Formula One: 'Circus master' Ecclestone gave motor racing its glamour

Bernie Ecclestone surveying the Pit Building in Singapore. The former F1 supremo spent the better part of four decades hawking the sport's wares to craft it into its standing today.
Bernie Ecclestone surveying the Pit Building in Singapore. The former F1 supremo spent the better part of four decades hawking the sport's wares to craft it into its standing today.ST FILE PHOTO

PARIS • Bernie Ecclestone, ousted as Formula One chief by its new American owner, transformed Grand Prix racing into one of the most profitable sports and made himself a billionaire powerbroker.

A former second-hand car salesman, Ecclestone, now 86, ran Formula One with an iron fist for more than four decades, building it into an empire with a cut-glass brand.

His rule came crashing down on Monday when Liberty Media completed its multi-billion-dollar takeover of the sport and appointed American Chase Carey as chairman and chief executive, elbowing Ecclestone aside with a title of "chairman emeritus".

Typically forthright, Ecclestone saw through the corporate smokescreen, saying bluntly: "I was dismissed today."

The Briton was the flamboyant figure at the centre of F1 since the 1970s, crafting it into one of the world's most glamorous sports.

The previous owner, the private equity firm CVC, which purchased the sport in 2006, had been happy to leave the day-to-day running in his hands, content with the vast sums it was earning.

  • Formula for a fast-track career
    Bernie Ecclestone, holder of a chemistry degree, begins his career selling cars and motorcycles in London and briefly driving race cars.

  • 1955
    Turns to the business side of racing after accidents cut short his driving career.

    1957 & 1970
    Manages promising British F1 driver Stuart Lewis-Evans and Austrian Jochen Rindt .

    Buys the Brabham team.

    Becomes the exclusive manager of F1 rights, taking the helm of Formula One Management, negotiating with circuits, advertisers and TV stations.

    LATE 1997
    Finds himself in the spotlight over a donation of £1.5 million (S$2.65 million at current exchange rates) to the British Labour Party under Tony Blair, whose government subsequently authorised the continued use of tobacco advertising by the sport.

    Stokes controversy by claiming that Adolf Hitler was a man who "was able to get things done" and that democracy had not worked out for Britain.

    Pays US$100 million (S$141 million) to German authorities to end a high-profile bribery trial linked to the sale of Formula One's rights in 2006 and 2007.


Ecclestone did so with aplomb: By 2003, the sport's income was US$729 million (S$1.03 billion); in 2015 it had risen to US$1.8 billion, a fact acknowledged by Carey.

"I would like to thank Bernie for his leadership over the decades. The sport is what it is today because of him," Carey said.

However, while revenues from F1 have been huge, due to the price charged for hosting races and TV deals that Ecclestone negotiated, there has been a drop from 600 million to 400 million in global viewing figures since 2008.

A lack of interest in actively promoting the sport to a new audience on social media has also been repeatedly raised among criticisms against Ecclestone.

The decision to oust him will be welcomed by his detractors, of whom there are many, not least fans who disliked the chase for profit over a rich sporting history.

But replacing him and his personal fiefdom will be no easy task.

"He was the circus master. He was in charge and sometimes you need a sport to be run like that. It was his way or the highway. He might not be very tall but he was certainly feared in the paddock... and we all did extremely well hanging on to his shirt-tails,"said F1 driver-turned-commentator Martin Brundle.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2017, with the headline ''Circus master' Ecclestone gave motor racing its glamour'. Print Edition | Subscribe