Bernie Ecclestone, CEO of Formula One Administrator, and the man credited with transforming F1 into the glamorous, cash-rich sport that we know and love, celebrates his 80th birthday today (28th October).
The man labelled 'F1 supremo' by the press certainly divides opinion; he is regarded as a person of great importance in many countries (China, Brazil, Korea and Japan to name four), but in the UK is derided as either a figure of fun, or as some sort of dictator.
Whether it is jokes about his height, dislike of his success and the considerable fortune he has accrued, or his perceived greed as he expands F1 beyond its traditional European heartland to more exotic locations, he is mockingly caricatured and vilified.
There have been some rather questionable comments made by Ecclestone, particularly in recent years (more on these later), which have done him no favours in the media, but is he deserving of this image amongst some of his fellow countrymen?
Bernard Charles Ecclestone was born near Bungay, Suffolk in 1930. As World War II came to an end, he began building up a motorcycle spares business, and eventual became a second-hand car dealer. At this point, Ecclestone was merely a motor racing fan, but did amass enough money to buy the failing Connaught team, allowing him to enter F1. However, it was quickly realised that Ecclestone was a better businessman than he was a driver. He entered two races in 1958 – the Monaco and British Grand Prix – and failed to qualify for both.
His involvement in motorsport then switched to managing drivers Stuart Lewis-Evans and Jochen Rindt, and then in 1972 brought the Brabham team.
Under Bernie's' stewardship, Nelson Piquet secured two of his three drivers' titles at Brabham, but as the team were competing for success on track, the ever-shrewd Ecclestone was founding the Formula One Constructors Association, a big step towards his rise to the top of the sport.
Along with lawyer and friend Max Mosley, Ecclestone gradually gained control of the sports' management and finances. The F1 commercial rights have since hands a few times (for a great deal of money), but the octogenarian remains in control of the operation.
And this control is one of the areas where Ecclestone receives much of his criticism. It is widely regarded that Formula 1 is ruled as a dictatorship. The perceived autocrat Ecclestone surrounds himself by trusted people, such as Charlie Whiting, who worked at Brabham in the 1970s, and is now FIA race director, safety delegate, permanent starter, and head of the F1 technical department.
But Bernie believes that this totalitarian ruling style is effective – and looking at the success of the sport (only football and the Olympics games have a larger worldwide television audience) it is difficult to argue.
However, in July last year, he famously shared his opinions on such a leadership style with The Times newspaper: “If you have a look at a democracy it hasn't done a lot of good for many countries – including this one.” Ecclestone got into more trouble when he elaborated on this point, saying that Hitler 'could command a lot of people able to get things done'. He did later confess to 'idiocy' in praising the former German ruler.
There are other incidents of Ecclestone putting his foot in his mouth with politically incorrect comments, including those made about Danica Patrick after she came fourth in the Indy 500 in 2005. (“I’ve got one of these wonderful ideas that women should be all dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances” being a particularly memorable quote). He did later apologise.
In terms of the vast fortune Ecclestone has amassed, he sits 38th in the 2010 Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated value of £1,375m – down £91m from 2009 mainly due to the recent divorce from wife Slavica.
Kevin Eason, motor racing correspondent for The Times, argues in today's newspaper that many F1 names have also got considerably wealthy in Ecclestone's wake. In fact, Michael Schumacher, as one of the worlds' few billionaire sportsmen, is used as an example.
Whether this is a good thing or not is for you to judge. Some will think that such accumulation of wealth is vulgar, unnecessary and greedy. Others will congratulate Bernie's entrepreneurial skills and say that he is right to enjoy his fortune.
One of the biggest criticisms that Ecclestone receives from proper F1 fans, however, is not a product of hearsay from the press. It is the genuine concern that he is prepared to forsake well-established, historically rich European race tracks in favour of government-subsidised venues on the other side of the world with no motor racing heritage.
British fans have first-hand experience of this side of Ecclestone, thanks largely to the uncertainty that has surrounded our grand prix over the last decade. Ecclestone will no doubt argue that market-forces have to come into play, and he can't give Silverstone a race for nothing whereas countries like Singapore, China and Korea are prepared to pay tens of millions of pounds for the privilege of hosting a race. He also has bosses CVC Capital Partners who want to maximise profit from their investment in Formula 1, and can't be seen to be giving special favours to some countries.
There are also other reasons to exploit other global markets. Races in exotic locations boost the marketing potential of Formula 1, attracting larger sponsors with deeper wallets. It is questionable as to whether a fan sitting at home in Britain gets much benefit from this extra investment – although the possibility of more teams on the grid is a possible advantage.
So is Bernie Ecclestone just a greedy man, trying to make as much money as possible whilst, at the same time, diluting the spectacle and history of the sport? Or is he just a keen motorsports fan, trying to raise the profile of the sport whilst attracting increased investment? The much-awaited biography 'No Angel – the Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone', written by Tom Bower, will be released early in 2011, and may provide some insight into what goes on inside Bernie's mind.
These ruminations are not intended to influence you either way as to whether Bernie Ecclestone is a force for good in Formula 1, a decent human being, or even if you should just raise a glass to his health on this, his eightieth birthday.
One thing that does strike me though is, reading the various reports and biographies on Ecclestone that have appeared in recent days, is that those who know him, and who have regular dealings with him, all seem to show a large amount of respect for the man. Those who write derogatory comments about him tend to be non-specialist sports writers who look at Formula 1 and its various idiosyncrasies from afar, and write pieces purely to court controversy.
Indeed, those who know him well have many amusing stories to tell about Ecclestone. There is no doubt that he is a hard man to negotiate with, can be a bit mischievous at times, and may have a habit of saying the wrong thing, but he also comes across as a loyal, fair man, who puts his family first. Alan Henry's piece in this month's F1 Racing Magazine is well worth a read, and gives some interesting views of Ecclestone and his methods of doing business.
The final word on this matter goes to Eason, again writing in today's Times: “Unlike so many other high-profile people, he [Ecclestone] can take criticism on the chin, but he comes down hard on columnists and pundits who make judgments on his character from headlines. A phone call or an invitation to lunch will follow and those brave enough to accept are amazed that Ecclestone is far from the snarling money-grubber that is his popular image.”