"Motor racing was a world class industry which put Britain at the hi-tech edge. Deprived of tobacco money, Formula One would move abroad at the loss of 50,000 jobs, 150,000 part-time jobs and £900 million of exports."
Ecclestone was born in St Peter, South Elmham, a hamlet three miles south of Bungay, Suffolk. The son of a Fisherman, he attended primary school in Wissett before the family moved to Danson Road, Bexleyheath, north west Kent, in 1938. Ecclestone left West Central Secondary School, Dartford at the age of 16 to work as an assistant in the chemical laboratory at the local gasworks testing gas purity. He also studied chemistry at Woolwich Polytechnic and pursued his hobby of motorcycles.
Immediately after the end of World War II, Ecclestone went into Business trading in spare parts for motorcycles, and formed the Compton & Ecclestone motorcycle dealership with Fred Compton. His first racing experience came in 1949 in the 500cc Formula 3 Series, acquiring a Cooper Mk V in 1951. He drove only a limited number of races, mainly at his local circuit, Brands Hatch, but achieved a number of good placings and an occasional win. He initially retired from racing following several accidents at Brands Hatch, intending to focus on his Business interests.
After his accident, Ecclestone temporarily left racing to make a number of eventually lucrative Investments in real estate and loan financing and to manage the Weekend Car Auctions firm. He returned to racing in 1957 as manager of driver Stuart Lewis-Evans, and purchased two chassis from the disbanded Connaught F1 team, whose driver line-up over the years had included Lewis-Evans, Roy Salvadori, Archie Scott Brown, and Ivor Bueb. Ecclestone even attempted, unsuccessfully, to qualify a car himself at Monaco in 1958 (although this has since been described as "not a serious attempt"). He also entered the British Grand Prix, but the car was raced by Jack Fairman. He continued to manage Lewis-Evans when he moved to the Vanwall team; Salvadori moved on to manage the Cooper team. Lewis-Evans suffered severe burns when his engine exploded at the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix and succumbed to his injuries six days later; Ecclestone was rather shaken up and once again retired from racing.
His friendship with Salvadori led to his becoming manager of driver Jochen Rindt and a partial owner of Rindt's 1970 Lotus Formula 2 team (whose other driver was Graham Hill). Rindt, on his way to the 1970 World Championship, died in a crash at the Monza circuit, though he was awarded the championship posthumously. In early 1972, Ecclestone purchased the Brabham team from Ron Tauranac.
Having bought the team from Ron Tauranac for approximately $120,000 at the end of 1971, Ecclestone eventually sold it for over US$5 million to a Swiss businessman, Joachim Luhti.
Ecclestone and Tauranac were both dominant personalities and Tauranac left Brabham early in the 1972 season. The team achieved little during 1972, as Ecclestone moulded the team to fit his vision of a Formula One team. He abandoned the highly successful customer car production Business established by Jack Brabham and Tauranac – reasoning that to compete at the very front in Formula One you must concentrate all of your resources there. For the 1973 season, Ecclestone promoted Gordon Murray to chief designer. The young South African produced the triangular cross-section BT42, the first of a series of Ford-powered cars with which the Brabham team would take several victories in 1974 and 1975 with Carlos Reutemann and Carlos Pace.
In parallel to his activities as team owner, Ecclestone formed the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) in 1974 with Frank Williams, Colin Chapman, Teddy Mayer, Ken Tyrrell, and Max Mosley. He became increasingly involved with his roles at FISA and the FOCA in the 1970s, in particular with negotiating the sport's television rights, in his decades-long advocacy for team control.
Despite the increasing success of Murray's nimble Ford-powered cars, Ecclestone signed a deal with Alfa Romeo to use their powerful but heavy flat-12 engine from the 1976 season. Although this was financially beneficial, the new BT45s were unreliable and the Alfa engines rendered them significantly overweight. The 1976 and 1977 seasons saw Brabham fall towards the back of the field again, before winning two races again in the 1978 season when Ecclestone signed the Austrian double world champion Niki Lauda, intrigued by Murray's radical BT46 design.
