Doug Nye: Bernie Ecclestone – loved, loathed and now dethroned

26th January 2017
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

If Enzo Ferrari was motor racing’s single most influential figure of the 20th Century, ‘Bernie’ Ecclestone assumed that mantle from at least 1980 until last Monday. The news of his being ‘deposed’ by Formula 1’s new American owners, Liberty Media, was not unexpected. But Mr E as his people refer to him has emerged unscathed from so many previous battles and scrapes it’s still hard to believe this might really be The End. 


In a surviving Cooper Car Company chassis book one entry records: “500cc MK V. Norton fittings. Colour: Polychromatic blue with red wheels. Upholstery: Red. Chassis No: ‘MKV/26/51’ Extras: Norton gearbox to be fitted. Long Range Fuel Tanks”. The customer was ‘Mr Ecclestone’ – Bernie Ecclestone of course, who was to go racing in this expensive top-of-the-range 500, and later in Cooper-Bristol and Cooper-Jaguar cars. This is the same Mr E who had a thousand motorcycles in stock at one time in his contemporary Compton & Ecclestone dealership. He would go on to advise and accompany Stuart Lewis-Evans around the Formula 1 world with Vanwall, he would drive his own Connaught during practice for a Monaco Grand Prix, and in the 1970s he would return to take over the Brabham F1 team and later dominate the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association – turning it into Formula One Management in more recent times…and making himself the most significant figure in that International business. Single-handed, he made many Formula 1 figures into multi-millionaires – and himself into an (often controversial) multi-billionaire…

I interviewed him once in his incredibly smart and exquisitely presented Bexley dealership. He sat behind a tall desk and showed me to an upturned coolie hat of a ‘contemporary’ chair in front of it, so I flopped there virtually horizontal, looking up at him. He was very accommodating, interesting, and sharply funny. When I asked his attitude to the press, which at that time likened some of the F1CA’s dealings to a Mafia, one eye snapped shut. He glared at me with the other and retorted “If anyone acts as a mafia in motor racing it’s the press. They have no investment in Formula 1 yet think they have some God-given right to call the tune!” (or words to that effect). Overall I recall the interview as going pretty well.

But in January 1978, I transgressed the unwritten rule and had my head stapled to the floorboards for it. Mr E was setting his lawyers on me for libel. I had obtained a wonderful transcript of Mr Ferrari’s recent annual Press Conference. It was full of meaty quotes. We ran the story translated in ‘Autosport’, but an Italian pressman who shall remain nameless had been taken to task by Mr Ferrari for having written “balls” about the team.

The journalist in question was present, he rose to his feet and retorted “well what about the…” – and he used a brutally rude Italian phrase plainly referring to Mr E. I promptly translated it in full for the benefit of ‘Autosport’s readership. Big mistake. I genuinely regret my lapse of taste – still do – but at the time it made a point in illustrating the depth of Italian antipathy to Ecclestone at that time. It had happened. It was in Ferrari’s press transcript. I could not deny it. And neither could they. Upon his return from that weekend’s Brazilian GP, Mr E evidently read the story – or had that part of it drawn to his attention – and then my telephone rang.

Early 1980s - dapper Mr E with Fred Gamble and his Goodyear tyre engineers

Early 1980s - dapper Mr E with Fred Gamble and his Goodyear tyre engineers

The voice was quiet. He spoke precisely, clearly – with controlled yet evident menace. To be perfectly honest – for a then 32-year-old married freelance scribbler, with a wife and a daughter (and a mortgage) to support – it was a terrifying experience. I had plainly screwed-up – and how! I had put everything we had on the line against one of the most powerful people I had ever encountered.

But after sleeping on it, had I genuinely done wrong? No. I darned well had not. I re-checked Ferrari’s transcript. There were the offending words in the original Italian. Mr E had told me, as plainly – and with as dead yet emphatic a tone as he could muster – that he would be “checkin’ this with Mr Ferrari, I am not going to let it drop. You will be hearing from me again...”. Typically, he was as good as his word. Another ’phone call – more monotone, quiet yet awfully emphatic menace. “I have put my lawyers on this”.

But I’d come from a broadly similar background. And this time perhaps I showed a bit more steel. “Mr Ecclestone I can do nothing now to change what I wrote, and what was published. I apologise for the lapse in taste, in translating that phrase, but I believed it was valid to demonstrate the extraordinary lack of respect that at least one faction within the Italian sporting press has for you. I cannot conceive of a British journalist at, say, a Brabham press conference saying to you ‘What about that Big S--- Ferrari then?’. It just would not happen. Therefore I can only apologise for my poor taste, but otherwise – since it’s on the official press-release transcript, I stand absolutely by what I wrote...”.

