Atlas F1 Formula Bernie
(Tobacco + TV + Tracks = $2 Billion)

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 II

Bernie Ecclestone is a child of the Depression, born on October 28, 1930, which may explain an attitude toward money shared by many in his generation: you can never have enough of it. A Wall Street Journal profile of Bernie quoted him as saying: "there are two things one should never talk about: money and the woman from the night before."

Bernie left school at 15 and although he ultimately got a chemical engineering degree from Woolwich Polytechnic, even as a teenager he was competing in motorsports, both on motorcycles and eventually racing a 500cc Formula 3 Cooper on a regular basis until he had a big shunt at Brands Hatch in September 1951. Indeed, there is a photo published in Formula One photographer Geoff Goddard's Track Pass book showing Bernie finishing a close second to John Cooper at one of those 500cc Formula 3 events in 1951. But after the Brands Hatch accident, the 21-year-old Ecclestone began to focus on the business side of motorsports rather than on driving, first running a motorcycle and car dealership in Bexleyheath, Kent, and later on moving into driver management and team ownership.

By the late fifties, Bernie had become an early form of Craig Pollock, managing the promising British driver Stuart Lewis-Evans, who drove for the financially strapped Connaught team and later on for Vanwall. Bernie also bought two of the Connaughts when offered at a liquidation sale in October 1957 and ran the cars in the New Zealand Tasman series and in Europe in 1958 as a privateer, the Sauber's of the time, admired for their pluck and the fit and finish of the cars but never a real contender.

Lewis-Evans was signed by Vanwall in 1958 so Bernie himself took one last stab at driving, trying unsuccessfully to qualify his own Connaught for the 1958 Formula One race at Monaco; he was also a non-starter at Silverstone later on in the 1958 season, his last official attempt to enter a Formula One race as a driver. (Maybe that's why Bernie does not have such warm feelings about Silverstone).

In the last race of the 1958 season, the Moroccan Grand Prix at Casablanca, Lewis-Evans crashed heavily in his Vanwall and died six days later of burns suffered in the accident. The loss of Lewis-Evans, taken together with struggles with his privately entered Connaughts, understandably took away Bernie's appetite for Formula One for several years.

In the mid-1960's Bernie moved into property development and finance and prospered. He also re-emerged as a visible force in Formula One, as manager of an up and coming Austrian driver, Jochen Rindt. Ex-Aston Martin sports car and ex-Cooper Formula One driver Roy Salvadori, a friend of Bernie, had become manager of the Cooper team, and introduced Bernie to Rindt in the mid-1960's when Rindt drove for Cooper.

Bernie guided Rindt's career from then on, as Rindt went from Cooper, to Brabham and ultimately to Lotus. As with Lewis-Evans, Rindt was also to die tragically, crashing in his Lotus during practice for the September 6, 1970 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Rindt was having a great year and had accumulated enough points to be named World Champion posthumously. Although Bernie no longer managed drivers after Jochen Rindt's death, he has subsequently become enmeshed in a host of driver trades over the years, still plying the principles of the agentry trade he learned so well back then.

Jack Brabham retired from driving at the end of the 1970 Formula One season; the Brabham team's fortunes plummeted under the stewardship of Brabham's remaining co-venturer, Ron Tauranac, Brabham's design engineer and a fellow Australian. Ron Tauranac sought help from Bernie in managing the team, Motor Racing Developments (MRD), out of the doldrums.

In the winter of 1971/1972 Bernie ultimately bought the whole shooting match at MRD for a song, and in an inspired move, put Gordon Murray (the Adrian Newey of the time) in charge of developing the next Brabham. Murray designed several beautiful and successful Brabhams - the BT44 (white with split nose radiators with "Martini" sponsorship), the BT45 (red Brabham/Alfa cars), the BT46B (the one-race "fan car", banned after winning) and the BT52 (the blue and white "Parmalat" cars), which resuscitated the team and ultimately led to World Championships for Bernie and for Brabham driver Nelson Piquet in 1981 and 1983.

With Bernie's focus increasingly on the commercial side of Formula One, and Piquet leaving the team at the end of 1985, the Brabham team floundered and once again tragedy struck when new driver Elio de Angelis was killed testing a Brabham BT 55 (the low-line design with Olivetti sponsorship) in 1986 at Paul Ricard, the circuit Bernie's client Excelsis recently acquired. Gordon Murray left in 1986 and Bernie withdrew the team from competition at the end of the 1987 season.

As Brabham entered its final death throes, Bernie put MRD on a "workout" footing, stripping assets off as best he could while the company was still afloat. He sold MRD to Ferrari's owners, the Fiat Group, as part of an effort to develop a so-called "ProCar" saloon car series.

