It's been a long time coming, but Bernie Ecclestone, the consummate player of Formula One politics, has finally been outplayed. File photo: Lazlo Balogh / Reuters

London - Cleanly and silently, Bernie Ecclestone has been knifed in the back in just the way he has knifed dozens of his rivals over the years. His many enemies will be delighted that he is finally tasting his own medicine.

As the Godfather of Formula One - which he ran almost single-handedly for 50 years - his favourite piece of advice on how to deal with his rivals was: "Don’t threaten, just do."

Now, after 70 years of wheeling and dealing, he has finally been defeated by Formula One’s new owner, Liberty Media.

It deposed him as chief executive on Sunday night and removed him from any decision-making process in a sport he personally built up by looking after a clutch of eccentric enthusiasts and turning their sport into a multi-billion pound business with more viewers than any other sporting event except the Olympics and the World Cup.

But his iron grip was such that, like all despots, the 86-year-old refused to let go. Ecclestone had always refused to appoint a successor.

"If he’s that good I don’t want him around," he said.

He also pledged that he would retire from Formula One only when he was lowered into his grave inside the luxury coach - known as ‘The Kremlin’ - that he used as mobile headquarters at every race.

This from a man of ruthless cunning and business acumen who had always made a habit of ‘burying’ any rivals who foolishly tried to snatch control of the vast and lucrative business.

Waning excitement 

It wasn’t just his grand age that led to Ecclestone’s downfall. It was also that the excitement and unpredictability of Formula One was waning, as I shall explain - and the media and public seemed more interested in his own lifestyle and the antics of his publicity-seeking daughters and their husbands.

After all, in recent years, he has attracted attention by publicly expressing his support for Adolf Hitler, as well appearing in Germany on trial for bribery and paying £64 (R1.07 billion) million to the court to settle the case.

Through no fault of his own, he has been violently mugged and robbed of £200,000 (R2.65 million) worth of jewellery, and more recently his mother-in-law was taken hostage in Brazil where the kidnappers sent a ransom note - "Pay us £28 million (R470 million) or your mother’s head will be sent home in a shopping bag". Fortunately, the police rescued her.

I first met Bernie in 2009, when I started to write my book about his life. Even though he offered his cooperation, I told him I would publish any evidence I found of wrongdoing. Ecclestone smiled and said: "Tom, I’m no angel."

I enjoyed unprecedented access to him, spending countless hours in his company, travelling with him to races all over the world, often in his private jet.

I discovered a man of contradictions. He is a dealmaker of razor-sharp brilliance and ruthlessness, but also someone so compulsively tidy that he is always straightening picture frames, adjusting curtains so they are just so, or lining up his pens on his desk.

He always travelled with cash - thick wodges of $100 bills and €500 notes, dishing them out for meals and helicopter rides and never taking any change.

Yet he is scrupulously abstemious. There was no sign of caviar or champagne in his life and on short flights across Europe in his jet, the best on offer is sparkling water and chips.

Learning the art of the business deal

The son of a man with many jobs, he left school at 15 to work for the Gas Board, but spent his time selling motorcycles and secondhand cars, learning the art of the business deal.

His passion for motor racing would lead him to take over the management and then the ownership of Formula One.

Then came his financial coup: he sold the television rights to Formula One races, and then the entire championship - in other words, every race shown in every country around the world.

Television transformed the sport. Spectatorship soared. Sponsorship money rolled in. Countries queued up to pay for the rights to stage Formula One. And it made Ecclestone very rich.

'No girls in the pits'

It was in the pits at Monza race circuit in Italy in 1982 that he spotted a striking 1.8 metres Croatian model, Slavica Malic, employed by a fashion house and one of the race’s sponsors.

"Get out of here!" Ecclestone, then 51, ordered. "No girls in the pits. Get out!"

She refused, and replied in her thick accent: "If you come any nearer, I will kick you."

Impressed by her feisty response, Ecclestone invited her for lunch.

Slavica later asked a photographer: "I met this guy who was trying to break my balls and he said he’s in charge of Formula One. Do you think it’s true?"

She accepted the invitation, ended up marrying Bernie and is the mother of Petra and Tamara.

'The problem with Ron'

Meanwhile Ecclestone’s business success was also making him enemies, even among those he’d made very rich. Thanks to Ecclestone, Formula One winners such as Ron Dennis, the chief of the McLaren team during his glory days, were transformed from garage mechanics into plutocrats.

And yet Dennis was livid that, compared to his mere hundreds of millions of pounds, Ecclestone had pocketed more than £3 billion (R50 billion) from the sport.

"The problem with Ron," Ecclestone told me, "is that he has an inferiority complex. And that’s with good reason. He is inferior."

Just as in a gangster film, Ecclestone delighted in keeping his rivals down.

"My trick," he once told me, "is keeping all the balls in the air. Always."

Unrivalled expertise

Simultaneously he had to satisfy 10 racing teams, a myriad of corporate sponsors, 20 circuit owners, the television company broadcasting the race and despotic governments anxious to attract a Formula One race to legitimise their regimes.

In his unflappable manner, he kept the circus on the road by telling everyone a different story, always in a conspiratorial whisper.

