Commentary

Ecclestone's formula worked, although it was flawed

LONDON • He grew up in poverty, the son of a trawlerman in a home with no running water.

During his childhood, he witnessed dogfights between Spitfires and the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

He was bullied at school, and mocked for his short stature (1.59m), using this as the psychological fuel to build an empire. One journalist once joked that Napoleon had a Bernie Ecclestone complex.

It is easy to feel jaundiced about his Formula One reign, which came to an end last Monday, the 86-year-old moving from the role of chief executive to the honorary position of chairman emeritus of F1. He is not an easygoing or, in many ways, a pleasant person. One colleague said: "He is tough, ruthless and wholly unsentimental."

Yet I cannot help but feel that the man who was described as the F1 "ringmaster" demonstrated admirable qualities, too, not least a formidable work ethic. At nine, he completed two newspaper rounds before school to purchase buns from the local store, selling them at a 25 per cent profit to classmates. He dug up potatoes during the holidays, and sold fountain pens on Petticoat Lane. By his late teens, he had bought a stake in a business, trading motorcycle parts. This is someone who pulled himself up by the bootstraps.

Before the creation of football's Premier League, TV contracts were almost given away. Ecclestone recognised that sport brings viewers in their millions, something that can be monetised when sold as a package.

Asked by Tom Bower, perhaps his finest biographer, why he had not asked his parents for financial help when setting up a business, he instead offered a discourse on self-reliance.

"I didn't want to bother my family to buy me something. I wanted to earn my own money," he said. "I knew they didn't have it anyway. When I wanted things, I hustled and bustled until I got them. I was an independent b*****d."

I first met Ecclestone in 2013 - when he was 82 - and his work ethic was very much in evidence. His diary for that day was full until 10pm.

"I like busy," he said. "If I didn't get up in the morning knowing I have a few problems to solve, I wouldn't get up. It is the best thing."

These days, schools equip children with the ability to solve closed-ended problems, but don't spend enough time encouraging the initiative required to get things done. Like, say, ascertaining the rent of a local forecourt to sell second-hand motorbikes, figuring out costs and rates, scanning the market to assess demand, drafting contracts, handling a face-to-face negotiation with the landlord, thinking through marketing and taking on staff - as Ecclestone did at the age of 18.

As the world changes at an increasing pace, this kind of problem-solving and adaptability will matter more. He has demonstrated these qualities since he was a child, connecting buyers and sellers, handling clients and creating wealth.

One F1 journalist told me that, even as Ecclestone moved into his ninth decade, he was operating morning, noon and night: "He is not interested in BS. He just wants to get things done."

Ecclestone's essential insight was to recognise the strategic importance of TV rights. Before the creation of football's Premier League, TV contracts were almost given away. He recognised that sport brings viewers in their millions, something that can be monetised when sold as a package.

Smart enough to see the defects in the existing model - not just in broadcasting (drivers and teams unilaterally negotiated with circuit owners for prize purses and appearance money) - and proactive enough to reform it, he carved out the niche that would make his fortune.

There is, of course, an important distinction between a person's work ethic and their values. Many would argue that his obsession with making the deal blinded him to urgent moral concerns.

He was seen by some as too quick to work with governments accused of corruption, securing high prices from those who craved F1 to bolster their legitimacy.

Some criticise him for making onerous demands of organisers, sanctioning characterless races, and creating a financial structure that benefited Ferrari at the expense of smaller teams.

Ecclestone pushed boundaries in other ways, too. The irony will not be lost on many that when he was put before a German court on bribery charges, he avoided a prison term by offering a vast cheque to the authorities (within due process).

But even as we acknowledge these defects, it is worth reminding ourselves that he was not an official in the mould of, say, former Fifa chief Sepp Blatter. The Swiss was a leech, draining money and credibility from football, undermining its prestige and creating a network of cronies who gorged themselves on the lifeblood of the sport.

Ecclestone, by contrast, was an entrepreneur who revolutionised F1 and modernised its operations, creating thousands of jobs, even if he got many things wrong.

It is all too easy at the end of an era to offer caricatures: Hero or villain; visionary or Luddite. The reality is invariably more nuanced.

It was his answer on the subject of mortality that, to me, captured both his brutal candour and his deep love for a job that, until last Monday, had been his for 40 years.

"I know I am going to die," he said. "There is no getting away from it. But I am not frightened by it. I just hope that I die of a heart attack. Preferably at my desk."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Ecclestone's formula worked, although it was flawed'. Print Edition | Subscribe