Jewels in Bernie's crown

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When part of Bernie Ecclestone’s prized racing car collection went on show in Bahrain it attracted royalty, rock stars and, of course, a few well-known drivers
By Rob Widdows

Everybody knows that Bernie Ecclestone has a sensational collection of racing cars. But only the chosen few have ever seen them.

All that changed in April when the secret treasure was transported from its hiding place in Kent to the desert of Bahrain. Many people said this would never happen, that the cars would never again see the light of day. But happen it did. And in some style.

The chosen cars, illustrating the history of Grand Prix racing from 1937 to 1987, were presented as jewels – glinting under spotlights in a dimly lit canvas pavilion. Clean, sharp, and not a grain of sand in sight. Mr Ecclestone was impressed.

“This looks good,” he says, visibly moved by the spectacle. “They’ve done a very good job. I like the way they’ve done it. Couldn’t be better.” Brief as ever, but effusive from a man who is both demanding and hard to please. He would return many times during the Grand Prix weekend, often with one of his VIP guests, and was clearly happy with this first public showing of so many of his cars. Bernie has allowed them out before, just one or two at a time, but it was his friendship with the Crown Prince of Bahrain that persuaded him to put more on display this time.

“We’ve never displayed this many cars and will probably never do so again,” says Robert Dean, curator of the Ecclestone Collection. “This was a special favour for the Crown Prince, who is a passionate enthusiast. They wanted 12 cars, but I suggested to Mr Ecclestone that we send 24 so that we could tell a historical story from 1937 (with the Mercedes-Benz W125) through to the Brabham-BMW BT56, which raced at the end of the turbo era in 1987. Then there’s something from every decade in between, from a Maserati 4CLT to a Ferrari ‘Super Squalo’, to James Hunt’s McLaren M23, to the Brabham BT46B, the famous ‘fan car’. It was a huge undertaking, and we simply couldn’t have done it without CARS UK who shipped them out from England and back again unscathed, Ghada Alansari from the Bahrain circuit who designed the display, and Doug Nye and David Weguelin who created the films that cover all the highlights of the decades and bring the story to life. I just hope Bernie is pleased and that lots of people come to enjoy the cars over the weekend.” He need not have worried. On either count.

The Crown Prince hatched his plan to display the cars back in January when he dispatched his Bahrain International Circuit CEO Martin Whitaker to the Autosport International show in Birmingham for a clandestine meeting with Dean. They met twice more, to hammer out the detail, at the secret location where the collection of 80 cars is kept in a pristinely clean and climatically controlled environment, and where the security makes the recipe for Coca Cola appear unprotected.

They came away with a plot to put to the Crown Prince, who then asked his friend Bernie to sanction this first public appearance. In early March CARS UK loaded the treasure into containers and, after a month at sea, they arrived in the port of Manama, where Dean and Alansari began the task of presenting these priceless machines at their glorious best. When the cars were given a gentle shakedown on the Sakhir circuit in the days before the Grand Prix, Ferrari mechanics came rushing out of their garages to watch the red cars. There was much ‘bravo’ and ‘bellissima’ as Dean rumbled past in the priceless Ferrari 375. Shame the Brabham mechanics were no longer there… Well, apart from Charlie Whiting and Herbie Blash, who are now fully occupied away from the pitlane.

As the collection was revealed to the masses on GP weekend, the response was unequivocally enthusiastic. Outside in the searing desert sunshine there were queues to get in, visitors from abroad discovering how a pizza must feel in an oven. The ever-efficient organisers had wisely decided to limit numbers around the cars so that everyone could get a proper eyeful. Other exhibitors of priceless objects, please take note.

“I was just blown away by it,” says Martin Brundle, taking time out to wallow in a bit of history. “The quality and the pedigree are just stunning, and I’ve never seen a lot of the older cars before. Of course, I knew Bernie had a big collection, but I hadn’t realised there was this kind of rarity. Some of them are so beautiful – they were designed with creativity rather than produced from lots of data. They have an artistic flow to them. I like the 1970s and ’80s cars with their big fat tyres, which I always think makes them look like real racing cars. I look at the ones from my era and think, how did we do that? They were so dangerous and the cockpits so open. I remember my Tyrrell – the bodywork wasn’t even as high as my shoulders. I went round the show with David Coulthard and we were thinking, why did they design those bits like that, and what were they thinking with that bit? But there were no computers then. It’s a great display, fantastic.”

The show was opened by the Crown Prince and the king of F1, both looking cool and crisp, the prince in his white robes and Bernie in his usual white shirt. Ecclestone never spends much time in one place, but he seemed relaxed and cheerful among the cars he collects because he loves them. Yes, they are an investment, but underneath the tough exterior motor racing runs in his blood, pumps his heart. Ecclestone was a successful motorcycle racer, a man who raced a Cooper-Norton, who tried to qualify a Connaught in Monaco. He didn’t make the grid in Monte Carlo but he went on to manage Stuart Lewis-Evans, Carlos Pace and Jochen Rindt before establishing himself as the most influential figure in the often controversial commercialisation of Grand Prix racing.

