Maintaining the image

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Bernie Ecclestone is a hard man. Such is conventional wisdom. Over the years one has heard so many anecdotes and experienced so much to confirm that view. He has described himself as being “an independent bastard”. Many others have omitted the adjective. Sometimes he has undoubtedly worked quite hard to present himself as absolutely diamond-hard, tough by nature, tough by deed, ever-ready to flame any opponent, to dominate any situation. The past 50 years is littered by the Bernie-flamed and Bernie-dominated. He never forgets a slight, and as I was taught from childhood, “…you don’t get mad, but you do get even”. Over many years he has certainly done that. He has also often gone beyond what might seem normal bounds to reject any public sign of mellowing with the merest trace of nostalgia.

In the 1980s, at Monza, an Alfa Romeo Monoposto was being warmed up for a demonstration run. “Look at that, Mr E. Isn’t that great?” The response was predictably dismissive. “Huh – Icould buy something that big…” thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart, “…worth twice as much as that heap, and a better investment!” Hmm, another refund due from the charm school then? When one of his long-serving lieutenants suggested one day, “Why don’t you let us publicise some of your charity gifts?” he was slapped down by “Nah – spoil the image”.

It’s an image I am most certainly unequipped to rewrite. Back in the mid-70s I made the grievous error of translating a phrase from the Ferrari transcript of one of The Old Man’s famous press conferences, in which an Italian reporter referred to Mr E with less than a civilised term. My report was published in Autosport. And instantly the egg and chips hit the fan! A string of icy-cold, deeply menacing telephone calls followed, leaving me in no doubt that I had transgressed the unwritten law. Whether I was going to be merely sued for libel, or have my head stapled to the floorboards, without Aspirin, I wasn’t sure, but I felt it might go either way. As it happened, I could only apologise for my lack of taste, but I had to stand by what I’d written; honest reporting from a clearly ‘official’ source. Anyhow, after a few tense weeks, the sun re-emerged…

Subsequent contact proved surprisingly cordial. And whenever I have tried to trawl Mr E’s fantastic memory on history his response has usually been instant, crisp and very helpful. In truth he can occasionally be caught off guard, and traces of the deep-hidden racing enthusiast will then surface. When I put late photographer Guy Griffiths back in touch with Mr E after decades of no contact, dear old Guy – a flint-hearted wheeler-dealer on his own account – was staggered by a) how long his old acquaintance Bernie nattered with him, b) his near-total recall and c) his surviving rapier-quick sense of humour.

Now whether it’s viewed as heart-in-the-right-place enthusiasm, or just a lifelong entrepreneur’s strictly commercial investment, Mr E’s personal collection of Grand Prix-derived cars is pretty darned impressive. No fewer than 24 of them were shipped out for display at the Bahrain Grand Prix, and I hope the audience appreciated just what they were seeing there. From 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125 and C&G 1937-type V16 Auto Union, to BRM V16 Mark II and Vanwall ‘VW10’, Ferrari 375, 555, 1512, 312T2 and 1966 V12, to Brabham BT46B ‘Fan Car’ and on to the needle-nosed BT52, what a picture they presented. Of course the owner still enjoys winding up anoraks he meets. “The Mercedes? You mean that WD40 thing?” You get the picture?

Financial value, sure – enthusiasm, maybe… but we might be hearing more of ‘The Ecclestone Grand Prix Heritage Collection’. On the other hand, we might not. In anything to do with Formula 1’s perennial ringmaster, the future is unpredictable.