Bernie Ecclestone: F1's puppet master holds on to power

    Story highlights

    • Ecclestone has had amazing longevity in F1
    • Ex-driver Herbert calls him "a dictator"
    • Controversies have failed to derail him as CEO
    • The suggestion is he'll work in F1 until he dies

    (CNN)Every time Bernie Ecclestone has been under threat, he has typically reverted to humor.

    After the Formula One supremo was robbed and knocked unconscious by muggers, who got away with his luxury watch, he posed for an advert with the slogan "See what people will do for a Hublot."
      And in August 2014, when he escaped a possible 10-year jail term over bribery charges by paying a $100 million fine to German authorities to end the trial early, his Christmas card pictured him handing over a sack of money to a highwayman.
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      The character stated: "This is not a robbery. I am collecting for the Bavarian state."
      For months, rumors have circulated that the 85-year-old's stranglehold on the sport was splintering, but it is telling that there has been little to no reversion to humor during that time -- perhaps a sign of how confident he was of winning the power struggle.
      Amid such speculation, F1's great survivor remains in charge. The elite motorsport's new owner Liberty Media, which hopes to conclude an $8 billion takeover in the first quarter of 2017, has announced that Ecclestone will be CEO for another three years.
      It continues his remarkable four-decade run at the helm of one of the world's most globally watched sports -- F1 claims only the Olympics and football's World Cup have bigger audiences.

      'F1 needs a dictator'

      Rumors continue to circulate that Formula E boss Alejandro Agag or else ex-McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh could yet replace Ecclestone, while the sport's new chairman Chase Carey has told Ecclestone things have to change.
      "You cannot make everybody happy all the time but you've got to understand what everybody wants and then find a path," Carey said in an interview with the Formula One website.
      "Sure that is not a task for a committee, as committees tend to become bureaucratic -- but there also can't be a dictatorship -- even if probably here they are used it."
      Amid the warning for change, at Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix, Ecclestone said he would "disappear for sure" if he doesn't agree with the new owners' direction for the sport, although he later countered "there is going to be no problem ... we will work together."
      Regardless of how the coming months play out, how has he managed to hold on to power so long despite an ever-changing list of owners over recent decades?
      Two-time grand prix winner Johnny Herbert recalls first rubbing shoulders with Ecclestone in his debut season in F1, driving for the Benetton team in 1989.
      "Sir Stirling Moss had it spot on the other day when he said F1 needs a dictator," Herbert told CNN. "That's Bernie to a 'T.'
      "People talk about him being the great survivor and of his longevity in the sport, and in some ways that's remarkable, but I don't know how realistic it was the many times when it was claimed his tenure at the top of the sport was over.
      "If anything, that was simply stirred up by people with an ax to grind against him."

      Great salesman

      Ecclestone's back story is a compelling one. The son of a fisherman, he left school at the age of 16 and supplemented his income by selling spare motorbike parts.
      His wheeler-dealer approach, which he still attests to today, led to him building one of the biggest motorbike suppliers in Great Britain -- Compton & Ecclestone -- before he turned his attention to F1.
      Buying the Brabham team for £100,000 in 1972 -- about $1.65 million in today's valuation -- was his main entry point into the sport, although he had managed the driver Jochen Rindt until he lost his life in a tragic accident two years earlier, and had previously bought two chassis from the disbanded Connaught team as long ago as 1957.
      Having enjoyed some success as team boss, including guiding Nelson Piquet to drivers' titles in 1981 and '83, he sold it for 40 times the price that he paid 15 years earlier.

      Taking charge

      Ecclestone also became chairman of the Formula One Constructors' Association (FOCA) in 1978.
      A power struggle between him and the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) and its president Jean-Marie Balestre ensued, with Ecclestone winning the so-called FISA-FOCA war.
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      From 1981, FOCA had the right to negotiate television contracts for the grands prix, and effectively Ecclestone has since been like the puppet master for the sport.
      From that point he turned it "from a mere enthusiasts' sport into one of the world's most-watched entertainments," according to Tom Bower, who wrote the biography "No Angel" about Ecclestone.
      Meanwhile, F1 journalist Maurice Hamilton first crossed paths with Ecclestone in 1974, and they've had what he calls "a working relationship" ever since.
      "He's a very sharp guy, that's the thing. He's mentally agile, he thinks about two or three things at once, he weighs everything up and sees the bigger picture," Hamilton tells CNN.
      "He's good at thinking out of the box. He thinks of deals before others think of them. And I feel sorry for the people he deals with, like the race promoters, as he'll perpetually outfox them."

