Bernie Ecclestone Lucky! documentary: F1 mogul tells his story

A new TV series by Manish Pandey, producer of Senna, gives Bernie Ecclestone free reign to tell his F1 story – cue briefcases stuffed with cash and the birth of a sporting juggernaut. Damien Smith tunes in and cracks open the popcorn

Bernie Finger

The tax case. The daft things he’s said about women. Putin. To the wider world Bernie Ecclestone is what they might call ‘toxic’ these days, like the mad uncle you only see at Christmas who says wildly inappropriate things. Already more than five years since the Liberty Media buy-in triggered his Formula 1 exit, Ecclestone increasingly appears to be a man out of his time. And at 92, nearly out of time too.

Which is why the release of a new eight-part documentary on his life, through the prism of his own Formula 1 memories, is so intriguing. The series, called Lucky!, centres around a stark, striking close-up of Ecclestone’s face: white hair, white goatee, bright blue eyes (no specs, which is revealing in itself), signature white shirt, set off against a bright white background. Spooky. There are no other ‘talking heads’. Ecclestone speaks directly to camera as if he’s addressing you personally, to give his version of F1 from 1950.

No one deserves to more, of course, as the single most important and influential figure who shaped what we know today as ‘effwun’ in his own image. By definition it’s a valuable piece of work. It’s also mesmerising, as his ghostly face cuts to an endless stream of fantastic barely-seen-before archive. Stylish animation covers the bits for which there is no footage – FOCA team meetings, explosive face-offs with Jean-Marie Balestre. Motor Sport has only seen the first two episodes, covering the 1950s up to the early years of his Brabham ownership, but that’s enough to know it’s essential viewing – if you can find the channel it’s on.

Bernie being Interviewed

Bernie Ecclestone being interviewed at his Switzerland hotel by Manish Pandey, 2020.

Manish Pandey is the writer/producer who convinced Ecclestone to make it. The man behind Senna, the documentary movie that opened the floodgates to the glut of racing-related films we’ve lapped up in recent years, says getting Bernie to agree wasn’t as difficult as we might expect.

“He wanted to do this and probably has for a while,” explains Pandey. “I think it’s for his son and family.” Bernie’s only boy, Ace, was born in 2020 – when Ecclestone was a mere 89. “Of course, it’s also for the world and to set the record straight. But he’s not someone who blows his own trumpet; he doesn’t need puffing up. I believe it was just a case of who approached him at the right time.”

Pandey recalls precisely the moment he did: “11am on October 8, 2019, a Tuesday morning,” he says. “Bernie said, ‘What’s on your mind?’ ‘You. I think you should tell us your story, in the context of F1. All the races, drivers, team owners and deals that are important to you.’ He gives you this look, like he’s calculating the odds. He said, ‘If you do it, it’ll be very good, won’t it?’ ‘I’d like to think so.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do it,’ put his hand out and we shook on it. That’s what he did on Senna too: he shook my hand and said with a grin, ‘Give us all the money you’ve got and we’ll see what we can do.’”

Cash and suitcase

Cash and suitcase, 1975 Austrian GP

Grand Prix Photo

The Businessman

The businessman

Grand Prix Photo

The interviews were filmed in 2020, during the pandemic, in a hotel Ecclestone owns in Gstaad, the Swiss resort where he lives with his wife Fabiana and Ace. A special camera was used for the close-ups.

“It’s called an Interrotron and it’s basically a horizontal periscope,” Pandey says. “I sit just off your shoulder facing you. We are not looking each other in the eye. A system of mirrors means you are looking into a lens but what you see is my face dimly reflected. What’s great is that I can talk to you making eye contact – without making eye contact. The person is looking at you like Hannibal Lecter. With his white hair, shirt and blue eyes against a white background it’s a little like God talking to you from heaven!”

“With his white hair, shirt and blue eyes it’s like God talking to you”

Beyond the visuals, what’s also striking is Ecclestone’s stories. There are endless gems. Just from what we’ve seen, the recall of his fallen friends Stuart Lewis-Evans and Jochen Rindt is moving and belies any ill-founded prejudice that Ecclestone doesn’t do emotion. The archive, sourced by prolific researcher Richard Wiseman, has been drawn from nearly 60 different sources. On Lewis-Evans, there’s footage of Casablanca in 1958 captured by a BBC film crew, including a clip of the burning Vanwall. It’s only been seen once before, when broadcast a few nights after the race on Sportsview, the forerunner to Sportsnight.

