I'm not paying 4,000 a bottle for the wine. I only drank beer: Bernie Ecclestone's shock at the extravagance of daughter Petra's 12m wedding
Bernie Ecclestone has somehow squeezed a lifetime of extraordinary success from meagre opportunities. He was blessed neither with particularly good looks nor a commanding stature.
The son of a Lowestoft trawlerman, his origins were humble: he had started his working life selling secondhand cars.
Yet by 2011, at the age of 81, he had effectively controlled Formula 1 for more than 40 years, amassing vast personal wealth in the process. Few could forget it, thanks to the lavish expenditure of Tamara and Petra, his exotically named daughters.
Bernie Ecclestone and daughter Petra on their way to their 12m wedding in Odescalchi Castle. He has reluctantly become accustomed to his daughters' excesses
Ecclestone had made his way to the top through aggression, opportunism and consummate negotiating skills – essential qualities in the turbulent world of fast cars and even faster money.
But, as the decades passed, he had acquired powerful enemies, too. Now, those enemies were scenting blood.
As Ecclestone explained to me in a new, final chapter I’ve written for my biography of him, his marriage lay in ruins, his reputation, his livelihood and maybe even his liberty were on the line. 2011, he confessed, was to prove the very worst year of a long and eventful life.
The immediate cause of Ecclestone’s problems last year lay in the German courts, where he had been called as a witness in the trial of Gerhard Gribkowsky, a banker and long-time adversary.
The case attracted worldwide headlines and threw an unwelcome spotlight on the arcane finances underlying Formula 1, and on Ecclestone’s personal affairs.
Gerhard Gribkowsky, it became clear during the Munich trial, had accepted 28 million, from Ecclestone in 2006, a payment that, according to the German authorities, was a bribe
Gribkowsky, it became clear during the Munich trial, had accepted a huge sum of money, 28 million, from Ecclestone in 2006, a payment that, according to the German authorities, was a bribe from the diminutive Briton.
Ecclestone had, supposedly, rewarded Gribkowsky for selling a large number of Formula 1 shares from state-owned bank BayernLB (Gribkowsky’s former employer) to CVC, a private-equity firm that owns more than 63 per cent of Formula 1, at a price below their true worth.
Both Gribkowsky and Ecclestone denied
any wrongdoing. But a grandstanding Munich prosecutor presented
Gribkowsky’s arrest as the country’s biggest financial corruption case
since the Second World War. It conjured up an image of chicanery amid
champagne, money and girls.
who denied all the charges, had told police that the 28 million was
for legal services. Ecclestone’s explanation was rather more
extraordinary: he had handed over millions, he said, because he was
scared that Gribkowsky would cause mischief with the British tax
‘I was shaken down,’ Ecclestone explained, as he launched into a rare confession of weakness.
‘I was frightened by him.’
year, 2006, had been a sensitive time for Ecclestone. The previous
year, he had been in the midst of negotiations with the Inland Revenue
over the status of the ‘Bambino’ family trust, the fund, incidentally,
which still pays for the extravagant style in which his daughters live.
he feared that Gribkowsky’s allegations would prompt investigations as
to whether Bambino was truly beyond Ecclestone’s control.
first based in the Channel Islands but now in Liechtenstein, was
established with his former wife Slavica and his two daughters as
But if Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs decided the trust was not truly independent, he would lose the benefit of transferring 2.9 billion to it, free of taxes.
‘It could have cost me 2 billion,’ Ecclestone testified. (And it still might. Last week it was reported that tax inspectors have launched a new inquiry into Bambino. Ecclestone responded by insisting that Bambino is fully independent and dismissed any new investigation as ‘pointless’.)
Tamara Ecclestone has starred in a gaudy reality TV show and been photographed naked on a bed, covered only by 1 million in 50 banknotes
Recalling the events of 2005 during Gribkowsky’s trial last year, Ecclestone claimed that the banker had said things such as: ‘I’ve done a lot to keep my bank’s lawyers away from exposing your control over Bambino. You should be grateful to me.’
Ecclestone gradually came to believe, he testified, that Gribkowsky was expecting a reward.
Regularly, at the races and after board meetings, Gribkowsky reminded Ecclestone that he needed money. The alternative, the German hinted, was talking to the British tax authorities.
‘Gerhard was putting pressure on me,’ Ecclestone told the Munich court, portraying himself as the victim of blackmail, although Gribkowsky’s manner had never been threatening.