Bernie sold the Brabham name and the rest of the assets of the team to a Swiss financier. In 1989, the team returned to racing as the Brabham-Judd but its new owner found himself in prison for tax evasion before the end of the season. The team passed into the hands of the Japanese Middlebridge Group company in 1990, but the Brabham team's fortunes and sponsorship continued to decline until 1992, when Damon Hill had the distinction of taking a Brabham BT60B-Judd GV V10 to the grid for the last time in the Hungarian Grand Prix, finishing 11th, four laps down. Giovanna Amati, a promising woman driver trying to move up from F3000, was also snake bitten by the BT60B, failing to qualify in South Africa, Mexico and Brazil and thereafter being replaced by Damon Hill.

Bernie and Max: The Odd Couple as Rebels With a Cause

During his period of Brabham ownership Bernie forged an alliance with Max Mosley, who was at that time one of the owners of another British Formula One privateer group, the March team. From their resumes, you would not have predicted Bernie and Max as a match made in heaven.

Max, in his university days, was secretary of the prestigious Oxford Union and became a respected lawyer before venturing into Formula One. Mosley and EcclestoneLike Bernie, Max also dabbled as a driver in Formula 2 and as a club racer. Max also came from a storied family in the British aristocracy: his father, Sir Oswald Mosley, was a controversial British politician in the 1930's who thought Britain should move away from parliamentary government and toward a more authoritarian form of government. Max's mother was Diana Mitford, sister of Nancy Mitford, the writer. By contrast, Bernie is a bit of a cockney who went to the School of Hard Knocks and whose father was a trawler captain. Bernie and Max are clear and convincing empirical evidence of the validity of the scientific principle that opposites attract.

In the early 1980's, Bernie and Max and the other constructors formed a group called the Formula One Constructor's Association (FOCA) and they had a common enemy: the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA), the governing body of Formula One that was forerunner of what is now the Federation Internationale de l'Autombile (FIA). Although Bernie and Max are The Establishment now, at that time the people who headed FISA were The Powers That Be, and Bernie and Max were the Insurgents. They learned their lessons well on the topic that was at issue in the so-called FISA/FOCA War: who should control the commercial and promotional rights to Formula One racing, the governing body (FISA) or the people who were behind the Formula One teams (FOCA).

But Bernie and Max were lucky in their adversary, Jean-Marie Balestre, the head of FISA, who had been with the French Resistance in World War II but who had never encountered the kind of guerrilla warfare Bernie and Max were capable of bringing on. At some point in the dispute, Bernie and Max threatened to begin a breakaway Formula One series and made some bravado attempts in that direction without notable success; FISA, for its sabre-rattling gesture tried to run races without the FOCA teams, leading to certain races not counting toward the championship in 1979 and 1980. Neither side had enough muscle to prevail but the whole controversy had the effect of dragging both sides down and leading them to the bargaining table.

Political controversies within Formula One continued to simmer throughout the winter of 1980 in the run-up to the 1981 season and the issues were ultimately resolved only once the aging Enzo Ferrari (then 82) intervened in the marathon negotiations on January 19, 1981, that went on for 13 hours straight; the press conference announcing the solution was held in Maranello not Paris (which was FISA's headquarters) with Bernie and Balestre sitting at the right hand of the venerable Commendatore, looking on like cherubic choir boys!

Following up on the Maranello conclave, in March 1981, after 29 days of non-stop negotiation amongst squadrons of lawyers at FISA's offices near the Place du la Concorde in Paris, the first Concorde Agreement was entered into which established once and for all the jurisdictional boundaries as between FISA (sporting rules) and FOCA (commercial rights) and the distribution of monies that flow into Formula One.

Although much of the 100 plus page Concorde Agreement is still confidential, it is known that various amendments have led to a distribution of television revenues as follows: 47% for the teams and the balance for Formula One Administration Ltd., which owns the broadcast rights, and International Sportsworld Communications, which markets those rights, both Bernie's corporate vehicles. A long-term, 10-year renewal of the Concorde Agreement was announced early in 1999, an important element in the proposed $2 billion public stock offering by Bernie's company.

Having vanquished the officialdom of Balestre's FISA in 1981, at the beginning of the 1982 Bernie and the other constructors had another brushfire to deal with: labor/management problems with the drivers. In the days just before January 23, 1982, the day of the South African Grand Prix, the first race of the 1982 season, Didier Pironi, Gilles Villeneuve's teammate at Ferrari, as a self-appointed shop steward, led a drivers' strike at Kyalami opposing a new rule by which drivers were contractually bound to their teams. There is entertaining footage from that South African Grand Prix of team owners negotiating among themselves while the drivers left the racetrack in a bus and threatened not to race, including the last minute face-to-face negotiations between Ecclestone and Pironi that ultimately resolved the issue for the moment and permitted the race to go forward.

How things change: can you imagine Eddie Irvine leading a drivers' strike in 1999 and Bernie and Max condescending to actually meeting with him? And if they did meet, discussions today between management and labor would probably be about whether the Gulfstream V is all it's cracked up to be or whether it is better to go with a pre-owned Falcon Jet or Challenger and whether to lease or buy, those kind of excruciating issues.

In the next installment of this article, we will fast forward to the controversies that currently bedevil Bernie, including the European Commission antitrust proceeding that has been brought against Formula One and that could threaten its future.

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.