Nigel Roebuck

The Ecclestone saga, modern F1’s banality, Foyt at Brands Hatch

When the announcement was made that Bernie Ecclestone was indeed to face bribery charges in the German court, it’s fair to say that in the paddock there was a measure of surprise, for, Bernie being Bernie, the widespread assumption had been that it wouldn’t come to that, that he would manage to sidestep this potential threat to his job (to say nothing of his liberty), just as he had always done.

Not so on this occasion, however: this time it was for real, and the news not surprisingly occasioned a good deal of debate and conjecture in the Formula 1 community. What would happen if he were found guilty? Might he, a man in his eighties, go inside – and if so, for how long? After all, Gerhard Gribkowsky, the banker whom Ecclestone had allegedly bribed, had been sent away for eight and a half years. And Bernie, while insisting that it was in response to blackmail rather an offered bribe, had never denied making the $44m payment.

In a paddock somewhere I talked to a senior F1 figure about the situation, and asked him how he thought it would resolve itself. “Bernie,” he said, with a faint smile, “will write a cheque…”

In itself, there was nothing very novel about this response, for similar things had been said countless times in the past about a variety of ticklish situations in which Ecclestone had found himself. At the same time, though, it did seem a trifle cavalier on this occasion, for we were talking about a court of law here, and not one in a banana republic, either: this was a German court of law, where everything might reasonably be expected to be correct and above board. And we were, after all, talking about an offence that, if proven, could carry a jail sentence of 10 years.

Then a German friend in the press room told me a little about the law in his homeland, and if I found what he said difficult to take in, he assured me that it was indeed the case: in certain circumstances, it was possible for ‘the writing of a cheque’ to bring a premature end to a trial, to make the charges go away. Why, he said, a dozen or so years earlier, Helmut Kohl – former Chancellor of Germany, no less – had done that very thing, and thus ended an investigation into breach of trust charges stemming from his role in a party-financing scandal.

The trial began in April, and it must said that – as Ecclestone himself acknowledged – the court officials were remarkably accommodating, limiting proceedings to two days a week, so as to allow Bernie at least some time to continue with the running of F1. Spending a couple of days in Munich each week was obviously not ideal, particularly with the Grand Prix season in full swing, but Ecclestone remained adamant he had done nothing wrong, and stressed that he wished to clear his name.

That, for his employer, was obviously of paramount importance, Donald Mackenzie of CVC declaring that if Ecclestone were found guilty of any criminal charge, he would be sacked forthwith. The comment seemed a trifle superfluous: forgetting the adverse publicity for the business, it would have been difficult indeed for Bernie – with bars on his windows – to continue doing the deals that have brought such fiscal delight to CVC these many years.

The fact that several names began to surface as potential successors can have brought Ecclestone little comfort, and in the paddock word became increasingly strong that the outcome of the trial was probably irrelevant: guilty or innocent, murmured people supposedly in the know, Bernie’s days of iron-fisted control of F1 were essentially over.

As the weeks went by, opinion swung this way and that as to how the trial was progressing, how things were looking for the immaculately suited defendant. Some insisted that the weight of evidence against him was irresistible, others that it was less damning than had once been believed – while others yet continued blithely to suggest it would all end with the writing of a cheque…

Whatever else, there was no doubt at all that the consequences of having its chief executive on trial for bribery and incitement to breach of trust were damaging to the image of F1. I heard tell, for example, of a major company seriously considering team sponsorship, then concluding that its money would be better spent elsewhere.

In Germany the case was of course widely covered, and clearly made Ecclestone a household name. As I checked in at Frankfurt airport for my post-Hockenheim flight home, the lady at the desk asked me about the credential – I had come straight from the track, and forgotten about it – around my neck. I told her. “Ah,” she smiled. “Do you know Bernie Ecclestone?” Yes, I said. “How long do you think he will get?” she asked.