Gribkowsky, in Ecclestone’s view, was a dangerous customer. And over the next four years, despite ‘the shakedown’, Ecclestone maintained pleasant relations with the man.
‘The problem is that when you pay someone, it’s always there,’ he explained.
‘I’d never been in a position before that someone could cause so much damage. I had to keep him close to keep him quiet. Or else cut his tongue out.’
Ecclestone’s public explanation for his payment to Gribkowsky proved to be counter-productive: speculation soared that he had lost his grip.
That court case was not his only problem. Ecclestone’s control of the sport had long been resented by a number of Formula 1 teams and by early 2011 they were once again threatening to break away and form their own motor- racing league.
In the past, Ecclestone had stymied the threat by a special payment to Ferrari, the biggest name in Formula 1, and the most influential.
But his normal manoeuvres were complicated by the teams’ reluctance to compete in the Bahrain Grand Prix. The Gulf state was caught up in the convulsions of the Arab Spring and TV pictures showed anti-government protesters being killed not far from the Formula 1 circuit.
Ecclestone reluctantly announced on February 21 that the race was postponed until October. But a mere delay irritated some teams and their sponsors and it was eventually cancelled.
Amid proposals for the multi-million-pound sale of the Formula 1 franchise, unnamed critics accused Ecclestone of ‘holding Formula 1 back’. Ecclestone arrived at the Monaco Grand Prix in May less nervous than outsiders expected, however. He had sold his stake in Queens Park Rangers Football Club without a loss – quite an achievement in that spendthrift sport.
He had also enjoyed the engagement party for Petra, his 23-year-old younger daughter, at Battersea Power Station.
The entertainment for the 250 guests had featured, among others, the American pop singer Rihanna, who had alone cost about 400,000. Ecclestone and Slavica sat next to each other and, to his daughters’ delight, got on like old times.
The following day Petra urged him to resume the marriage.
'I had a rubbish wedding, so my daughter should have a great one,' said Ecclestone's ex-wife Slavica
‘Your mum left me,’ Ecclestone told his daughter noncommittally.
In Monaco, walking through the paddock, Ecclestone gave the impression of business as usual. Indeed, on the surface, Formula 1 was in robust health. The previous five races, dominated by Sebastian Vettel, had been thrilling.
On Ecclestone’s prompting, the competition had been artificially spiced up. Pirelli’s new tyres were designed to deteriorate, forcing up to four changes during each race, and with new features on the cars, including a power boost and adjustable wings, overtaking had dramatically increased.
Ecclestone’s only genuine friend on the grid was Christian Horner, the mild-mannered team manager of the Red Bull racing team and architect of its unrivalled success.
As they sailed together on Ecclestone’s yacht from Greece towards Croatia in early August, Horner reassured Ecclestone that no breakaway could occur: the teams’ appetite to earn more was diluted by the prospect of an inevitable battle with Ecclestone and an uncertain outcome.
The holiday’s high point was watching Red Bull driver Vettel, another guest on the yacht, master Ecclestone’s latest toy: a motorised surf board.
On only his first attempt, Vettel handled the board as well as the instructor. Ecclestone was proud of his 24-year-old favoured ‘son’: there was real affection between the ‘dictator’ and his modest, intelligent protege.
After ten days, Ecclestone flew back to London and got down to work, before heading for Rome and Petra’s wedding.
Ecclestone was not wholly surprised by speculation that the two-day event might cost 5 million. His daughter had already bought film director Aaron Spelling’s house in the Holmby Hills for 53 million, which at 57,000 sq ft was probably Los Angeles’s biggest private dwelling.
‘She got it for a good price,’
Ecclestone had said, knowing that other prospective purchasers had been
prepared to pay more than 63 million.
disappointed that his youngest daughter did not remain close to him in
her Chelsea or Belgravia houses, at least all three properties, he
acknowledged, could be sold for a profit.
hundred and fifty guests had been invited to Odescalchi, a medieval
castle in Bracciano, near Rome, for the wedding.
The party organiser had
spared no money to produce a spectacular event: dinner prepared by
Alain Ducasse, the famous chef, and entertainment by 18 members of the
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Black Eyed Peas, Alicia Keys and Eric
The stars were
interspersed with acrobats, a choir, fireworks and a tenor who prompted
many moist eyes as he sang while the couple left the church.
‘It’s absolutely unbelievable,’ said Ecclestone, astonished by the opulence. ‘It’s very expensive,’ he told Slavica.
