What does Bernie Ecclestone find so attractive about short-tempered, vertically challenged dictators? That was the question left hanging by his defence of Vladimir Putin yesterday when he said he would ‘take a bullet’ for the invader of Ukraine.
Bizarrely, Putin was not the first or even the most genocidal despot to have drawn the 91-year-old former motor racing tycoon’s public approval.
That would be Adolf Hitler, who Ecclestone infamously decided to laud in a 2009 interview for his ability to ‘command a lot of people able to get things done’.
There followed the most almighty row.
It was echoed yesterday when he was lambasted for hailing ‘first-class person’ Putin in a car-crash TV interview.
He also claimed to the astonishment of Kate Garraway who was interviewing him that the invasion of Ukraine was not ‘intentional’ and played down the significance of a racist slur aimed at Sir Lewis Hamilton.
The billionaire has been pictured enjoying chats with the Russian president over the years, including at the Sochi Grand Prix, which he brokered in 2014.
Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain if he still regards Putin as a friend, he replied: ‘I’d still take a bullet for him. I’d rather it didn’t hurt, but if it does I’d still take a bullet, because he’s a first-class person. What he’s doing is something he believed was the right thing he was doing for Russia.
Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain if he still regards Putin as a friend, Bernie Ecclestone replied: ‘I’d still take a bullet for him. I’d rather it didn’t hurt, but if it does I’d still take a bullet, because he’s a first-class person. What he’s doing is something he believed was the right thing he was doing for Russia’
Ecclestone has been pictured enjoying chats with the Russian president over the years, including at the Sochi Grand Prix, which he brokered in 2014. Pictured: The pair at the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix competition October 11, 2015 in Sochi
‘Unfortunately, he’s like a lot of business people, certainly like me, we make mistakes from time to time. When you’ve made the mistake, you have to do the best you can to get out of it.’
In the same appearance from Ibiza, he was asked how he could justify thousands of deaths in the conflict.
‘I don’t. It wasn’t intentional,’ he replied. ‘I’m quite sure Ukraine, if they’d wanted to get out of it properly, could have done.’
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who was interviewed on the same programme, blasted: ‘I think those comments are extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary.’ Ecclestone also defended the former F1 champion Nelson Piquet, who apologised this week after it emerged he had used a racist slur to describe Hamilton. He leapt to his defence: Piquet would ‘never go out of his way to say anything bad’, Ecclestone said, adding that Sir Lewis should have ‘brushed’ the remark aside.
He displayed the same casual attitude when critics pointed out in 2009 that among the things Hitler ‘got done’ was the murder of six million Jews. Then, he said he’d only really meant to refer to Hitler’s pre-Holocaust career, up to around 1938. After that, ‘the guy was obviously a lunatic’.
Jewish groups nonetheless called for his resignation from Formula One, the cash-soaked sport he’d run as a personal fiefdom since the late 1970s.
Their ire was stoked by a follow-up interview in which Ecclestone decided to accuse Jews of failing to solve the banking crisis even though ‘they have a lot of influence everywhere’. Despite the blatant anti-Semitism, Ecclestone would survive as the figurehead of this most corporate of sports for eight more years.
Nelson Piquet, speaking on a Brazilian podcast (pictured) about an incident between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone last year, has been heavily criticised for a racist remark aimed at the Briton. Piquet has since come out to claim the wording had no racial intent
Lewis Hamilton, pictured left, arriving at Silverstone today ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix and right at a press conference today, has questioned why ‘older voices’ are being given a platform amid an ongoing racism storm in Formula 1
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the manner in which he controlled Formula One for roughly four decades, building a fortune estimated at just shy of £3billion, his affection for Putin is rooted in admiration for his no-nonsense leadership skills.
‘I am not a supporter of democracy,’ Ecclestone once said. ‘You need a dictator. As a dictator, you say, ‘This is what I am going to do.’ In a democracy, it gets watered down.’
In 2019, he said that we’d all be better off if Putin was running Europe because ‘he does what he says he’s going to do’.
Naturally, apologists for him often argue that he doesn’t really believe the grotesque nonsense he insists on airing in public.
But to buy this argument is to ignore a pressing fact: that Ecclestone built his fortune by exporting Formula One to some of the most repressive corners of the world. With his late business partner Max Mosley, the racist son of fascist leader Oswald, Ecclestone staged major events in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Communist China and a host of countries allergic to human rights. For years, the duo even chose to take their business to apartheid-era South Africa, only pulling out in 1985 when broadcasters threatened to cancel TV deals. Asked during the Arab Spring whether he’d consider staging a race in war-torn Syria, he refused to rule it out.