It rather sounds, I said, as though you’re assuming he will be found guilty. “Well, that’s what everyone here seems to think,” she replied, “but who knows? Maybe it will be settled with money…”

And lo, eventually it was. A week later it was announced that Ecclestone’s lawyers had informed the court that their client was willing to pay 25 million euros in return for the dropping of criminal charges against him. As a result the presiding judge, Peter Noll, postponed evidence due to be heard, and ‘negotiations’ began in private. A week after that, on August 5, there came word that, following a major increase of the settlement offer – now 100 million dollars (£60m) – the trial was at an end.

Judge Noll (who also presided over the Gribkowsky case) said that Ecclestone had given assurances that the payment represented, “An appreciable portion of his wealth, without overburdening him.”

One can only wonder at the total monies involved in the case. There had, after all, been months of preparation on both sides before the start – and it lasted nearly four months, albeit on that two-days-a-week basis. Leaving aside the costs of bringing the case to court, who can imagine the bill ultimately presented by Ecclestone’s high-flying lawyers?

Whatever, it was all done and dusted, and the Munich court issued a statement. “There was no conclusion on guilt or innocence of the defendant. He is leaving this courtroom a free man. The court did not consider a conviction overwhelmingly likely from the present point of view. He is neither acquitted nor judged; rather, this is a special way of ending a procedure which is in theory available to all types of cases.”

A special way, indeed. Sven Thomas, a leading member of Ecclestone’s legal team, not surprisingly welcomed the court’s decision, and said it showed there would have been, “A clear option of acquittal, had the trial continued.” He had the feeling, he added, that Mr Ecclestone was “relieved”.

In the euphoria of the moment, Bernie himself was predictably rather more gung-ho: “In the end what’s happened is good and bad – the good is that the judge more or less said I was acquitted, and the prosecution didn’t really have a case. So I was a bit of an idiot to do what I did to settle because it wasn’t with the judge – it was with the prosecutors. Anyway, it’s done and finished, so it’s all right. This now allows me to do what I do best, which is running F1. I’ve been working weekends to catch up with what I’ve been missing during the week – another three months would have been bad. I’ve not really noticed, but it’s probably taken its toll a little bit...”

Some wondered why, to make the charges against him go away, Ecclestone hadn’t brought out his chequebook long before, but German colleagues told me that ‘financial settlement’ of a case requires the agreement of the prosecutors, and that in normal circumstances such a device comes into play only when proceedings have dragged on for a while, with little progress on either side, and a conviction by no means certain.

Prosecutor Christian Weiss said that, “Ending the trial was justified in view of the long proceedings, Ecclestone’s age and other extenuating circumstances” – one of which presumably had a lot of noughts on it.

“The bottom line,” said Ecclestone, “is that it’s been three and a half years of aggravation, travelling, meeting lawyers and God knows what else, so it’s good it’s out of the way. This trial was going to continue until October.”

While it is easy to understand Bernie’s point about the trial getting in the way of his running F1, and his desire to ‘get back to what I do best’ as soon as possible, still one is amazed that, if he were so confident of acquittal, he was prepared to fork out $100m – more than twice as much as he paid Gribkowsky in the first place – merely to end a trial, already four months old, a couple of months early.

News of the deal did not go down well in Germany. Hence the front page headline of Bild the following day: “Another rich man buys himself free!” Süddeutsche Zeitung said that, while the payment was a result of Ecclestone’s “exorbitant” wealth, the judicial system “accepts appearing to be buyable”.

A former German justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, meantime put in her two penn’orth: “In my eyes, there should not be negotiations in this dimension with justice. It doesn’t just leave a bad taste – it really is bare-faced cheek.”

So, at the end of this saga, where are we? As my friend in the paddock correctly predicted all those months ago, Ecclestone has indeed written a cheque and – abracadabra! – the crimes with which he was charged have vanished into the ether. As a result, Bernie is again running F1 on a full-time basis.

The court proceedings in Germany ended without a verdict – as is always the case when this sort of arrangement is responsible for their conclusion. Thus, while Ecclestone was not found innocent of the charges, neither was he found guilty, which therefore wiped away Mackenzie’s threat, on behalf of CVC, to fire him.

