They say that good things come in small packages, and we say this is exactly the case with Formula One magnate Bernie Ecclestone. Sometimes referred to as the Napoleon of Formula 1, the tiny man with an Andy Warhol-like hair is a tough “commander” with an impressive fortune of $4.2 billion. He is the president and CEO of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration and he also owns a small part of Alpha Prema, the parent company of the F1 group of companies. This obviously makes him the ruler of a small empire and the number one authority in F1 racing. Not too bad for someone who quit school at 16!
Bernard Charles “Bernie” Ecclestone was born in a small hamlet near Bungay, Suffolk, England, called St. Peter South Elmham. He went to primary school in Wissett, before moving to Bexleyheath with his family in 1938. But school was not exactly his passion, so at 16 he decided he didn’t need any more formal education. He left school and started work at the local gasworks. This decision also gave him the opportunity to pursue his hobby of motorcycles, as he began selling second-hand bikes as well.Bernie once said: “I had no ambitions when I left school. All I wanted to do was leave school. It never entered my head that I could be a businessman”. That however didn’t mean he wasn’t good at it! From selling motorcycles he went on to selling cars and he even tried his luck as a race driver. A serious accident in 1951 at the Brands Hatch circuit put an end to his racing ambitions, so he began new career in loan financing and real estate. He also managed the Weekend Car Auctions firm.
In 1957 he returned to racing and became the manager of driver Stuart Lewis-Evans. He also bought the F1 Connaught team, and even though he later moved to the Vanwall team, Ecclestone continued to manage Lewis-Evans until 1958, when the talented driver suffered a severe accident and died six days later. This affected Ecclestone enough to determine him to again retire from racing. He continued managing and took driver Jochen Rindt under his wing, only to lose him in an ugly accident in 1970. These two tragic events determined Ecclestone to give up on managing altogether. He became a full time owner and bought the Brabham team in 1972.
He also formed the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) as part of his intense advocacy for team control of F1. In 1978 he became the CEO of FOCA and started negotiating a series of legal issues with FIA. After decades of fighting and negotiating, Ecclestone finally got television rights in 1997.
Things continued to go well for the F1 tycoon until 1999, when his health failed him. He had to undergo a major heart surgery, but then fully recovered and continued promoting his business in his signature energetic style. Now, at almost 80 years of age, Bernie Ecclestone is still a dominant and often intimidating figure, despite his unimpressive height of approximately 5’2.5”.He has stirred a lot of controversies over the years, including one in which he compared women to domestic appliances and another one in which he praised Hitler for having been “able to get things done”. The first remark was made in 2005, when Ecclestone was talking about Indycar racer Danica Patrick. He said “You know I’ve got one of those wonderful ideas … women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances”. Patrick’s reaction to all this was “it doesn’t really matter [what he thinks], because I’m racing in the Indy Racing League”. It was reported that the British billionaire later called Patrick and apologized.
Then came the Hitler controversy. In a 2009 Times interview, Ecclestone said “terrible to say this I suppose, but apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people able to get things done”. This assertion too was followed by apologies. He said that his words were taken the wrong way and added: “I’m just sorry that I was an idiot. I sincerely, genuinely apologize”.
This very controversial man was married for almost 25 years to a beautiful woman, who was 11.5 inches taller than him and 28 years his junior. Her name was Slavica Radić (born in Croatia) and she was a former Armani model. The two looked ridiculous together, but that didn’t stop them from marrying and having two beautiful daughters together (Tamara and Petra), who are now both grown ups. Bernie and Slavica divorced in 2009, the year that Ecclestone himself described as “the most difficult year of my career”. Fortunately, the chatty and witty, yet fierce and dominant Formula One magnate managed to get over all the difficulties in his life and keep his empire thriving. Hats off to Mr. Ecclestone!