“This is very special,” he says, walking among the cars and the flashbulbs. “It means a lot. My favourite car here? The fan car, yes, the fan car. But I like the 1950s cars, the front-engined era, and the Brabhams.” He walks on, surrounded by curious onlookers and a scrum of photographers. They get to the Brabhams (Bernie has 35 in all) and Nelson Piquet asks if he can sit in one of the cars, producing a camera to record the moment. You’d think he might have had enough of this but he’s like a boy with a new toy. “Yes, OK,” says Ecclestone and the Brazilian removes his shoes before sliding down into the cockpit of BT50. “Idiot,” murmurs Bernie. “Why isn’t he sitting in BT49? He won the championship for us in that.” Cameras go mad. Bernie picks up Nelson’s shoes and hides them. Just like the old days at Brabham.

Over the course of the weekend thousands of people, young and old, saw 24 racing cars they had never seen before and may never see again. Bahrain does not have a history of motor sport, but the Crown Prince is a huge fan, and his people were grateful for this unique opportunity. Among the crowds there were legends, Gods even. Eric Clapton, a loyal Ferrari fan, spent time gazing at the seven cars chosen to represent Maranello. “I have cars,” he remarks, “but I could never do anything like this. It’s unbelievable.”

The collection is always changing. Some are sold, some are bought, but the focus is on 1950s front-engined cars and the Brabhams. “I suggested to him that he could have the greatest collection in the world,” says Dean. “But the cars we need are now also the most expensive. I know where they are and what we need for the perfect set. Mr Ecclestone works far in advance, always thinking in the future, and sometimes you wonder why he does things. Then the plan becomes clear and everyone else is left behind. He’s very clever like that.” Meanwhile, in the desert, we had a glimpse of what the man has managed to squirrel away so far.

You might have expected Niki Lauda, here on commentary duty, to have visited the tent. But he was on crutches (“Dog attacked me. Will be OK in two weeks.”) and couldn’t negotiate the steps and tunnels from the infield paddock. But he’d heard plenty about this unprecedented breakout of Bernie’s cars from captivity.

“So, the fan car is in pole position at the entrance, very topical, no?” he grins. “Bernie would like this. It’s his humour I think, with all the diffuser business… But seriously, that was the best car I ever drove. Fantastic. The first time I tried it at Brands Hatch it had terrible oversteer and understeer, and I said to Gordon Murray, what is this shitbox? But then they warmed it up in the garage and I could see it going up and down, sucking itself nearer the ground. I went out again, got it hot, and the grip was just fantastic. So much grip, everywhere flat. At Anderstorp they wanted to fill it with fuel for qualifying. I said, are you mad? But I did it anyway and when Pironi’s oil cooler broke there was oil everywhere and the fan car just felt like a train on rails. Incredible. Of course, Bernie wanted it heavy so we didn’t qualify too high in case they tried to ban it before the race. They never did ban it, you know, they just changed the rules. It was a great car, very clever.” The spectacular BT46B certainly attracted the crowds in 2009, just as it did three decades ago.

On the Sunday morning, something extraordinary happened. A BRM V16 came down the pit access road, the unmistakable engine noise bringing people running from all directions. Driven by Nick Mason (yes, even the drummers got a look in) and lovingly coaxed into action by Dean, this notably recalcitrant monster was due to take part in a parade of three cars from the collection. In the crowd Robert Plant covered his ears. You’d think he’d be used to a few decibels after all those years out front with Led Zeppelin. So now we had legends and royalty everywhere, from rock to racing to the ruler of the Kingdom himself. Sadly, in the only disappointment of the weekend, the cars never ran. Scheduling problems, said a man in uniform. “Very sad,” said Dean, who had the cars warmed up and ready to burble, or roar, around the track.

The 2009 Bahrain GP was full of surprises. Ecclestone, much in evidence all weekend, appeared on the grid to witness a Bulgarian man hold his breath for more than 20 minutes while immersed in a tank of water suspended from the back of a JCB . This feat established a new world record, not only for the Bulgarian, but for Ecclestone who has, apparently, never before stood in one place for this amount of time. This is the thing about the Bahrain race – it’s one big party with a Grand Prix on the Sunday afternoon. The grandstands are never full because the customers are somewhere else, enjoying the music, the magicians, the bungee jumping, the shops and the myriad other theatrics that make up this intoxicating blend of racing cars and Middle eastern culture.

The Bahrainis call the Sakhir circuit the ‘Home of Motor Sport in the Middle East’. This is ‘where the heart is’, they are fond of telling you. In November we go to Abu Dhabi, just across the Gulf of Arabia, for the season finale. They are going to have to go some to beat the Bahrainis when it comes to staging a Grand Prix, even if they do have a harbour-side circuit they call the ‘new Monte Carlo’… Er, I don’t think so.

What you may never see again, in Abu Dhabi or anywhere else on the planet, is a collection of Bernie Ecclestone’s racing cars.