LONDON (Reuters) - Bernie Ecclestone’s eye for a deal has made him a fortune and turned Formula One motor racing into a global money-spinner, but bribery allegations threaten to end his long reign as the head of the business.
Ecclestone, who is 82, has been indicted in Germany in a case relating to the sale of a stake in Formula One eight years ago. He has denied wrongdoing in a complex case that has seen a German banker jailed for tax evasion.
Despite his advanced age, Ecclestone remains central to the commercial operations of a sport followed by millions of fans around the world and now weighing a flotation on the stock market in Singapore.
He has always said he has no plans to retire and there is no obvious successor as chief executive, a worry for potential investors.
Ecclestone joked recently that Manchester United football manager Alex Ferguson had been wrong to retire at the age of 71.
“He shouldn’t have stepped down. He’s too young,” the diminutive, silver-haired Briton told Reuters as he oversaw preparations for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona in May.
However, Ecclestone has also acknowledged that a conviction in Germany would force him out, saying with typical bluntness that he couldn’t run the business from jail.
A former used-car salesman, Ecclestone has been immersed in motor racing since moving into team management after failing to make it as a driver in the 1950s.
He gained control of the commercial rights to the sport, profiting from a growing TV market and expansion into emerging markets.
After years as Formula One’s public face, racing fans ask him to pose for photographs and sign autographs when he appears at race tracks alongside drivers like German world champion Sebastian Vettel and Briton Lewis Hamilton.
Interviews and conversations, at least around the grey paddock bus with blacked-out windows that serves as his control centre during the European races, tend to be quick and to the point.
Though there is no time for small talk or hesitation, Ecclestone always provides a headline.
He has had the haunting theme tune to ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ as the ringtone on his mobile phone for some years now.
Ennio Morricone’s score for the classic 1960s Italian Spaghetti Western is just right for Formula One’s stone faced “Little Big Man” and his endless quest for a few dollars more.
In the last decade that quest has taken Formula One to lucrative new markets in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, China, India, South Korea and Singapore at the expense of older venues in Europe.
Ecclestone has dismissed human rights concerns about staging the race in Bahrain, talking of giving them a new five-year contract.
Known simply as Bernie, or just the ‘Mr E’ written on the car pass that allows his sleek Mercedes limousine access to the F1 paddock inner sanctum, the British billionaire is rarely out of the news.
The money has come rolling in, multiplied by amazing deals that have seen him sell Formula One several times over while retaining a tight grip on the top job.
Ecclestone married for a third time last year to Fabiana Flosi, a Brazilian more than 40 years his junior.
The Briton has a private jet and one of the finest collections of classic racing cars in the world at his Biggin Hill airfield in south London but, apart from throwing the sort of parties that impress even the A-list celebrities attracted to the Monaco Grand Prix, is not personally ostentatious.
He likes a game of backgammon with young and old friends, including world champion Vettel, and a quiet night in.
His two socialite daughters from his second marriage often feature in the gossip columns of British newspapers, drawing criticism for their lavish lifestyles in a time of austerity.
For Ecclestone himself, money, as he has explained to many an interviewer over the years, is merely his way of keeping the score.
Ecclestone has a reputation for being uncompromising and obsessively neat. The trucks in the paddock have to be lined up with mathematical precision and in showroom condition.
By his own admission he is a dictator - a man who does a deal on a handshake, has a fondness for the office shredder and an aversion to email and written contracts.
He surrounds himself with a small group of deeply loyal and well-remunerated employees, many of them dating back to the days when he owned the Brabham team in the 1970s and 80s, who know exactly what makes him tick.
“I don’t think democracy is the way to run anything,” he once said. “Whether it’s a company or anything, you need someone who is going to turn the lights on and off.”
Writing by Keith Weir; editing by Tom Pfeiffer