It is known that CVC is keen now to divest itself of its shareholding in F1. Well aware that no one can do financial deals in motor racing like Ecclestone, the company pragmatically kept him in place throughout his tribulations, and will be celebrating the end of his trial, for Formula 1 – the commodity, for that’s how these people see it – will be more saleable with Bernie, even closing on his 84th birthday, still aboard. At least, one assumes that to be the case.

Whether they admit it or not, a lot of people in the paddock are needing to adjust to the situation, for through this year many had come to believe that Ecclestone was now damaged goods to a point that, whatever the outcome of his trial, the likelihood was that his days as F1’s overwhelming power broker were done. As so often in the past – notably through the sham struggles with Max Mosley’s FIA – they have been proved wrong. When necessary, Bernie has always been good at writing a cheque.

“Business is like cards,” he said to me once. “You want to win every hand, but the secret is knowing when to fold…”

In the course of a press conference at the Hungaroring, Christian Horner rather lost his rag with the journalists of Formula 1, accusing them of “focusing only on the negativities” in the sport. Given that a couple of Christian’s closest buddies in the paddock – a Mr Ecclestone and a Mr Vettel – have passed up few opportunities this year to denigrate the new F1, some of us thought that a bit rich.

To be fair, the ‘negativities’ under discussion on this occasion were not to do with the state of F1 per se. Although sundry folk have heaped criticism on it in 2014, such as Luca di Montezemolo fatuously suggesting that it had reduced the stars to “taxi drivers”, or that he regarded it as “his duty to save F1”, this has evolved into the most diverting season for a good 15 years.

For all that, it is undeniable that fewer people are watching it these days, and the powers-that-be have gone into full panic mode in an attempt to win back disenchanted fans, and create new ones. In fact, all they have done is reveal a woeful lack of understanding of their audience, sidestepping the aspects of F1 that many have come to despise, and instead seeking to put even greater emphasis on the ‘showbiz’ aspect, with the introduction of barmy ideas like double points and standing restarts.

Undeniably, it’s true that journalists have recoiled from such efforts to cheapen our sport, and have written as much. What we have not done, though, is complain about the basic ‘product’: true, there is still the occasional fruitless moan about the relative lack of decibels produced – inevitably – by turbocharged engines, but otherwise the advent of more power and less downforce has been welcomed, for the cars are better to watch, the racing immeasurably improved.

Criticism of the sport itself has therefore been essentially confined to the introduction of gimmicks, aimed at spicing up a show in no need of spicing up.

When it comes to the state of F1, however, that is a different matter, for in some respects the innards of the sport are rotten to the core. Is it a surprise that some of us don’t care for the fact that F1 has an owner – CVC – leeching hundreds of millions a year from it, while half the teams in the paddock struggle to stay in business? Whatever happened to your fabled ‘Don King Clause’, Max?

Back to the press conference in Hungary. It began blandly enough, as usual, and continued in that vein until a question was asked about the dramatic reduction in the size of the crowd at Hockenheim the previous weekend. Christian Horner suggested that very high ticket prices must have played a part, and undoubtedly that was true – but then why are circuits obliged to charge what they do? So as to attempt to meet the fees demanded by F1’s owners, that’s why.

A question was asked about CVC – and predictably it received…careful responses. Privately, we know very well what most in the paddock think of the company, but in a public forum, microphones on… no, thank you very much.

Then there was a question about the future calendar, with Mexico returning to the world championship in 2015, and that hotbed of F1 passion Azerbaijan coming in the year after. All a jolly good thing, it was agreed.

Then – deep breath – the matter of the forthcoming inaugural Russian Grand Prix was raised. In light of recent events, was it a good idea that F1 should be going there? Would it follow Ecclestone, if required, to North Korea?

Tricky cove, trying to put motor racing and despotic regimes into the same sentence, and always has been. The time-honoured response to such controversies has always been to mumble something about sport and politics not mixing, to add that the competitors are not responsible for deciding where the races should be staged.