As I recall it – which is pretty vividly – there was then the merest pause. The most powerful man in motor sport then said – very clearly – very deliberately – “You haven’t heard the last of this.” Click!

Mr E in his Connaught during practice for the 1958 Monaco GP

Mr E in his Connaught during practice for the 1958 Monaco GP

But – as it happened – I had… Or at least, I haven’t heard anything specific about that incident for the past thirty-nine years. Of course covering its own back ‘Autosport’ published a boxed apology the following week, emphasising that I as a freelance (not a staff writer) had submitted the story. I had not been present in person at the Press Conference and that I had based my story upon the transcript. I felt they could have been a wee bit more supportive, but I really sympathised with editor Quentin Spurring because he had taken more flak than I had – and it must have been pretty intense…

I didn’t get to talk with Mr E for several years – despite our paths crossing several times. Then one day a friend called, asking me to meet Mr E with him to inspect a car that Bernie was thinking of buying. I didn’t feel very comfortable but went along with it. Mr E that day was crisp, friendly, the surprisingly weak handshake that I remembered. And later – after inspecting the car in detail – he started to talk about how Formula 1 was going down the tubes. The drivers were spoiled kids. “Maybe we’ve made the cars too safe today? We don’t kill ’em off often enough. The top blokes just hang around too long. They don’t move on or out and give someone new a drive. What we ought to do is have spray bars on each corner, so we can flood the track in places if a race gets boring. That would wake them up. Maybe the drivers should swap around – top drivers drive the backmarkers’ cars, and vice versa at one race each year? That would sharpen up the front runners when they realise how the other half has to live…”.

That day he was, in fact, a relaxed, playful, outrageous, bundle of fun. Maybe it was a test. I respected the confidence, keeping those comments to myself until today, but had I quoted them accurately at that time you can imagine the dreadful fuss it would have sparked – especially that line about “not killing ’em off regularly enough”.

In later years, on perhaps a half-dozen occasions, he ’phoned from time to time, usually to talk about old cars and acquiring them for his collection. His 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125 he would describe as “…that silver one, what’s it called, that WD40 thing…”, and by then I suspected that such a reference was part intended to needle someone he viewed – I am sure – as just another nerdy retarded-schoolboy enthusiast, a rivet counter, one of those irritating fans who thought he had a right to an opinion, merely because he had been a lifelong enthusiast... But regardless, Mr E still commissioned a couple of books from me for very special projects.

1975 Italian GP - Gordon Murray with Carlos Reutemann and Martini-Brabham team owner Mr E

1975 Italian GP - Gordon Murray with Carlos Reutemann and Martini-Brabham team owner Mr E

All of this, of course, comprised mere fractions of one per cent of the global support generated by the mass as opposed to the specialist media. But through those occasional calls, there was no mistaking Mr E’s own deeply-buried love affair with racing itself.

Once or twice when researching my Cooper book, or BRM, or Lotus, I would drop him a line asking some obscure question about ancient history. And every time the ’phone would ring and his PA’s voice would say “Mr Nye, I have Mr Ecclestone for you…” – and he would help. His help was often the briefest of one-liners – other times I’d be surprised how prepared he was to “have a natter”.

He was at his best – and most illuminating – talking about his young friend Stuart Lewis-Evans – one could sense him, yes really, welling up at the memories. And he could speak just as movingly about Jochen Rindt. Ask him about anything current, and there’d be an evasive jibe, a typically diverting throwaway remark – and he’d be gone.

When a friend was given the chance to drive one of Mr E’s Formula 1 collection cars in the Goodwood Festival of Speed – I was asked to bed in its brakes and put some miles on it around the Motor Circuit. Another friend and I trailed the car down, checked it over, fired it up, and I spent a happy hour sailing round, lap after lap, with the awesome wail of that Ferrari V6 engine trailing in my slipstream. My pal then drove the car to set FTD in his class at the Festival of Speed, and in gratitude, for its loan, he promptly sent the laurels and the award round to Mr E’s office in Prince’s Gate. He was showing due respect…

Formidable team - Designer Gordon Murray - team owner Mr E - Silverstone 1977

Formidable team - Designer Gordon Murray - team owner Mr E - Silverstone 1977

But what happened next was classic Mr E and his closest set of fellow 1950s used-car dealer/racer friends. It seems he was telling ‘Noddy’ Coombs – one of that veteran circle – about the FoS performance and how the driver concerned had had the good manners to send him the laurels. Each of those old bandits had been competitively scoring points off one another for donkey’s years. No change then since ‘Noddy’ apparently said to him “What? Only the laurels? Didn’t he give you the cheque then?”…

Next thing my pal knew was a similarly threatening ’phone call to those I had experienced so many years before. “Is there something you haven’t been telling me about winning at Goodwood…?” – followed by the significant, menacing, silence.

