The 2022 Formula 1 season is fully underway, Red Bull red-hot driver Max Verstappen has claimed the drivers’ championship, but the Brazilian Grand Prix on November 13 in Sao Paolo gives us an opportunity to check in on our effervescent icon and former “F1 Supremo” Bernard Charles “Bernie” Ecclestone, a hall 92, who attended the race and its round in Sao Paolo with his Brazilian wife, vice-president and ambassador of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) for South America, Fabiana Flosi Ecclestone.
That Mr. Ecclestone lived a long and colorful life, even within the confines of what might approximate for an ordinary, non-Bernie-Bernie mortal, “retirement,” is a given. But in Ecclestone’s case, the definition of the whole quiet stage of nonagenarian life is more than just different.
Compared to 2016-17, when Mr Ecclestone sold his shares in Delta Topco to Liberty Media — Delta Topco being the parent company in the Ecclestone structure that controlled Formula 1 — he is not much on the front pages of the world’s sports pages, so 2022 it was understandably quieter than the last quarter of his reign as ‘F1 Supremo’. But that doesn’t mean things have been quiet.
Naturally, the formidable Mrs Flosi Ecclestone figures heavily in this phase of his life and, in step with the pandemic of the past two years, the couple have retreated like many to their more rural properties. The upshot is that Mr and Mrs Ecclestone have spent much of the past two years at their 500-acre coffee plantation, Fazenda Ycatu – which roughly translates to ‘Abundant Water Farm’ – so named for its many minerals. springs at the foot of the rolling hills of the Sierra de Cantareira mountains.
It’s a natural move, restoring an old coffee plantation in the rural municipality of the Amparo region. The entire state of Sao Paolo, to which Fazenda Ecclestone belongs, is a traditional 19th-century bastion of Brazilian coffee, rightly renowned for its silky, low-acid brew. The coffee economy kicked off the multicultural powerhouse of Sao Paolo—the city and state—that we know today, attracting immigrants from all over the world. Like many branches of agriculture, Brazilian coffee suffered a crash during the Great Depression, and by 1930 many plantations in Sao Paolo had disappeared. Such was the case with Amparo and its district, where the Ecclestones bought Fazenda Ycatu in 2012.
Not idle people, Mr and Mrs Ecclestone have invested heavily in the restoration of the arable land and state-of-the-art drying and processing equipment. It’s also one of the couple’s main shelters during the pandemic, and those two years on the farm gave the Ecclestones the opportunity to hone their production and marketing. The Ecclestones have been marketing their ‘Celebrity Coffee’ brand with great success for a decade.
In fact, the brand has won regional and national awards and enjoys great popularity in Sao Paolo and Southeast Brazil, a success that has made the Ecclestone farm one of the most important producers, reviving local artisanal coffee production throughout region. Ecclestone the farm Amparo is just a short 90-mile helicopter ride from Sao Paolo – helicopters being Ecclestone’s preferred mode of local transport given Brazil’s rural motorway system – hence the background presence of the former F1 Supremo at the Sao Paolo Grand Prix of Formula 1.
Once a motorhead, always a motorhead, would be the obvious reason for the appearance. But in Ecclestone’s particular case, he was a driver in the 1950s, an owner and team builder in the 1980s, and a fundamental architect of the sport itself, as he virtually invented television licensing – which, for the past 40 years , has catapulted the international road show to unprecedented heights of popularity – it is coded so deeply into its DNA helix that an F1 event taking place anywhere on the globe without Ecclestone even taking a flight in the paddock was previously unthinkable. But the truth is that the tycoon sold his child, so his appearances are now only occasional, taking on a certain aspect of a lion in winter.
If he’s aiming at a detail he doesn’t like, he may or may not pull his trademark Suffolk fisherman’s son crust from his well-worn scabbard, but any saber-rattling that’s done is done from an emeritus point of view. and must be read through that filter. It’s an obvious fact, but it changes things: He’s not stand “F1 Supremo” more. Which is not to say that Mr Ecclestone’s blade found a target earlier this month, nor that his appearance was anything but agreeable.
But it is clear that his bite has not abandoned him. At the end of June – with the F1 season fully underway – Mr Ecclestone took part in a televised interview with the hugely popular morning talk show. Good morning Great Britain, in which he claimed that Vladimir Putin was a “first class” person and that Putin had delivered exactly what he promised as Formula 1 brought the race to Russia under Ecclestone’s watch in 2014. Characteristically crusty and wry aside, Ecclestone opined that “I’d take a bullet for him. I’d rather it didn’t hurt, but if it does, I’d still take a bullet because he’s a first-class person.”
The return was global, instant and severe. While one could hardly argue that the statement was an extemporaneous Ecclestone-era speech, and that Ecclestone also pointed out that Putin had made a mistake, it was not read that way. The episode only intensified the klieg lights on Ecclestone’s miscalculation – his huge lack of recognition of the daily reality of the Ukrainian war. For its part, Formula 1 immediately sought to distance itself from its emeritus and no less a racing icon than champion Lewis Hamilton was prompted to state: “We don’t need this anymore, let’s hear from someone who believes in war, and moving people and killing people and supporting [Putin] it’s beyond me.” A week later, Ecclestone apologized and the issue faded from the news cycle.
Leaving aside the all-too-occasional extemporaneous forays into heated geopolitical debate, perhaps the ultimate proof of Mr Ecclestone’s retirement without a pension is that Celebrity Coffee is now a Formula 1 supplier.