A Billionaire's Life's Work: Bernard Charles Ecclestone And Formula 1
It will be difficult for historians of commerce and sport to find a finer and more vertiginous roller-coaster ride of a business biography on either side of the Atlantic than that of Bernard Charles “Bernie” Ecclestone, the hard-nosed son of a presumably no-nonsense Suffolk commercial fisherman, who clawed his way to become the boss of Formula 1 racing for the last forty years, and not least, sits now astride a family fortune estimated at $2.9 billion
After months of speculation, most of it powered by the fate of his 18 per cent ownership in Delta Topco, F1's parent company, Ecclestone was finally and rather unceremoniously deposed by new Formula 1 owners Liberty Media – which is to say, by fellow billionaire and fellow Forbes List denizen John Malone – on Sunday, January 22.
Given size of the (reported) $6-billion deal, a healthy percentage of which came to Ecclestone and his daughters, the moderate levels of awkwardness at the moment of the transition a few days ago were, like an F1 track that had received some gouges in a wreck, brightly paved over in the following days with Bernie's acceptance of a 'chairman emeritus' advisory role. Hard-charging new F1 boss Chase Carey will bring much fun to his reign, and Liberty Media's new marketing plans are likely to be extremely helpful to the sport's image.
But Ecclestone's exit, by itself, marks an epoch in global business. In fact, Ecclestone's great success and the foundation of his $2.9 billion fortune is his early realization, in blunt, son-of-a-Suffolk-fisherman terms, that the global marketplace could be a place for the business of selling dreams to the masses. When Ecclestone became head of Formula One in 1978, let us recall, the internet was still relegated to the military and some academics, not to mention 'social media,' which had yet to be incarnated. Born in 1930, Ecclestone's generation was to be informed by the invention of television. And television rights to Formula One's racing season turned out to be worth billions.
In his role as what the British racing press called “F1 Supremo,” Ecclestone was nothing if not an entertainer. He grew the appeal of the sport as he grew his own role in it. The dreams he enticed millions with came in the form of a charivari, a massive globe-trotting roadshow that pushed really expensive cars to their technological and mechanical limits with a cast of glamorous, really talented drivers.
It was a great idea, and Ecclestone had the tenacity to keep his eye on the ball for forty years, an extraordinary term of office for any executive, let alone the executive of a fraught, money-burning, gas-guzzling, extreme sport such as Formula One. Along the way Ecclestone founded the Formula 1 Maker's Association, brokered peace among the various teams at crucial moments, and engineered the two great engines of cash that made the recent deal so valuable to Liberty in the first place – the F1 television rights, and the glamorization, if you will, of F1 as a kind of running, real-life Bond movie, a sport with no borders. There aren't a whole lot of 'world' sports that appeal to a cross-section of classes. Despite Formula 1's flagons-of-champagne-in-Monaco posture, and with it, Bernie made the sport into one of those.
He was a circus master adept at juggling all sorts of representatives of the species – here Flavio Briatore, there Nikki Lauda, here Lewis Hamilton, there Vladimir Putin. Ecclestone's is, finally, a story of intense and innate flexibility. Criticized roundly in the industry press for his inflexibility in his recent, later years, he was nevertheless still busily adding host countries to the great long list of tracks to be run.
It's a lesson for us that a perceived, public 'business death,' is not, actually mortal. As such, it's a thing to be celebrated that the gruff man is still among us with his pared-down, acerbic, no-nonsense style, his silver mop intact, his diminutive body ramrod straight. Even at a hale eighty-six, this master showman's next act should be great fun to watch.
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