Ecclestone also has serious form for misogyny – he once joked that ‘women should be all dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances’ – and casual racism. Indeed, his last major PR blunder came at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, when Ecclestone told CNN that ‘a lot of black people are more racist than white people’.
Ecclestone built his fortune by exporting Formula One to some of the most repressive corners of the world with his late business partner Max Mosley, the racist son of fascist leader Oswald
Ecclestone said of Hitler, he ‘got things done’. Then, he said he’d only really meant to refer to Hitler’s pre-Holocaust career, up to around 1938. After that, ‘the guy was obviously a lunatic’
Attempting to repair the damage, he told the Mail on Sunday he couldn’t possibly be a real racist because he’d once employed a black chauffeur. ‘Over the years, I have met a lot of white people I didn’t like, but never a black person I didn’t like,’ he added.
Given this form, his grotesque defence yesterday of Piquet was nothing if not grimly predictable.
Those inclined to give Ecclestone the benefit of the doubt – who tend to be on his payroll – suggest that his views should be seen through the lens of not only his age but also his tough upbringing in wartime Dartford. The son of a trawlerman whose family was so poor that he didn’t have a birthday cake until he was eight, he made his fortune the hard way. During the war, he was up at 5am to do two paper rounds.
He left school at 16 and started selling second-hand motorbikes and cars. By 21 he had his own dealership.
His entry into Formula One came in 1972, when he bought the Brabham team for £100,000. Then, it was a gentleman’s sport, run by amateurs. Ecclestone believed it could be big business and used his seat on the board of F1’s Constructors’ Association to acquire its global TV rights, which he sold in more than a hundred countries.
In 2012 Ecclestone married a Brazilian lawyer named Fabiana Flosi (left). And in 2020, when he was 89, she gave birth to their son, Alexander.
By the early 1990s, the sport was valued at £2.5billion, and he was making £1million a week. When F1 was eventually prised from his control, by Liberty Media in 2017, the whole thing went for around £6.4billion.
There were, of course, choppy moments along the way. In 1997, he was at the centre of a political storm when it emerged that he’d given £1million to Tony Blair’s Labour Party, which then tried to spare Formula One from a ban on tobacco sponsorship.
In 2014, prosecutors in Munich charged him with bribing a jailed banker to help smooth the sale of a stake in F1 to a private equity company. He admitted paying the man £27million, but claimed he was being blackmailed. He eventually settled the case by agreeing to pay a £60million fine.
Other expensive legal tussles involved the divorce courts. His first marriage, to Ivy, a telephone operator, in 1952, broke down long before he became famous (they had a daughter, Deborah); his second, to Croatian model Slavica Malic – who produced Tamara and Petra – was famously combustible.
Slavica, who at 6ft 2in was roughly a foot taller than Bernie, was 23 when they met in an F1 pit lane in Monza. He was 51. ‘She shouts a lot and sometimes she throws plates. I go and hide in the next room because she seems to love terrorising me,’ Ecclestone once said of Slavica.
Bizarrely, Putin was not the first or even the most genocidal despot to have drawn the 91-year-old former motor racing tycoon’s public approval. That would be Adolf Hitler, who Ecclestone infamously decided to laud in a 2009 interview for his ability to ‘command a lot of people able to get things done’
Estimates put the costs to Ecclestone of their 2009 divorce at around £600million.
In 2012 he married a Brazilian lawyer named Fabiana Flosi. And in 2020, when he was 89, she gave birth to their son, Alexander. On a visit to her home country last month Ecclestone was fined after police found an unloaded pistol in his suitcase when boarding a flight.
He is now treated as something of an embarrassment in the world of F1.
‘As he’s got older, he’s gone up a notch in terms of outrageousness,’ says one insider. ‘Before Covid, he’d attend maybe five or six races a year, but he’s not been seen at one since the pandemic, and probably feels like an irrelevance, which may be why he decided to interrupt a holiday in Ibiza to give a morning TV interview.’
Ecclestone recently told friends he planned to show up at next month’s Austrian Grand Prix, as a guest of Dietrich Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull and the track where the event will take place.
Whether his invitation still stands, after yesterday’s debacle, remains to be seen.