A BOLT OF LIGHTNING
Ecclestone’s furious drive and intent was obvious from the very beginning. There could be no doubt: it was “my way or the highway”
Bernard Ecclestone’s purchase of Brabham at the end of 1971 amounted to more than the straightforward acquisition of a struggling Formula 1 team. Sure, it put him on a level footing with the owners of Lotus, Ferrari and Tyrrell, the leading entrants of the day. But it also provided fertile ground for an incisive business mind operating several gears higher than those of fellow competitors only interested in racing and nding a means of covering costs. The thought, nice though it was, of making a small fortune from racing was subjugated by his rivals’ overwhelming love of the sport.
Make no mistake, Ecclestone was also a racer, but in the sense of coming rst in anything, from a sporting contest to a business transaction or a game of wits. He had applied all three when using money made as a second-hand car and motorcycle dealer to race a Cooper single-seater in the 500cc formula – the equivalent of Formula Ford in the 1950s.
Peter Ashcroft, later to become head of Ford UK Competitions, competed against Ecclestone and recalled a race at Brands Hatch.
“In those days, the grid was settled by names drawn from a hat,” said Ashcroft. “I ‘won’ pole. I didn’t know Bernie at the time and he was drawn directly behind me. I’m sitting on the grid and suddenly there’s a rap on top of my Herbert Johnson crash helmet and this contorted little face is staring straight into mine. It was Ecclestone. ‘If you don’t move over, I’m coming over the top!’ he snarled, and then walked away. What did I do? Moved over, of course! Bernie blasts by, leads for a while – and then spins off. That was normal for Bernie in a race.”
Ecclestone’s ready acceptance that he was better at dealing than driving led to the management of drivers and, eventually, the move into team ownership. Appalled by the amateurish and haphazard negotiations between individual teams and race organisers for starting money, Bernie
introduced the thought of collective bargaining. He also found an ally in Max Mosley, who was then running the March F1 team. Diverse characters they may have been, but Mosley’s background in law was the perfect match for Ecclestone’s streetwise nous. They each possessed a sharp sense of humour, to the point where an agreement would be made before a meeting to see which of them would be rst to prompt a particular team principal to do or say something silly.
Nonetheless, the serious intent of the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) was gradually formulated as Mosley relished the politics and Ecclestone the business potential. First, however, they needed to tackle the FIA and the bias of its elderly (and incompetent, according to Mosley) members towards race organisers.
It was a young and ambitious blood, Michel Boeri, who would cause problems for FOCA in his role as new president of the Monaco Automobile Club (ACM) in 1972. When Boeri overruled a previous agreement to allow 25 starters by limiting the number to 18, the teams refused to practise. With an underground car park acting as the paddock, the ACM sealed off the entrance as a means of forcing an agreement. Typically, Bernie tested the strength of the impasse by climbing into a Brabham and having his mechanics push the car to the entrance – where he ran over a policeman’s foot. The subsequent running of 25 cars in practice was down to Mosley’s deft legal footwork rather than Ecclestone’s more direct approach.
While the power slowly but surely shifted in FOCA’s direction, Bernie was gradually knocking his own team into shape. Showing an awareness of talent beyond the cockpit, Ecclestone gave the job of designer to Gordon Murray, then a virtual unknown.
Murray’s striking 1974 car, the BT44, was a potential winner at the Nürburgring that August when, as a wannabe journalist, I met
Ecclestone for the rst time. Having befriended Gary Anderson, then a Brabham mechanic, at the Tip Top bar at Monaco the previous May and explained a wish to follow a team for a race weekend, I was introduced to Bob Dance, the chief mechanic, who agreed to let me accompany Brabham in Germany. The nal and most important hurdle would be winning the boss’s approval on the day.
When Ecclestone arrived at the ’Ring, Bob introduced me and explained the plan. Bernie looked me up and down, eventually nodded, touched my arm, gently dismissed my mumbled thanks and moved on. He didn’t say a word. It was like the laying on of hands. I was shaking in my boots.
This was on the Thursday afternoon. Ecclestone was wearing a smart two-piece suit with a three-button front (fashionable at the time), white shirt and kipper tie. The cars were equally immaculate; pure white and bearing only the names of trade support, Ecclestone refusing to accept piecemeal sponsors (a brave business methodology rewarded by the distinctive presence of Martini colours the following year).
Having dealt with me, Bernie fussed over the black pin-striping on the Brabham’s sidepod, insisting the bottom lines were perfectly parallel. In his left hand, he held a triangular piece of blue-and-white plastic. This was a prototype FOCA pass, due to be introduced at Monza and subsequent races, much to the displeasure of organisers who, until this point, had issued accreditation to each team as a matter of personal preference (a whimsical routine to be favoured by Ecclestone during the next four decades).
I had gained access to the Nürburgring paddock thanks to German GP media pass, inveigled from the press ofce by means of a forged credential and a lot of talking – a fact I kept from Mr E. When we next came faceto-face ve years later at Long Beach, I was a bona de journalist. But the greeting was altogether different.
Earlier that weekend I had met Alan Woollard, who was responsible for FOCA’s logistics. Not having given much thought to the problems involving shipping the F1 circus (then 50 cars, 600 people and 90 tons of freight) to yaway races, I was intrigued when, over a drink, Woollard explained the process. Thinking this would make a fascinating feature, with notebook in hand I began chatting to Alan in the paddock. This was situated in a massive conference hall with, at its centre, a motorhome.
