Everyone knows I love Ayrton Senna, but my love for him was predated, by five years, by my love for Formula One and that love has endured for the quarter of a century since Senna’s death. At the heart of that love is the man who created it all, Bernie Ecclestone. So much has been said and written about him that it is impossible to reconcile it all. But, last autumn, I had the joy of spending a month with him, listening to the story of it all. He is a very strong man who fears nothing. He balances intellect and emotion, his left and right brain working in total harmony, unlike many other “high-functioning” executives. He is incredibly sensitive and very emotional. He has the memory of an elephant. And he is very, very funny.
Manish Pandey: How does it feel to receive GQ’s Lifetime Achievement Award?
Bernie Ecclestone: I’m hoping it isn’t the end of my life!
Have you finally reached a point when you’re comfortable looking back?
Obviously, my life has changed a lot in the last four years. It’s much easier now. It’s a different way of acting. When I was running Formula One, I was constantly growing the business and endlessly firefighting. But I’m in Switzerland now. Because of the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of time with my family. Both my girls were out here, as well as Fabiana, and [my son] Ace was born here. I’ve never been uncomfortable looking back, I’ve just been a bit busy.
It seems extraordinary, but you were at the first Grand Prix at Silverstone in May 1950. What do you remember about it?
I remember it very well. In fact, I was racing that weekend in a Cooper 500. There were no hotels. Some people were lucky enough to have a camper or something to stay in, but I slept in my car. I can remember it: it was an American Ford Custom. Alfa Romeo won the race. In fact, they were first, second and third, with no Ferraris entered.
You started as a car salesman, then a driver, a driver-manager, a team owner and then you ran Formula One. Was there always a grand plan?
No. Never. I used to deal pens in Petticoat Lane on Sundays, then motorcycles when I worked at the gas board, then used cars. I’m a dealer. Every situation I’ve faced, I’ve faced as a dealer. You have to know the price of what you’re selling and you’ve got to work out the price someone is willing to pay for it. You’re selling to people who are very smart. They’re wide awake. So you have to be wide awake too – look for an opportunity and take it. But I’m also a handshake guy. Around the world people knew that, dealing with me, a handshake was enough. If you look at contracts, as soon as the ink is dry you’ve got a lawyer trying to find a way out of it.
Do you have a management style? You’re one of the most successful businessmen and dealmakers in history, but I bet you’ve never read a single book on management or economics. What is your secret?
My secret is my handshake. People know they can trust me to do the best for everyone involved. People like to talk a lot. It’s always better to do something than talk about it. If you’re going to say you’re going to do something, do it. I hate it when people say they’re going to do something, then don’t. I don’t bother [with them] again.
‘I used to deal pens and used cars. Every situation, I’ve faced as a dealer’
Who did you most admire? Was there anyone in your Formula One dealings who felt like a true match?
Mr [Enzo] Ferrari. He was very special and he helped me a lot. He taught me that the sport is on the table and the business is under it. Formula One is Ferrari and Ferrari is Formula One. It’s that simple. Colin [Chapman] was another. He was a genius. A very quick driver too.
Has anyone ever outwitted you in a deal?
Probably. But I’d rather not remember.
Do you think you’re misunderstood?
Sometimes I word things in such a way that they aren’t taken how I meant them to be. I’ve got myself into a bit of trouble, but I can honestly say that a person is a person to me. I take people as I see them. It doesn’t matter what colour they are or whether they’re a man or a woman, their religion or nationality, whether they’re rich or poor, their politics… Look at me: I’m below average height, but I don’t feel bad about it. I’m exactly the same as someone who’s taller. In fact, in an aircraft seat I’m more comfortable than someone who’s taller. There are positives to everything. Nothing’s all bad.
You have a bit of a history of winding people up…
Poor Jean-Marie [Balestre, the ex-head of Fisa, Formula One’s governing body]. Max [Mosley, Balestre’s successor] and I used to have a bit of fun with him. I remember once we told one of the marshals in South Africa that he’d try to get up on the podium after the race but he wasn’t authorised. He said, “Leave it to me.” Then Jean-Marie went up and the marshal just grabbed him and sort of threw him off. He was very upset about that. Or when we used to do the block bookings for the hotels and got him a room overlooking a stairwell with a shared toilet. He didn’t seem to like that at all. It was good fun in those days.
You saw Romain Grosjean’s accident in Bahrain, after which he just walked away. Others haven’t been so lucky and many were close friends. How do you cope with loss?
I don’t go to funerals. If you were close to someone, they knew you were close to them. What’s the point of going to the funeral? They’re dead. They don’t know. When [François] Cevert was killed at Watkins Glen, it was horrible. He was basically cut in half. Carlos [Reutemann] came in and he was shaken up. They were mates. He told me what he’d seen, but then, when it was time to practise, he went back to the car. It sounds callous, but that’s how it was in those days. You just carried on. It’s much safer now, thanks to Sid [Watkins] and Max. But it will never be completely safe. You have to accept that.
What do you think of Formula One now? Do you miss being involved? Do you think it’s being well run?
I miss some of the deals, especially with the promoters at some of the circuits – a few might have gone under if we hadn’t been involved and helped a little – and the deals with some of the big sponsors, who’ve renewed for decades. I watch the races. And I still get the odd call for advice.
Would you have permitted the “End Racism” message at the beginning of the races?
A few years ago, there was an American football player [Colin Kaepernick] who used to kneel before matches. Well, there was a lot of anger from the authorities about that. One or two of the drivers in Formula One spoke out about it but, in the end, they didn’t do it. They didn’t kneel. They said they were asked not to. They didn’t say who asked them not to – it wasn’t me. I was out of Formula One. I can’t see what’s different about this year. Those awful things that have been happening in America have been happening for many decades. I suppose it’s a good thing that people have been made aware of what’s happening. I hope it makes a difference.
What will your legacy be?
If people want to remember me, they will, for whatever reasons.
Who is the real Bernie Ecclestone?
I don’t know whether he exists. He’s a bit flexible!
What is the best thing about your life?
Being a dad again, being around Ace. He’s changing every day. I’m a bit upset with myself that I didn’t spend enough time with the girls when they were babies. I was too busy building my business.
See all the coverage from the 2021 GQ Car Awards here.