No Angel: the Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone

He has never read a book, he gets his news from the Daily Express and he likes only action movies. He believes in winning at all costs. "Show me a good loser," he says, "and I'll show you a loser." He feels a "permanent truculence towards society" and he hates to celebrate anything, Christmas included. He's made billions out of turning Formula One into a high-stakes sport. He is five foot two inches tall. Napoleon, it is said, had a Bernie Ecclestone complex.

Yet Ecclestone, like many businessmen, can be startlingly naive. He gave a rare interview to the Times in 2009 in which he said he admired Adolf Hitler and doubted the value of democracy, preferring a strong man like himself. He was then surprised by the backlash. Wooed by New Labour in 1997, he gave the party £1m. As a quid pro quo, he sought and won permission to continue advertising cigarettes on F1 cars. When the whole nasty business came to light, he was stunned by the way Tony Blair tap-danced his way out of trouble and left him to the dogs. These two incidents permanently damaged the image of the sport.

But, even so, should motor sport - the drivers, the manufacturers, the fans - be grateful to Ecclestone, the boss and creator of F1 as we now know it? It is probably, you will conclude after reading this formidable book, too early to tell.

Tom Bower was born to write contemporary biographies. Having filleted the lives of Robert Maxwell, Mohamed Al Fayed, Gordon Brown, Richard Branson and Conrad Black, among others, he must have thought it more or less inevitable that he should turn his gaze to Ecclestone, a secretive figure who inspires fear and amazement in everybody he meets. Well, not in Slavica Malic, the six-foot, two-inch Croatian who became his second wife, a woman to whom the tabloid adjective "fiery" sticks like glue. She got the measure of Bernie and divorced him in 2009, having given him two girl-about-town daughters, Tamara and Petra.

For some years, an anonymous F1 personality had been encouraging Bower to expose Ecclestone. When he finally met his subject, Bower assured him that he would publish both criticism and any evidence of wrongdoing - in spite of which he gave Bower phenomenal access.

I would dearly like to know what he thinks of the result, but he will probably only read about it in the Daily Express.

Ecclestone, who is now 80, discovered his talent in the postwar climate of austerity, with its spivs and hustlers. A dealer first in motorbikes and then cars, he played the dodgy characters of Warren Street in London - then a hub for car dealing - and won. He never made an offer, waiting for the seller to name his price, and he never displayed any enthusiasm for the product. "The image," Bower writes, "was of a man whose heart had turned into dust, for whom nostalgia was a burden." Cold in temperament, he made his success depend "on stifling his opponents' willpower".

He was, and remains, a gambler, but one who takes winning and losing with apparently equal indifference. Playing, presumably, is the point. He is also picky. He cannot endure untidiness and, partly as a tactic but also out of neurosis, he will get up and straighten the pictures in a meeting room. This is a man determined to simplify the world to accord with his own narrow conceptions of what matters.

His rise to power in F1 is bewildering, but the story is told skilfully by Bower. The sport was and remains - perversely, in view of Ecclestone's mania for neatness - a mess. He is usually said to "own" F1, but he seems mostly to have been a kind of agent, taking a 70 or 80 per cent cut of every dollar that flowed through the sport. Typically, when he decided to take cash out of F1, he managed to sell it five times in succession, and has taken roughly $5bn out of the business. Bankers, investors and would-be competitors looked on in bewilderment.

The drivers for the most part take the money and do what they are told by their team bosses, which may include cheating. The constructors also routinely cheat and hatch plots against Ecclestone that invariably fail. He has a genius for dividing and ruling and for being ruthlessly precise about contractual detail. He often sells duds but almost always can do so because the dazed buyer has failed to read the small print or to listen to Ecclestone's exact words.

The point is, I think, that F1, like most glamorous businesses, is infested with suckers who are dazed by the girls, the cars and the cash.

Ecclestone is seldom dazed. Admittedly he treated Enzo Ferrari, founder of the firm that has always dominated the sport, as a kind of mentor; and women, especially Slavica, seem to confuse him. On the whole, however, he is an unimpressible deal-maker, feeding off the frailties and superstitions of others.

You probably will not want to meet or, more to the point, make a deal with Ecclestone after reading this book. The portrait is not attractive. But, as an account of the workings of certain types of contemporary business, No Angel is unmatched, in my reading.

Formula One is not a sport - the cheating and corruption are just too embedded in its culture - but it is a world, seen in a distorting mirror held up to the one in which we live, and Ecclestone is its ruler. l

No Angel: the Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone
Tom Bower
Faber & Faber, 416pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special