I had a friend in Kingston who had one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever come across.
One time early in December, in a bar, he got into an argument with another guy about whether there would ice in Kingston harbour that year. As of that date, the Greater Cataraqui River hadn’t frozen over.
Said my friend: “There will no ice in the harbour this year.”
Said the guy: “Of course there will be. Want to bet?”
My friend: “I’ll bet you a magnum of champagne there will be no ice in the harbour this year.”
The guy: “You’re on.”
My friend (to the bartender): “Make that Mumm’s.” (To the guy): “It’s December, you dummy. There’s never ice in the harbour before January.”
I was reminded of that when I read the Times of London report today on a new book about F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and how he once nailed McLaren’s Ron Dennis for a small fortune by sucking him in the same way my Kingston friend did to that guy in the bar.
Here is the report in the Times:
LONDON, Feb 24 (The Times) — In the end, it is all about the money. For the first time, the intimate financial affairs of Bernie Ecclestone are laid bare in a new biography to be launched tonight that reveals that he amassed a 2.5 billion pound fortune selling Formula One five times over, at the same time taking home another 600 million pounds in "personal income".
Ecclestone has vowed to boycott the launch of No Angel: the Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone, tonight at a plush London address, furious that Tom Bower, his biographer and one of Britain's best investigative journalists, has revealed details of his marriage to Slavica, a Croatian former model.
They are divorced after a relationship that became what Bower called "a battlefield." The former Mrs Ecclestone is worth an estimated 750 million pounds thanks to Britain's biggest divorce settlement.
But usually it is Ecclestone who gets away with the money, reflected in a vast fortune acquired by transforming Formula One from a collection of weekend enthusiasts into one of the world's biggest sporting spectacles.
Before their spat, Bower enjoyed unprecedented access to Ecclestone, travelling in his private jet and being allowed to meet trusted associates.
Bower might not have found the incriminating evidence that Ecclestone's enemies crave but he has pulled together the most colourful insight into the rise of a used-car dealer in south London to billionaire friend of pop stars and royalty, and unpeeled the story of a man who charmed his way to becoming one of Britain's most successful entrepreneurs, yet put a dent in a wall with a phone hurled in a fury.
We learn that even after selling Formula One, he banks a salary of 2.5 million pounds plus a 1 million pound bonus from CVC Capital Partners, the latest owner, as its chief executive, as well as expenses - and they include fuel for his 40 million pounds Falcon jet, used for a quick getaway before the end of each grand prix.
Bower also lifts the lid on an intriguing enmity between Ecclestone and Jean Todt, who succeeded Max Mosley as president of the FIA, motorsport's world governing body. Mosley worked hand-in-glove with Ecclestone for 40 years but Todt is viewed with suspicion by Ecclestone, who misses no opportunity to aggravate the new president.
The ruthless side of Ecclestone's character shows up in his early life as a car dealer, according to one anecdote in which an acquaintance ordered an MG model from Ecclestone with one stipulation: it had to have a heater. When it arrived without one, he complained. Ecclestone replied coldly: "Are you calling me a liar? You want to be careful, boy. I've had fingers cut off."
End of complaint.
If Ecclestone likes to play up his hardman image, it is the quickest mind in business that has been his greatest asset in regularly outwitting leading corporations with legions of accountants and lawyers. No detail escapes his attention, as Ron Dennis, the former McLaren team principal, discovered.
In an argument over whether the teams should sign a new Concorde Agreement, the deal that binds them to Ecclestone's network of companies, Dennis told Ecclestone: "The Concorde Agreement will not be signed."
"I bet it will," Ecclestone said.
A wager was made at 250,000 pounds. Ecclestone bent down and signed the agreement in front of a puzzled Dennis. "We never said how many people had to sign it," a triumphant Ecclestone said, and he collected the money.
Ecclestone has not yet read Bower's book and will not until he gets over his fury. When he does, the memories of the deals struck over an extraordinary life will flow thick and fast.