Finally, the subject was identified as the phantom Prize Money. A cheque from Goodwood? No chance. “Noddy’ Coombs’s classic wind-up had worked spectacularly well – and my poor pal had one hell of a job to convince “his entrant” that a win at Goodwood earned fleeting honour and modest glory…alone. Hardly a concept high in the Formula 1 world’s moral scale.

But then the case of the daughter of a pioneering 500cc Formula 3 personality from the dawn of the 1950s highlights another aspect of Mr E’s character.

This contemporary-celebrity owner/driver was Alvin ‘Spike’ Rhiando, a former speedway rider who ran a famous early air-cooled Cooper, startlingly lacquered gold and known as the ‘Banana Split’.

His daughter was trying to learn more about her long-lost father and she’d written to me asking if I could seek some memories from Mr E because Spike had apparently spoken highly of him. I passed on the approach, and next day Bernie called. He spoke long and warmly about Rhiando, and asked me to put the daughter in direct touch with him. Subsequently, she contacted me again to describe how wonderful he had been to her, taking her to lunch and then spending ages reminiscing about old times and her Dad’s exploits. For her, it had meant a million.

Bernie Ecclestone (striped shirt) with Stuart Lewis-Evans in Mr E’s rebodied Cooper-Jaguar sports at Crystal Palace, 1956

Bernie Ecclestone (striped shirt) with Stuart Lewis-Evans in Mr E’s rebodied Cooper-Jaguar sports at Crystal Palace, 1956

Years later still, one of his longtime lieutenants told us how Mr E had made substantial private donations to help ease the Ethiopian famine. “We said to him he ought to let us publicise some of that charitable stuff to offset the constant s--- he was getting from the press… But he absolutely wouldn’t let us do it. ‘Noooo’, he said ‘It would only spoil the hard man image’…”

That was something he would protect to the bitter end.

His negotiation style could be celebratedly blunt. Tom Wheatcroft of Donington fame – himself a formidable “ ’gotiator” as he called it – told me of a meeting with the RACMSA when Bernie walked in with a small briefcase and sat down. The meeting’s Chairman began his intro, according to Tom saying something like “Now I will not beat about the bush. We absolutely cannot improve upon our best offer at our last meeting…”, whereupon Bernie instantly grabbed his briefcase, stood up, snapped “Well I didn’t come here to be f---- about. If you ever decide to talk sensibly, you’ve got the number”, and after barely 30 seconds he was gone, the door shutting (typically quietly) behind him.


He had a small coterie of trusted long-term staff who worked for him for many a long year. One recalled being asked to do something which – in the time available – meant bringing together many items then undergoing various processes. Mr E ’phoned to check on progress. “I’m sorry Mr E, we can’t make the deadline, it’s just impossible…”. Click! A few hours later Mr E arrived in the office, exchanging casual pleasantries before taking an unusual interest in a bookshelf there. “Tell me”, he said, “Have you got a dictionary?”.

“Yes, here’s one,” said his helpful employee. Mr E studied it intently, flicked through the pages, and suddenly tore one out. He then handed the dictionary to his man. “Now I want you to look up one word”, he said. “OK – errr – what’s the word?”.


You’ve guessed it – the IL-IP page had just been torn out. “There!” snapped Bernie, “There’s no such ------- word as ‘Impossible’! Get it DONE!”.

And that’s how you become a billionaire. For more than 40 years in Formula 1, Bernie’s word has effectively been Law: now – suddenly – that’s not the case. I doubt that he will now quietly retire – but I, for one, wish him well.

Images courtesy of the GP Library

  • bernie ecclestone

  • Formula 1

  • Doug Nye

  • doug_goodwood_12042017_03.jpg

    Doug Nye

    Doug Nye: 18 years of Goodwood Easter Monday race meetings, 1949-1966

  • doug_jet.jpg

    Doug Nye

    Doug Nye: Gordon Murray's new toy, “the jet-age racing car”

  • 8-cooper-1959-monaco-noddy-grohman-masten-gregory-john-cooper-jack-brabham-reg-james-bruce-mclaren-phil-kerr-gpl-main-goodwood-30082019.jpg

    Doug Nye

    The rise and fall of the single-seater Cooper