A weekend at Bernie’s! Former F1 chief Ecclestone is pin sharp at 91 ahead of the British Grand Prix

It is a beautiful day in Ibiza. Unchallenged blue sky, 32C warmth, a light south-westerly wind. Just what you want when you are sitting down to lunch on the beach.

We have arrived at the Casa Jondal restaurant courtesy of Mr and Mrs Bernie Ecclestone. 

The man who controlled a sporting empire was there in the arrivals hall to greet me and photographer Andy Hooper, while Fabiana, Mr E’s third wife of 10 years, was outside in their white Range Rover to whisk us off.

Bernie Ecclestone gave a detailed analysis of Formula 1 from his luxury home in Ibiza

The third member of the immediate family, little Ace, two next month, was asleep at home.

The Ecclestones split their time between their coffee farm on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, their house in Gstaad, Switzerland, and their villa in Ibiza. 

It comes with guaranteed views of the nearly turquoise Balearic Sea, a million cultural miles away from the clubbing scene that is part of the island’s fame. 

That is not Bernie’s world. He prefers life in his private, gated house, complete with the landscaped garden he had constructed on buying the property and the colourful fish swimming in a horseshoe-shaped pond. ‘Ace likes feeding them by hand,’ he says.

The proud father, who turns 92 in October, also reports that, a day before our visit, Ace swam his first width of the open-air pool situated between the house and the sea below. 

‘He likes swimming?’ I ask. ‘He likes pretty much anything,’ says Ecclestone.

‘Do you swim in the pool?’ I wonder. ‘No, I never have,’ he says.

The 91-year-old now splits his time between his coffee farm in Brazil, his house in Switzerland, and at a luxury villa in Ibiza

The 91-year-old now splits his time between his coffee farm in Brazil, his house in Switzerland, and at a luxury villa in Ibiza

How many staff work at the house? ‘Five or six possibly,’ says Ecclestone. ‘I’m not sure. I’m commercial, Fabiana’s domestic.’

Back at the restaurant before we drive on to the house for coffee, Brazilian Fabiana, nee Flosi, aged 45 or thereabouts, takes charge of the order. 

Crab, anchovies, prawns, green peppers all feature. Main course: John Dory and sea bass. Plenty of chips and a side order of asparagus to be good.

Three of us share a bottle of white. Bernie orders a small draft beer.

Mrs E pulls the prawns apart for Mr E and puts them on his plate. She dotes on him. He dotes on her. 

A few people recognise Bernie, his enduring fame and unique features marking him out as a celebrity even here off the Spanish mainland and there are a few handshakes as he walks to and from the table. 

His neighbours, a friendly couple, come over to say hello.

In a different time, prior to the acquisition of Formula One by American conglomerate Liberty Media in 2017, he would be at Silverstone this coming week for the British Grand Prix. 

Owing to Covid restrictions, he has not attended a race for more than two years, or been to London.

Still courted by the sport’s main players at the end of his mobile phone, he was due to be in Bahrain in March but contracted the virus and had to pull out. 

His next planned visit to his old Formula One domain is for the Austrian Grand Prix on the weekend of July 10.

Ecclestone arrived in Ibiza from Brazil last month. One hitch: he was stopped by police for carrying a gun before boarding a flight from Sao Paulo. 

The former F1 Chief Executive hasn't been to a Formula One race for more than two years

The former F1 Chief Executive hasn’t been to a Formula One race for more than two years

The Seecamp 32 pistol was not loaded and was packed in his luggage by accident.

‘I got it a few years ago from someone in Formula One and we thought it might be a good idea for Fabiana to have it in her handbag in case of a robbery to scare someone off,’ said Ecclestone. 

‘I actually don’t think it would have been much use. The sort of people who might want to rob us may have had guns a lot bigger than this little thing.’

Pretending he was in jail for comic purposes, Ecclestone said: ‘Someone rang me while I was with the police, sorting it all out. 

‘It was a call from Australia or America. I told the guy I was only allowed one call and this might be it. Where I was, I told him, I could speak to a lawyer or whoever. 

