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Never mind the dog...beware of the wife! The jaw-dropping inside story of Bernie Ecclestone's marriageBy Tom Bower Last updated at 1:19 AM on 13th February 2011
EnlargeIn September 1982, Bernie Ecclestone, the undisputed king of Formula 1, spotted a striking, six-foot Croatian model standing with world champion Nelson Piquet in the pits at Italy's Monza race circuit. Her name was Slavica Malic and she was employed by Fila fashions, one of the race's sponsors. 'Get out of here,' Ecclestone ordered the 23-year-old.
Highs and lows: Bernie Ecclestone is a foot shorter than his wife Slavica, whom he married in 1985
'I'm staying here,' she replied brusquely in pidgin English, unaware who she was talking to. 'It's my duty.'
'I don't care. No girls in the pits. Out!' insisted Ecclestone, then 51.
'If you come any nearer, I'll kick you,' she retorted in her thick accent.
Impressed by her feisty response, Ecclestone introduced himself, then invited her for lunch. Slavica later asked a photographer: 'I met this guy who was trying to break my b***s and he said he's in charge of Formula 1. Do you think it's true?'
I first met Bernie Ecclestone in 2009, when I started writing my book about his life. I'd replied to Ecclestone's offer of co-operation with the assurance that I would publish any evidence I found of wrongdoing. Ecclestone smiled and said: 'Tom, I'm no angel.' I enjoyed unprecedented access to Ecclestone, his friends and most of Formula 1's leading personalities.
For a man who adored the unpredictability of work, his domestic routine never changed. Arriving home, he first cleaned his shoes, then straightened the curtains. Next, he moved any ornaments that were not properly squared, and finally he sat down, content that every part of his world was perfect.
Slavica was the opposite: fiery, fun and a challenge. The 28-year age gap and the 12in height difference was to be no barrier to a relationship.
'Come to Las Vegas next week,' he suggested. Slavica obtained a visa and arrived for the season's last race. Making her way beside Ecclestone to a vast suite at Caesar's Palace, she felt conscious of 'dirty looks' thrown in her direction for being with a man old enough to be her father.
It was the start of a turbulent relationship that would last 25 years. Her innate anger was one of her attractions.
At the beginning of the 1983 season in Brazil, Ecclestone met Slavica in Sao Paulo. By this time, she had a contract with Armani. Nelson Piquet, who drove for Ecclestone's Brabham team, told his girlfriend one night: 'Bernie and Slavica are fighting like hell.' He added: 'Bernie takes no s*** from anyone but he takes it from that woman.'
Piquet thought Slavica was difficult, cold, loud and even inelegant. He could not understand his boss's interest, but Ecclestone enjoyed the spirited fun offered by a powerful, tall woman.
After Brazil, though, Ecclestone had returned to his London penthouse and life with Tuana. Their relationship appeared untroubled, until May 1984.
Fiery relationship: Bernie told a newspaper that Slavica 'shouts' and 'throws plates' during their volatile marriage
Tuana, also in tears, said stoically: 'You cannot have been happy with me. So go away and be happy with her. I wish you all the happiness.'
Ecclestone cried loudly: 'She told me she couldn't have children.' Tuana finally abandoned her demure manner, crying out: 'She's blackmailing you.'
Ecclestone got up and straightened the paintings and curtains, as he always did. 'I didn't know you wanted children,' she sobbed. Ecclestone was silent. He hoped to have a son, she believed. Over the following days, until he flew to the Grand Prix in America, the two continued to live together.
While in America, Ecclestone heard that Slavica had given birth to a daughter, who would be called Tamara, in Italy. He flew straight there. In the hospital in Milan, Slavica made it clear that either they set up home together in London or she would take her daughter to Croatia, beyond Ecclestone's reach.
Ecclestone recognised a tough game of poker. He tried not to reveal his feelings but he did not want to lose contact with his new child. And while he was reluctant to upset his comfortable arrangement in London, he was attracted to the challenge of the strong, opinionated Slavica, remembering his mother's strict control over their home and his father.
One reservation might have been how little he knew about the fiery model's past. Because she spoke only rudimentary English, he only knew that she had been born into comparative poverty in Rijeka in May 1958 and that her father, a docker, had abandoned the family in her childhood.
During her teenage years she had been imprisoned for stealing and after her release she had posed for nude photographs.
'I did some stupid things,' she would later explain. 'You know how it goes. You are in a photographer's studio and he says, "Can you just undo that button?" But I needed the money.'
Slavica had been invited to the Monza track in 1982 by Monty Shadow, a Croatian photographer well known for introducing models to drivers and team principals, and that was when she had met Ecclestone.
Now, still unable to decide between Tuana and Slavica, Ecclestone phoned Ann Jones, his secretary of many years' standing. He explained Slavica's reluctance to allow him access to the child unless they lived together, whereupon Jones said the relationship might be a good idea. Ecclestone was persuaded.
