Nobody ever portrayed Bernie better. Kevin Eason, retiring grand prix correspondent of The Times tells us more in 275 exemplary words than tens of thousands written in books about Bernie. In his valedictory column after 18 years Kevin speaks with the wry indulgence of one jack-the-lad for another.
“At the head of this extraordinary travelling circus was the ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone. The night we first met, he stretched out his left hand for his customary pseudo-royal handshake, looked me in the eye and said: “Ah, so you’re the one writing all that sh**.”
“From that unnerving start, we were to develop as close a relationship as it is possible to have with a multi-billionaire, Duracell-powered ruler of a global sport. We clashed often, but he always took it on the chin and he could disarm me with a rotten joke or an anecdote.
“Ecclestone carries a reputation as a hard man – and he is in business – but he is paternal about his drivers, personally intervening to get Lewis Hamilton out of McLaren and into Mercedes, for example, or playing backgammon with Sebastian Vettel. Even now, he wells up when you ask him about Stuart Lewis-Evans and Jochen Rindt, two drivers he managed. Both were killed on the track.
"For all the bravado, Bernie is soft-hearted, giving millions to charity without a fuss. He loves mischief and there is always a twinkle in his eye. When he makes his pronouncements, you have to separate the facts from the wind-up – not always easy.
“In Russia last year, Vladimir Putin sent an emissary to advise on protocol. At the end of the meeting, Bernie asked Putin’s man for an opinion. “We have been asked to stage a new grand prix,” he said. “In Syria. A new circuit in Damascus. What do you think?” Putin’s man was flabbergasted, until he saw a smile crinkling at the side of Bernie’s mouth. No subject is beyond his cheek.”
This is not the Bernie who once said drivers were expendable, like light bulbs; if one goes out you remove him and screw in another. I recall Bernie’s subtle mischievousness from the 1970s. Hockenheim was still new. I watched two self-important reporters complaining that a new grandstand obstructed their view from the press box. Bernie was still fresh in his ringmaster days, viewed with deep suspicion by old-school press men: “I’ll have it moved for next year,” he reassured the pompous parties. “You see, he’s not bad. He listens to us.” Of course the stand was never moved. Anybody with half an eye could see the twinkle in Bernie’s; stupid people never guessed.
“Then”, writes Eason, “there was Ferrari, commanded by Michael Schumacher but steered by the most glamorous figure in Formula One, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the aristocratic president and chosen one of Enzo, the founder. Di Montezemolo was charismatic beyond belief, his greeting so warm we might have been related.”
I can vouch for di Montezemolo. I had met Enzo, who compelled you to listen to every word. Luca made you think he was listening to you. He wasn’t, of course and he would forget you at once. Charisma won Ferrari championships; you were coerced into Ferrari. Di Montezemolo put Kevin in a 360 sports car at the Fiorano test track. Inevitably Eason spun and was slow but it secured him into the Ferrari family. Michael Scarlett and I drove Ferraris at Fiorano and we didn’t spin and although no match for the track’s test drivers our lap times weren’t at all bad. Then again the older I get the faster I was.
“Standing in the Monaco tunnel watching the old V10-powered cars screaming by was akin to standing next to a Saturn rocket launch; or at the end of the pit straight in Monza before the Italian Grand Prix where drivers came to halt and went through the start procedure. As the engine rumbled and then screeched to about 16,000rpm, the ground shook and the vibrations rippled through the air and into the chest.
“And then there is the best 15 minutes in sport. I have been to Wembley but never stood on the pitch with Manchester United or Arsenal. I have been to Wimbledon finals but not stood next to Andy Murray on court. But I have been to the Monaco Grand Prix and stood on the grid as the cars arrived, shook Jenson Button’s hand to wish him luck, chatted with Red Bull’s Christian Horner, rubbed shoulders with Roger Federer and met Michael Douglas, the Hollywood star.
“To work in Formula One is to join the family; I have probably listened to more words this year from Lewis Hamilton than from my wife - and, boy, can she talk. Reporting Formula One is not a job, it is your life and not just because of the 140 or so nights in hotels and the 120,000 miles in the air. We spend weeks together, we eat together, share our jetlag together, quarrel and make up.
“For 18 years, Formula One was my family as I covered the most irritating, silly, politically incorrect, frustrating, brilliant, wild, thrilling, mad sport on the planet. And now it is over. But thanks to The Times - and Bernie - for the ride of a professional lifetime.
I was in the family, once, too. For about 15 years. Believe me Kevin, when you stop, nothing’s ever quite the same.