Also in 1978, Ecclestone hired Sid Watkins as official Formula One medical Doctor. Following the crash at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, Watkins demanded that Ecclestone provide better safety measures, which were provided at the next race. This way, Formula One began to improve safety, decreasing the number of deaths and serious injuries along the decades.
The book recounts an episode at the 1979 Argentine Grand Prix in which Colin Chapman offered Mario Andretti $1000 to push Ecclestone into a hotel swimming pool in Buenos Aires. A nervous Andretti approached Ecclestone and confessed the plot, to which Ecclestone replied: "Pay me half and you can".
Piquet formed a close and long-lasting relationship with Ecclestone and the team, losing the title after a narrow battle with Alan Jones in 1980 and eventually winning in 1981 and 1983. In the summer of 1981 Brabham had tested a car powered by a BMW turbo engine, and 1982's new BT50 was powered by BMW's turbocharged 4-cylinder M10. Brabham continued to run the Ford-powered BT49D in the early part of the season while reliability and driveability issues were sorted out by BMW and their technical partner, Bosch. Ecclestone and BMW came close to splitting before the turbo car duly took its first win at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix but the partnership took the first turbo-powered world championship in 1983.
Ecclestone had a 17-year relationship with Tuana Tan, which ended in 1984 when Slavica Radić, later his second wife, became pregnant.
The team continued to be competitive until 1985. At the end of the year, Piquet left after seven years. He was unhappy with the money that Ecclestone was willing to offer him and went to Williams where he would win his third championship. The following year, Murray, who since 1973 had designed cars that had scored 22 GP wins, left Brabham to join McLaren. Brabham continued under Ecclestone's leadership to the end of the 1987 season, in which the team scored only eight points. BMW withdrew from Formula One after the 1987 season.
Television rights shuffled between Ecclestone's companies, teams, and the FIA in the late 1990s, but Ecclestone emerged on top again in 1997 when he negotiated the present Concorde Agreement: in exchange for annual payments, he maintained the television rights.
On 4 November the "fiercely anti-tobacco Jowell" argued in Brussels for an exemption for Formula One. Media attention initially focused on Labour bending its principles for a "glamour sport" and on the "false trail" of Jowell's husband's links to Benetton. On 6 November correspondents from three newspapers inquired whether Labour had received any donations from Ecclestone; he had donated £1 million in January 1997. On 11 November Labour promised to return the money on the advice of Sir Patrick Neill. On 17 November Blair apologised for his government's mishandling of the affair and stated "the decision to exempt Formula One from tobacco sponsorship was taken two weeks later. It was in response to fears that Britain might lose the industry overseas to Asian countries who were bidding for it." In 2008, the year after Blair stepped down as Prime Minister, internal Downing Street memos revealed that in fact the decision had been made at the time of the meeting, and not two weeks later as Blair stated in Parliament.
Despite heart surgery and triple coronary bypass in 1999, Ecclestone has remained as energetic as always in promoting his own Business interests. In the late 1990s he reduced his share in SLEC Holdings (owner of the various F1 managing firms) to 25%, though despite his minority share he retained complete control of the companies. Also in 1999, Terry Lovell published a biography of Ecclestone, Bernie's Game: Inside the Formula One World of Bernie Ecclestone (ISBN 1-84358-086-1). In April 2000 Ecclestone sold International Sportsworld Communicators to David Richards. ISC owned the commercial rights for the World Rally Championship.
In early 2004, he sold one of his London residences in Kensington Palace Gardens, never having lived in it, to steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal for £57.1 million. At Grand Prix venues, Ecclestone uses a grey mobile home, known as "Bernie's bus", as his headquarters. In 2005, Ecclestone sold his £9 million yacht Va Bene to his friend Eric Clapton.
