Bernard Charles Ecclestone. Suffolk trawlerman’s son. Racing driver. Car dealer. Driver manager. Team owner. Pint-sized godfather of modern Formula 1. Ringmaster of the most political sport in the world. Businessman. Billionaire.
Admired. Feared. Loathed.
On the wrong side of racing purists, Munich prosecutors and a Labour Party funding scandal. On the wrong side of the law, too, if you wish to believe the mythology surrounding the Great Train Robbery – but, as you’ll hear later from the man himself, there wasn’t enough cash in that for it to be worth his involvement.
Bernie. The man whose name and number reside in my mobile phone, but who in more than 12 months I have yet to summon the nerve to call. Somehow the journey from explaining how I have his number to asking for an interview feels like an insurmountable leap. Worse than asking a girl out on a date. Worse even than asking her father if you can marry her. Fear and trepidation. Clammy hands and a sweaty brow. Pull yourself together.
“Hello?” The voice is unmistakable, but the speaker is unwilling to give the game away.
“Mr Ecclestone?” For the 30 years I’ve followed Formula 1, he has always been Bernie, but what else am I going to call him?
“Who is it?” Polite but detached.
“Jim Holder from Autocar. I hope you’ve heard of us; I was wondering if you’d be available for an interview.”
“That’s the magazine that’s as old as me, isn’t it?” He’s 89 years old and sharp as a button. We’re 125. I can almost feel him thinking: ‘Here’s how I find out if this bloke’s for real.’
“Older, actually – assuming you’ve been telling the truth about your age all these years.” Why oh why did I feel the need to crack a joke?
“Right, yes, no problem. I’ll call you back with a date.” A chuckle, warmer now. Phew.
That’s it. He’s gone. Perhaps to Google the history of Autocar.
He doesn’t call back, but now I have an excuse to chase. Ecclestone is always polite, sometimes apologetic, but busy.
And then one day in early March my phone rings. “What are you doing at 11 o’clock tomorrow?”
At five to the hour I rock up at his offices, prepped to go toe to toe but ready for the runaround. I think back to all the interviews with Ecclestone I’ve ever seen or read. Has anyone ever managed to pin him down?
I ring the bell and walk in. I meet his personal assistant, who directs me to a room. And there he is: Mr Ecclestone. Just about as short as short adults can be, casual blue jeans, crisp white shirt, neat goatee and looking fitter than anyone his age has any right to be. Charming, too.
Autocar: How are you? We haven’t heard from you for a little while.
Bernie Ecclestone: Well, I’m still here. According to the newspapers, most of us are going to die [from the coronavirus], but I seem to be fine.
AC: Do you worry about dying?
As a second question, that’s rather left field, but this, I quickly learn, is how it goes with Ecclestone. You can ask whatever you want, but don’t expect to get long answers. No time to think, no time to consider. Just keep up, be prepared to push for what you want and work hard for answers.