‘I had a rubbish wedding,’ she replied, ‘so my daughter should have a great one. It’s only once in a lifetime.’
‘Well, as the father I want to pay,’ said Ecclestone.
Two hundred and fifty guests had been invited to Odescalchi, a medieval castle in Bracciano, near Rome, for Petra Ecclestone's wedding
The bill for the drinks was the first invoice to arrive. The Chateau Petrus allegedly cost 4,000 a bottle.
‘I only drank a beer,’ said Ecclestone, astonished by the amount. ‘I’m not paying for this.’
On reflection he asked, ‘How much was the whole thing’
‘12 million,’ he was told by his office.
‘I’m not paying. Send it to Slav.’
Ecclestone had reluctantly become accustomed to his daughters’ excesses. Influenced by heiress and society girl Paris Hilton, Tamara was starring in a gaudy reality TV show and had been photographed naked on a bed, covered only by 1 million in 50 banknotes.
In other stunts, Petra had shown off her vast collection of clothes and shoes. To their father’s dismay, his daughters had abandoned discretion in favour of manufactured publicity appearances.
‘It’s a phase they’re going through,’ he consoled himself about two girls he loved.
‘I was brought up in a different way.’
The Bambino trust, he had mistakenly thought, had the power to control the amount of money his family could receive. In fact, their spending seemed endless.
‘Now is the wrong time for showing off your money,’ he commented.
Pertinently, his daughters’ demonstration of the trust’s wealth coincided with Formula 1’s increasing profits. The spread of circuits across Asia at 25 million per event had eclipsed the European stake in the sport.
Although the stadiums on race days in China, Korea, Malaysia and Turkey were empty, those governments paid huge sums for the prestige.
Last October, Ecclestone flew to India to witness the first race at the recently completed New Delhi circuit.
According to some, the new grandstands and pits were a ramshackle construction resembling ‘cardboard held together by string’.
Ecclestone believed it was ‘well built’. Although 95,000 spectators flocked to the undemanding circuit, few thought the venue would last much longer than Ecclestone’s lifetime, not least because other countries were competing to host the vanity project.
In Ecclestone’s calculations, they would succeed at Europe’s expense. Within a few years, perhaps only five races would eventually be run in Europe.
Ecclestone's origins were humble. Yet by 2011, at the age of 81, he had amassed a vast personal fortune. Few can forget his wealth, thanks to the lavish expenditure of daughters Tamara and Petra
‘You’ll be severely punished if you fail to tell the truth,’ Ecclestone was warned by the judge in Munich. It was last November, and Gribkowsky’s trial was well under way. The witness nodded.
‘Was the payment of 28 million anything to do with the Formula 1 sale’ a new prosecutor asked.
‘No,’ replied Ecclestone, describing his payment to ‘Mr Grobosky’ or ‘Mr Grogsky’, as he alternately put it, as being related to his legal tax avoidance strategy.
‘Did Gribkowsky ever make a specific demand from you’ asked the prosecutor.
‘No,’ replied Ecclestone.
‘I just thought, I’ll pay him the money and we’ll sort out later what it was for.
‘I just thought,’ he continued, ‘that Mr Grogsky could do something a little bit vindictive. It was a risk I couldn’t afford to take.’
Some observers thought that the new prosecutor, an inexperienced young man, was floundering.
Neither he nor the judges appeared to find Ecclestone’s testimony particularly convincing but there was no alternative explanation for the payment to Gribkowsky. A decision in the case against Gribkowsky is still pending.
That evening, Ecclestone stayed at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Munich. In the lobby, he signed autographs. The following day, the court had agreed to end its hearing at 4pm, in time for Ecclestone to fly to Abu Dhabi.
Holding hands with Fabiana Flosi, his Brazilian girlfriend, he drove away from the courthouse leaving everyone still puzzled by this strange case. His ability to leave in a fog of mystery was a vital ingredient of his aura.
‘I’m a fire-fighter,’ he said, reflecting on his turbulent 2011.
‘People keep on lighting fires and I have to put them out. If it gets dull, I have to light them. This year it was different. There were so many fires…’
His voice trailed off.
Then his face lit up, he smiled lovingly at Fabiana, banged his fist on the table and announced:
‘That’s it. Let’s go.’
No Angel: The Secret Life Of Bernie Ecclestone, by Tom Bower, is published by Faber, priced 8.99. For your copy at 7.99 inc p&p, contact the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or visit MailShop.co.uk/books.