BERNIE ECCLESTONE AT 90
This week the father of modern Formula 1 celebrated his 90th birthday. Love him or loath him, Bernie Ecclestone can undoubtedly be credited with making Formula 1 what it is today.
From a sport fought out by a bunch of amateurs usually from the European upper classes, he transformed Formula 1 into a multi-billion-dollar global brand and one of the most professionally run sport on the planet.
Some hanker for the old days but there is no doubt that in order for Formula 1 to survive it had to evolve into the form it is today.
His control of the sport grew out of him acquiring control and subsequently selling ofF F1 TV rights in the late 70’s. He was also instrumental in the drafting and signing of the fabled 1981 Concorde Agreement between FISA, headed up by Jean Marie Balestre, who ran Formula 1, and FOCA who represented the teams, and was headed up by Ecclestone. These two deals essentially were the mechanisms that delivered Ecclestone’s control and vast wealth as under the terms of the Concorde Agreement he and his companies also managed the administration, setup, and logistics of each Formula One Grand Prix.
We’ll revisit this later but first let’s take a deeper look at the man and his life and earlier career.
Bernie Ecclestone was born in South Elmham Suffolk on 28 October 1930, the son of a local fisherman. At the age of eight the family moved to South East London where they would stay through the war.
In 1946 Bernie left Dartford West Central Secondary School to work in the chemical laboratory at the local gasworks while studying chemistry at Woolwich Polytechnic and spending weekends working on motorbikes and selling spare parts. A year later he opened a Motorcycle Dealership with business partner Fred Compton and started to become interested in racing.
Although his business was in motorbikes, it was cars that he decided to race, and in 1949 he bought a Cooper Mk 5 to race in Formula 3.
He drove at Brands Hatch regularly, which was local to him, with mixed success but following a series of accidents he hung up his goggles to focus on his business interests.
Following a series of successful business deals his love of racing led him to return in 1957 but this time as manager of driver Stuart Lewis-Evans and team owner. He continued to manage Lewis-Evans following his move to drive for Vanwall, but their relationship ended in tragedy when Lewis-Evans died having suffered severe burns following his car’s engine failure at the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix. At this point Bernie felt he was done with racing and left the sport for a second time.
Although away from the sport, he had developed a good friendship with Roy Salvadori from his Connaught days and it was this friendship that helped his decision in 1970 to again return to the sport as manager for driver Jochen Rindt and part owner of the Lotus Formula 2 team whose other driver was Graham Hill.
Yet again, tragedy was to strike part way through the 1970 Formula 1 season when Rindt was killed at Monza while leading the World Drivers Championship. In the aftermath of the crash it was shown that his death was due to the driver’s use of a 4-point harness and not the standard 5-point when during the impact with the barrier Rindt submarined into the cockpit causing one of the shoulder straps to fatally cut his throat. To this day Jochen Rindt thankfully remains the only driver to be posthumously awarded the Formula 1 Drivers World Title.
In 1971 Ecclestone bought the Brabham Formula 1 team for £100,000 which in today’s money would be somewhere in the region of £650,000. It was a deal the previous owner Ron Tauranac was reluctant to do but Bernie convinced him it was right for the future of the team, so he agreed. Tauranac stayed on to run things but within 6 months of battling with Ecclestone over the direction of the business he was gone.
Bernie was now free to make radical changes and wound up customer car production which was founded by Jack Brabham and was still the mainstay of the business’ income. Ecclestone’s rationale was that to compete at the very front in Formula One the team needed to concentrate all its efforts on its own success.
To facilitate this, he promoted Gordon Murray to the post of Chief Designer for the 1973 season. Murray got straight to work and later that year the team raced his now famous triangular cross-section BT42 for the first time, and followed that up with the Ford DFV powered BT44 which took victories in 1974 in South Africa, Austria, and the US Grand Prix with Carlos Reutemann and further wins in 1975 in Brazil and Germany with Carlos Pace and Reutemann again.
For 1976, Ecclestone made a deal which proved to be a mistake when he ditched the light and powerful Ford power unit for the heavier flat 12 Alfa Romeo engine. Whilst financially beneficial for the team, the car proved unreliable and led to a poor 1976 season where the team failed to record a single podium and suffered 19 retirements from 34 starts and recording only 9 constructors championship points that year.
The teams poor form continued with the launch of the BT46 which suffered overheating problems. In order to fix the problem Murray designed a rear fan to draw air from under the car over the engine which had the side effect greatly assisting with ground effect sucking the car to the track. The result had an immediate impact on performance so much so that Niki Lauda was able to take the win at the Swedish Grand Prix.
The win caused uproar and needed Ecclestone’s wheeler dealing best to overcome the dispute. Rival teams saw the “fan car” as a threat to their competitiveness. Colin Chapman tasked his designer to work on a fan system for their already successful Lotus 79. Bernie, by this time was also president of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) having been appointed as secretary in 1972. Chapman whipped up the other team owners to challenge the use of the fan, saying it breached the regulations for movable aerodynamic aids and demanded it be banned.
