Annual Motoring Dinner with Bernie Ecclestone - Review

To view images from the evening click here.

To view images of the Brabham BT44B rotunda car click here.

Following last year’s fascinating evening with motorsport-titan Roger Penske, the Club’s 2020 Annual Motoring Dinner had a lot to live up to.

The Club’s 22nd Annual Motoring Dinner coincided with the 70th anniversary of Formula 1 this year, so it was especially fitting that the guest of honour was ex-Formula 1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone.

Chairman of the Club’s Motoring Committee, Peter Read, welcomed members and guests to the evening before the room enjoyed a specially prepared three-course dinner featuring ingredients sourced from Bernie’s place of birth – Suffolk.

After dinner it was time for the interview and members and guests were in for a surprise as interviewer, Club Chairman Ben Cussons, announced they were getting a ‘two-for-one special’, and would be hearing from not only Bernie, but also his friend, sparring partner and former FIA President, Max Mosley.

The Dynamic Duo

In a packed Mountbatten Room, Bernie and Max took to the stage and spoke of how they established themselves as a formidable force in Formula 1, achieving control of the sport’s commercial and sporting rights.

Max first met Bernie at a meeting between the Formula 1 teams when he was at March Engineering and spoke about Bernie’s unique grasp of business.

‘Bernie turned up and the very first meeting he came to with this confused and difficult group of teams, I realised suddenly there was someone sitting there who understood business.’ Max said he knew from the start that ‘here is someone really special’.

Despite their success it wasn’t always plain sailing between Max and Bernie, and they admitted to frequent disagreements – with jibes throughout the evening showing the pair were still as dogged as ever.

Jean-Marie Balestre

The duo spoke about their turbulent relationship with Jean-Marie Balestre as they battled with the former FIA President over control of the sport.

‘We used to drive Balestre mad’ admitted Max. ‘Our tactic in the 70s when he took over was to cause the maximum trouble and confusion so we would be effectively running everything.’

Succinctly Bernie described why Balestre lost – ‘Jean Marie was doing what he believed was the right thing to do. He was completely honest. He wanted to side with the manufacturers because he believed he was better off with then than us.’ Ultimately, that’s why he lost.

To many, Bernie managed Formula 1 as if it was a game, and a perfect example of this gamesmanship was recalled by Max. During one of the fraught meetings between Bernie, Max and Jean-Marie, Bernie stood up and began adjusting the pictures which were hanging on the wall. It eventually made Jean-Marie so angry that ‘in the end he squeezed his pencil so hard that it broke’.

After an ongoing contest, victory for Bernie and Max in Formula 1’s power struggle eventually came. Max was elected president of FISA in 1991, pushing Balestre out of the role before dethroning him as President of the FIA in 1993. The dynamic duo had won.

‘Giant Killers’

Formula 1 design legend and Club member Gordon Murray was also present in the room to speak about the start of his career under Bernie.

Describing the period when Bernie first took over the Brabham team, he said the power shift from initial owner, Ron Tauranac to Ecclestone was ‘cloaked in secrecy. We were working for Jack Brabham and Ron as juniors in the design office, and Bernie appeared and nothing was terribly clear about was he buying the business, wasn’t he buying the business, and then eventually it became clear that Bernie was taking over.’

It really did become clear – one morning Gordon ‘woke up and Bernie had fired the whole design office and kept me.’

When asked what Bernie was like to work with, Gordon said that ‘Bernie had the faith in me to do the job’. Gordon referred to the team as a ‘family’: ‘we were much more of a family than a boss working relationship. Bernie was and still is a racer and we just made stuff happen.’

Given free-reign as the team’s Chief Designer in 1973, Gordon described how the Brabham team went on to become ‘giant killers’, competing and beating Ferrari and McLaren on a shoe-string budget with a tiny team.

The Fan Car

A topic of discussion among several guests on the night was the Brabham BT46B, also known as the ‘Fan Car’, a standout Murray creation. The car generated an immense amount of downforce by means of a fan which extracted air from beneath the car.

When asked if he was consulted about the fan car’s design before its production, Bernie replied ‘Gordon never consulted with anyone. He thought it was a good idea’. ‘The car was completely legal’ he quickly added.

Present also was John Watson, former Brabham Formula 1 driver under Bernie. He described the shockwaves that the fan car sent through the pits when it first appeared at its first (and only) Grand Prix at Anderstorp in Sweden.

‘It caused consternation in the paddocks. All Bernie’s contemporaries, all the team principals … were up in arms and they were about to dump the whole Constructor’s Association – they were so upset about what Brabham had done.’

During that weekend, Niki Lauda dominated the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix in the fan car, before it was withdrawn.

Despite Gordon and Bernie’s insistence on the car’s legality, Max highlighted the majority in the sport, including the FIA, didn’t agree. Gordon later admitted they ‘withdrew the car for the good of the sport’.

Max credited Bernie’s shrewd decision to withdraw the fan car as one which protected the future and credibility of the sport.

The Best Drivers

Bernie described his special relationship with driver Jochen Rindt, who he also thought was one of the best racers around, although he picked out Alain Prost as the ‘best ever’. He also described former Lotus owner Colin Chapman as a ‘super guy’. In Bernie’s eyes, Senna was good, but not the best.

Formula 1 Today

After forty minutes of chat flew by, members were eager to put their questions to Bernie and Max. Among them was their thoughts on the internal combustion engine’s future in Formula 1.

Bernie and Max believed it would be there for the ‘foreseeable future at least’, noting little can compare to the noise, drama and entertainment of the internal combustion engine, even if it had caused Max’s hearing to deteriorate over the years.

When asked about his own career as a leading light in Formula 1, Bernie admitted that he often felt he got credited for organising things ‘which he didn’t actually do’. He said his main strength was ‘looking at opportunities and doing the best I could with them’.

Whatever his strengths, he’s been a man who has intrigued Formula 1 fans for decades by managing to keep control of the sport – ‘democracy never works anyway’ he claimed.

The ‘Formula 1 Supremo’ was certainly once again in control at the Club’s Annual Motoring Dinner and, alongside his friend Max, delivered a thoroughly entertaining evening for all those lucky enough to get a glimpse into his world.

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