Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, July 25, 1997

Ecclestone Relishes His Winning Ways in Formula One

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
IN LESS than an hour on a recent Grand Prix weekend, Bernie Ecclestone, the little man with the thick glasses and messy full head of straight sliver-gray hair who owns Formula One, was interrupted nonstop by telephones, walkie-talkies and important visitors.

Among those who climbed up the steep steps of his silver-gray bus with the tinted windows - sometimes called ''The Kremlin'' - to seek an audience were the former president of the International Automobile Federation, or FIA; the director of Ferrari team; the heir to the Honda Motor Corp. founder; the organizer of the Japanese Grand Prix; and the owner of the Arrows team.

This weekend at the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim, Ecclestone risks being even busier in any given hour. Germany is one of the two countries - the other being Britain - where he plans to float his private company, Formula One Holdings, on the stock market this autumn.

During the moments when Ecclestone was not interrupted he talked mostly about the future of the sport, a subject, thanks to the coming flotation, on the minds of many in Formula One.

Ecclestone himself seems little worried about that future.

''Formula One,'' he said, is like ''big stage for a pop concert. Teams come and go over the years, like stars come and go. Elvis died, things still went on. When I go, the same thing will happen - Formula One will continue.''

A pop concert it may be. But while Elton John last year is said to have earned 12.8 million ($21.5 million), Ecclestone hauled in 54 million. For that he was called the world's highest salaried executive; the flotation is likely to bring him personally up to 1 billion.

In response to critics who call it a self-enrichment plan, he said he was pushed into the flotation by the Formula One teams and the FIA. They wanted to know what is going to happen when the Ecclestone, who is 66, leaves.

Formula One is in the name of his wife, Slavica, 37, who put the company in a family trust. If he were to die, he said, Slavica would be in charge of the sport, and ''that would have been a disaster.''

But the teams are not happy about his cut.

''There's no cut,'' he said. ''The agreement that we operate under has never changed.''

First signed in the early 1980s, the so-called Concorde Agreement, named for the site in Paris of the FIA headquarters, divides the teams' share of TV rights and other spoils. Several teams pulled out last December, including Williams and McLaren.

''What it amounts to is the teams would like to steal some of the business,'' Ecclestone said. ''They've got a contract.''

But while Ecclestone would also like to provide for his two girls, aged 9 and 13, from his marriage with Slavica, he has no intention of leaving the show that most of those in the sport agree he is single-handedly responsible for making the success it is today.

''My wife says I'm going to die in here and they're going to have to dig a big grave and bury me in the bus,'' he said.

That bus is the mobile center of an ever-expanding empire. The son of a trawler-skipper in Suffolk, on the east

coast of England, Ecclestone earned a degree in chemical engineering at Woolwich Polytechnic in London.

By 21 he was running his own used motorcycle and car business. He brought the Brabham Formula One team in the 1970s and won two constructors' titles.

He is credited with bringing the business approach to a sport that was a pastime for rich gentlemen. (He is now, of course, a rich gentleman himself, owning several properties around the world, including a picturesque inn in Gstaad, Switzerland.) After becoming president of the Formula One Constructors' Association in the 1980s, Ecclestone obtained from the FIA the sport's world television rights. He further increased his power when his friend and former business associate, Max Mosley, won the presidency of the FIA and Ecclestone became vice-president.

He has shown a gift for being able to anticipate the most profitable directions for the sport.

''It's better to know in life what's not right,'' he said, ''rather than what's right. So you can put that right.''

Team owners may complain about the way Ecclestone has set up the flotation by team owners, but most in the sport have a high opinion of his ability.

Mosley has said Formula One is ''very lucky to have Bernie Ecclestone.'' Eddie Jordan, a team owner, has said, ''History proves Bernie is invariably right.''

Ecclestone says he considers himself an entrepreneur.

''When Henry Ford started Ford he was an entrepreneur,'' he said. ''And it's a company now.''

Just how far does he think Formula One can continue expanding?

''I've no idea,'' he said. ''It's like anything. You have to either stop, or keep improving. So we keep doing things.''

Of course, other forms of racing keep doing things too. The American CART series - formerly IndyCar - is becoming international, with races in Brazil, Canada, and Australia, and it is planning races in Japan and Europe.

''It's a different formula,'' said Ecclestone, brushing off the potential threat as he would a pesky fly. ''It's like American football comes into Europe, and you're going to get people watching it. Formula One is like soccer. It works everywhere in the world.''

The biggest recent problem for the sport has been the introduction of laws in Europe and Canada restricting tobacco advertising. For Ecclestone it is just another example of how the world changes, and Formula One adapts.

''I was one of those guys that was saying 'Go east, young man,' rather than west,'' he said, referring to his support for a Grand Prix in Japan 20 years ago. He now has plans for more races in Asia.

A clause in the contract with every Grand Prix venue allows Ecclestone to withdraw the race should local laws threaten sponsorship. If tobacco laws make it impossible to advertise in Europe, Ecclestone said, ''We'd have to simply slim down a little bit our European operation and move where we don't have the problem.''

If he had his way, though, he'd fight advertising with advertising: At the circuits, in addition to signs advertising tobacco, ''we should have another bloody great sign saying: 'If you smoke, it's going to kill you.' So, they've got the advantage then of having a free advertising anti-smoking campaign.''

Ecclestone himself has never smoked.

''And I'm exposed to tobacco advertising all the time,'' he said. ''I don't believe that it's got anything to do with advertising. I think it's just really a brand-sharing operation. In Sweden they banned it and the consumption went up.''

After the interview, Ecclestone walked the paddock. ''You all right?'' he asked, ''You winning?''

Ecclestone is clearly winning.

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