This week Bernie Ecclestone gave a million dollars – exactly one per cent of the 0m he paid into a German court – to a charity caring for terminally ill children. Close observers of his career might have been thinking that the diminutive Formula One ringmaster had already done more than enough for children’s charities.
His two younger daughters, after all, live with their families in mansions in London and Los Angeles costing upwards of £50m apiece before redecoration to suit exotic tastes that run, in the case of the elder daughter’s pad, to a £1m crystal bath.
Both these young women briefly exercised their talents in the field of fashion, jewellery and make-up design, while one of them spent a few months as a television presenter. It is, however, probably fair to say that the opulence of their present lifestyles is funded by income from the bn offshore family trust set up in their name by Ecclestone, using funds accrued from his control of Formula One over the past 30 years.
Ecclestone left Munich by private jet on Tuesday a free man, as few doubted he would, having found the most blackly humorous solution to a charge of bribery: the offer of a vast amount of money, to be paid in a lump sum.
Invited to pay a fine, most people are asked if they need time. The standard is 28 days, which in many cases will cover the arrival of a monthly salary, but Ecclestone was asked if he could find the money straight away.
“That’s doable,” his lawyer, Sven Thomas, told the court.
This will not have amused those teams struggling for survival towards the back of the grid, forced to watch as the private equity firm that controls the sport and employs Ecclestone, having creamed off more than half the revenues over the past eight years, prepares to sell it on at a large profit.
When, like Ecclestone, you are coming up to your 84th birthday and facing the possibility that a guilty verdict could mean a spell behind bars, and the sum of money involved in averting that outcome amounts to nothing more than the outlay on another mansion in Kensington Park Gardens or the Holmby Hills, who would not agree to sign the cheque without delay?
The signature ensured that there would be no further risk of being found guilty but he also avoided the possibility of being found innocent, encouraging suspicions that are not entirely banished by the assurance that he wanted a swift end to the case because he was finding it “burdensome”.
He has played the OAP card on several occasions in recent years, appearing uncharacteristically vague last year in front of a high court that concluded it was impossible to regard him as “a reliable or truthful witness”. He has, however, retained enough mental clarity to negotiate deals with, among others, Ilham Aliyev, the president of oil-rich Azerbaijan, where a grand prix will be held in 2016.
Aliyev succeeded his father to the presidency and promptly abolished the limitation on the number of terms the country’s head of state may serve. In 2010 the Washington Post reported that his three children – two daughters and a son, the oldest aged 29, the youngest only 16 – own property in Dubai worth m. He sounds, you might think, like a man with a place in Bernie’s circle.
Reflecting on the outcome of the case in Munich, Ecclestone said: “This now allows me to do what I do best, which is running F1.”
Those whom he has made rich, including many influential figures in the sport, would agree. Both inside and outside the paddock, however, there is an increasing clamour for change. A thrilling race in Budapest a fortnight ago – the product first of Lewis Hamilton’s charge through the field after starting from the pit lane and then of a safety car intervention that thrust the top four runners back into the pack – cannot disguise the problems of dwindling worldwide television audiences and sparsely populated grandstands at many of the tracks.
Since Ecclestone took control of the sport’s commercial rights, he has been allowed to run the whole show. The races take place where he wants, when he wants, under regulations in which he has a large say. So he can endorse an endless list of gimmicks, such as the award of double the normal championship points to the winner of this season’s concluding round, conveniently relocated from Brazil to Abu Dhabi, whose rulers can easily afford any premium for the prestige of hosting a stage-managed grand climax on top of the gigantic fee they already pay Ecclestone.
When the man who takes the profit is allowed to make the rules, it is not surprising that a preoccupation with spectacle eats away at the soul of a sport. Even the venerable magazine Motor Sport, founded several years before Ecclestone was born, is campaigning ferociously for his removal.
Finally bullied into admitting that all is not well, last month Bernie announced his intention to set up a commission into the future of grand prix racing.
One of its members, he proposed, might be his old chum Flavio Briatore. If it is in need of – and is willing to take seriously – the advice of a figure who was banned from the sport five years ago, although later reinstated, after a race-fixing scandal, Formula One must be in even worse trouble than it thinks.
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