He flew to London and ended his relationship with Ecclestone's new home with Slavica and their baby was a flat in Chelsea. Volatile and occasionally tearful, their arguments continued in spite of the birth of their daughter. Slavica seemed to have smitten a man who instinctively crushed any opposition but who appeared to be unable to resist her.
'Marriage,' Ecclestone freher quently told friends, 'is like going to the nick. Not very exciting.' But as Slavica's complaints increased and her demand for security grew, Ecclestone relented and agreed to marry. The two arrived on July 17, 1985, at Kensington and Chelsea Register Office on King's Road. Ecclestone asked Max Mosley to be a witness.
No photographer had been hired and Ecclestone had avoided any thought of a party. 'We should have lunch to celebrate,' said the bride, dressed in perilously high heels and skimpy miniskirt. 'OK,' agreed Ecclestone morosely, 'we'll try Langan's.'
Jumping out of his car as they reached the Piccadilly restaurant, Ecclestone was told no tables were available. 'Right, I'm off to the office,' he told his new wife. 'See you later. Take a cab home.' The wedding was not a treasured moment.
Past love: Ecclestone was previously in a relationship with Tuana Tan, who was his lover for 17 years
Ecclestone tolerated the cynics who quipped that he and Slavica were the same height once Bernie was standing on his wallet. In his own way, he loved Slavica and was thrilled to be a father again. He had a daughter from his first marriage but this was another chance to build a home life.
'She's good-hearted and calls the shots as they are,' he said in a moment of self-indulgence.
At the end of October 1990, Ecclestone was 60. His staff had organised a surprise birthday party but his wife and their two daughters - Petra had been born in December 1988 - were ordered to ignore the occasion.
A few days later, his father Sidney died. Ecclestone went to the funeral service near St Albans with Slavica but did not enter the crematorium's chapel. Instead he walked around the grounds in an agitated state. Debbie, his daughter from his first marriage in 1952, believed he simply disliked funerals but that was an idea he fostered to conceal Slavica's demand that he did not sit with his first daughter.
Soon after Petra's birth, Debbie had arrived unexpectedly at their Chelsea home. Without provocation Slavica had burst into a rage, screaming that Debbie was never to return. Thereafter she forbade her husband to meet Debbie and, with little protest, Ecclestone agreed, only once secretly meeting her. When his mother Bertha died in 1995, he did not enter the church for her funeral: his wife had heard that Debbie would also be in the church.
There was no end to his devotion to Slavica. When he was told that, although she had lived in Britain for years, she could not benefit from a tax-free inheritance if he died, he set about transferring all his wealth to an offshore trust owned by her.
In 1996, FOCA Administration Ltd and Formula One Administration were gifted by Ecclestone to Petara Ltd, a Jersey company owned by Slavica. 'No one in the world believes I would have given all that I had to my wife,' said Ecclestone, 'but that is actually what I did. I wanted to make sure that she and the children were well looked after if anything happened to me.'
Lavish lifestyle: Slavica was keen on courture clothes and a life of glamour, which was at odds with Bernie's simple tastes
'They'll ruin the new decks,' Ecclestone warned him. 'Don't worry,' McCall replied generously. Early the following morning Ecclestone went on deck to find the wood covered with red wine stains and holes from stilettos. While Slavica slept, he urged the crew to repair the damage. His fuss passed unnoticed by everyone except his wife. Inevitably, Ecclestone had not enjoyed the party, slinking back to his cabin while Slavica placed herself firmly at the centre of attention.
All were aware of their volatile relationship. Stubborn, jealous and uncompromising, Slavica preferred to launch into arguments with her husband rather than walk away from a fight. He had listened in silence to her frequent boast that her social popularity was the reason for his success. Often, he realised, her appetite for alcohol fuelled her brashness and her conviction that he was unfaithful to her.
She shouts a lot,' he told a newspaper, 'and sometimes she throws plates. I go and hide in the next room because she seems to love terrorising me.' As a joke he fixed a sign on the kitchen door: 'Never mind the dog, beware of the wife.'
'Get out of Formula 1,' she would scream at Ecclestone, 'or I'll leave you.' Ecclestone would say: 'Slavica can be a pain in the backside but she's still a bloody good mother and a very moral woman - a real Italian mama who won't have a dishwasher in the house and never had a nanny. She changed all the nappies.' That praise evoked her sarcasm: 'And I love you too, darlink. Even though you drive me crazy.'
She was angry that he took so little enjoyment from his billions: 'We do everything together,' he told one interviewer. 'On Saturday, we shop together at Waitrose.'
To those who interpreted this display of marital bliss as exaggerated, the syrup was stirred by Slavica's declaration: 'I just love being taller because I can cuddle him. He's so sweet.' His contribution was earthier: 'I realised Slavica was special the third time I slept with her.'
