Wednesday, 7 December 2011

F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, the pint-sized son of a fisherman, decides Europe is finished

For a little man, Bernie Ecclestone creates big waves. As Grand Prix grumblers ruminate over another one-horse race of a season, the man known around the world as “Mr Formula One” needed three words to stir up the petrolheads: “Europe is finished”.

But before South Africans – still dreaming of a Grand Prix back at Kyalami for the first time since 1993 or on the streets of Cape Town – start getting their hopes up, let’s examine this strange bod who runs Formula One with a small but perfectly formed iron fist.

Ecclestone stands just 5ft 2in (1.59m) high. He was born in a tiny village on the coast of Suffolk, the son of a fisherman. He left school at 16 to work at the local gasworks and tinker with the motorcycles he loved. His machinations in the motor-racing world since then have seen the little man rise from 38th to 25th in the Sunday Times list of the world’s richest people. They estimate his worth at 2.5billion (R35bn), with earnings of 25million (R30m) a year.

Not bad for the uneducated son of a fisherman.

There was a stage when he actually drove racing cars – but that was just after the second World War, and he collided during a Formula Three race at Brand’s Hatch and ended up in a neighbouring car park.

Ever the pragmatist, Ecclestone moved seamlessly into team ownership with Connaught, Cooper and Brabham before setting up the Formula One Constructors Association with Frank Williams, Colin Chapman, Teddy Mayer, Ken Tyrrell, and a very interesting chap called Max Mosley (google him, fascinating).

Television rights soon became a major earner and as he rose in power (but not always popularity) Bernie started to realise people would pay good money to host Formula One Grands Prix around the world.

This quote from former World Champion Damon Hill, now representing England’s Silverstone track, perhaps sums up the problem: "There's always been the question of the FOM fee, and ultimately that is the deciding factor. To quote Bernie, he once said: 'You can have anything you like, as long as you pay too much for it,' but we can't pay too much for something... The problem is money goes out and away. There's a question whether that money even returns to Formula One."

Now, less than a week after the end of a supremely boring 2011 season – won, way back in October, by a runaway train called Sebastian Vettel – Ecclestone is putting the squeeze on the Europeans, who have always been reluctant to splash the cash on hosting a sport which already requires a major financial outlay just to stay afloat, as Kyalami’s owners found out twenty years ago.

Given the current economic crisis in England, Spain, Portugal and just about every creaking continental country, Berne’s timing is, as usual, impeccable. With one eye on bright, shiny new nations like Mexico, South Africa and Russia, he told the world this week: "I think in the next few years Europe will be left with only five races. I think Europe is finished. It will be a good place for tourism but little else. Europe is a thing of the past."

Nice work, Bernie. With the likes of India, Korea, Malaysia and Abu Dhabi already on board, he is willing to overlook minor inconveniences like popular uprisings in Bahrain while worrying about the finances of the planned US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas next year.

It looks like the Yanks won’t come up with the money. So where do we go next? "Russia for sure, we have a contract there.” Bernie grins, “Maybe South Africa, Mexico.”

But surely Europe, with names like Fangio, two Hills, Schumacher, Mansell, Alonso and Vettel to conjure with, will always be the spiritual home of the fastest men in the world? Bernie sneers: "It used to be."

Next season, there are eight scheduled races in Europe. England, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Monaco are classics. France and their historic Magny Cours lay-out are long gone. The Spanish must fear for their double-header – Barcelona can expect to go before Valencia – while Hungary’s Budapest may also be in doubt, assuming Ecclestone sticks with the five big ones in Europe – he has already posed questions about the future development of Silverstone.

Bernie’s proposed reduction of European involvement to five out of twenty races won’t make him popular in the traditional heartlands of Formula One – though South Africans would be over the moon if a fairy godmother came up with the billions necessary to attract a Grand Prix in the modern age.

But Ecclestone won’t be derailed. Like the other great sporting dictators – Sepp Blatter springs to mind – he knows the big money lies in new, hungry nations. Countries that spend money like water while taking their eye off the needs of the common people.

And he’s a hardy soul. He needed a triple coronary bypass in 1999. He had two wheels stolen off his brand new Mercedes CLS55 AMG in London in 2005, the same year he caused a bit of stir when he said of Danica Patrick's fourth-place finish at the Indianapolis 500: "She did a good job, didn't she? Super. Didn't think she'd be able to make it like that. You know, I've got one of these wonderful ideas that women should be all dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances."

Two days later, Ecclestone saw 14 of 20 cars refuse to race in the 2005 United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway amid concern over the safety of their Michelin tyres. Six cars eventually raced. But the Formula One circus continued unfazed.

On 21 July 2007, Ecclestone said he was going to buy Arsenal… he ended up with QPR. Now he wants to buy Saab from the Swedes. It appears nothing can stop the little man with the big wives and model daughters (at this point, have a quick look at the images of Petra Ecclestone. Phwoar!).

Not that Bernie worries too much. On 24 November last year, he and girlfriend Fabiana Flosi were ambushed by four men who robbed them of jewellery worth £200,000 and handed Ecclestone what he later called “a good whacking”.

Ecclestone’s response after being released from hospital? "I see a figure of £200,000 mentioned but that is b******s. They won't be going far on what they took off us."

If nothing else, Bernard Charles Ecclestone is a survivor. But whether that’s good news for Formula One, particularly South Africans hoping for a vroom with a view, is questionable.

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