He's 81 and 5ft 3in but Ecclestone is still motorsport's Mr Big
22:34 GMT, 6 July 2012
There is now a buzzer on the wall next to the door at the bottom of the dark-glass tower near Hyde Park that is Bernie Ecclestone's mint. My identity established, the door opens and I walk down a corridor to a desk.
I ask to speak to Mr Ecclestone. He is known as Bernie around the globe, but that is not how he is referred to in his office. I am Mr McEvoy to them in this James Bond-style world.
Serious business: Ecclestone has been at the forefront of Formula One for more than 30 years
They lead me into a meeting room. A light wood table surrounded by racing car seats sits in the middle. A fireman's helmet, an artwork depicting a million dollars piled high, a certificate honouring Mr Ecclestone's 2008 honorary.
Doctor of Science degree from Imperial College, a striking, purple-dominated modern painting and a picture of him and Niki Lauda at Monaco in perhaps the Seventies, inscribed by Lauda, the thrice champion of the world, with the words: 'A lot of people are tall. Only few have a big heart. You are one of them. You make us look small.'
The door opens and Bernard Charles Ecclestone, 81, 5ft 3in tall, wearing a well-pressed open-neck white shirt, mop-haired, squinting slightly behind those John Lennon glasses, comes in.
'Get out of here,' he says. 'The builders are working outside the window. Let's go next door. They're nice chaps and they're only doing their jobs, but the noise is a problem.'
He grasps my hand as if to shake it, but almost pulls me into the corridor and ushers me through another door a few feet away.
Ecclestone and fiancee Fabiana Flosi
Before talking Margaret Thatcher, his unsuitability for a German prison cell, his 'lavish' wedding plans, his disapproval of daughter Tamara's television parade of wealth, his plans for a genuine grand prix in London and, would you credit it, contemplation for the first time that Formula One is planning for a future without him, why the buzzer
'We had a new girl on the switchboard,' he says, typically sotto voce. 'She let these blokes in wearing helmets. You have been here a few times. You couldn't find the lift, could you No. They walked straight up to the lift and up to the fourth floor. They looked around the floor.
'They went down into the basement, which is bizarre because it doesn't say basement. They opened up the back door, which has locks all over it. We saw it on CCTV and went down to have a look. They said they were supposed to be looking for a laptop. We asked who their boss was. They wouldn't say anything. I said we'd better call the police.
'The police looked at the images. One of
the guys was out on licence. The police said we have to be a bit more
secure than before, so we got that buzzer.'
Taking a spin: Wet weather caused havoc on first day of British Grand Prix
It was in November 2010 that Ecclestone was mugged outside this very building as he and his then Brazilian girlfriend, now his 35-year-old fiance, Fabiana Flosi, went out. Was this intrusion connected No, he says, the police had already locked up the culprits who kicked and punched him in one of around 25 such cases in the area that the Met would rather we did not read about.
Ecclestone is spry. He sleeps
six-and-a-half hours a night and works ferociously hard when he is
awake. But despite that, he knows that CVC, the private equity firm who
own Formula One, are pondering the long term. Ecclestone's boss, since
selling the sport's commercial rights to CVC and running the business as
its chief executive, is Donald Mackenzie.
'Donald is happy about me doing what I
do,' says Ecclestone. 'But what to do when I'm gone is a concern for
him. If I'm dead or if I run away, he'll obviously need to sort out some
kind of succession.
told him that he should run it in a different way. If I wasn't here it
wouldn't be one person running things but more like a few people.'
So when will Ecclestone stop 'Past
100, I'm definitely out. I don't know who should do it – honestly
there's nobody I despise enough that I would wish this on them.'
How is his health, following a triple coronary bypass in 1999 'Fine.
No problems.' Does he have a regular health check 'Thanks for reminding
me. I should have gone last year. I go to a place in Austria. The days
of a doctor feeling your pulse are over. They put you in a tube and the
machine does the rest.'
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Conversation turns to the London
Grand Prix. Two schemes have materialised: one around the Olympic
Stadium, which is unlikely to win approval from the London Legacy
Development Corporation, and a fanciful notion attached to a
publicity-hungry bank whose name we shall not mention more than we have
Ecclestone: 'A long
time ago we really looked at it properly with the old mayor and a lot of
people from the City. I said, “I need you guys to put some money in
because it will obviously be bringing a lot of money in”. They did
eventually decide they could, possibly, find 3million – perhaps. I said
with the number of meetings we'd need to have it wouldn't pay for the
mineral water so we need to get serious, which we never did.
'What's been put to me more recently is something around the Olympic
area. These people, (the bidders, Intelligent Transport Solutions Ltd
from Wanstead, east London), wanted my permission to go with a race
proposal. It looks a bit complicated. Someone is going to take over the
site and they probably won't want F1 charging through there.
'Then this other thing came up, which was a Santander publicity stunt. They devised a computer-generated London race. They showed me their idea two or three months ago and said, “It looks good. It looks exciting. It's good publicity for the British Grand Prix and Santander”.
'I said you're bloody right it is. And before I knew it I was apparently the one who was behind it. I didn't know about it to be honest, but I accepted the credit.
'I did say – not in relation to that one – that if we could have a race in London, we would be prepared to pay 35m to make it happen.
'I will try to resurrect what we originally discussed with the sports minister and the old mayor, er, er, what's his name, Mr Ken Livingstone, some years ago. I will try to get that back on track.'
Those plans are in Formula One Management's archives at Biggin Hill and Ecclestone is in the process of digging them out. He will talk to Boris Johnson about the idea.
'Whatever we do in London, it won't harm Silverstone,' he says.