On 25 November 2005 CVC Capital Partners announced it was to purchase both the Ecclestone shares of the Formula One Group (25% of SLEC) and Bayerische Landesbank's 48% share (held through Speed Investments). This left Alpha Prema owning 71.65% of the Formula One group. Ecclestone used the proceeds of this sale to purchase a stake in this new company (the exact ratio of the CVC/Ecclestone shareholding is not yet known). On 6 December Alpha Prema acquired JP Morgan's share of SLEC to increase its ownership of Formula One to 86%, the remaining 14% was held by Lehman Brothers. On 21 March 2006 the EU competition authorities approved the transaction subject to CVC selling Dorna, which controls the rights to MotoGP. CVC announced the completion of the transaction on 28 March. CVC acquired Lehman Brothers share at the end of March 2006. On 21 July 2007, Ecclestone announced in the media that he would be open to discuss the purchase of Arsenal Football Club. As a close friend to former Director of Arsenal David Dein, it was believed that the current board of the North London–based football club would prefer to sell to a British party, this after American-based investment company KSE headed by "Silent" Stan Kroenke were thought to be preparing a £650 million takeover bid for Arsenal Holdings PLC.
Stephen Pollard, Editor of The Jewish Chronicle, said: "Mr Ecclestone is either an idiot or morally repulsive. Either he has no idea how stupid and offensive his views are or he does and deserves to be held in contempt by all decent people." In a subsequent interview with The Jewish Chronicle, Ecclestone said that his comments were taken the wrong way, but apologised, saying, "I'm just sorry that I was an idiot. I sincerely, genuinely apologise." However, when Ecclestone was later told by Associated Press that the World Jewish Congress had called for his resignation, he said "it's a pity they didn't sort the banks out," referring to the financial crisis of 2007–2010, and claimed "They have a lot of influence everywhere."
He was then married to Yugoslav-born former Armani model Radić for 23 years. The couple have two daughters, Tamara (born 1984) and Petra (born 1988). The Sun newspaper announced on 20 November 2008 that Slavica Ecclestone had moved out of the family home and filed for divorce. Slavica settled their divorce amicably with her receiving a reported $1 to 1.5 billion settlement. The divorce was granted on 11 March 2009.
In a Times interview published on 4 July 2009, Ecclestone said "terrible to say this I suppose, but apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was – in the way that he could command a lot of people – able to get things done." According to Ecclestone: "If you have a look at a democracy it hasn't done a lot of good for many countries — including this one", in reference to the United Kingdom. He also said that his friend of 40 years Max Mosley, the son of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, "would do a super job" as Prime Minister and added "I don't think his background would be a Problem."
On the evening of 24 November 2010, whilst returning to his apartment in his central London offices with girlfriend Fabiana Flosi, four men ambushed the pair and robbed them of jewellery, including Diamond rings and a watch, with a total value of £200,000 (Ecclestone later said, "I see a figure of £200,000 mentioned but that is bollocks. They won't be going far on what they took off us"). In what he called "a good whacking", 80-year-old Ecclestone was left unconscious and was taken to hospital with head injuries and a large black eye. The image of Ecclestone's bruised face was later used in an advertisement by Hublot, the makers of the stolen watch, with the slogan "See what people will do for a Hublot".
The Forbes World's Billionaires List of 2011 ranked Ecclestone as the 4th richest person in the United Kingdom, with an estimated fortune of $4.2 billion, an increase of $200 million from the previous year.
In April 2012, Ecclestone announced his engagement to 35-year-old Fabiana Flosi, Vice-President of Marketing for the Brazilian Grand Prix. She is 47 years his junior. The news of their marriage became public on 26 August 2012.
In May 2013 Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the Munich prosecutors office had charged Ecclestone with two bribery charges after a two-year investigation into his relationship with Gribkowsky. In July 2013, German prosecutors indicted Ecclestone for alleged bribery. The charge relates to a $44 million (£29m) payment to Gribkowsky. It was linked to the sale of a stake in Formula 1. Gerhard Gribkowsky, the BayernLB bank executive, was found guilty of taking $44m in bribes and failing to pay tax on the money.
Ecclestone has been married three times. With first wife Ivy, he has a daughter, Deborah, through whom he is a great-grandfather. He has five grandchildren — two granddaughters and three grandsons.
Ecclestone was removed from his position as chief executive of Formula One Group on 23 January 2017, following its takeover by Liberty Media in 2016.