Bernie Ecclestone: F1 Puppet Master No Longer Holding The Strings

Pic: CNNPic: CNN

Every time Bernie Ecclestone was under threat, he typically reverted to humor.

After the Formula One supremo was robbed and knocked unconscious by muggers, who got away with his luxury watch, he posed for an advert with the slogan "See what people will do for a Hublot."

And in August 2014, when he escaped a possible 10-year jail term over bribery charges by paying a $100 million fine to German authorities to end the trial early, his Christmas card pictured him handing over a sack of money to a highwayman.

The character stated: "This is not a robbery. I am collecting for the Bavarian state."

When the time finally came for his 40-year-old tenure in charge of Formula 1 to end -- there have been few in any sport spanning such a time frame -- it was humor that he reverted to once more.

Having been named "chairman emeritus" in the changing of the guard, he said: "I get this title without knowing what it means."

For months, rumors have circulated that the 86-year-old's stranglehold on the sport was splintering, but that appeared to have dissipated when elite motorsport's new owners Liberty Media said it wanted Ecclestone to stay on for three more years.

But, when their $8 billion takeover was finally concluded, F1's puppet master was told he was no longer pulling the sporting strings.

Despite that, Ecclestone can claim a remarkable four-decade run at the helm of one of the world's most globally watched sports -- F1 claims only the Olympics and football's World Cup have bigger audiences.

'F1 needs a dictator'

Ecclestone had always said no one man could replace him and so it proved, Chase Carey coming in as CEO with former Brawn GP and Mercedes boss Ross Brawn, and ex-ESPN executive Sean Bratches acting as his right-hand men.

The decision was swift -- Ecclestone told in a phone call from Carey that his time was up.

Carey was quick to praise his predecessor amid the takeover.

"I would like to recognise and thank Bernie for his leadership over the decades," said Carey. "The sport is what it is today because of him and the talented team of executives he has led, and he will always be part of the F1 family."

It was all a far cry from the Singapore Grand Prix last season when Ecclestone had confidently declared, "there is going to be no problem ... we will work together."

Regardless of how things eventually played out, how has Ecclestone managed to hold on to power for so long, despite an ever-changing list of owners over recent decades?

Two-time grand prix winner Johnny Herbert recalls first rubbing shoulders with Ecclestone in his debut season in F1, driving for the Benetton team in 1989.

"Sir Stirling Moss had it spot on the other day when he said F1 needs a dictator," Herbert told CNN. "That's Bernie to a 'T.'

"People talk about him being the great survivor and of his longevity in the sport, and in some ways that's remarkable, but I don't know how realistic it was the many times when it was claimed his tenure at the top of the sport was over.

"If anything, that was simply stirred up by people with an ax to grind against him."

Great salesman

Ecclestone's back story is a compelling one. The son of a fisherman, he left school at the age of 16 and supplemented his income by selling spare motorbike parts.

Read: Meet Formula 1's new owner

His wheeler-dealer approach, which he still attests to today, led to him building one of the biggest motorbike suppliers in Great Britain -- Compton & Ecclestone -- before he turned his attention to F1.

Buying the Brabham team for £100,000 in 1972 -- about $1.65 million in today's valuation -- was his main entry point into the sport, although he had managed the driver Jochen Rindt until he lost his life in a tragic accident two years earlier, and had previously bought two chassis from the disbanded Connaught team as long ago as 1957.

Having enjoyed some success as team boss, including guiding Nelson Piquet to the drivers' titles in 1981 and '83, he sold it for 40 times the price that he paid 15 years earlier.

Taking charge

Ecclestone also became chairman of the Formula One Constructors' Association (FOCA) in 1978.

A power struggle between him and the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) and its president Jean-Marie Balestre ensued, with Ecclestone winning the so-called FISA-FOCA war.

From 1981, FOCA had the right to negotiate television contracts for the grands prix, and effectively Ecclestone has since been like the puppet master for the sport.

From that point he turned it "from a mere enthusiasts' sport into one of the world's most-watched entertainments," according to Tom Bower, who wrote the biography "No Angel" about Ecclestone.

Meanwhile, F1 journalist Maurice Hamilton first crossed paths with Ecclestone in 1974, and they've had what he calls "a working relationship" ever since.

"He's a very sharp guy, that's the thing. He's mentally agile, he thinks about two or three things at once, he weighs everything up and sees the bigger picture," Hamilton tells CNN.

"He's good at thinking out of the box. He thinks of deals before others think of them. And I feel sorry for the people he deals with, like the race promoters, as he'll perpetually outfox them."

'F1 boss until he dies'

At grand prix weekends, people would queue outside Ecclestone's bus -- known as "The Kremlin," befitting considering his close relationship to Russian leader Vladimir Putin -- in order to get an audience with him.

"So many people want to speak to him as he doesn't delegate, he controls everything," Hamilton adds prior to Ecclestone's demise.

"F1's a law unto itself and Bernie set it up that way. They could get rid of him tomorrow but would be left thinking, 'What do we do now?!' Bernie has the answer to everything or most things, or knows someone who does. He has his finger in every conceivable pie from the TV rights to who gets a pass or not.

"Bearing that in mind, I think he'll be in F1 until he dies. He has his wife and daughters but there's nothing else in his life. If he said 'cheerio,' I think he'd be a lost soul."

'Cash from chaos'

Pre-Ecclestone, F1 was in chaos, Hamilton says.

He cites the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix, where as a spectator Hamilton had no idea when the cars would be running.

So shambolic was the sport then, Ferrari did not even turn up for the weekend. Now, says Hamilton, "things run like clockwork."

In the intervening years, the risk taker and maverick has gone from a used-car salesman to a billionaire power broker. His wealth is estimated at £2 billion ($2.6 billion) but there are those in the sport who believe he is worth double that sum.

But change was required in the sport, a decision backed by Felipe Massa, who performed a retirement U-turn recently to stay on at Williams for another year.

"I really like Bernie and I really respect everything he did inside the Formula One business. How big Formula One became is also thanks to him, but I think (Liberty's takeover) is really good for F1," the Brazilian driver tells CNN.

"It can be really important for the future of F1, important for the business of every team. In other sports, teams that are last in the championship, they have money. In Formula One maybe that is not the case.

"There is a lot to do to improve that, there is a lot to do for the fans, the social network, so many things that are part of our life now, and I really believe this is the beginning of a big change."

'My way or the highway'

Change is looming for the sport, if its power brokers embrace things as they have hinted, in a big way.

Ecclestone likes to make the point that he has made a lot of people very wealthy and that "no driver, no person, will ever be bigger than Formula One itself."

There have been controversies from praising Adolf Hitler for being "able to get things done" to saying women should wear white so they were more akin to "domestic appliances."

He was even linked to the notorious Great Train Robbery in the UK in 1963 but laughs off the rumor.

There is a link of sorts in that the getaway driver Roy James -- a silversmith by trade -- would later go on to create the F1 constructors' trophy still used today.

So what next for a figure who befittingly uses the ring tone of Ennio Morricone's score for the western "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" on his mobile phone?

Ecclestone's approach, as he has made clear in the past is thus, "I'd rather do things my way".

But for the first time in the sport's living memory, that will no longer be the case going into the 2017 season.

-CNN


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