Bernie Ecclestone, racing driver

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Bernie Ecclestone: business brain, team boss... racing driver?
Bernie Ecclestone: business brain, team boss... racing driver?

A thread on the Autosport forum about Bernie Ecclestone’s brief racing career caught my eye.

Ecclestone dabbled in motorbike racing and Formula Three in the early 1950s. But his only entry in the F1 record books is for the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix – which he failed to qualify for. What’s the story behind the F1 commercial boss’s only appearance in the sport as a racing driver?

Formula Three

Ecclestone’s first step into the business world was as a motorbike salesman. The success of this foray can be gauged by the fact that the showroom he worked for changed its name from Compton and Fuller to Compton and Eccletone in 1951 – when he was 21 years old.

He invested the money earned selling bikes into racing them at Brands Hatch. But the young Ecclestone soon decided to switch from two wheels to four, reasoning it would be safer. He switched to competing in 500cc single-seater cars in the series that would later become known as Formula Three.

He raced on the day the modern world championship was born – in a support race for the 1950 British Grand Prix at Silverstone (enjoy the ironic thought of Ecclestone ‘supporting’ something to do with Silverstone). But in 1953 he suffered a serious crash at Brands Hatch where his car was launched into the air. He continued competing only occasionally before quitting in 1956.

Lewis-Evans and Connaught

The following year Ecclestone met up-and-coming British racing driver Stewart Lewis-Evans, who raced for Connaught. Lewis-Evans was contracted to switch to Vanwall in the 1958 F1 season, but Ecclestone was keen to make use of his talents in a business venture.

Connaught had run into financial difficulty and Ecclestone took the opportunity to buy two of their old chassis at auction – the B3 and B7. Ecclestone’s biographer Terry Lovell is at pains to point out Ecclestone did not actually buy the Connaught team, just two of its cars. His intention was to sell them on in Australia for a profit.

Ecclestone entered Lewis-Evans and Roy Salvadori in the New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore in January 1958. The drivers collected the money for starting the race but fared poorly, as Ecclestone sent just one mechanic to look after both cars. Ecclestone’s plan came unstuck, however, as Lewis-Evans was unable to find a buyer with a serious offer, and he returned home with the cars.

The two Connaughts were occasionally entered by Ecclestone during the 1958 season. At Monaco he entered one for himself and the other for Paul Emery.

Bernie Ecclestone, Grand Prix racer

There was little chance of either car making it as far as the race. The organisers admitted 30 entrants but the starting grid size meant only 16 could start. And 14 of those were likely to be the cars entered by factory teams Vanwall, BRM, Cooper, Ferrari, Lotus and Maserati.

But Ecclestone seems to have made little attempt to get his car in the race anyway. While Emery lapped at 1’50.8, within 0.3s of another Connaught, Ecclestone seems not to have set a lap time.

What was the reason for this less than committed attempt to start the Monaco Grand Prix? Was it another effort to sell the cars while bagging some useful prize money?

If so it must not have worked as the cars were back again at Silverstone. This time Ivor Bueb and Jack Fairman were the drivers, though Ecclestone was also named as a driver of the Fairman car in case he needed to take over the entry. He didn’t, and so the history books record a ‘Did Not Start’ for Ecclestone at the 1958 British Grand Prix.

That was the end of Ecclestone’s involvement in Grand Prix racing as a driver but merely the beginning of his lengthy career in the business of Formula 1.

After the death of Lewis-Evans in the final race of 1958 Ecclestone stayed away from the sport for several years. But he returned in charge of the Brabham team in 1972 and guided them to championship titles in 1981 and 1983 with Nelson Piquet. By then he had become vitally important to the business operation of Formula 1 via his role in the Formula One Constructors’ Association. That led him to the position he occupies today.

As team manager and head of FOM, amassing a wealth in excess of ??2bn, he’s achieved rather more than he did behind the wheel of a racing car.

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