Murray, the cars designer argued that the fan also drew air through a horizontally mounted radiator over the engine. Using a fan to assist cooling was legal and Ecclestone claimed that this was the primary function of the new device and improved handling was merely a fortunate bi product. The argument was given credence by the cooling system issues that had affected the original design at the start of the year. Bernie went on to negotiate a deal within FOCA whereby the car would continue for another three races before Brabham would voluntarily withdraw it.
The deal however was never signed as the Commission Sportive Internationale (later to become FISA) led by Jean Marie Balestre declared that fan cars would not be allowed in future races and the car never raced again in Formula One.
Ecclestone ended the relationship with Alfa Romeo in 1979 and reverted back to Ford DFV power for 1980 to the delight of Gordon Murray. This coincided with the hiring of emerging Brazilian star Nelson Piquet.
For the 1980 season the Ford powered Brabham BT49 was a competitive car and in the hands of Piquet contested the World Championship narrowly losing out to the Williams driven by Alan Jones.
For the 1981 season Brabhams were again powered by the naturally aspirated Ford DFV and with Piquet at the wheel took the Drivers’ Championship. Bernie was already thinking of the future and the next engine deal, and during the 1981 season Brabham had already tested a BT49 powered by BMW’s 4-cylinder turbocharged M10 engine. The tests proved successful and the team revealed their all new BMW powered BT50 a few races into the season.
The BT50 proved to be a world beater with BMW power and fuel supplied by BASF/Wintershall taking Nelson Piquet to the Driver’ World Title in 1983, the first under turbocharged power. (read more on the 1983 Super Fuel Year)
The team remained competitive until 1985 but Ecclestone, ever the tough businessman, fell out with Piquet over salary issues who then went to Williams where he would win a third world title in 1987. BMW withdrew from Formula One at the end of the same season.
By this time Ecclestone was becoming increasing involved with his role in FOCA and in 1988 he sold Brabham for over $5,000,000 which in today’s money is the equivalent of over $12,000,000, and proving Bernie was always one to spot a good deal.
Ecclestone had formed the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) in 1974 with Frank Williams, Colin Chapman, Teddy Mayer, Ken Tyrrell, and Max Mosley.
In 1978 Bernie became chief executive of FOCA with Mosley as his legal advisor and in 1981 they negotiated a series of legal issues with FISA which would become known as the Concorde Agreement of 1981. In it Ecclestone secured the right for FOCA to negotiate television contracts for the Grand Prix. In the background he created Formula One Promotions and Administration and as part of the deal gave 47% of television revenues to teams, 30% to the FIA, and 23% to FOPA, in essence Ecclestone himself in return FOPA would supply the prize money. This landmark agreement was the turning point in Formula 1 which enabled teams to become more well-funded both through the Concorde Agreement itself but also through the increase in TV exposure which in turn attracted massive sponsorship deals.
Further renewals of the Concorde Agreement took place in 1987 and 1992, but it was the 1997 Agreement which gave Bernie even more control when in exchange for annual payments he would make on favourable terms, he maintained the television rights exclusively.
Although Bernie’s deals have punctuated his life in Formula 1, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he has also presided over many changes unrelated to the finances of the sport. The most important being improving safety. Having hired Sid Watkins as official Formula One medical doctor in 1978 he had no hesitation in enforcing much needed improvements to track infrastructure as well as implementing better medical conditions on race days in order to assist drivers in the event of accidents. These efforts were accelerated following the tragic events at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix when Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna both lost their lives in accidents.
For all the improvements to the sport that Ecclestone has delivered, it’s not without controversy and criticism from some quarters. There have always been those critical of the control and fortune that Bernie has amassed through Formula 1 as well as some of his comments, decisions and dealings.
Whilst these are important areas of Bernie’s life that should not be swept under the carpet, these matters have been well documented and pawed over by the media many times throughout Bernie’s career, so we’ve chosen to focus on the positive aspects of his reign over Formula 1 for this feature.
In 2017, having controlled Formula 1 for the best part of 45 years Bernie and co-owners CVC Capital Partners finally sold their stake in the sport to Liberty Media in an $8billion deal. Bernie was kept on for a short period of time but then left the sport for good.
Away from motorsport Bernie has been married 3 times. From his first marriage to wife Ivy he has a daughter Deborah and has 2 daughters, Tamara and Petra, from his second marriage to ex-wife Slavica.
In 2012, Bernie married Fabiana Flosi (44), following a divorce settlement with Slavica reported to be over $1billion. In July 2020 Fabiana gave birth to Bernie’s first son, named Alex. Bernie enjoys family life and also has five grandchildren.
As we reflect on Bernies career following his recent birthday we should end on one of his comments that sums him up. On the subject of his knighthood which he politely declined in 2000, he is quoted as saying “he did not believe that he deserved it, and if he had brought some good to the country, he was glad, but he did not set out with this purpose in mind, so did not deserve recognition.”
His personal fortune is estimated at $3.2billion.