The pixie with an iron will

At 5ft 2in, Bernie Ecclestone is in danger of being dwarfed by his reputation. Since he took over Formula One 20 years ago, transforming it into a global, multi-billion-dollar industry, he has been mythologised as a figure of immense power, quietly bending the world's governments and media magnates to his will.

At 5ft 2in, Bernie Ecclestone is in danger of being dwarfed by his reputation. Since he took over Formula One 20 years ago, transforming it into a global, multi-billion-dollar industry, he has been mythologised as a figure of immense power, quietly bending the world's governments and media magnates to his will.

With a fortune of more than pounds two billion, much of it in the bank, Ecclestone is Britain's richest self-made man — and possibly its most controversial. Outrageous theories have surfaced: that he was the Mr. Big behind the Great Train Robbery; and that, after he and his wife were mugged in 1996, he bumped off his assailants. He has a reputation for toughness, but it is not a description he recognises.

"I don't know what tough is,'' he says — adding that, no, he has never killed anyone and, no, he did not partake in the Great Train Robbery. "I stick in my corner when I should stick in my corner and I come out fighting when I have to. But it's a good reputation to keep, even if it's not true. If people think I'm tough, I'm not going to disillusion them.''

Meeting him, I initially feel disillusioned myself. We are sitting in his office in Hyde Park, and the impression he gives is of innate affability. He speaks softly, in a voice that hints at his working-class Kentish roots; he smiles; he chortles; and, even at 72, with a fringe of silver hair tumbling over his spectacles, he looks like a mischievous schoolboy.

Ecclestone is notoriously meticulous: he is said to insist that, at racing events, his trailers are lined up with geometrical precision. Sure enough, the surfaces of his office have been polished to a dazzling sheen; the desk is bare; and the only concessions to clutter are two sculptures, one of a pile of $ 100 bills, the other of a grinning pixie — which is how people often describe him.

Yet he's a pixie with an iron will. "People know what I like and they try to follow it,'' he says, tapping the table. "And if there's a way of doing things right, then that's how I want to do it.''

He turns to point at a couple of pictures on the wall, which appear to have been hung with the aid of a spirit-level. "In my opinion, those should be hung straight,'' he says. "And if I ever walk in here and see they're not straight, I straighten them. Just like if I came to your house and saw a picture that wasn't straight, I'd straighten that too.''

The key to Ecclestone's success is, it seems, concentration. He does one thing at a time and dislikes distractions. In the 45 minutes I am with him, his eyes never waver from mine; the telephone never rings; not so much as a glass of water diverts his attention. Yet sitting down clearly does not suit him. He resonates with repressed energy: he flew in from Geneva just before our meeting and tells me that, as soon as we have finished talking, he hopes to fly to Australia for the Grand Prix.

He does not look frightening, but to a lot of people he is — a fact highlighted by a newly published biography by Terry Lovell. Entitled Bernie's Game, it had been knocking round publishing houses for several years, but they were all too terrified of Ecclestone, it has been claimed, to take it on. (He was said to be unhappy about descriptions in the book of some of his business dealings in the 1970s and 1980s, and some imaginative VAT transactions.) It has finally found a publisher in John Blake, who took the precaution of sending Ecclestone the manuscript and agreeing to print his responses to some of the allegations. By and large, though, the biography is pretty favourable.

Ecclestone is almost studiedly relaxed about the affair: "I haven't read it, but I'd like to,'' he says, referring to the final version. "I think it sounds most entertaining.''

His private life certainly makes for a good read. His (second) wife, Slavica, is 28 years his junior and, at 5ft 11, nine inches taller. "I've never noticed the height difference,'' he says, speaking with such confidence that I almost believe him. "I've always been shorter than everybody, so being shorter than her made no difference. Anyway, it's too late. I can't make her any shorter and I can't grow any taller. I ate my cornflakes but it didn't work.''

The couple met in 1981 at the Monza racetrack in Italy, where she was modelling Fila sportswear. What (if it's not too silly a question) attracted him to her? "I think she was attracted to me, basically,'' he says, erupting in a gleeful chuckle. "She was probably attracted by my body rather than by my position.''

Come on, Bernie, it can't have been a walk-over. "No,'' he concedes, "it wasn't.''

So how did you woo her? Ecclestone pauses, then snaps back: "Charm.''

The couple now live in Chelsea with their two daughters, Tamara, 19, and Petra, 14. Their domestic arrangements have fuelled much lurid speculation in the tabloid press. He has two jets (or four — accounts differ) which, according to one recent report, his wife sends round the world to collect groceries. He was also rumoured to have used one to pick up his silk underwear.

The truth, Bernie insists, is less glamorous. "I don't wear silk underwear — and if I did, I certainly wouldn't send a jet to collect it,'' he says. "All my family are very down to earth. My kids have their feet firmly on the ground and so does my wife. If she's going to the States, she doesn't just fly economy, she flies on Virgin standby.''

Really? "Yes. Really. I used to fly economy all round the world and there's nothing wrong with that. If I go to Australia I'll fly on Qantas and just see what seats are available. I'm lucky, because I'm small — I don't need much room. I can fly in any class.''