‘You called me,’ I told him, ‘so I don’t know if that counts’. So the guy was completely confused. 

He’s now thinking I’m locked up. I told him I didn’t like the food much. He thought I’d got six months inside.’

In fact, Ecclestone spent laborious hours explaining the situation to the police with Fabiana acting as translator. 

His interrogators recognised him and asked him about Ayrton Senna, among other Formula One matters.

His reason for carrying the weapon: ‘I was mucking about with the gun at home. I was pretending to arrest somebody, one of the guys who rides the horses.

‘I put it into my shirt pocket and took the shirt off. I left my things on the bed to be packed and in it went. I never used it, or carried it. It had no bullets. 

‘They scanned the luggage then called me to look through the suitcase — they said they couldn’t open it until I got there — and we spent ages trying to find it. Eventually I found it.’

He paid 6,000 Brazilian reals — £1,000 — for possession of the unregistered gun, which was confiscated and that was the end of it. 

‘It was a few pleasant hours with the police. We were all good friends in the end,’ he says.

Ecclestone has waded into the debate around Lewis Hamilton's future with Mercedes

Ecclestone has waded into the debate around Lewis Hamilton’s future with Mercedes 

‘It was all good publicity. I got more exposure than if I’d committed murder.’

Lewis Hamilton’s form enters the conversation. The seven-time world champion is sixth in the drivers’ standings and without a win this season, trailing his team-mate George Russell. 

Hamilton has another year beyond this one remaining on his £40million annual contract.

Ecclestone says: ‘Lewis might sell his position to Toto [Wolff, Mercedes’ team principal]. “This is how much I am getting, I’ll step down and give me half of what I would get”. 

‘Toto can go and do one of his magic deals, offer someone less money and keep £20m. 

‘Nobody needs to tell Toto this because he has already thought of it. Lewis would probably stop under those circumstances.

‘I don’t know what he is doing dressing up in all those funny clothes. Has he a deal to it? Is it to get noticed? Maybe that’s it.’

Of Russell, Ecclestone says: ‘I didn’t think he was that good but he has done an excellent job. I’m surprised. Or is it a case of Lewis doing a bad job? A bit of both.

‘Toto is getting a bit fed up with Lewis. I don’t think he’s trying, do you? Let’s put it another way, Lewis doesn’t seem bothered about losing. 

It’s not like him. He has a competitive nature but he’s taking losing a bit easy for my liking. 

But he will be in attendance for the upcoming Austrian grand prix taking place next month

But he will be in attendance for the upcoming Austrian grand prix taking place next month

I don’t think he is actively helping George. I don’t think he’s doing anything. I don’t think he cares too much. He’s not prepared to put the effort into winning that he did.’

As for Hamilton’s dramatic exit from his cockpit in Azerbaijan, after being jostled in his ‘porpoising’ — bouncing — car. Did he really have a bad back?

‘All b*******,’ says Ecclestone. ‘George is taller and if it was going to happen to anyone it would have happened to him. 

There was a bit of Nigel Mansell about it. At least with Nigel, he would get out of the car and rub his left leg as if he had broken it. Next moment, it would be his right leg.’

Fabiana is a figure in her own right. A lawyer in Brazil who first served on the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council 20 years ago. 

Her role brought her and Bernie into contact. She is newly elected as a deputy president for sport under Mohammed ben Sulayem, elected in December to replace Jean Todt.

‘I was very famous before I met him!’ jokes Fabiana. On returning to the house, Fabiana joins two Zoom calls on FIA business. ‘People think I only got this job because of Bernie,’ she says.

Ecclestone was recently stopped from boarding a flight to Ibiza after a gun was found in his luggage in Sao Paulo

Ecclestone was recently stopped from boarding a flight to Ibiza after a gun was found in his luggage in Sao Paulo

That suggestion of Bernie’s residual relevance puts the wind up the powers that be now, not least in the Formula One Group, the commercial wing of the sport which Ecclestone ran prior to Liberty’s takeover and which is now headed by former Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali.