Even to those who knew her well, she seemed permanently angry. As her threats to leave escalated into warnings that she'd call the police, Ecclestone occasionally called Ron Shaw, a friend, for help. 'He got conned into something,' said Shaw. 'He's been tucked up.'
He once arrived at his office, haunted and defensive, with a black eye. The injury, inflicted in Italy, had been Slav-ica's rebuke for Ecclestone parading with a beautiful model. 'Slav thought I was being serious with the young lady but I was joking,' he explained.
As a diversion he bought a mansion of 55,000 square feet in Kensington Palace Gardens, a private road running along the west of Kensington Gardens in London. The Ecclestones' trust paid £50million for the marbled palace with its huge ballroom, 11 bedroom suites and underground parking for 20 cars.
On her first visit Slavica announced her refusal to move in. Two more visits did not change her mind. 'I bought it because it was cheap,' he would say and resold it in 2004 to Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian steel mill owner, for £70million.
Slavica's mood had not improved by her husband's 71st birthday. She greeted his appearance in the kitchen to see his birthday cake by saying: 'Why are you so miserable? It's a day of celebration. Get out of the kitchen if you're going to be so miserable, go to your office.'
He only wanted peace. Meals were often acrimonious. While he ate in silence and drank a beer, Slavica talked with her daughters. On this occasion, he walked out of the room upset. Left behind were Tamara, 17, and John Keterman, her 22-year-old boyfriend. Keterman had proposed to Tamara four days after they met and had been accepted by the family.
He had witnessed her parents' rages. Once, while Bernie was driving his wife, Tamara and Keterman to the cinema, Slavica suddenly screamed: 'Slow down. You drive too fast, you maniac.' Then she grabbed Ecclestone's hair and knocked his head against the driver's window. He pulled over and she got out, crying. Eventually she calmed down and they walked in silence to the cinema.
Slavica liked expensive things - in 2004 she bought a handbag for £35,000. Even if she bought a similar accessory every day, and every designer dress she saw, she would still be spending less than the interest that was accumulating on the billions of dollars the Ecclestones had deposited in Switzerland. But money did not seem to make her happy - she repaid the wealth her husband's genius had given her by embarrassing him.
Their lives had become a battlefield and only their two daughters received Bernie's unlimited love. For their sakes, he would tolerate Slavica's abuse. 'For outsiders looking in,' he admitted, 'it's a strange relationship.' Slavica was too proud to apologise. Admitting mistakes was alien to her.
Others saw the problems. Two years later, former F1 world champion Niki Lauda saw Ecclestone walking miserably through the paddock at Silverstone. 'Bernie, what's wrong?' he asked. 'Is she breaking your b***s? Bernie, you've fixed so many things, so you're going to have to fix this too.' Ecclestone was silent.
Bernie's girls: The couple had two daughters, 26-year-old Tamara and Petra, who was born in 1988
At a dinner in the Monaco Automobile Club, Slavica loudly asked the then McLaren boss Ron Dennis in broken English: 'Do have sex with your wife?' 'Yes,' he replied, puzzled. Going round the table, she asked each man the same question until she reached her husband. 'I get no sex,' she shouted. Even Bernie cringed.
For Slavica's 50th birthday in 2008 her daughter Petra had bought her a Pucci dress and Terry de Havilland shoes with her date of birth written in crystal on the soles. The date marked a change in Slavica's behaviour. 'All of a sudden the wheels changed at 50,' Ecclestone noted. Her anger multiplied. When having dinner with John Coomb, a friend, she turned on her husband. 'He thinks he's a big man but he's a dwarf,' she screeched. Coomb was shattered. 'Poor little b*****,' he thought. 'He can never make her happy.'
To placate her anger, Ecclestone agreed to spend time during the summer off the Croatian coast with her, their daughters and boyfriends on Petara, his 198ft yacht. During a stop at a port Ecclestone was snapped by a local photographer-with a beautiful girl. He reported Ecclestone as saying: 'I'm looking for a new wife because Slavica doesn't make me happy.'
'It was just a joke,' Ecclestone later told his wife. 'If it was something serious I wouldn't have said anything.'
Around this time, Slavica bought a new house in Chelsea. 'Why have you done that?' he asked. 'I don't like this house,' she replied, referring to the property he bought in Chelsea Square in 1992. 'Too many stairs. Up and down. When you get old, it will be too many.'
Ecclestone was bewildered. As he packed to leave for the Brazilian Grand Prix in the autumn of 2008, his wife shouted: 'Maybe when you get back, I won't be here.' He had heard this threat so many times he ignored it. For the sake of their daughters, he told himself, divorce was unimaginable, but in reality his fate was dictated by Slavica. Her influence over his life was too powerful to exorcise.