His children are also trained to budget, receiving relatively modest allowances. "My daughter was complaining the other day that she's 19 and she only gets pounds 12,000 a year,'' he says, looking briefly doubtful. "Is that good money?''

Not particularly, I say. Are you tempted to give her more? "No,'' he says. "My children have what they should have. They have what they need.''

Ecclestone has a pounds 20 million yacht and a chalet in Gstaad, but gets limited use out of them. "I don't like holidays,'' he says, his lips puckering in distaste. "I might go away two or three days, but I can't cope with much more than that. If I'm in Switzerland I usually schedule meetings. I couldn't wake up to a day without anything planned. My wife's always saying that I should take it easy, but I can't.''

A typical day will find him at his desk from 8 a.m. until 6.30 p.m., with an hour's break for lunch in a local pub. Three years ago his days at the office were briefly interrupted by a triple heart bypass — provoked, he believes, by an excess of butter, milk and eggs. "I just waited 10 days after the operation and then I was back in the office,'' he says. "If I'd stopped, I'd have felt worse.''

He claims he is "always relaxed'' (unlikely for a compulsive picture-straightener), though his domestic life can be tempestuous. "Slavica's a Croatian, so she can explode one minute and then half an hour later she's charming,'' he says. "If she explodes I don't take any notice, because I know she'll be charming again. And I know sometimes she explodes because I have done something of no consequence.''

Like what? "Like straightening things.'' He says he never explodes back — though in his case, a furrowed brow would be pretty frightening. "I might say things in a very meaningful way, but I don't lose my cool. If I say things, it's for real. It's not emotional.''

Perhaps the biggest upset in his career has been the frequent suggestion, which he strongly denies, that his pounds one million donation to the Labour Party in 1997 was made in exchange for Formula One being exempted from a ban on sports sponsorship by tobacco companies. Does he regret signing the cheque?

"I regret the stupidity of the Labour party,'' he says. "If they felt it was given for some reason they felt guilty about — well, that's up to them.''

The son of a trawlerman, Ecclestone kicked off his business career at the age of 11, when he started selling food to his schoolfriends. "I was always doing something, business-wise,'' he says.

As a teenager, he developed a passion for motorsports, taking part in both motorbike and car races until a crash in 1951 ended his competitive career. "I was never going to be a professional anyway,'' he says. "I was just passionate about racing.''

Oddly, that passion is not reflected in his working headquarters. There is no name on the front door; and in the modest entrance hall there is not so much as a toy Ferrari to indicate that this is the helm of one of the greatest sporting empires in the world. "I know what we do,'' he says, "the people who come here know why they're here, so why remind them by having pictures of Formula One cars''

Precisely what Ecclestone did before taking over Formula One is the subject of some debate. There are large gaps on his curriculum vitae, and he sees no point in filling them in. "I figure that what I've done and what I do is nobody's business. I'm not a historian. I think about tomorrow and what's going to happen the day after tomorrow. I don't think about yesterday. Yesterday's gone.''

It is a philosophy to which he adheres rigidly. He does not like souvenirs; he does not like photographs ("I think we've three in the house, and Slavica took them all'') and he says that the most important equipment in his office is the paper-shredder.

However reluctant he is to discuss it, his CV is impressive. After dabbling as a gas-fitter, he made his first fortune in property and car dealing.

He took over the Brabham motor-racing team in 1971 and, after umpteen deals and handshakes, ended up as the day-to-day administrator of the whole of Formula One.

He is credited with turning motor-racing from a playboys' hobby into a sleek and telegenic global industry; it is now the biggest televised sporting event after the Olympic Games and the World Cup.

Meanwhile, motor-racing turned him (according to recent reports) into the richest self-made man in Britain. Two years ago, he sold 75 per cent of his shares in Formula One to the German media group Kirch for pounds 1.28 billion — characteristically for Bernie, it was a brilliant deal, but it all but bankrupted Kirch — and he made a further pounds 800 million from a bond issue secured against Formula One television rights.

"I don't do what I do to make money at all,'' he insists. "This isn't work for me — it's a hobby. If I wasn't paid anything I'd still do it.''

Certainly his life appears to have an underlying normality. He drives his children to school in a Mercedes estate; and says he is not obsessed by security. "If someone's going to shoot you, they're going to shoot you,'' he says. "A bodyguard won't help.''

So, as one of the richest couples in the world, do he and his wife do everyday things — such as shopping at Waitrose? "We do,'' he says, then checks himself: "How d'ya know we go shopping at Waitrose''

It is now four and Ecclestone has to go. He has papers to sign; he has an empire to run; and he needs to book his economy-class ticket to Australia. Doesn't he ever slow down? "No,'' he says. "I feel exactly the same now as I did 30 years ago, so why should I?''

As he shows me into the hall, Ecclestone suddenly looks menacing: "You can have a 100-metre race with me if you want.''

By the time I've opened my mouth to form an excuse, he's reached the other end of the corridor — walking faster than I could run.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003