Ecclestone played a pivotal role, one suspects, in helping Ben Sulayem being elected in December by a margin of two-to-one over English barrister Graham Stoker, the initial hot favourite. 

Ben Sulayem has since banned jewellery in the cockpit, an edict that could come to a head at Silverstone, with Hamilton defiant over wearing his nose stud.

Of president Ben Sulayem, an Emirati rally driver and the first non-European to hold the post, Ecclestone says: ‘The thing about Mohammed is that he is not streetwise. He comes from a different level. 

‘He has never had people want to bury him. He’s not needed to stay awake. He is learning fast that these things do happen. 

‘He needs advice from people who are not advising him for themselves.

‘He calls me on lots of different things and we talk but I never say to him, ‘Why don’t you do this, or not do that?’ He is all right, 100 per cent. He is straight-forward and honest. The big problem with him is he’s a little bit innocent.’

Ecclestone asks: ‘What do you make of all this jewellery business?’ I offer a few thoughts before he takes up the theme.

‘Because of the ways Lewis acts, he is a character, whether you like it or not. He is black, which is good and he is different from all the other drivers in many ways, which is also good. 

‘We need characters. If he wants something in his nose, that’s fine by me. Whatever he wants. He wears all these bloody clothes. It’s wonderful. 

‘He is doing it for him, not for Formula One. The danger is that people speak more about Lewis than Formula One. You write about him. But I feel these are the rules and that has to be that. 

‘End of story. Because if I were a driver and went over the white lines and got a time penalty, I’d say, ‘You sort out this guy properly according to the rules and then you can sort me out, otherwise, shut your mouth. They are rules, not maybes’.

Bernie Ecclestone (left) pictured with Mail On Sunday reporter Jonathan Mcevoy (right)

Ecclestone believes the sport needs more drivers like Lewis Hamilton in the pits

Ecclestone questioned Formula One’s recent appointment of Shaila-Ann Rao as F1 Chief

‘I’d say if you can’t take them out, no problem, you’re just not driving a car with them in, that’s all. When the drivers used to say to me, ‘We can’t race in this weather’, I’d say, ‘OK, you don’t have to’.

‘I remember Alain Prost coming up to me saying it was dangerous and somebody would get killed. 

‘I said, ‘Well, we’re starting at 2pm as usual, but you don’t need to race if you don’t want to’. 

‘I also remember Michele Alboreto saying the same, that someone would get killed and I told him, ‘Well, you might win for a change’. It’s simple. Nobody takes these things head on as they are.’

Another hot topic is the Mercedes car, which is so substandard compared with the Red Bull and the Ferrari. 

At the last race in Montreal, a technical directive was issued allowing teams to run an extra ‘floor-stay’ — a metal tube that limits the amount the floor can move, thus making the ride smoother.

Mercedes, to the surprise of other teams, had the part ready to fit. They ran it in practice. 

The suggestion was that Ben Sulayem’s new chief of staff, Shaila-Ann Rao, had tipped off Mercedes. 

She was previously Wolff’s lawyer and moved to the FIA without a ‘gardening leave’ break. Mercedes and the FIA deny all accusations.

The former Chief Executive praised the efforts of Mercedes new boy George Russell

The former Chief Executive praised the efforts of Mercedes new boy George Russell 

But Ecclestone said of Rao’s role: ‘It’s bloody dangerous.

‘Toto started all this nonsense about the cars needing to change. She told them about the new directive, obviously. She worked with Toto for two or three years.

‘I wanted to get Luca di Montezemolo as chairman of the company when I was running things. But the teams went mad because he was Ferrari’s man. 

‘It was seen as a conflict of interest, so how can she do this job?’

We drive back to the house. Bernie poses for pictures. Andy, our photographer, asks him to breathe in. On the count of three. And to smile at the same time. ‘I’ll do whatever you want, it’s not a problem,’ says Bernie.

Nearly an hour later, Andy and I are driven back to the airport by a staffer, who drops Bernie off at one of his property developments.

A moment later, Bernie opens the passenger door and does a good impression of a heart attack. ‘Can I, can I?’ he gasps, looking directly at Andy. ‘Can I breathe out now?’

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