Vijay Mallya responded to the question thus: “I think we’re racing people – we come here to race and win and to enjoy it. It is up to the FIA to decide where the sport is conducted. I don’t think the teams should be holding individual positions to determine the political issues you have raised…”

Just following orders, guv.

And they are, of course, as they always have. Of late some of them, including Mallya, have begun to suggest that ‘double points’ is a very bad idea, and with the best will in the world that was a thought that occurred to most of us at the time of its announcement. Why, then, did the ill-named F1 Strategy Group not smother it at birth? Well, for one thing, it has little understanding of its fans; for another, it didn’t dare to upset the powers-that-be – or rather, the one particular power-that-be who thought of it. It is a situation that has existed since Job was a lad and, in light of recent events in Munich, will presumably continue for the foreseeable future.

F1 personnel get edgy when asked questions potentially critical of Mr E, and I can’t say I blame them. Thus, they became very uncomfortable in Hungary when asked about the desirability of venturing to Sochi in October. Horner’s expression, typically genial through the earlier part of the conference, became visibly irritated when it turned to more – I believe the modern word is “challenging” – topics.

Hence Christian’s remark that this was, “Becoming a very depressing press conference, focusing only on negativities.” Instead, he said, the talk should be of the drivers, and the spectacular racing at recent Grands Prix. None of this contentious stuff, in other words. Nothing acknowledging a world beyond the F1 paddock.

I’ll admit there was a time long ago when I felt like that, a time when I wanted nothing to intrude into my precious motor racing, when I thought – and wrote – that we should take F1 to any country wishing to embrace it. Over time, though, I began to see things differently, and – I’ll be honest – not only on a moral level: can it do the public perception of F1 anything but harm to be seen cosying up to a creature like Vladimir Putin? Potential sponsors, discuss.

Because of the political situation in Russia, the happenings in Crimea and the Ukraine, in April the FIM announced the cancellation of this year’s World Superbike race in Moscow – and that was before a civilian aircraft was blown out of the sky.

From the FIA, meantime, there has been not a word about the Russian Grand Prix.

Time was when F1 people – some of them, anyway – were prepared to speak out on controversial topics, but Mark Webber was probably the last of them. I think back now to a remark made to me by the world championship leader’s father at the one-off Dallas Grand Prix 30 years ago. “We’re all whores, aren’t we?” said Keke. “If the money’s right, we’ll turn up, and do our stuff for anyone…”

As I mentioned in a recent column, in the course of my trip to Indianapolis I took in a World of Outlaws evening sprint car show at Lawrenceburg, and much enjoyed it.

I have to admit, though, that as I waited in line to buy a ticket, it struck me how spoiled I have been down the years: apart from oddball events such as this, I have not paid to watch a motor race since 1970.

This being so, it has been all too easy to lose sight of how much it costs to attend a race, in particular a Grand Prix, and although I have kept an occasional eye on ticket prices, I was shaken when a friend shared with me the eye-watering fiscal details of his visit to Silverstone in July.

I apologise for mentioning CVC yet again, but I will leave it to your collective imagination to work out what those initials stand for in his mind; suffice it to say it has little to do with private equity companies. “I suppose the only thing you can say,” he shrugged, “is that it is only once a year…”

He and I are of similar vintage, and therefore old enough to remember when neither CVC – nor anyone else – owned our sport, when it wasn’t only once a year. The last non-championship F1 race was the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in 1983, but time was when British enthusiasts had many a chance to see the stars of the day, and it was perhaps no more than inevitable that we should fall to reminiscing.

It is staggering now to consider the number of international race meetings in this country half a century ago. In 1964 the world championship was half the size of the 20-race monolith of today, but even before it began, at Monaco in early May, already the latest Grand Prix cars had raced four times in England – at Snetterton, Goodwood, Aintree and Silverstone.

Later in the year came the British Grand Prix, of course, but opportunities to watch your heroes were not confined to F1 races, for back in the day they drove other things, too. Savour for a moment, if you will, the thought of Whitsun weekend in ’64, when you could see such as Jim Clark and Jochen Rindt race their F2 cars at Mallory Park on the Sunday – and then again at Crystal Palace the following day…

Nor did Jimmy leave it there, for there were also sports and saloon cars in his portfolio – and Indianapolis, too. This was the greatest driver on earth, the reigning world champion: consider a month of his life in 1964.

