London: Red Bull and the ever-cheeky Sebastian Vettel presented Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone with a walking frame, equipped with steering wheel and front wing, as an 80th birthday gift last weekend.
The billionaire Briton, who will be reaching his milestone on Thursday with plenty of energy but not much in the way of a celebration, saw the joke.
On current form, there is about as much chance of Ecclestone needing the present as there is of Ferrari making affordable family runabouts or Lewis Hamilton deciding to pack it in to become a parking attendant.
The former second-hand car salesman, who turned Formula One from a sport for oil-streaked “garagistes” into a billion-dollar glamour business, has no intention of giving up his globe-trotting, deal-making lifestyle for an armchair and slippers any time in the next decade.
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“Retire? Why? I need the money, I can’t afford to retire,” the master of the throwaway quip told Reuters at Sunday’s South Korean Grand Prix in Yeongam as he inspected the latest addition to his global circus.
“I don’t worry. Age is nothing. People make me laugh when they talk about one year to the next year,” he added with a smile. “One day you’re one age and a day later you’re another age. It’s all nonsense.
“I’m like Obama, I like to move forward.”
Ecclestone, a bespectacled Andy Warhol lookalike in pressed blue jeans and with the theme from the film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as his mobile ringtone, needs more money about as much as he needs the Zimmer frame.
As he has explained on countless occasions, it is a way of keeping the score more than anything, a means of measuring achievement rather than keeping the wolf at the door. In his London office, he has a sculpture of a pile of $100 (Rs.4,450) bills.
By any standards, he has been a success—from selling buns at a mark-up to schoolmates to making his first fortune trading motorcycles in fuel-starved post-war Britain and then making a mint in Formula One.
A natural deal maker, with a softly-spoken manner that belies his Machiavellian streak, Ecclestone has a reputation for being uncompromising and almost obsessively neat, with the odd wisecrack thrown in.
One of the advantages of old age, he once suggested, was that the fear of life imprisonment was no longer what it was.
The sport, with a record 20-race calendar lined up for next season and new races on the horizon in India, Russia and the US, can thank his magic touch for keeping the money pipeline flowing.
Job done, Ecclestone usually leaves the circuit as soon as the grid walk is over and the race started. The concern, ever present for manufacturers and other stake holders, is what happens when he is no longer there at all?
Ecclestone, who got into hot water last year when he suggested Adolf Hitler was a man “who got things done”, is by his own admission a dictator—a man who does a deal on a handshake, has a fondness for the office shredder and an aversion to email and written contracts.
“I don’t think democracy is the way to run anything,” he said recently.
“Whether it’s a company or anything, you need someone who is going to turn the lights on and off.”
There is no obvious successor lined up for a ringmaster who went through a triple heart bypass in 1999 (“I recommend everybody has one,” he said later) and was more recently divorced from his Croatian wife Slavica, who towered above him, after 26 years together.
“He’s an extraordinary individual, when you think of an 80-year-old who is still rushing around in the way he is and the energy that he has,” McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh told Reuters.
“He intends to be here in 10 years’ time because this is his life, isn’t it?
“He will be here until sadly he will be incapacitated by some force of nature. So that’s very clear,” added the Briton. “It’s a bit like some performers who just can’t stop and they’ve got to carry on and he’s one of those people.”
Whitmarsh said the lack of an heir apparent was not ideal, but he also recognized it as a situation that was not going to change.
“Those of us who are still around, if we manage to survive, when he finally is no longer around will have to find a way to bring it together,” he said.
“But he is not capable of either choosing, grooming or trusting a successor, frankly.”
International Automobile Federation president Jean Todt, another diminutive dynamo who replaced Ecclestone’s long-term ally Max Mosley last year, brushed off any concern from the governing body’s part.
“I must say it is extraordinary to see this guy, days before he is to be 80, how motivated, how switched on he can be,” he said after the two most powerful men in motorsport had met in the Yeongam paddock.
“I really wish to be in the same situation at his age. It’s fascinating.”
The Frenchman likened Ecclestone to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway head Warren Buffett, two billionaires closely identified with firms that would also one day have to move into a new phase without them.
“Bernie is a very smart guy. He has sold his company to (private equity firm) CVC, and in fact the responsibility of the future of Formula One is more to CVC than to Bernie,” Todt said.
“It’s up to them. I’m sure Bernie will be a big contributor, but...Bernie is not the right guy, knowing him, to say who do you think it should be? Because he doesn’t see any successor. He’s very happy, he’s fit, motivated, he loves it.
“CVC are very smart business people...the companies that are legendary are still living, making profits and innovations,” added the Frenchman.
“I am sure that Formula One has a very strong future.”