      'F1 boss until he dies'

      At this month's Italian Grand Prix in Monza, people queued outside Ecclestone's bus -- known as "The Kremlin," befitting considering his close relationship to Russian leader Vladimir Putin -- in order to get an audience with him, much like every race weekend.
      F1's Ecclestone to stand trial for bribery
      Bernie Ecclestone has been involved in motorsport since the 1950s.


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      "So many people want to speak to him as he doesn't delegate, he controls everything," Hamilton adds. "And that's his great success. That's why Liberty Media aren't getting rid of him, because they don't know how it all works.
      "F1's a law unto itself and Bernie set it up that way. They could get rid of him tomorrow but would be left thinking, 'What do we do now?!' Bernie has the answer to everything or most things, or knows someone who does. He has his finger in every conceivable pie from the TV rights to who gets a pass or not.
      "Bearing that in mind, I think he'll be in F1 until he dies. He has his wife and daughters but there's nothing else in his life. If he said 'cheerio,' I think he'd be a lost soul."

      'Cash from chaos'

      Pre-Ecclestone, F1 was in chaos, Hamilton says.
      He cites the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix, where as a spectator Hamilton had no idea when the cars would be running.
      So shambolic was the sport then, Ferrari did not even turn up for the weekend. Now, says Hamilton, "things run like clockwork."
      In the intervening years, the risk taker and maverick has gone from a used-car salesman to a billionaire power broker that seemingly F1 still cannot do without. His wealth is estimated at £2 billion ($2.6 billion) but there are those in the sport who believe he is worth double that sum.
      Ecclestone, pictured with Vladimir Putin, has taken F1 to countries such as Russia.
      But Ecclestone, who turned down CNN's request for an interview, is aware change is required -- likewise Felipe Massa, who will hang up his racing overalls at the end of this season.
      "I really like Bernie and I really respect everything he did inside Formula One business. How big Formula One became is also thanks to him, but I think (Liberty's takeover) is really good for F1," the Brazilian driver tells CNN.
      "It can be really important for the future of F1, important for the business of every team. In other sports, teams that are last in the championship, they have money. In Formula One maybe that is not the case.
      "There is a lot to do to improve that, there is a lot to do for the fans, the social network, so many things that are part of our life now, and I really believe this is the beginning of a big change."

      'My way or the highway'

      It is a big change with one caveat -- the same person at its helm.
      Ecclestone likes to make the point that he has made a lot of people very wealthy and that "no driver, no person, will ever be bigger than Formula One itself." Saying that, he has been the sport's most vital cog.
      F1 chief supports Putin's gay policy
      Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Formula One racing director Bernie Ecclestone talk during a ceremony of signing of an agreement to bring Formula One racing to Sochi for a Grand Prix Russia to be held in 2014, the same year the Black Sea resort hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi on October 14, 2010. Putin, whose backing was crucial in Sochi winning the right to host the Games, is due in the city on Thursday to sign an agreement for work to begin on the construction of a new 200 million dollar circuit. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)


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      There have been controversies from praising Adolf Hitler for being "able to get things done" to saying women should wear white so they were more akin to "domestic appliances." He was even linked to the notorious Great Train Robbery in the UK in 1963 but laughs off the rumor.
      There is a link of sorts in that the getaway driver Roy James -- a silversmith by trade -- would later go on to create the F1 constructors' trophy still used today.
      Further peaks and troughs of a colorful life look set to run for a few chapters yet for a figure who befittingly uses the ring tone for Ennio Morricone's score for the western "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" on his mobile phone.
      But over the next three years, part of his time will be planning for the successor that F1's new owner ultimately requires.
      Ecclestone has said in the past that "I'd rather do things my way" -- but he wants someone "with an entrepreneurial style" to replace him.
      When that will be, perhaps only he knows. For now -- much like the clean, white crisp shirts Ecclestone wears each day -- nothing changes.