Ecclestone was surprised to hear later from reporters that Slavica had moved into a flat owned by a boyfriend of Petra and that she was filing for divorce. 'She moved out,' replied Ecclestone searching for an excuse, 'because they are doing building work next door and it is impossible to live in the house.'
Over the next hours on the phone from Brazil, he tried to persuade his wife to return to their home. 'I thought we would stay together for the good of the girls,' he told a friend. 'I would never have left her. I would have died in that position. I've never walked out on anything.'
He recalled Slavica's demand that he retire. 'She was right,' he said mournfully. His later calls were unanswered. Ecclestone felt humiliated, not least by an agency issuing a statement about Slavica's intentions to file for divorce. 'Really?' he responded, 'I didn't know she had a PR company.'
Gradually he accepted that she could no longer live with a workaholic. 'She wants to travel and I don't,' the 78-year-old said. She had just bought a new Gulfstream jet for about £45 million and planned to fly with some friends to visit the Dalai Lama in India.
Her husband's pain soon passed. He became reconciled to his new life. He would not allow himself the luxury of self-analysis. 'If I did,' he admitted, 'I would be upset. I'm so busy I can ignore it.'
'How are you getting on?' he was asked by John Coomb. 'Very well, thanks. Now, when I wake up in the morning and it's raining, I don't get blamed.'
Urged by their daughters to attempt a reconciliation so they could enjoy a Christmas together, Ecclestone drove to Battersea Park at the time he knew Slavica would be out walking. Arriving as she was leaving, he parked his car to block her exit and force a discussion. Eventually she agreed to celebrate a family Christmas.
As they parted in good spirits on Boxing Day, Ecclestone believed the marriage could be saved. Instead, a few days later, he received a lawyer's letter saying Slavica was filing for divorce. Naturally the outstanding issue was the fate of about £2billion in the family trusts.
The demands received by Ecclestone's solicitor were disconcerting. 'This isn't Slavica's voice,' said Ecclestone, suspecting a lawyer's influence on his estranged wife.
Nevertheless, he wanted to avoid arguments. 'Tell her I'll agree to anything she thinks is fair,' he instructed, 'That leaves me with enough at my age.'
How the Ecclestones' money was controlled before the divorce, and how it was divided up, remains confidential. But the man once hailed as Britain's highest earner had probably become the victim of the biggest divorce settlement in British history.
° Tom Bower 2011
No Angel, by Tom Bower, is published by Faber on February 2 , at £18.99. To order your copy for £1.99 inc p&p, call the Review Bookstore on 08 5 155 0713 or visit MailLife.co.uk/books.
The snorkel clue to how Bernie made billionsIn 1974, Bernie Ecclestone was hanging around a hotel pool with some Formula 1 staff.
Watching a German driver swim two lengths underwater, Ecclestone belittled his efforts. Challenged that he could not do the same, he said: 'Right, what's the bet?'
'One hundred dollars,' came the reply. 'Let's get the bet exactly,' said Ecclestone. 'You're saying I can't swim two lengths underwater?' Heads nodded.
'Right,' said Ecclestone. 'Go and get me a snorkel.' The incident gave an insight into Ecclestone's moneymaking skills and his ruthless attitude. His Formula 1 deals and contracts depended not only on the agreed terms, but equally on what was omitted - in this case, a snorkel.
Leaving school at 16, he had started work in 1947 selling second-hand motorbikes and cars in South London. Keen on motorsport, he took up racing cars himself, but by 1972 he had made enough money to buy the Brabham Formula One team. That allowed him to join the Formula 1 Constructors' Association (F1CA), which was to become his powerbase.
Exploiting the commercial naivety of the Formula 1 world, he assumed control of F1CA in 1978 and turned it from a 'club' into a business, renaming it the Formula One Constructors' Association, or FOCA, and taking over the worldwide broadcast rights to Formula 1.
TV was peripheral to the sport at the time, so no one saw the significance of this move. But it became the cornerstone of his vast fortune as he single-handedly transformed motor racing from an underfunded sport for a few fans into an international TV phenomenon watched by billions. He became owner not only of the hospitality and advertising rights at race circuits worldwide but also, most lucratively, the TV rights in more than 100 countries.
His ambitions brought him into conflict with the FIA, the sport's supreme body. That struggle culminated in the election of his legal adviser, Max Mosley, as FIA president in 1991, securing Ecclestone's dominance.
A banker looking at a possible flotation of Formula 1 in the Nineties - when it was valued at £2.5billion and Ecclestone earned £1million a week - was surprised to find it owned just one building and a few vehicles.
The normal corporate organisation didn't exist: there was just Ecclestone, with his everpresent briefcase, controlling everything. He insisted contracts were written in English, no matter what nationalities were involved.
'If they can't speak English,' he once said, 'they aren't worth knowing.'