• Book review: Bernie: The Biography

Unauthorised but unrevealing

Laurence Edmondson February 16, 2011
Bernie was originally written as an authorised biography © Haynes Publishing

Bernie Ecclestone is the most in-demand man in the Formula One paddock. He rarely gives interviews, especially about his personal life, and when he does you can guarantee the journalist will pass comment on his phone interrupting with the tone of The good, the bad and the ugly , each time with a new deal to be made at the other end. Outsmarting him is near impossible and questions have to be phrased with the skill of a barrister if the answers are to be at all revealing.

Writing a meaningful biography on Ecclestone is therefore an unenviable task, but it is exactly what Susan Watkins, wife of the former F1 medical delegate Professor Sid Watkins, has done. As a personal friend of Ecclestone she has been in a much better position to approach him than most, and during her six-plus years of research for Bernie she has had unprecedented access to the man himself. The resulting book, which was originally penned as an 'authorised' biography but after a number of delays initiated by Ecclestone is now classified as 'unauthorised', is as close as to an autobiography as you can get.

From his days selling fountain pens on Petticoat Lane to his years building up - and extracting the profit from - Formula One, Watkins draws on first-hand accounts from Ecclestone. And the parts that have slipped his memory, such as his used-car dealings on London's Warren Street in the 1950s, are filled in by accounts from a variety of fascinating characters from his past.

On the downside Ecclestone's on-and-off involvement in the book has resulted in little in the way of shocking revelations. But what it lacks in salacious material it more than makes up for in extensive detail, and along the way tells the story of modern F1 with its most pivotal character taking centre stage.

The book gets inside the Ecclestone mindset, looking at his natural talent for gambling - be it Poker, Whist or Rummy - and how many of his business decisions can be boiled down to holding or folding. It examines the way he loses battles to win wars, dispelling the myth that he always gets his own way ... although he usually does.

In a fascinating chapter, his friend and long-term associate Max Mosley recalls to Watkins how Ecclestone's deal-making psyche could rear its head in the most unlikely of circumstances.

"I remember sitting by a swimming pool in Rio with him and he'd say things like 'what would you give for that hotel?' And left to himself with nothing in particular to do, he'd sit there working out how many rooms there were, what the occupancy rate was, what they were charging and what the overhead was, and therefore what the hotel was worth. He just thinks things like that, that's what interests him and, as a result, when it comes to dealing, he can get closer to 100% than anyone I know."

And then there's the humour. At 80 Ecclestone still has the ability to turn on the charm and crack jokes with a wicked sense of humour, but accounts from his friends suggest he is even more of a character in his private life. Watkins scatters several examples throughout the book, many of which are based on Ecclestone's ability to impersonate foreign accents.

In one account from the early 1980s, Ecclestone and Mosley call up FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre at the height of F1's FISA-FOCA war pretending to be Nelson Mandela. Fooling Balestre with a near-perfect accent, they invite him to stay at the Pollsmoor prison where Mandela was incarcerated, only for Ecclestone to burst in midway through Balestre's bumbled excuse and reveal his true identity.

But it's not all anecdotes. Watkins also examines the business behind the man, and goes to great lengths recounting the dealings that allowed Ecclestone to elevate himself from a mere driver manager to F1's commercial rights holder. She also sets aside a chapter that explains adeptly how he cashed in on Formula One and the reactions he provoked along the way, for better or worse.

McLaren boss Ron Dennis, referring to the transfer of the sport's lucrative commercial rights from the team-led Formula One Constructors' Association to Ecclestone's company in the 1990s, says: "Bernie effectively stole F1 from us. He used this commercial benefit to persuade the teams to accept a contract that eliminated them from the passing of rights as had previously existed."

Ecclestone remains a popular character in the paddock © Getty Images
But remarkably, for all the people Ecclestone out-negotiated along the way, the overwhelming response is positive, or at least respectful. Most of those interviewed hold an unerring admiration for Ecclestone, even in cases where they lost out on thousands, in some cases millions, of pounds.

In many respects Bernie, as the title suggests, is a friend's account rather than a warts-and-all exposé. But that's no bad thing as it allows the reader to understand Ecclestone on a personal level.

Those wanting a more edgy read might want to wait for the release of No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone on February 21 by renowned biographer Tom Bower, who Ecclestone refers to in the book's pre-sale blurb as "the undertaker". But Bower will be hard pushed to match Watkins' extensive character analysis, which takes a softly, softly approach rather than going for the jugular.

Ultimately Bernie is a heavily researched, well delivered and comprehensive insight into Ecclestone's life and dealings, and by definition that also makes it a brilliant account for understanding modern F1.

Susan Watkins will be signing copies of her latest book Bernie: The Biography at 11am on Saturday 19th February, Motorbooks, 13/15 Cecil Court, London, WC2N 4AN. For more information please visit www.motorbooks.co.uk or call 020 7836 5376.

Title: Bernie: The Biography
Author: Susan Watkins
Published by: Haynes
Price: £19.99