The series animation

The series uses animation if archival footage is unavailable

Jochen Rindt and wife Nina

Jochen Rindt and wife Nina at the 1970 British GP

Grand Prix Photo

Among the other sources Wiseman plundered was the East Anglia Film Archive, in which he found an Anglia TV interview with Jochen Rindt in 1970, only seen once before on a regional period news show called About Anglia. “That was the film can which an old card-index file suggested had a Rindt interview inside it – unseen for 52 years,” says Wiseman. “I chose to take a chance on it and paid £150 to have it transferred to digital file.” Not much money well spent, then.

There’s so much more. A Colin Chapman interview in the wake of Jim Clark’s death raises eyebrows. It’s from 1969 BBC TV business programme Chief Executive, which again hasn’t likely been repeated since original transmission. “I was both surprised and delighted to discover it somehow still existed in the BBC TV archive,” says Wiseman. In the interview Chapman justifies the loss of racings drivers, comparing the sport to “climbing a mountain” and washes his hands of any responsibility. It’s chilling, especially so to a modern audience.

The series has been officially blessed by Formula 1, which has meant open access to the famous Biggin Hill archive that also now includes the Philip Morris-financed 1970s Brunswick collection. As he has for so many previous documentaries, Wiseman has struck gold – multiple times per episode, as far as we can tell.


Interviews were conducted during the pandemic.

Footage contrasts a smiling Nina Rindt relaxing at home with her husband to a distraught, grieving widow at his funeral, as Jo Bonnier – less than two years before his own death at Le Mans – speaks about dying while doing something you love. It’s extremely uncomfortable to watch. But this being Ecclestone, there are plenty of lighter moments too. Bernie counting out piles of cash on a desk at the 1975 Austrian GP, then giving up and scooping it all into a briefcase is not only very funny, it’s also a perfect real-life metaphor for his empire building then and since. “He says, ‘Do you know what the exchange rate is today?’” chuckles Pandey. “Then adds, ‘Now we’ll spend the money and leave.’ And legs it! That was Bernie. He made the deals, collected the money, dispersed it to the teams and left.”

Humour, often tinged with a dark edge, has always been Ecclestone’s way. You never could tell if he was being entirely serious, which is partly how he’s found himself in so much trouble – Adolf Hitler “got things done” and so on. Here, he uses the same phrase about Luca di Montezemolo, adding that Ferrari’s mid-1970s hustler did so “in a charming way. But if you asked him to shoot someone he probably wouldn’t ask their name.”

Colin Chapman

Footage of Colin Chapman was found in the BBC archive

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Ecclestone and Jean-Marie Balestre, 1981

Ecclestone with Jean-Marie Balestre, 1981

Grand Prix Photo

Jim Clark in Lotus

Coldly, Chapman took no responsibility for the death of Lotus F1 drivers, such as Jim Clark.

Grand Prix Photo

Speaking of shooting, he also recalls the time someone pulled a gun on him during his Warren Street car dealer days – then once they’d settled their disagreement became a “good customer”. And no, he doesn’t mention the Great Train Robbery or his alleged dealings with shady figures from London’s 1960s underworld. “I didn’t swing at all,” he says of the era. “I was trying to do deals to make a few dollars.”

“There are plenty in the F1 paddock who still respect Ecclestone”

It’s often what he doesn’t say that is most revealing – and plain funny. He leads you to draw your own conclusions, as if he can’t quite believe it himself. Pandey gives an example from when Ecclestone is talking to CVC Capital Partners about the private equity company’s dreaded deal to buy F1. “It’s one of my favourite bits,” says Manish. “He says of CVC, ‘They needed to borrow the money from somewhere. So I picked up the phone, called Fred Goodwin.’” Remember Royal Bank of Scotland’s notorious CEO, who pre-2008 couldn’t get enough of F1? “‘I said Fred, there’s a very good deal here that you may want to invest in. And he lent them money.’” Pandey grins. “When Bernie said that I had to hold my nose so I wouldn’t laugh off-camera. What’s he really saying there?”

