Poor Suffolk boy to Formula One billionaire
PUBLISHED: 18:41 03 March 2011
Bernie Ecclestone started life in a poor Suffolk home with no running water and became Formula One's ultimate power-broker. Steven Russell speaks to a writer given unprecedented access to the billionaire.
He’s the fidgety and diminutive guy in trademark white shirt and black trousers, topped by a mop of steely-grey hair, who has turned Formula One into the greatest show on Earth. He’s on the grid before the start of each race, shepherding celebs such as Jennifer Lopez and Sylvester Stallone through the multi-coloured mass of cars, mechanics and TV crews as the seconds tick down, but invariably is on his way home long before the chequered flag falls. He cuts deals with crown princes keen to bring the glamorous circus to their Persian Gulf kingdoms and shakes hands on deals with the likes of Vladimir Putin.
Since 1974, when he began shaping Formula One’s future, Bernie Ecclestone has transformed this pinnacle of motor-racing into a multi-billion-pound global carnival that was last year watched by 527 million TV viewers. The alchemist himself has grown rich through his efforts. He has the trappings of success – a private jet, luxurious houses and a fabulous collection of old cars – but fundamentally he’s said to be abstemious.
His biographer reckons those traits were laid during an austere childhood that began in Suffolk in the autumn of 1930.
Investigative writer Tom Bower – who has previously penned biographies on other major figures with power crackling from their fingertips, such as newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, Mohamed Al Fayed, Gordon Brown, Richard Branson and publisher Conrad Black – enjoyed unprecedented co-operation by Ecclestone, though F1’s chief fixer had no say over what was and wasn’t included. They met regularly in London and flew together to several grands prix.
It was a life that could barely have been imagined by a boy whose first seven or eight years were spent off the beaten track in East Anglia. Home then was a place without an inside loo or water from a tap.
Bernard Charles Ecclestone was born at St Peter South Elmham, south of Bungay, on October 28, 1930. His father, 27-year-old Sidney, scraped a living on the rickety trawler Elnet – the boat sailing from Lowestoft to catch herring and mackerel.
“Bertha, his 23-year-old wife, dominated the household,” writes Tom. “Sharing the chores with Rose Westley, her mother, who lived nearby, the housewife demanded that Sidney hand over his earnings on pay day.”
Strict discipline about money, cleanliness and morality defined the atmosphere at Hawk House.
“Until Bernard’s birth the only noteworthy event in the Ecclestones’ life was the Elnet being tossed on to a beach during a storm in 1928. Ever since, Sidney had sought to escape the harsh seafarer’s life.”
When his son was about two, dad gave up fishing to work as a farmhand. At about the same time, Bertha grew concerned about Bernard’s eyesight.
“With the baby strapped to her back, she cycled twenty miles to the hospital in Norwich,” reports Tom. “The diagnosis was brutal. Her son was nearly blind in his right eye and the defect could not be remedied.”
Three years on and the young lad was taken to primary school at Wissett, near Halesworth, on a horse-drawn milk wagon.
“In the afternoons, under the disciplinary eyes of his mother and grandmother who taught him ‘right from wrong’, he obediently did domestic chores, even collecting horse manure for his mother’s garden.”
About the only enduring tip from Ecclestone’s father, meanwhile, was the sage “Never waste, but always buy the best you can afford.”
He adds: “On reflection Ecclestone realises now that throughout his childhood there was sparse home life. His parents rarely spoke except when his mother became angry and they never went on holiday, not even to the nearby beaches. Ecclestone only saw the sea twice, thanks to a visit arranged by a kind neighbour.”
The family realised there wasn’t much future in the middle of nowhere. Bertha’s sister May had moved in 1935 to Dartford in Kent with her fishmonger husband, followed by her mother.
“In 1938 Bertha, pregnant with her second child, decided to join the exodus.”
The family rented a bungalow and Sidney got a job as a crane driver. The link with Suffolk was broken... It was in Dartford, in 1938, that he had his first-ever birthday party – the cake baked by his aunt. After leaving school, he moves from the local gas board to selling second-hand cars in London, then to racing-team ownership and, further on, the great prize of Formula One’s riches.
Tom’s book is an in-depth account of this entrepreneurial rise from early poverty to billionaire status, with a firm grip on the sport’s commercial opportunities. It’s a warts-and-all tale that doesn’t sidestep the inevitable – and often vicious – clashes that occur when different interests conflict. The biography also examines his relationships with his wives, and issues such as the controversial £1m donation to the Labour Party.
“My work method was to elicit facts from him and others, and put to him his critics’ point of view, and challenge him about the discrepancies,” explains the author.
Importantly, Ecclestone contacted many people with whom he had dealings and asked them to speak to Tom. The book’s title comes from a conversation between the biographer and his subject. “I’ll accept your facilities,” Bower said, “but if I find evidence of wrongdoing or hear any criticism, it will all be published.” After a moment, Ecclestone is said to have replied: “Tom, I’m no angel.”
On those Suffolk roots, Bower says he wasn’t able to squeeze out more detail. The point about Ecclestone is that he’s completely unromantic about the past, says the biographer. He obviously cares about things like his daughters and his old cars, but not about places where he lived years ago.
