Review: No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone by Tom Bower
Faber & Faber, €13.99, Paperback
Published 02/04/2011 | 05:00
'I realised Slavica was special the third time I slept with her." Of all the disconcerting moments in Tom Bower's biography of the Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, this offhand quote hints at something essential.
It combines Ecclestone's strangeness (why so exact? what did the future third Mrs Ecclestone do?) with his pedantry (was he keeping score?).
Ecclestone's obsessive-compulsive traits leave him restlessly straightening picture frames, aligning pens with the edge of his desk and parking television trucks in neat rows by the race paddock. His obsessions create their own "fog of war".
Ecclestone is secretive, of course, a habit that prevented the flotation of his company Formula One Management. But it is not the secrecy that makes him unknowable: it is the tics. It is impossible to say what is calculated and what is knee-jerk: a defensive spasm, an angry attack, an artless aside. With Ecclestone, we may be confronting the banality of an enigma.
However boorish Bernie might be, Bower tells a riveting story. How could one man own a sport? Ecclestone was a 16-year-old motorcycle dealer in 1946 when the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) began to codify the ever-evolving "formulas" that define the cars that can compete in the drivers' world championship.
The first Formula One race was staged in 1950, when the brash yet virginal Ecclestone was taking his first steps as a south London car dealer while dabbling as a driver (despite being blind in one eye from a childhood illness). As his business grew, Ecclestone gave up racing except for a lone attempt to qualify for the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix after buying the assets of the Connaught team and sacking its drivers.
Ecclestone re-entered racing as the manager of the driver Jochen Rindt in 1970. After buying Brabham in 1971, he volunteered to act as the agent for the Formula One Constructors' Association (FOCA), a group of five English and American owners who were exhausted by negotiations with track owners as well as their cultural differences with the French-dominated FIA.
By the 80s, FOCA was at war with the FIA, a dispute settled when the FIA handed FOCA all media rights and responsibility for selecting tracks. In subsequent renewals, Ecclestone signed as the CEO of a new company, Foca Administration Ltd, owned by himself. As the team boss Kenneth Tyrrell once screamed: "Bernie, you've stolen Formula One from the teams. You never owned it."
One hundred and forty-six teams have passed through Formula One and more than 100 have disappeared, including Ecclestone's Brabham. Owners come and go: only Ferrari and Ecclestone are forever.
Ecclestone is the omnipresent agent, though no one now in Formula One ever asked him to represent them. He retains power by keeping Ferrari onside and allowing chaos elsewhere.
Bower has two key insights. The first is that there never was a big picture. Ecclestone is a master tactician but has never had a strategy. The question of how he became king is unanswerable because no one knows how they let it happen: not Ron Dennis of MacLaren, his implacable enemy; not Max Mosley, his protégé; not even Ecclestone himself.
Bower's second insight is that life with his now ex-wife Slavica turned into a battlefield and Ecclestone became habituated to it. Slavica, almost a foot taller and 28 years younger than Ecclestone, once banged his head against a car window. (Ecclestone excused the resulting black eye by saying that some people pay for that kind of treatment: who was he thinking of?)
But the truth, surely, is that Ecclestone thrives when he's in trouble, in marriage as well as business. His company is complex but the business plan is simple: it depends on Ecclestone living for ever.
He has changed nothing but his hairstyle in 80 years (and that only once, from greased-back spiv to Beatle moptop). He is appalling: joking with Mosley about Nelson Mandela when Mandela was in prison, doing "sieg heils" for a laugh after a series of crass remarks about Hitler. When Ecclestone dies, the role he carved out will no doubt be auctioned to a proper, accountable corporation.
It will be an improvement: so why does it feel sad? Bower's account is gripping, without having the scorching anger of Broken Dreams, his book on the similar changes in football. No Angel feels more like an elegy: this is the end of an era.