Six times after 1996, he sold control over Formula One for cash to a series of TV moguls and investors. And then, after banking the money, he managed to recover control of the business. His secret weapon was his unrivalled expertise at managing a uniquely complicated business.

No one appeared to trust him more than Donald Mackenzie, the chairman of CVC, the private equity company who bought control of the sport in 2006 for more than £1 billion (R16.8 billion).

While Mackenzie earned an estimated $800 million (R10.6 billion) a year from his investment, he appeared to be Ecclestone’s faithful supporter against the growing opposition of the teams, the fans and the television broadcasters.

 £29 million bribe

In was in 2014 that Ecclestone’s problems began. The Germans prosecuted him for paying Gerhard Gribkowsky, a German banker, a £29 million (R486 million) bribe in 2006 to sell Formula One to Mackenzie for less than its true value. Ecclestone was compelled to stand trial in Dusseldorf.

I knew the allegation was nonsense and I called his lawyer to offer critical evidence for his defence. During the writing of Ecclestone’s biography, I explained, I had interviewed Gribkowsky for four hours and extracted his confession that he was blackmailing Ecclestone about allegedly evading tax in Britain.

Although Ecclestone’s tax affairs are murky - his assets were transferred to a family trust in Switzerland in 1996 - no one has yet produced evidence to incriminate him.

Nevertheless, Ecclestone paid Gribkowsky his hefty bribe - spare change for a man worth more than £3 billion (R50 billion) - to avoid a potential problem.

I flew to testify at Ecclestone’s trial. Sitting next to Fabiana, his beautiful and intensely loyal Brazilian wife (he separated from Slavica after 23 years of marriage), Ecclestone, then 84, looked exhausted.

Outplayed

My evidence destroyed the prosecution, and soon after they offered Ecclestone a deal to end the trial for £64 million (R1.07 billion).

He paid, only to be told by the prosecutor after he signed the agreement: "Thanks - we would have had to end the trial anyway."

Ecclestone was furious with himself. Unlike in his past, he had been out-pokered. "You must know the hand you play," he had told me three years earlier.

It was on a flight with him and Mackenzie that I realised the writing was on the wall. During the seven-hour journey from Abu Dhabi to London in Ecclestone’s private jet, having watched the final race of the 2015 season, the two men discussed how to rescue the sport from boredom. TV audiences were falling and many stadiums were empty.

The problem was the Mercedes team’s production of a winning engine that no other team could beat. Excitement and unpredictability had evaporated from the sport. Neither Ecclestone nor Mackenzie had an answer, and Mackenzie wanted out.

Deal-maker

So Ecclestone’s last ‘friend’ scooped a healthy share of the £6.5 billion (R109 billion) paid by Liberty, the new American owners, while Ecclestone rashly believed the Americans’ assurances that he could remain in control for another three years, not least because he knew all the secrets of the sport.

He enjoyed the image of a deal-maker who relies on a handshake. But on this occasion, the Americans’ handshake appears to have been unreliable. The despot of F1 was ousted.

"People only listen to dictators," he told me. "We had more or less a dictatorship in Formula One - and I was the dictator."

His love of dictators had surfaced controversially in 2009. Asked about Hitler in an interview, he admitted his admiration for "the way that he could command a lot of people and was able to get things done".

He continued: "In the end he lost, so he wasn’t a very good dictator."

In his defence, Ecclestone was utterly and unforgivably ignorant about Hitler. Just as his own skulduggery and exploitation of his opponents’ dysfunctional characters had sustained Formula One, he imagined Hitler was the same because he built motorways.

Priceless collection of vintage sports-cars

Fortunately for Ecclestone, the journalists were unaware that among his priceless collection of 82 vintage sports-cars stored in a warehouse was the gleaming Lancia Asturia open-topped limousine in which Hitler and Mussolini had driven through Rome in 1938 to sign the ‘Pact of Steel’. Propped up against the car were framed photographs of the event.

Among his latter-day heroes is Vladimir Putin. I was with Ecclestone at Monza in 2009 when he told Putin’s negotiator that the Russian’s offer to stage the race at Sochi was unacceptable. To get the race, Putin would need would to raise his offer.

"I want his signature on the contract, faxed to me within 24 hours," Ecclestone said.

His cold eyed-stare through his thick-lensed glasses left Putin’s emissary in no doubt who was boss. Putin signed and with just a few hours notice, Ecclestone flew to Sochi.

'We don’t need visas'

"Putin will meet me there," he told me.

"How is he?" I asked after their meeting. "His English is getting better," he replied enigmatically. All those skills are now lost to Formula One.

I once asked him what would happen when he finally departed. Unemotionally he replied: "Formula One is like a big stage for a pop concert. Elvis died. Things still went on. When I go, the same will happen. Formula One will continue."

Today, I know he will be shocked and in bereavement for an event he never imagined would happen. Undoubtedly, the new American owners will renew the excitement for fans and earn bigger profits. But Ecclestone’s legacy will dominate the sport for many years. The small man will remain a colossus. Love or hate him, we won’t see Ecclestone’s like again in our lifetime.

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