He was funny, charming and ruthless. Utterly ruthless. He was a car dealer to the core, a genius at spotting people’s weaknesses and using them to his advantage. He understood greed and ambition and recognised the dangerous people and made them his friends, although he has few real friends. He could wrap naïve journalists around his little finger by tickling their ego, making them feel that he was their best buddy, but he was a user. For a journalist, he always had a headline, but a lot of them were simply not true. He was just playing, keeping F1 in the newspapers, being outrageous for the sake of it. Sometimes he said things simply to see if people would challenge him.
There was a good side too, but it was well hidden. He didn’t want people to see that too often, because to him this was a weakness.
What Ecclestone did for F1 was impressive, but how he won control of the commercial side of the sport was not. Juggling companies and contracts, he stripped his fellow members of the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) of the rights they had won together and then presented them with a fait accompli. At one famous FOCA meeting, Ken Tyrrell had to be restrained from strangling Ecclestone when it emerged what he had done. Ecclestone saw it as their fault for not stopping him. Without him, they probably would not have become as wealthy as they did, because they could never agree. He understood this and made it happen.
In Max Mosley, fellow Formula 1 team owner, FOCA lawyer and later FIA president, he saw a kindred spirit and made sure that they were on the same side as much as possible. Ecclestone listened to smart people, but he didn’t often see the value of anything that didn’t pay up front. If you wanted something from him, you had to pay for it and you had to pay big.
There was rarely investment in the business, and when there was, it often didn’t work. Early attempts at digital TV and an escapade in publishing both lost him a lot of money, although it was nothing compared with the £60m he had to pay to stop his infamous bribery trial in Germany in 2014.
Along the way, one got the impression that he lost his love for the sport and that it became a Monopoly board, but the passion was still there somewhere. He loved and admired drivers and they felt that. He hated stuffy men in blazers but enjoyed dealing with cavaliers like Ron Walker, promoter of the Australian Grand Prix. His passion for Russian president Vladimir Putin showed just how much Ecclestone liked power and the powerful.
Without his attention to detail and micro-management, the sport would not have been as successful as it is, but now and then he did not see the bigger picture.