Ecclestone hopes Bahrain Grand Prix goes ahead
As a doting father, Bernie Ecclestone supplied his elder daughter with the money to fund the recent purchase of her £45m London house. But the Formula One supremo could not bring himself to sit all the way through a single episode of the free-spending 27-year-old's recent three-part Channel 5 reality show, Tamara Ecclestone: Billion $$ Girl.
"I watched one of them," he says with a despairing sigh. "I don't know if it was the first or the second. Not all of it."
He frowns at the memory of what he saw, and explains how Tamara had ignored his advice. "I told her: 'If you portray yourself really as you are, it's wonderful. But they aren't going to let you. They're going to wind you up, for sure. There'll be things you'd rather they didn't show that they'll show, and all the things you'd rather they showed, they won't. Because that's the sort of show it is.' I said: 'You don't need the money. I don't see a lot of reason for it.' But I think she got talked into it. She believed the show was going to be about Tamara in normal life."
Hang on a minute. This is a girl with 200 Hermes handbags and a turntable set into her front drive, to save her the trouble of doing a three-point turn in her Ferrari. Can she be said to have a "normal life"?
"Yes. But I think they pushed her into not being herself and in the end she got carried away and thought: 'I'm a superstar, I'm rich, and now I've got to show I'm rich and a superstar.' But, you know, she'll be in the kitchen like everyone else. Yes, for sure, she goes and buys loads of shoes and bloody clothes. Unnecessary. Completely unnecessary. I suppose it's because … one wonders... and this is not in her defense – how many other girls her age would do the same if they could?"
But what about the notorious bath made to Tamara's specification from crystal brought from the Amazon, and which allegedly cost £1m?
"First, it wasn't like that. It wasn't a crystal bath for a million quid. It's the hype again. Makes me bloody mad. It cost nothing like that. Not true. Not at all."
Tamara's 22-year-old sister Petra had a wedding this summer costing £12m and lives in an $85m (£54m) pad in Los Angeles, which changed hands for cash (the owners had been asking $150m: a typical Bernie deal). Surely it must be hard for the daughters of such a generous billionaire father to retain a sense of proportion?
"I think so. But, as I say, most girls would like to do the things they do, probably."
And then, with an air of mild exasperation, he raises the subject of "the trust" – something called Bambino Holdings, set up in an offshore tax haven in the 1990s, into which Ecclestone put £3bn of the money he made from his ownership of Formula One's commercial rights. The trust is registered in the name of his Croatian ex-wife, Slavica Radic, from whom he was divorced three years ago after 24 years of marriage.
It came into the news last month when he found himself in a German court, explaining why he had given $44m to a banker called Gerhard Gribkowsky, who is accused of massive fraud. He feared Gribkowsky was about to tell HM Revenue and Customs that it was Ecclestone who controlled Bambino Holdings, which would have made him liable to pay tax on its funds. Now his lack of control over all that money is clearly irritating him.
"I gave to my wife the things that she put in a trust for herself and the kids, and the kids have had access to that money," he says. "The idea was that they'd buy super-quality property, property that would be long-term, for their kids and everything else. Didn't happen. They haven't done that. So they've had access to money which they've spent. And Tamara's program just wound everything up, because that's what they wanted."
He is satisfied, however, that the program's view of his elder child was a distorted one, and the proof came during those now famous nuptials in the grounds of a rented castle outside Rome, where 250 guests drank Chateau Petrus at £4,000 a bottle to the strains of the Royal Philharmonic, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Eric Clapton.
"I spent the weekend with both of them at Petra's wedding," Ecclestone says, "and Tamara was an angel. Nothing like that show in any shape or form. She was Tamara."
At 81, Ecclestone looks much like the Bernie of 30 years ago, when he had just won the battle to wrest control of Formula One from the amateurs who had run it for the better part of a century. If being violently mugged outside his Knightsbridge home, as he was last year, failed to age him, an event such as the German court hearing – his first experience of such circumstances, he said – seems to put an extra glint in his eye.
Gribkowsky, as he told the German judge, had tried to shake him down. "He wanted money to start up on his own. He wanted to leave the bank and start a property business – with me. He was shaking me down. I don't blame him. I misled him a little bit, because when he asked me, I said: 'Let's see what we can do.' We're English, we don't say, 'No.'
"I asked the trust: 'What's going to happen if this guy tells the revenue that I'm managing the trust, which is what he was inferring?' They said: 'If he does, the revenue will want to come and check and they'll assess you and you'll be in court for three years proving all the things that are wrong, and it'll cost you a fortune, and the trust as well. You'd be assessed at 40% tax on about £3bn. I said: 'I can't afford it. What shall I do?'"
