There is a story that as a schoolboy Bernie Ecclestone would go on two paper rounds before school. He would buy buns with the money he made, and sell it to his classmates at a profit. Ecclestone has always been a shrewd businessman. But he has also had a love for motorsports and the business acumen that helped to catapult Formula 1 motorsport racing from its amateur club status into the multi-billion pound business it is today. His is a perfect rag to riches story, and here’s a brief look at it.
Childhood and Motorcycle Hobbies
Ecclestone was the son of a trawler captain in Suffolk. At the age of sixteen he decided that school wasn’t for him. So he left to work at the local gasworks in Kent where he was then living. Side by side he pursues his interest in motorcycles. After WWII ended, he began trading in motorcycle spare parts under his own dealership, Compton and Ecclestone.
Ecclestone was also passionate about racing, though he didn’t drive in too many races. In 1949 he took part in the 500 cc Formula 3 series. Occasionally he raced in his local circuit at Brands Hatch, and had good placing. But a collision led him to give up racing for good and turn his attentions to what he was really good at – the business side of it.
Racing and Team Ownership
In 1957, Ecclestone returned to the racing track as a manager to driver Stuart Lewis-Evans. Meanwhile, he tried to make it in the races again. He bought two chassis from the ex-Connaught F1 team. He unsuccessfully tried to score at Monaco’s 1958 races. It was the same story at the British Grand Prix. Only after Stuart Lewis-Evans’ fatal accident at the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix did a shaken-up Ecclestone retire from racing permanently. Instead, through his links with driver Roy Salvadori, he became driver Jochen Rindt’s manager and part owner of Rindt’s 1970 Lotus Formula 2 team. Two years after Rindt’s fatal car crash, Ecclestone bought the Brabham team in 1971.
The Brabham Team
Ecclestone bought the Brabham team on terms that typically favored him, offering 100,000 pounds and closing the deal. He went on to reorganize the team with a vigor that is characteristic of Ecclestone, as per his vision of what a Formula One team should be.
The Ford Years
He made an important decision at this point, shedding the extremely successful car production business that had been established by the original owners of the Brabham team. He wanted to keep his focus and his resources directed towards Formula One. Accordingly, he went on to pour his resources into the team. During the 1973 season, South African Gordon Murray became chief designer. Murray came up with the BT42 triangular cross-section. This was the first Ford-powered car, one of many more to follow, that would take the Brabham team to several victories in ’74 and ’75 with drivers Carlos Pace and Carlos Reutemann.
The Alfa-Romeo Years
While Ford’s light engines were working great for the team, Ecclestone still signed a deal with Alfa-Romeo in the 1976 season. He wanted to use their heavy yet powerful flat12 engine that was also considerably cheaper than Ford. This was a bad decision, and the unreliable new BT45s coupled with the heavy engines pulled the team back in the ’76 and ’77 seasons. In 1978, things took a turn. The new impressive BT46 was produced, Ecclestone signed Niki Lauda, double world champion, and the team won two races that year.
The Cosworth DFV and BMW Years
In 1979, Alfa-Romeo started testing their own Formula One cars, and Ecclestone decided to move to Cosworth DFV engines. Promising young Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet joined the team, and continued driving for them for seven years until 1985. Piquet won Grabham the ’81 and ’83 races.
In 1982 Ecclestone had the new BT50 fitted with the BMW 4-cylinder turbocharged M10. The Ford BT49D continued to run for a while at the early part of the season, but it was the BMW engine that won Grabham their 1982 Canadian Grand Prix and the 1983 world championship.
FOCA and Television Rights
Ecclestone was also greatly responsible for getting Formula One the television exposure that brought it where it is today, as one of the most-watched sports in the world. In 1974 he had formed the FOCA or Formula One Constructors Association with several others. The rest of that decade he was involved in negotiation television rights for motorsports, trying to gain team control over it.
In 1978 the breakthrough came. He became chief executive of FOCA with Max Mosley as legal advisor. Together they obtained the rights for FOCA to negotiate TV contracts for the Grand Prix. Formula One Promotions and Administration was established. Of the television revenues, 47 percent went to the team, 30 percent to the FIA or the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, and FOPA (or Ecclestone in other words) kept 23 percent. In exchange, FOPA sponsored the prize money.
Formula One Safety
Under Ecclestone, Formula One had gained television rights. And now safety was also improved. Sid Watkins was hired as the official medical doctor for the races, who urged Ecclestone to provide better safety after the 1978 Italian Grand Prix crashes. Formula One had come into its own under Ecclestone’s efforts. It went on to make Ecclestone a vast private fortune.
Ecclestone is today considered the primary authority in all things Formula One. He is referred to in the media as the F1 Supremo. While his control of F1 was largely financial, he also has administrative and logistic control over each F1 Grand Prix event.
In 2011, Ecclestone was picked by Forbes as the 4th richest person in the U.K., his fortune estimated at $4.2 billion. Despite heart problems and triple coronary bypasses in 1999, Ecclestone’s energy is unsurpassable. Going on to make other investments such as in the Queens Park Rangers football club which he later sold off, some controversies, three marriages and several awards including the latest Monaco honor of Commander of the Order of Saint-Charles, Ecclestone has ensured he lived life king size. All the while he was bringing Formula One to the heights of popularity that few sports can achieve.
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