So Bernie has been nudged (as gently as possible) into a role with a long title. Chairman emeritus is, nonetheless, fitting. The word emeritus comes from Latin verb “to earn” and is usually conferred upon retired professors and clergymen, although it is also used in business as a mark of distinguished service. The word “merit” comes from the same root.
Love him or loathe him, Mr E, merits the title – not that such a thing will appeal to him at all. Given his character, one could not really expect a more graceful changeover of power, but it was clearly something that Liberty Media felt was essential in order to start the process of change in Formula 1.
The fact that they recognised this need is a good thing. It has been very clear from the start that Liberty wanted a different style of management for the sport, which is so used to being in conflict with itself that some find it hard to imagine it can operate with everyone working together. NASCAR shows this is possible. Not everyone may agree with the France family or with how they do business, but they all understand it is best to work together and keep their disagreements out of the spotlight.
People think that Bernie Ecclestone was a greedy man, but I don’t think this is the truth at all. Money was not the important thing. It was merely a way by which Bernie kept score. Money is only important when you don’t have it and I doubt he can a remember a day when he wasn’t rich. He has been a wealthy man for probably 65 of his 86 years. What was important for Bernie was the power to do the deal and the buzz he got from winning and getting people to agree to do things that they did not want to do. Once he had control of the sport he knew that he had something that people wanted and so it could be monetised and the score could be kept.
Many people think that he did not love the sport, but I don’t think this is right either. I think he loved the gladiators, the men who drove the cars. There was always affection and admiration for what they did. He had tried it himself, remember, with a Connaught in 1958 and he knew that racing drivers were different and special people. In his early years he lost two drivers with whom he was close: Stuart Lewis-Evans in 1958 and Jochen Rindt in 1970. Later he would also lose one of his Brabham drivers, José Carlos Pace, in a plane crash, and another, Elio de Angelis, in a testing accident. I don’t think Bernie ever lost his passion for the drivers, or for some of those with whom he had dealings. He liked the mavericks: Enzo Ferrari, Max Mosley, Colin Chapman, Teddy Mayer, Ken Tyrrell, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis and Eddie Jordan. They were men who made things happen. He liked some of the race promoters as well, particularly Melbourne’s Ron Walker. He was never a big fan of men in blazers, although one sensed that he had a grudging respect for the late Jean Marie Balestre, the FIA President who fought him to a draw in the FISA-FOCA war of 1980-1982.
What he did for Formula 1 over the years was mightily impressive, but how he won control of it and some of his dealings thereafter were less impressive. There was a famous occasion when Bernie informed his fellow FOCA members that he had juggled companies and contracts and had taken over control of all the important deals and that they were henceforth working for him. Ken Tyrrell had to be stopped from strangling him. They fought him a little, but he had the power. He was the paymaster. Over time, the teams clawed back more and more of the money and chipped away at his power, but it was only in recent years that he felt his hands were tied – and he did not like it.
If he made one error, it was in agreeing to sell an option for 25 percent of the shares in the business to Thomas Haffa, a German TV mogul, who had already secured 50 percent of the business. Haffa soon ran into trouble and his empire was gobbled up by KirchBeteiligung, the holding company of a bigger German TV company. In March 2001, Leo Kirch, the boss of KirchBeteiligung, agreed to take over Haffa’s option and borrowed money from the Bavarian state bank – BayernLB – to pay for it. KirchBeteiligung became the controlling shareholder in Formula One. The problem was that Kirch had also borrowed too much money and it began to fail in 2002. BayernLB claimed the Formula One shares, as they had a right to do. That summer Ecclestone and his family’s Bambino Trust snatched control of the primary Formula One operating companies by appointing more directors than they were allowed to. This meant that they had management control of the business. BayernLB and other banks initiated legal action to win back control and after much delaying the first case came to court in December 2004. It was an embarrassing defeat with Mr Justice Park giving a summary judgment in favour of the banks, making it clear that Bambino had no case at all. He rejected one of Bambino’s arguments as “bordering on the hopeless”. He even refused the right to appeal. By 2005 Bernie agreed to settle the other fight with the banks.
They could have removed him from that point onwards, but BayernLB representative Dr Gerhard Gribkowsky argued that Bernie was the key to F1’s success. This led to the famous sale of the banks shares to CVC Capital Partners, which gave Bernie control of the business once again. CVC did not care what he did, as long as it was able to extract the maximum in profit from the business. That suited Mr E fine.
The media never really bothered him and he would happily give the newspapers the headlines they wanted, even if a lot of the stories never came true. He was just playing, keeping F1 in the papers. He had an impressive ability to neuter those who opposed him by sucking them in and making them dependent on him. He could wrap naive journalists around his little finger by tickling their ego, making them feel he was their best buddy. He was a genius at spotting people’s weaknesses and using them to his advantage. He understood greed and ambition and recognised people who might be dangerous to him. It was the old car dealer in action. He was funny, charming and yet utterly ruthless. I remember once, years ago, when I found myself in conflict with him, having worked for his Formula 1 magazine. He had done something which could have been challenged in court. Naive as I was, I said “You can’t do that.” Bernie looked at me with infinite coldness and replied: “I can do whatever I like”. He was right, of course, power overrules rights and wrongs. What was I going to do about it? I couldn’t afford to battle with him as the banks had done – and he knew it. To be fair, he made sure that I was paid all that was owed to me.
Those who do not like him perhaps do not understand that there is a good side to him as well, as there is with almost all human beings. He didn’t want people to see too much of that, and one felt that he saw being kind and caring as some sort of weakness.
When it came to the business, he didn’t see the value of anything that didn’t pay up front, as they say in England “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. If you wanted something you had to pay for it and you had to pay big.
There was rarely investment and when there was it often didn’t work. Early attempts at digital TV and his escapade into publishing both lost a lot of money, although these were nothing compared to the $100 million he had to pay to stop the celebrated trial in Germany.
Bernie’s attention to detail was extraordinary, even back in the days of Brabham when he and McLaren’s Ron Dennis raised the bar every year in terms of professionalism and dragged the sport from its muddy paddocks to the glistening autodromes of the modern era. He took the sport global, but was never comfortable with Americans, who felt that race promoters should be allowed to make money as well. It was a blind spot that made no sense at all. F1 was a consumer business which was barely present in the world’s biggest consumer market. It was all driven by money which is why F1 lost some of its key traditional races, exchanging them for hopeless adventures into the Turkish countryside, Korean marshes and Indian building sites.
CVC’s fixation on profits hurt the sport and, in the end, one sensed that Bernie realised this, but he did’t want to change anything. He wanted to go on doing deals as he had always done deals. He probably stayed on longer than was wise. But it was his train set.
And then one day, it wasn’t.