What he did, as he told the court, was to pay him £27.5m to keep schtum: "I thought it might keep him quiet and peaceful and friendly and stop him doing silly things."
Gribkowsky denies blackmail.
If his business affairs seem a little more complicated than the average citizen's, that is probably how he likes it. When the author Tom Bower published an Ecclestone biography called No Angel early this year, whole sections were intelligible only to those with an understanding of the financial stratosphere. And Ecclestone's handling of Bower, whose reputation was built on his evisceration of the likes of Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black and Richard Branson, provides evidence of how this son of a Suffolk trawler man finesses potential enemies. Not that he has read the book.
"I don't read books. But most people who read it thought it was a good book. Did you read it?"
Yes. It was entertaining, but lacked the anticipated revelations. Either Bower had got too close to him, or maybe – as unlikely as it seems to experienced Bernie watchers – there really is nothing to reveal about this most mysterious of tycoons, a man both accessible and frustratingly opaque.
"That's what the problem was. I used to say to Tom – because we've become quite good friends – 'What can I do that's evil for you?' He was upfront with me and I gave him complete co-operation. Anyone he wanted to speak to, I called and said: 'Talk to this guy – tell him the truth.' Because he had a reputation coming in. Somebody called me and said: 'There's a guy doing a book on you, but he's not a normal guy for doing books, he's destroyed a few people.' I said it wouldn't be a bad idea if he came and had a chat before he started destroying me, because maybe he could find even more to destroy. So Tom arrived and we had lunch and that's how the name of the book came about. I said: 'You write what you like, provided it's more or less the truth, because I'm no angel.' And when we'd finished the book, he said: 'Would you mind if I called the book No Angel?' I said: 'Bloody good name.'"
Bower had finished his work before the violent suppression of anti-government unrest in Bahrain led first to the postponement, and then to the cancellation, of a race for which Ecclestone receives a reported $40m a year from the emirate's ruling Al Khalifa family, several of whom are confirmed petrol heads. This week it was announced that Bahrain is back on Formula One's 2012 calendar, scheduled for April, even though human rights organizations are still protesting about the treatment of medical personnel imprisoned for ministering to wounded protesters.
"The people I've met there are lovely people," Ecclestone says, prompting the response that jailing doctors for treating demonstrators doesn't seem very lovely.
"Do you know that? Do you actually know that? If that's right, it's wrong. Obviously. Doctors are doctors. They're there to help people. It doesn't matter who it is they're helping. We have been assured that this is not what's happening. In fact they had a report made, allegedly independent. What did the report say? Yes, there were instances or whatever, but ... I wanted to go out there. I was happy to go. I'd like to go into the prison or the hospital or whatever and ask: 'What actually happened?'"
Maybe they would let him, I suggest, if he asked. "I have asked. They said, 'No problem.' The danger is you go out there and they pick you up in a limousine and take you to the best hotel and take you to dinner and then put you back on the airplane."
All over the world, in China, India, South Korea, Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and Russia, governments are throwing money at Ecclestone in order to burnish their image by holding a round of the Formula One championship. He has landed himself in trouble before by remarking on Hitler's ability to get things done, but had he been president of the International Olympic Committee in 1936, would he have sanctioned the Berlin Games?
"It depends what evidence I had on what was happening in the country. And the same thing would happen. I'd have been taken there and dined and wooed and everything else and told it was a wonderful country. It's not easy. But wherever I go, the minute you get off the plane, the minute you go into somebody's country, you've got to respect exactly what their way of life is – their religion, their laws or whatever. It's not correct to go moving into somebody's country and try to change them. Don't go. If you know something's wrong, stay away.
"We pulled out of South Africa years ago (in 1985) because of apartheid. I witnessed things that had happened there which upset me. I thought: 'That ain't the way to go on.' I hope we go to Bahrain and there's no trouble – the race goes on, the public are happy and there are no dramas. That's what I hope."
But if somebody came to him with incontrovertible evidence that unacceptable things were still happening there, what action would he take?
"We'd have to give it some serious thought then. But we've been to Argentina when there's been big dramas. There's been dramas in Brazil. Bad things happen there. I think you can look anywhere now and it's not all good. You can't really hold England up as being all good, can you? There have been some terrible atrocities that we committed."
Bernie Ecclestone apologizing for the slave trade and the Black Hole of Calcutta, as well as for his daughter's televised indiscretions? Too much for one day. The Guardian