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A bit of a softie

Tom Bower’s fearsome reputation as a biographer preceded him in the Formula One paddock.

12 March 2011

12:00 AM

12 March 2011

12:00 AM

No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone Tom Bower

Faber, pp.432, 18.99

Bernie Susan Watkins

Haynes, pp.416, 19.99

Tom Bower’s fearsome reputation as a biographer preceded him in the Formula One paddock.

Tom Bower’s fearsome reputation as a biographer preceded him in the Formula One paddock. His devastating treatment of subjects such as Conrad Black, Mohamed Al-Fayed and Richard Branson was well known. So here, at last, was a writer who would unravel the mystery of Bernie Ecclestone and explain how he progressed from selling buns in his school playground to wielding great power over a major world sport, trousering billions of pounds on the way.

We all suspected that much of the mystery was created by Bernie himself. He loved to give the impression of a ruthless, frightening individual with a dark and menacing side. He liked to hint at sinister connections to the underworld. Team owners who envied his wealth, despite profiting immensely from his success, would gossip about unscrupulous dealings. The politicians, businessmen, circuit owners and motor-industry bosses he dealt with were all intrigued by him. So there was a mystery. No one knew the whole story but everyone wanted to know. Here, at last, was a major-league investigative biographer who would expose all.

The result does not disappoint. It is a fascinating story, brilliantly told. Inevitably, much of the mystery disappears. Instead of the hard-nosed semi-gangster, we find someone with an unusually sharp mind and a love of dealing, who had honed his skills with constant practice and, by his early twenties, had become a sort of national champion of the second-hand car trade. His blood-curdling threats of having fingers cut off or legs broken turn out to be fiction. Bernie, we find, is sentimental, even soft, in his personal dealings, but ready and more than able to exploit any weakness in business. Those who reject his offers never get a second chance when they realise their mistake.

The book will irritate Formula One enthusiasts. It contains many trivial errors — the BRMs in 1971 were not painted pink; Bernie’s plane didn’t cost $78 million (or anything close); there’s no such thing as 70-degree burns; Rindt didn’t ‘enter a curve and lose control’; the controversial skirts didn’t increase the pressure under the car (they decreased it); the first turbo car was a Renault, not a Ferrari; there was never a race on the Barcelona waterfront; the first Brasilian Formula One race was in Sao Paulo, not Rio de Janeiro; Ayrton Senna deliberately crashed into Prost in 1990, not 1988; Ferrari did not lose Marlboro sponsorship in 2007 (they still had it in 2010) and so on. But none of these tiresome mistakes detract from the story or, indeed, matter to anyone who does not follow the sport closely.

There are more serious errors — for example Bower’s explanation of the confrontation at Indianapolis in 2005, when seven of the ten teams refused to race at the last moment. He incorrectly says this was due to the FIA forbidding a change of tyres during the race and misses the significance of this first indication of a political fault line in the sport. But even this does not really matter. Despite the errors, anyone reading his book will get the clearest picture yet of Bernie as a person and his role in building Formula One.

The only aspect which Bower gets seriously wrong is his portrayal of Slavica, Bernie’s wife of 25 years. She emerges from the book as a furious and temperamental woman, physically much bigger than he husband, whom she constantly terrorised. This unfair portrait is not entirely Bower’s fault. By the time he came on the scene they had divorced, and Slavica apparently refused to meet him, so Bower had to rely on other people’s testimony. She didn’t suffer fools gladly and left behind a few bruised egos all too ready to criticise her.

Nevertheless, it should have been obvious that the truth was more complex. After all, Bernie could have left her at any time, particularly after their daughters had grown up; yet he told Bower he would still be with her now had she not walked out. In reality, Slavica had immense charm, which she deployed to great effect on the politicians, businessmen and celebs that Bernie had to deal with. Bernie was undoubtedly sometimes difficult, and Slavica may have overreacted, but she played a big role in his success and they made an excellent, if strange, team.

The glue which held Bernie and his associates together was always his off-beat sense of humour. There was a constant stream of jokes, often at the expense of someone in the group oblivious to what was going on. Even when things were difficult, everyone had a lot of fun. Bower captures some of this and, had he seen Bernie and Slavica together, would have realised that she understood and was very much a part of it. No one could ever say that Bernie has not enjoyed his life, and this comes through in the book. But the last chapter has yet to be written. One hopes Bower will be there when the time comes.

Motor-sport enthusiasts will probably enjoy Susan Watkins’s version of Bernie Ecclestone’s life. The first part is a long recitation of his childhood and early business dealings, as well as giving details of endless races. The account of his later career in Formula One lacks balance and tails off with a chapter which appears to have been hastily added with little or no research. The book is too long and needed a ruthless editor. But it is ideal for those who wish to immerse themselves in the minutiae and anecdotes of 40 years of Formula One, and it will certainly find a readership.

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