'They have done the work they needed to do. It took them 20-odd years
to get round to it but everything's fine now. When I got them out of
financial trouble with the people they were involved with about 10 years
ago, they had enough money to have done what they needed to do, but
they didn't. Now they have and it's great. Super.'
Ecclestone is relaxed, his humour sardonic. He laughs with a smile
rather than a roar. You would little know from his demeanour that he is
connected to a bribery case in Germany that has seen a former banker
called Gerhard Gribkowsky jailed for eight-and-a-half years.
Gribkowsky, who was the chief risk
officer at BayernLB, was accused of accepting $44m (now 28m) from
Ecclestone as a bribe to undervalue Formula One's shares when the
business was sold to CVC in 2006. Ecclestone denies this, saying that
he gave Gribkowsky the money because the German had threatened to go to
HM Revenue & Customs with 'false evidence' claiming that Ecclestone
was more involved in the running of his family trust, Bambini Holdings,
than he should have been.
Gribkowsky confessed last month to tax evasion, breach of trust towards
his former employer and being in receipt of corrupt payments.
So will Ecclestone be charged Will he go to jail 'No. I don't think I'd like it, so why would I go' he smiles.
'Seriously, it's nothing to do with
us. My lawyers say we shouldn't discuss it. In the end I travelled over
to be a witness at the trial. There were 41 other witnesses and the guy
has been dealt with. They haven't finished with him yet because he's
'I haven't done
anything wrong. Absolutely. No, I didn't bribe anybody. I've told them I
would willingly go there to be a witness again. Three times I've been
purely to help already.'
He would rather talk about those Formula One pioneers Colin Chapman and
Enzo Ferrari, always referred to by him as Mr Ferrari. They help inform
how Ecclestone, who has built the sport into his own billion dollar
empire over more than 30 years – having been a team owner before – acts
in a life that mixes sport and business.
Connection: Former banker Gerhard Gribkowsky (left)
He reveals that the 2013-2020 Concorde Agreement, the contract that binds the teams, Ecclestone's commercial rights holders and the governing FIA to the sport, is agreed in all its commercial elements. Even Mercedes, who had threatened to walk out on Formula One if they did not receive a larger slice of money, are on side.
'Total agreement,' he confirms. 'We are just talking to the lawyers -“why have you used this word, that word”. Typical lawyers but everything's fine. Commercially it's done.
'Now what we've got to do is look at how the technical regulations are made. It should be the teams, though not all the teams, who do that. They are the people who have to come up with the money, not the FIA. It would be the established teams who are here to stay – Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull, Mercedes and probably Williams as old timers – deciding what to do.'
For all the high-rolling Ecclestone
represents – he is 'ready to push the button' on a stock market
floatation of Formula One 'when the markets are right' – he lives an
dinner with him and he will order an omelette. He might sip at the wine
but he really prefers a cool beer to relax at home, his shoes kicked
Bernie and daughter Tamara
That life is now shared with Flosi, whom he first met at the Brazilian Grand Prix. They are engaged, so, surely, a billionaire's glitzy wedding awaits. 'We don't have a date for it,' he says. 'Will it be lavish I've been trying to find a venue – and I've been looking everywhere, not just London – that is a nice restaurant, which doesn't have too many people in it, for a table for two. It will be a miniscule wedding.'
Yet he adds: 'I got in trouble with my ex (Slavica) and she was quite right. We got married in a register office. I had to ring Max (Mosley) to get his secretary to be a witness. And then I went straight back to the office. Not very romantic. No photographs. And I feel sorry for her.'
His daughters, who remain fiercely loyal to their mother but are at least partly reconciled to Flosi's arrival, are not so reticent with displays of wealth. Petra married in a 5m extravaganza of live music and fireworks in a castle.
'It was a big party that happened to have a wedding,' says Ecclestone. 'I don't like those sort of parties. She wanted it that way. It was what her mum wanted to achieve after I was a miserable b*****d about our wedding. I was happy for them both.
'I had to do something at the time that upset me. I had to give her away. I'd rather have sold her. It all went very well.
'My relations with the girls are super, super. It is difficult for them to accept a new woman in my life while their mother is still there. I'm glad they are close to her. She can point them in the right direction.'
Speaking of which, what did Ecclestone make of his older daughter Tamara starring in Channel 5's Billion $$ Girl, a programme that chronicled the 'naked truth about the life of the billionaire heiress and socialite'.
'I watched half of one of the programmes and turned it off. I thought it was a totally unnecessary thing to do. And I told her that at the time. It is good for people watching but not for her. That was my opinion. She was happy because she got a lot of publicity.
'Actually, she does an enormous amount of charity work. We don't talk about that. She is behind the money we raise for Great Ormond Street Hospital. The young lady I am with ran the marathon because of it and raised thousands.'
How much has he donated to good work over the years Millions 'Sure. Over a long time. We have built schools and hospitals in Brazil.' So is he politically aware Does he vote 'No, no.' Never 'No. I find the right guy usually comes out on top.
'Actually, I did vote for Boris. He's doing a good job. I liked Margaret Thatcher, too. Leaders like her and Churchill – the real greats – got things done. They really ran the country. The buck stopped there. Now there are too many compromises.'
It is his style. A usually benign dictatorship, you might say.
His enjoyment is derived from 'getting the job done in the right way'. He has his walkie-talkie with him at Silverstone, micro and macro managing at the same time.
'I tell you something. This is what I like more than anything at the moment: you can't tell who's going to win any race. It could be four or five drivers at Silverstone. Probably Seb (Vettel). It would be nice to see him win. Or Michael (Schumacher). He is my hero – my favourite of the last decade.
'When I play Seb at backgammon he gets so aggravated when he loses. I tell him he should not get so angry because he loses most of the time.' That's Bernie Ecclestone. Still winning at 81.