Atlas F1 Formula Bernie

by Thomas C. O'Keefe, U.S.A.

Thomas O'keefe, a long time contributor of Atlas F1, set out to study and hopefully understand the true motivations that drive The Supremo of Formula One - Bernie Ecclestone. The result, exclusively published here at Atlas F1 in four parts, is one of the most extensive profiles ever written about the man who IS Formula One

Part I


What manner of man is Bernie Ecclestone, the undisputed impresario supremo of Formula One racing? Is he, as most often portrayed, the embodiment of cynicism, greed and tyranny, proving the truth once again of Lord Acton's axiom that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Or, is he simply a benevolent despot in a sport that needs one: the all-knowing Father of the unruly Formula One Family, who knows best what is right for his bumptious charges (and their fans) and brooks no opposition from any quarter because it would only get in the way of his Doing The Right Thing for Formula One.

Most Formula One fans are at a disadvantage in deciding which caricature of Bernie is more accurate since all we get to see of him is on Grand Prix Sundays when he appears on the grid before the race in his trademark plain white shirt and graying modish haircut, issuing edicts to his minions, mixing with the rich and famous and taking on the appearance of a micro-managing traffic cop, posted at the Crossroads of Formula One.

And a crowded intersection it is at the moment, with Bernie's life increasingly populated with bankers and lawyers in pin stripes rather than drivers and mechanics in overalls. The sheer breadth of Bernie's activities in the last year alone would be staggering to the normal human being, let alone a 68 year-old whose rumors of retirement seem greatly exaggerated. Here is a thumbnail sketch of the aging dynamo's activities over the last few years:

  • Engaged in a no-holds-barred battle with the European Commission (EC) and its anti-monopoly-minded former Commissioner Karel Van Miert over an issue that goes to the vitals of Empire Ecclestone: Bernie's monopoly on exploitation of the television rights to Formula One.

  • Sold $1.6 billion in Bernie Bonds in the private bond market secured by revenues from future television contracts as a bridge loan until a $2 billion public stock offering can be brought about on the London Stock Exchange, which is expected once the EC finishes its inquiry

  • Rumored to be offering for sale in investment banking circles up to 50% of his stake in Formula One Holdings for $2.25 billion

  • Launched a digital TV enterprise that is plainly the vehicle through which to merchandise and market the Empire Ecclestone sports properties to the up-market, non-terrestrial, pay-TV strata of society, with some of the programming ultimately trickling down to those of us in the Great Unwashed Masses

  • Alienated the British Nation just before the French Grand Prix by reminding ITV that its contract did not permit broadcasting of qualification on Saturday and prohibited ITV from covering it

  • Embarrassed UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and the then-newly-minted Labor Government by contributing $1.7 million dollars to Labor Party coffers at a time when the Government was considering an exemption for Formula One from the ban on tobacco advertising

  • Negotiated a deal with Sylvester Stallone to produce a movie about Formula One racing in the Year 2000 that will be the successor to the 1966 film 'Grand Prix'

  • Through his comrade-in-arms, Max Mosley, managed to be on both sides of the arguments over (1) safety in F1, (2) overtaking, (3) tobacco sponsorship and (4) whether or not countries like China, South Africa, Russia, Portugal, Argentina and India ought to be let in or welcomed back into the Formula One fold

  • Brokered driver transfers among Williams, Jordan last year and has given free retirement advice to Damon Hill this year

  • Backed Brands Hatch owner Nicola Foulston in her dispute with the British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC), owner of Silverstone, over the future home of the British Grand Prix as of 2002, dismissing the "old boys" of BRDC and their venerable WWII airfield track as "a bit tired and Battle of Britain" and taking credit for "saving" the British Grand Prix

  • Represented Excelsis, a French company that bought the Paul Ricard circuit at Le Castellet in the South of France as the future home of the French Grand Prix as of 2002, thus abandoning the unloved Magny-Cours and locking up control of another Formula One circuit

  • Established a permanent home for the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis by negotiating with Tony George, whose family owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

  • Rebuffed allegations of cocaine smuggling via Formula One cars reported in The Sunday Times (owned by Bernie's communications rival, Rupert Murdoch) on the eve of the British Grand Prix

  • Announced a 24-hour brainstorming "retreat" session among Max and Bernie and the team owners to plan for Formula One in the long-term

With this staggering list of activities keeping him busy, the question about Bernie is what motivates him at this stage of his life, when he is already one of the world's wealthiest people, and, frankly, whether or not he cares at all about us, the Formula One fans (thought to number over 300 million for each race), in all these machinations.

The purpose of this essay is to glean from the public record what we know about Bernie - his family, his prior racing experience and his business dealings in motorsports - and determine from that whether the future of Formula One is safely in his hands, to wit: is it conceivable that after all these years Bernie is still a Formula One enthusiast at his core and thus One of Us, or has Bernie the Sportsman long since been transcended by Bernie the Businessman, never to return. And if so, where does that leave us, the Formula One fans.

Bernie the Family Man

Bernie, about to celebrate his 69th birthday, is married to a 39 year-old statuesque, ex-Armani model named Slavica Malic, originally from Croatia. The couple has two girls, Petra (10) and Tamara (15) (and 22 or so "sons" in the paddock). The family reportedly has homes in London (the mansion block in Chelsea), Corsica, the French Riviera and a picturesque inn inGstaad, Switzerland. Bernie has two company jets to shuttle between home and the office, which tends to be Bernie's motorhome in the paddock on a Grand Prix weekend, the silver gray bus with the tinted windows dubbed "The Kremlin" by wags in the pit lane. Slavica and Petra"My wife says I'm going to die in here [in the motorhome] and they're going to have to dig a big grave and bury me on the bus," Bernie was once quoted as saying.