The trouble is, the joke now appears to be on him – although Ecclestone’s not as irrelevant today as it might seem. There are plenty in the F1 paddock who still respect him, and call him too – regularly. Pandey spent a month with him in Gstaad, three weeks of which he captured on camera, filming sometimes for up to four hours a day. So does ‘The Bolt’ really care what the wider world thinks of him? He never seemed to. “Bernie’s a showman and understands how ethereal people’s opinions are,” says Pandey. “In his absolute soul does he care as a human being? Of course he does. But can he deal with it? Yes, he can.”

Pandey and Bernie

Pandey spent a month with the showman

Ecclestone sunset

Ecclestone sunset – but he’s still entertaining his public

Whatever the motives for making Lucky!, Ecclestone’s TV series is a timely reminder of the days when F1 teams were run by what Pandey describes as “buccaneers” rather than mere employees representing increasingly corporate entities – and how Ecclestone knew and dealt with them all, making most as well as himself extremely wealthy. There’s another running theme, from a man who always displayed a kind of anti-ego in the way he pulled the strings: “It’s the film that makes the actors, not the actors who make the film.” Plenty in F1 today would do well to remember that.

Pandey says Ecclestone didn’t like the series’ title at first, “but it came from something he said to me very early on. I asked him, ‘How did you plan this?’ He said, ‘I don’t think I planned anything. I went into some things that did well, other things I regretted. But overall I’ve been lucky.’ I thought that was both modest and brilliant, and also realistic. I think we all overestimate ourselves, don’t we? I added the exclamation mark because there is something quite emphatic about him.”

“The big-names such as Netflix, Apple and Amazon didn’t take the bait”

So where can you catch Lucky!? That might also be revealing. As Pandey admits, the big-name streaming services such as Netflix, Apple and Amazon didn’t take the bait. Evidence of that modern-day Ecclestone toxicity, perhaps? Instead, Manish and his team ‘did a Bernie’ and sold the rights to various broadcasters for different regions around the world.

In the UK it is available to view now on Discovery+. No, me neither. Then again, I took out a Disney+ subscription purely so I could watch Peter Jackson’s Beatles Get Back masterpiece. Seeking Lucky! out, even via a subscription you might use only once and then cancel, would be worthwhile.

The series and Bernie Ecclestone’s version of his F1 story deserves a wide audience. Now at least it’s been captured, before he’s out of time.

Manish Pandey’s eight-part television series Lucky!, which launched on December 27, is broadcast in the UK on Discovery+.

Vindication for Alain Prost

Unfairly portrayed in the Senna documentary? The French driver is given the spotlight in Lucky!

Bernie and Prost

In Senna, Alain Prost was given rough treatment; Lucky? was a chance to provide a fuller picture

Getty Images

One worthy subject upon which Lucky! does apparently set the record straight is Alain Prost. Bernie Ecclestone repeats what he’s said before: that he considers the four-time world champion (and four-time runner-up) the best of them all.

Surprising? Well, it’s subjective. But for Manish Pandey it’s notable in the context of Senna which has been widely perceived – including by Prost himself – to have done the Frenchman a disservice by painting him as the ‘villain’ in Formula 1’s most infamous rivalry.

“All I would say is at the end of Senna we had seven beats of Senna and Prost reconciling,” says Pandey in defence. “I still feel bad that he felt done down. But look at that accident at Suzuka [1990]. There’s no alternative version in the film. Yes, Ayrton was angry, but so what? I don’t think Senna came out well. He looked crazy in those moments, and when Jackie Stewart dismembers him in his interview.”


The Prost/Senna rivalry boiled over in Japan

In Lucky! a surprising amount of time is said to be dedicated to Prost, given that he never drove for Brabham. “As a team owner, Bernie knew how good Prost was,” says Pandey. The new series is structured around key drivers, as the producer explains: “Niki Lauda is central in episodes two and three. Episode four is only three years, 1981-83, and it’s the Brabham narrative arc. That really is about Nelson Piquet, and then episode five is about Prost. The humour comes from Nigel Mansell – you can make your own mind up if it was intentional – and we’ve found some glorious bits. Prost described Nigel as ‘hyper-fast’, which I think is perfect. Episode six is about Senna, but there’s so much of Prost in there too. Episode seven is about Michael Schumacher, with some Damon Hill and Mika Häkkinen. Then in the final episode the prominent character is Lewis Hamilton.

“We have tried to fix on a driver, to avoid it being fragmented for the wider audience,” adds Pandey. “It’s not just for the experts. I’d love my wife to be able to watch it and enjoy it too.”