How Bernie Ecclestone built his empire

Bernie Ecclestone leaves F1 US$8 billion better than he found it. SportsPro looks at how the fisherman's son went from being a failed racing driver to the most important single figure in the history of the sport.

How Bernie Ecclestone built his empire

Sport naturally breeds a fleeting familiarity. But for a select few, they become entwined with their chosen discipline in ways that make it hard to know where they begin and their chosen game ends. Arsene and Arsenal slips off the tongue as easily as Ali and champion. It wasn’t enough for Michael Jordan, or for Nike, that he simply be the greatest basketball player of his or any generation; he wanted to personify an era, on and off the court. Yet even among this cadre of performers, few could have ever claimed they literally owned their sport. 

Bernie Ecclestone, who has finally relinquished his role as Formula One's supremo, embodies the modern history of motorsport's premier series largely because he moulded it in his own image. The Ecclestone story is splattered with false starts, devastating crashes, a rumoured train robbery, and a flash finish he would ideally have avoided.

Since the 1950s, the world of motor racing has existed within the influence sphere of the 5”2 fisherman’s son. Following an unsuccessful stint behind the wheel himself, Ecclestone began managing drivers; the first, Stuart Lewis Evans, died in a race accident in 1958. The tragedy pushed Ecclestone into a decade-long exile from the sport. He returned in the 1970s a wealthy man, though the sources of his riches have been debated, with some going as far as to suggest he played a role in the Great Train Robbery of 1963 - outlandish allegations he was moved to dismiss in 2005.

After managing Austrian driver Jochen Rindt, Ecclestone purchased the Brabham team, propelling them to the top of the drivers’ championship. From there, he was able to fix his gaze on Formula One in its entirety. Formula One as the ultimate product. Over a decade before it took England’s First Division soccer teams to realise that, with a little rebranding and collective packaging, they could dictate their own destiny and produce the Premier League, Ecclestone, through his position as the chief executive of the Formula One Promotions and Administrations (FOPA) company, had already begun harnessing the power of live television and marketing to steer the championship towards becoming a global showpiece. No longer could broadcasters pick and choose which races to show; it was everything or nothing.

No individual stakeholder benefited as much from the transformation of the sport as Ecclestone, but there is no doubt others enjoyed their own share of Formula One becoming the premier world racing event. Through decades of increasingly convoluted dealmaking, he made himself ever more indispensable, which was why he was so often able to cling to power even after some of his less than advisable innovations and personal difficulties. His resilience has been a thing of wonder. Even after CVC Capital Partners  became the majority owner of the sport in late 2005, his grip only grew  tighter. His reign looked set to end when he faced charges in Germany that  he had bribed BayernLB banker Gerhard Gribkowsky in order to ensure that the  sport went to a favoured buyer, before Ecclestone paid US$100 million to the Bavarian government to bring the trial to a close. Having always protested his innocence, saying payments he made to Gribowsky were related to threats the latter had made about revealing his tax arrangements, Ecclestone  returned to his position at Formula One's summit.

However, in recent years, his singular focus on selling to the highest bidder, making hosting rights the primary source of F1’s wealth and global reach, has strengthened the foundations on which people stand to criticise him.  Races, no longer free for fans in all markets to view, are being hosted in countries with questionable regimes. For Bernie - famously authoritarian in his decision making process - so long as the cheque clears, his detractors argue, there is no aspect of the sport that isn’t up for sale.

It was with this in mind that Liberty Media, following their purchase, decided that Formula One should go in a new direction, under fresh leadership. Liberty will soon discover just how freely Bernie Ecclestone can be untangled from the grips of Formula One without the US$ 8 billion empire he built, and they paid for, crashing in a ball of flames. The challenge is a welcome one, they claim; seeing an opportunity to launch the sport into previously unchartered digital and social media territory, while preserving the legacy of hallowed tracks like Silverstone from higher bidders desperate to take their place on the calendar. Whether this new direction brings success or failure, there is no doubt who led the way.