Bernie's salary for enduring all this privation was $80 million plus in 1995-96, making him the world's best paid business executive. His fortune is estimated at in excess of $2 billion; in 1998, he was listed just behind the Duke of Westminster as Britain's sixth richest man.

For all of his absorption in the wheeling and dealing of Formula One, Bernie is reportedly very much a family man. His daughters can sometimes be seen at daddy's side on the starting grid now that they are growing up. And Bernie was something of a House-Husband when the girls were younger.

Tom Wheatcroft, who owns the fabulous Donington collection of Historic Grand Prix cars near Derby, England, as well as the adjacent Donington race track, recalls having a curious set of multi-layered conversations with Bernie in the wee hours one morning when Bernie called him: one subject was how much Bernie would exact from the Donington Park circuit for the privilege of running what ultimately turned out to the European Grand Prix run there in 1993 (whatever was paid was well worth it, given Senna's now-legendary run up through the field in the wet on the first lap, passing Schumacher, Wendliger, Hill and Prost en route) and the other topic was Bernie soliciting Wheatcroft's advice on home remedies at 3 a.m. for a child with an upset stomach.

Wheatcroft was touched, and remains a great admirer of Bernie, as are many in the pit lane. Jackie Stewart, World Champion and team owner, says of Bernie: "But keep in mind Bernie fixed Formula One. People feel he deserves his fair share of the success. "

Indeed, in some sense, it can be said that all the aging dynamo is doing currently to bring to fruition the digital TV operation and the public stock offering is being done as estate planning for both his personal family and his official Formula One family, since even Bernie cannot last forever.

Bernie himself is very much a fatalist and has for years talked about the day when he might no longer be open for business at the Kremlin parking space in the Paddock: "Formula One is like a big stage for a pop concert. Teams come and go over the years, like stars come and go. Elvis died [note the modest comparison], things still went on. When I go, the same thing will happen - Formula One will continue."

In a 1997 interview with the International Herald Tribune, he said that his determination to proceed with the sale of Formula One Holdings was driven by fear that the business could fall into the wrong hands when he retired or died: "I would hate to see it go down the drain because it was badly managed. If all the teams owned it they would destroy it. They cannot agree on anything, not even on how to share their money out. They think they can run the business - I know they cannot."

And if Bernie does retire, who owns Bernie? According to the Wall Street Journal, Bernie's companies are ultimately owned by Formula One Holdings, based in the Channel Island of Jersey, which is in turn controlled by an Ecclestone Family Trust in the Netherlands, of which Slavica is the Trustee, the party who ultimately controls the Trust assets.

It is rumored that although perhaps $400 million of the $1.4 billion in Bernie Bonds placed in June 1999 has been held by the investment bankers as a reserve, a significant portion of the balance of the proceeds flowed to the Ecclestone Family Trust: what is not known is the extent to which those monies will be ploughed back into the digital TV operation or other sports/entertainment ventures (soccer? tennis? rally cars?), and how much is estate planning by "cashing out" while the getting is good. Suffice it to say that Slavica and the girls have been well provided for by their busy husband and father.

Bernie also seems to be an old-fashioned kind of guy, relying on Formula One doctor Sid Watkins (himself no spring chicken) for the recent recommendation that Bernie have heart bypass surgery when Bernie doubtless could afford to consult with the most renowned of heart surgeons. He prefers the family doctor. As we have seen, Bernie is also old-fashioned about money. Bernie has inveighed (perhaps enviously) against the "dot com" companies in the E-commerce sector who have never turned a profit and the ease with which they seem to be able raise money in the capital markets by comparison to the difficulties Formula One is having raising capital even though it Does Something and has cash flow and a track record.

Bernie's old fashionedness is also manifest in the occasional little kindnesses he reportedly bestows on the less lucky members of the Formula One fraternity from time to time: helping some of the cash-starved teams at the slow end of the pit lane make ends meet and finding then-World Champion Damon Hill a ride at Jordan when his drive with Arrows turned into one embarrassment after another.

Bernie also stepped in when Ralf Schumacher's switch from Jordan to Williams was at a delicate stage, avoiding court action and brokering a settlement in the Kremlin on undisclosed terms, permitting Ralf to leave Jordan and go to Williams.

Most recently, with the Bernie Bonds and the heart surgery behind him, Bernie seems to be spreading his wings and smelling the flowers a bit. On the weekend of the 1999 German Grand Prix, Bernie The Populist took to the fore and reassured everyone that his digital television operation would not phase out traditional terrestrial broadcasts. At a party he gave to promote his digital TV project, he told the press that "[terrestrial TV] will continue forever as far as I am concerned. I have no problem with it [and] I will never stop free-to-air broadcasts of Formula One."

But that is Bernie now, at the end of the Century. Next week, we shall review what he was like when his career in open wheel motor racing began some 50 years ago, and does the road he has traveled since that time give us a glimpse as to how he will manage the future of Formula One.

Thomas C. O'Keefe© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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Thomas C. O'Keefe is a lawyer who practices law in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in New York. He became captivated with Formula One and visiting race-tracks after watching Jimmy Clark cross the finish line to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1965 and following his F1 career thereafter.