BERNIE ECCLESTONE started out as a simple used-car salesman and went on to transform Formula One into one of the most profitable sports in the world.
And after a German court in Munich, Germany, recently agreed to accept his $100-million payment to have a bribery trial halted, the British magnate’s grip on F1 remains unshakeable.
The 83-year-old had refused pointblank to step aside despite the legal storm swirling around him over the corruption allegations. He denied charges of bribery and abetting breach of trust in relation to a $44-million payment he made to former banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, which was linked to the sale of Formula One’s rights in 2006 and 2007.
Although he had faced a possible 10-year prison sentence if found guilty, those in the F1 paddock had remained steadfast allies throughout Ecclestone’s troubles.
“F1 is what it is, thanks to Bernie Ecclestone, to the way he has built this sport over the past 35 years,” Christian Horner, team principal at world champions Red Bull, said last year when asked about a possible succession.
“I think that without him we would have big problems.”
Despite his advancing years, Ecclestone brushed off suggestions that he was soon to retire in typically pugnacious fashion before February’s British High Court action related to the same case. Insisting then that his legal woes would not lead him to resign, he told German newspaper Bild; “I don’t see why I should do that, I will do what I have always done—keep working and do my job.”
Dubbed “Napoleon” because of his five-foot-three-inch stature and firm control over F1, Ecclestone’s fortune is valued by Forbes magazine at $4.2 billion, making him one of the richest 400 people in the world.
He is no stranger to controversy.
He was in the spotlight in late 1997 over a donation of $2.3 million to the British Labor Party of then prime minister Tony Blair, which subsequently authorized the continued use of tobacco advertising by the sport.
Holder of a degree from Woolwich Polytechnic in southeast London, Ecclestone, known for his gray mop-top hairstyle, began his career selling cars and motorcycles in the capital, and also briefly drove racecars himself.
However, his career was cut short by an accident in the early 1970s, and he set up the Brabham team. Then, with competitors, he established the Formula One Constructors’ Association, gathering around him the other chiefs of motor racing stables to defend their interests against what became the International Automobile Federation (FIA).
One of the first to recognize the potential in sponsorship, he became the exclusive manager of F1 rights, taking the helm of Formula One Management, negotiating with circuits, advertisers and television stations.
“The contracts he negotiated, the circuits and the countries to which he brought F1, are remarkable,” Horner has said. “As long as he has the passion and enthusiasm to continue it is in our interests that he does it as long as possible.
“The day he is no longer there our sport will go much less well,” said the man some see as a potential successor.
Ecclestone’s fortune has been little dented despite his having had to pay out $1.3 billion to divorce his wife Slavica—the mother of two of his children, Tamara and Petra. In 2012, he remarried— to Fabiana Flosi, 46 years his junior and whom he met at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
The Munich trial represented a huge test for Ecclestone, as German justice is not known for its lenient treatment of sporting figures—Boris Becker was badly bruised by his scrap with it and former Bayern Munich President Uli Hoeness was sentenced to a jail term for tax fraud.