Barely ve minutes into our chat, the motorhome door burst open and Bernie stormed out, demanding to know who I was and what I was doing. When I explained, he said it was none of my business and gave the hapless Woollard a bollocking. My earnestly articulated opinion that this was a great story (in other words, a good story for F1), was met with the scary and quietly articulated reply: “I don’t care.” Then he roughly examined my pass, stared into my face – and disappeared back from where he had come, slamming the door as he went.
I have never seen Bernie that cross, either before or since. His calling card is usually a silent entry and soft speech, accompanied by that menacing half smile. This may have been a bad day, but it was an indication of the sense of self-obsessed secrecy with which Ecclestone was beginning to cloak his affairs; a far cry from his openness in 1974.
Bernie was extending his business tentacles into every aspect of a sport he was clearly considering to be his own. Having the teams pay him rather than an outside supplier for transport was part of a doctrine driven by a hatred – and that is not too strong a word – of someone other than him making money off the back of F1. His F1.
In 1979, no one minded. Certainly not the teams, for whom life under Bernie was becoming exceedingly profitable. On their behalf – and for eight per cent commission – Ecclestone was moving beyond deals with race promoters and mining the rich potential of television, turning that working relationship on its head. Where once broadcasters had been able to cherrypick the races in the belief that they ought to be paid for helping advertise the event, Ecclestone forced them to sign annual contracts to cover every race – and pay a substantial fee for their trouble.
During all of this, FISA (the sporting arm of the FIA) had acquiesced, happy in the knowledge that someone else was doing the donkey-work in promoting the sport for which they were supposed to be responsible. But the situation was about to change dramatically in 1978 when FISA elected a new president, Jean-Marie Balestre, a successful businessman, who vowed to wrest back power from FOCA and the predominantly British teams.
Matters became so intense that it seemed there might be two championships in 1981. FOCA stole a march on FISA by running their own race in South Africa. The fact that it was televised prompted Renault to be the rst of the manufacturers aligned with FISA to jump ship. Little did they know that they were leaping aboard a vessel that would have run out of nancial steam had FOCA been forced to go it alone for a second race. Ecclestone and Mosley had cheekily won the day.
The standoff lead to an uneasy truce and the foundation for the so-called Concorde Agreement, outlining terms and conditions that, in effect, gave Ecclestone everything he wanted. On behalf of FOCA, Bernie retained the right to negotiate contracts and distribute the proceeds which, in 1981, amounted to about half a million dollars from each of the 15 races.
The path was set for the making of money on a previously unprecedented scale – with Bernie’s percentage having risen in some instances to more
Bernie was extending his business tentacles into every aspect of a sport he was clearly considering to be his own. Having the teams pay him rather than an outside supplier for transport was part of a doctrine driven by a hatred of someone other than him making money off the back of F1. His F1.
than 20 per cent, plus his share of earnings from previously untapped sources such as the Paddock Club and circuit advertising.
Much to Bernie’s mounting frustration, the written media remained the only F1-related branch who were managing to avoid his personal Value Added Tax. At the 1984 German Grand Prix, he called a meeting of the press and proposed a unified association run by FOCA. To his fury, he was laughed out of the room. He would have the nal say, however, when accredited media (governed by the FIA) required guest passes and were forced to join the long queue begging at Ecclestone’s door.
Meanwhile the show was becoming more polished and precise with each passing year, the paddocks immaculate if increasingly sparse as Bernie refused admission to all but the workers and a chosen few within what had become his personal fiefdom.
Having gone from poacher (selling Brabham in 1987), the role of gamekeeper was adopted when, thanks to the arrival of Mosley as president of the FIA, Ecclestone became vice-president in charge of promotional affairs for an organisation he once despised. Ecclestone had come full circle; in its way an official recognition of his good work in safety. In 1978, Bernie had persuaded Professor Sid Watkins to knock the inadequate on-circuit medical backup into the world-class condition taken for granted today. Watkins’ extensive demands were backed up by Bernie’s genuine threat to withdraw teams from those circuits who would not comply.
Watkins, a man with a twinkle in his eye, enjoyed Bernie’s sense of fun and often told stories that summed up his good friend’s personality.
“Bernie is a shocking driver,” Watkins recounted one night. “His eyesight’s not great. We were out to lunch the other day. The spaces in his car park are neatly marked – as you would expect – and, when we returned, he got it wrong and tapped the back of a car parked in front. The woman who owned the car saw this and rushed out. ‘You’ve hit my car!’ she shouted. Bernie looked – there was no damage – said nothing and began to walk away. ‘You’ve hit my car!’ she shouted again – and made the mistake of grabbing his shoulder. ‘Just a minute,’ says Bernie quietly, handing me his briefcase. He goes back to his car, starts up, reverses back and then – Wallop! Drives straight into the woman’s car, gets out, says, ‘ Now I’ve hit your car,’ and we walk away. The woman was stunned. So was I!”
Bernie may not have been a great driver in the physical sense, but there has been no one like him – and there never will be again – when it comes to driving not just Formula 1, but any sport, to levels so high that eventually, the only way is down.
Monza ‘86: Brabham boss Ecclestone with chief mechanic, Charlie Whiting, early on in a long association that would see Whiting rise to the position of FIA Race Director Autocratic FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre was one of the few prepared to go toe-to-toe with Ecclestone, but was eventually ousted by Ecclestone’s chief ally, Max Mosley
Ecclestone always had a keen eye for talent. Here he is at Monza in 1978, briefing his technical protégé, upcoming design ace Gordon Murray
As Brabham team boss, Bernie’s steadfast refusal to put piecemeal logos on his cars, brought him iconic full Martini sponsorship