On Saturday, May 2, Clark drove in the International Trophy at Silverstone, then flew off for practice at Indy; back in Europe for final qualifying at Monaco on Saturday, May 9, he took pole position, then dominated the race – until retirement – the next day. Saturday, May 16, found him back at the Speedway, where he took the pole, then immediately left for England, where – as mentioned earlier – the next day he took part in two races at Mallory Park, then a pair at Crystal Palace the day after. The weekend after that Jimmy won the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, then six days later – Saturday, May 30 – was in the lead of the 500 when his car failed.

Pretty hectic, you could say, and what makes it the more remarkable is that in the course of those 28 days Clark raced five very different types of Lotus: the 25 F1 car, the 30 sports car, the 32 F2 car, the 34 Indycar – and, of course, the Cortina, which he campaigned in the British Saloon Car Championship for the lordly sum of £1500.

Early the following year Ford’s Walter Hayes was embarrassed to discover how little the company had been paying Jimmy, felt the fee should be increased, and what did he want? “Well, whatever you think’s reasonable,” came the reply.

Christian Horner and Toto Wolff dream of such moments.

Moreover, if things went awry, as at Monaco and Indianapolis, Clark had no need to ‘regroup’ (whatever the hell that means), with a posse of family and friends and therapists; he simply went to the next race and got on with it. You can do that when you’re the best, and you know it.

A car Jimmy never liked, though, was the Lotus 30, Colin Chapman’s first stab at a big sports car. I saw him drive it on its debut in a supporting race at the Aintree 200 in April, and although he came through the field (after problems in practice) to finish second, even as a raw youth I knew a wayward car when I saw one, and the 30 was emphatically that. According to Richie Ginther, who drove the later, supposedly improved, Lotus 40, the chassis was “about as stiff as a washcloth…”

It was against modest opposition at Mallory that the 30, in Clark’s hands, scored what was to be its only victory, but such was Jimmy’s loyalty to Chapman – to say nothing of his Moss-like desire to race as much as possible – that for all his misgivings about the car he stuck with it, and inevitably flattered it.

Sadly, my final school term didn’t end quite in time for me to get to Brands Hatch for the British Grand Prix, but life could still be worth something, for only three weeks later there was another major race at Brands, this the Guards Trophy on August Bank Holiday Monday. A friend and I duly set off from Manchester, and even though the M1 then ran only between Rugby and Watford, and even though we were in my mother’s MG 1100, the journey seemed to fly by. We were, after all, consumed with excitement at the thought of seeing A J Foyt.

Back in 1958, as a rookie Indycar driver, Foyt had ventured out of the USA for the first time to take part in the Race of Two Worlds, wherein the sublime roadsters took on specially built cars from Ferrari and Maserati (and, it should be added, Ecurie Ecosse) in a three-heat 500-miler at the Monza oval, which was longer and, being steeply banked, considerably faster than Indianapolis. AJ shared the car – the Sclavi & Amos Special – with Maurice Trintignant, and this has always struck me as perhaps the most off-the-wall driver pairing in racing history.

Now, returning to Europe six years on, Foyt had become an almost mythical figure in motor racing, and was in the midst of perhaps his greatest season. By the time of his arrival at Brands Hatch, six rounds of the 1964 USAC Championship (including the Indianapolis 500) had been run, and he had won all of them. As well as that, there had been five sprint car victories, and just for good measure AJ had popped down to Daytona for the Firecracker 400 on the Fourth of July, and won that, too.

Indisputably he was now the foremost driver in America, and if ovals – be they dirt or paved – were the bedrock of his racing life, so also he had shown himself adept on road circuits, driving for John Mecom.

In those days Texan oil baron Mecom was heavily involved in motor racing, and to Brands he sent three cars: a Scarab-Chevrolet for Foyt, an Oldsmobile-powered Lotus 19 for Walt Hansgen, and a Chevy-engined Lola coupé (the forerunner of the GT40) for Augie Pabst.

