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Fascinating insight into the life of the ultimate fixer.
on 26 August 2015
Having followed Formula 1 for over 30 years, I was always intrigued by exactly how Bernie Ecclestone achieved his dominance of the sport, becoming a billionaire in the process. Frequently described as the 'ringmaster', what is his official role, what powers does he have, and did he come by them honestly?
Written by respected journalist Tom Bower, mostly with the cooperation of its subject, this book provides at least some of the answers. It is essentially a chronology, going right back to Ecclestone’s wartime childhood in south east London, and continuing up to 2011. It thus covers his journey from dodgy mileage-fixing South London used car dealer and occasional racer, to F1 team boss, and eventually private jet-owning billionaire, mixing with heads of state, captains of industry, and Hollywood stars, and seeing off all attempts to dislodge him over multiple decades.
The narrative is mostly entertaining and informative, although I found myself glazing at the sheer amount of detail, particularly around the various financial transactions. Ecclestone’s tactics of rummaging through the waste basket after meetings, of inserting killer clauses into contracts then keeping the only copies, encouraging and exploiting divisions between F1 team owners, and of general secrecy and half-truths, are more interesting than the actual numbers.
There are fascinating insights into various episodes, including Ecclestone’s alleged involvement in the Great Train Robbery (exposed as a myth that Ecclestone seemed happy to foster, as it added to his mystique); his infamous £1M donation to Tony Blair’s Labour party in an effort to neutralise plans for a ban on tobacco advertising; the ‘spygate’ affair, which ended up with his nemesis Ron Dennis and his McLaren team being fined a barely-credibly $100M for using technical secrets obtained from a disgruntled Ferrari employee; various examples of driver misbehaviour, including Schumacher deliberately taking out both Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve; and his recent run-in with the courts (which he somehow survived, albeit at a cost of $100M) over his alleged bribery of the banker Gerhard Gribkowsky during the sale of his stake in F1 to the private equity firm CVC partners.
Frankly very few of the main characters emerge with much credit as human beings. Max Mosley, Ron Dennis, Jean-Marie Balestre, Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman, Luca de Montezemelo, Flavio Briatore, Michael Schumacher, and especially Ecclestone himself, all come across as deeply unlikeable and, in various combinations, ruthless, duplicitous, petulant, self-important, confrontational, greedy, immoral, and frequently dishonest. A few, such as Damon Hill and Nikki Lauda, emerge as reasonably honourable, but they are in the minority. The description of Monaco as ‘a sunny place full of shady people’ was never more apt.
It would be too simplistic to attribute Ecclestone’s extraordinary drive to a Napoleonic small-man complex, or a street urchin’s contempt for the privileged blazer-wearing types at the FIA and the BDRC, and the author admits that the man remains an enigma. Certainly ‘No Angel’ per the title, and willing to bend or break any rule in the pursuit of his goals, but utterly convinced of being the best man for the job, even in his mid-eighties. We will never see his like again.
As a book, there is little here for the casual observer, but anyone with more than a passing interest in motor racing will find plenty to entertain and inform.