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”

F1 Racing - - BERNIE END OF AN ERA - WORDS MAU­RICE HAMILTON

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 ofce 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

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