It was a big deal, the Guards Trophy, and you could understand why Mecom had brought three cars across the Atlantic: why, first prize money was all of £250…

Ranged against the American entries were such as Clark in the Lotus 30, Roy Salvadori in a Cooper Monaco with 5-litre Maserati engine, Graham Hill in the Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari 330P – and Bruce McLaren in his own Cooper-Oldsmobile.

In 1964 McLaren was contracted to Cooper for F1, as he had been for five years, but firmly in his head was the intention to become a constructor in his own right, as his former team-mate Jack Brabham had done. In the hands of Roger Penske (entered by Mecom), his F1-based car – then known as the Zerex Special, and powered by a Climax engine – had won the Guards Trophy in ’63; now, in Bruce’s ownership, the car’s successes had continued, the more emphatically so after he replaced the four-cylinder Climax with a small-block American V8.

For some time it had been rumoured that McLaren was planning to build his own cars, and in the paddock, after getting him to sign my programme, I asked him about it. “Yeah, that’s right,” he replied with a smile. “Starting with a sports car…” A month later the ‘McLaren 1’ tested at Goodwood, and a couple of weeks after that made its race debut at Mosport.

The autograph I sought most urgently at Brands, though, was that of Foyt, for who knew when – or if – another opportunity to get it would arise? Eventually I found him, and to my delight – and despite the fact that the day was searingly hot – he was wearing his leather jacket, complete with time-honoured ‘Indianapolis 100-Mile An Hour Club’ badge. “Thank you, son,” he murmured as he handed back the programme; I felt I’d been addressed by God.

Brands Hatch, though, ended Foyt’s sweep of victories that summer. He liked the circuit rather more than the Scarab did, and in practice had clouted the bank hard at Clearways. Once the car had been patched up, he took to the circuit again, this time taking a mechanic with him(!), in the hope that light might be shed on the car’s handling deficiencies. When they returned to the pits, the hapless passenger had learned nothing, save that he was never going on a ‘slow lap’ with AJ again.

Foyt’s race, sadly, was brief, for after a brush with David Piper’s Ferrari he retired after only three laps. The Mecom team’s challenge was led by the always underrated Hansgen, whose ageing Lotus 19 came time after time through Paddock Bend in splendidly lurid slides as it fought with Salvadori’s Cooper-Maserati for second place.

Neither car finished, as it turned out, but that had no effect on the result, for McLaren had taken the lead at the start, and was never threatened through the 50 laps, followed home eventually by the two-litre Brabhams of Denny Hulme and Jack himself, Hill’s Ferrari and the gloriously drifting Shelby Cobras of Jack Sears and Chris Amon, whose race-long battle was the best of the afternoon.

Clark’s race was a wretched one, already eight laps old when the Lotus 30 deigned to fire up. Thereafter there were frequent stops until he finally retired with fuel vapourisation problems, and the luck of a youthful fellow-countryman was no better, either, for Jackie Stewart’s Coombs-entered E-type also dropped out.

That said, other consolations were on offer to the pair of them that summer day, for Stewart had already won the ‘small’ GT race in an Elan, followed over the line by the sister cars of Mike Spence and Jackie Oliver, and Clark another ‘supporting event’, the British Eagle Trophy for F2 cars, in which he took on the likes of Hill, Brabham, Hulme and Rindt

Probably the highlight of Jimmy’s day, though, was the final race, which began some time after five o’clock, and perhaps allowed him to put the wretched Lotus 30 out of his mind. In the Molyslip Trophy, he flung the Lotus Cortina round 20 sideways laps of Brands in pursuit of Sears in the Willment-entered Ford Galaxie, and I can still see the beam on his face afterwards.

What adds further perspective to that Bank Holiday Monday, 50 years ago, is that just the day before Clark, together with Brabham, Hill, McLaren, Amon and Spence, had competed in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, which is to say the Nordschleife. Time was they raced an awful lot, these Grand Prix drivers.