can be fickle, particularly in high-profile cases like this one, some sort of agreement and fine will probably be reached.

Ecclestone has resigned from the board of F1 until the end of the trial, but claims still to be running the group's day-to-day affairs. While Ecclestone defiantly claims he is in control, he will no longer have the power to sign cheques.

"If people want to shake someone's hand [on a deal], whose hand do they shake? It will still be my hand," he said. "That is how I do business, always have done and it will be the same in the future."

An 83-year-old talking about the future without qualifying the brevity of it may seem like more than a bit of bravado. But two years ago Ecclestone married a woman 46 years his junior in the midst of negotiating a new lucrative TV contract for F1. He clearly doesn't care about his age, so why should you or I?

Talk to me when you hit 83, if you hit 83, and then tell me Bernie did it all wrong. For better or worse, and there is no shortage of worse, Ecclestone is an inspirational figure.

As a fledgling F1 team owner in the early 1970s, Ecclestone formed the Formula One Constructors Association (Foca) and became increasingly involved in negotiating TV rights. He would eventually widen his role through the Machiavellian dint of his personality and Foca would successfully engineer a coup of the powers that were at F1, putting Bernie firmly in charge.

Along the way there have been too many controversies to chronicle as well as endless accusations and tell-all books about the man who seems unrepentantly sexist.

When asked about female Indy car racer Danica Patrick, he said he admired her achievements before adding, "You know I've got one of those wonderful ideas. Women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances."

He also claimed that the ideal candidate to be the first female F1 driver would need to be "a black girl with super looks, preferably Jewish or Muslim, who speaks Spanish."

If this is truly it for Bernie then look no further than in Asia for his true legacy. Ecclestone took a largely Euro-centric sport and made it global, and no sporting organisation has capitalised on the growth of Asian economies like F1.

In 1998, the Japanese Grand Prix was the sole race on the continent. Today, there are races in China, Malaysia, India, Korea, the UAE, Bahrain and Japan as well as the first night race in Singapore, and Thailand is reportedly set to come aboard in two years. None of this happens without an unrepentant and insatiable Ecclestone driving it.

Frankly, I don't care what his birth certificate says. I wouldn't be so quick to write Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One obituary just yet.