“I think he doesn’t go back because there’s no happiness there.”
That early sense of austerity – there in both DNA and upbringing – shaped him forever, didn’t it?
“Absolutely true. There’s no doubt that the frugality of his youth has stayed; and although he’s obviously an immensely rich man now, I only noticed a very, very modest way of life – even driving himself to his own airport, to his own jet.
“On the jet, we were flying down to Nice at lunchtime and we had a packet of Smarties between us. There’s absolutely no food – not because he’s mean but because he just doesn’t believe in waste. And that’s all from a youth that was clearly of very, very limited financial provision.
“He had nothing bad to say about his parents, but there clearly wasn’t any real warmth. I think that’s because there was no warmth in the family, so to speak. It was a very austere relationship.
“On the other hand, he was taught how to fend for himself. It was a very puritan childhood, a way of life, and nothing was allowed to intrude into the austerity. Simply, they had no money. Hence he had to fend for himself and, later, begin dealing.
“His father was just a trawlerman. There was no money – a very shabby home. It was austere to the point of frustration, I imagine; and his parents, to me, it seems, didn’t really seek to alleviate the inevitable misery caused by lack of money. There was no joy.”
School? “He hated school. He has nothing good to say about school from the beginning to the end. In his view, it was a complete waste of time. He doesn’t remember any teachers – even the teacher who did teach him maths, which he is good at.”
The Ecclestone life is about money – as a measure of how well he’s done. But even more fundamentally, suggests the writer, it’s about “the winning of the deals”.
He says: “He didn’t do all this for love. He did it because with money came power, and he loves power. You’ve got to remember there is an inverse relationship between his size” – Bernie is under five and a half feet – “and his love of power. There’s no doubt he suffered in the playground and therefore always had to excel to prove himself.
“Although he leads a relatively frugal existence, don’t exaggerate it, though... he carries a wodge of thousands. He eats very carefully. When it comes to cars and planes and homes and hotels, there’s only the best. He can afford the best.”
Does Tom think he’s happy?
“I think happiness for a man who’s achieved that much – and I don’t underestimate it; he has created this astonishing business – is very different. Happiness is getting a good deal. There’s a thing in the book where he comes back from a gambling session and Ann Jones [his secretary] has to write out a cheque after a night out at Crockfords [the London casino] that could buy a medium-sized house, and downstairs she hears him haggling over £5 for a car.
“It’s not the £5, as he says to her, it’s the deal. It’s the deal that gives him happiness. If he thinks he’s got a great deal, that makes him happy: if he thinks he’s got the better of somebody.”
That, Tom feels, is the essence of a businessman.
“The reason you’re interviewing me, and vice versa, is that we’re not businessmen. We get happiness from writing, and interviewing people for a newspaper. He gets happiness from the deal and making huge amounts of money. The extension of that is in the gambler, because if you can beat the bank or beat other people playing, that is the pleasure. You’ve won. The challenge is getting the better of others.”
Ecclestone is never going to retire, is he? They’ll have to carry him out in a box.
“Absolutely. And that’s terrific. He’s 80, but has got the mind of a 50-year-old. It’s phenomenal.”
The sport will carry on when Ecclestone departs, but will be different.
“No one man could do his job, and no one man could command the authority that he commands. I think they’re thinking of two or three people taking over from him.”
Tom was pleasantly surprised that Ecclestone granted the kind of access never before given – seeing it as a challenge.
“When we met, I gave him an hour of all the amazing anecdotes of the Maxwells and Rowlands and Fayeds and Bransons and Gordon Brown, and God knows who else I’ve written about, and it was very entertaining; and he thought ‘This will be a lot of fun.’ And it was. We had a lot of laughs.”
The F1 ringmaster – always respected in the sport, but often feared because of his ability to push for the best deal when holding the best hand – does have an enormous sense of humour, says the author. There is often a twinkle in his eye.
“He is a very, very engaging person.”
Ecclestone didn’t receive a copy of the manuscript before publication and Tom doubts he has read the book, or ever will. Does the writer have any worries about airing some of the contentious issues?
“No. I put very brutal facts to him. I mean, I think the only way you can deal with people like that is to be absolutely upfront and straightforward; otherwise they don’t have respect for you.”
Trouble is, they can afford good lawyers if they don’t like something...
“I told him in my original letter of agreement; I said ‘I’ve been sued by Robert Maxwell and” – he adds more names – “and all lost. You’re very welcome to have your go if you want!’
“He won’t sue. Every time we got to a position where I put something embarrassing to him, and he would then say ‘I can’t remember’, I said ‘Well, that won’t do you any good in court!’.”
Did Ecclestone enjoy such banter?
“I think he did. I once said to him, actually – we were sitting on the plane, flying back from somewhere or other – and I said ‘Bernie, you’ve been very tolerant and very patient. Are you enjoying it?’ And he said ‘Well, if I didn’t enjoy it, Tom, I’d tell you to **** off!’.”
No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone is published by Faber and Faber, price £18.99