Bernie Ecclestone’s four-decade reign as the ruler of Formula One has come to the end of the road. Nigel Burton profiles the former secondhand bike salesman who ran a global sporting empire

BERNIE ECCLESTONE turned Formula One into a global sporting brand on a par with the World Cup and the Olympics. At the height of his power, the diminutive Briton (he’s only 5ft 3in) wielded enormous influence. Meeting royalty, presidents and prime ministers was nothing special. He pulled off megadeals with the same self-assurance he once traded secondhand motorcycle parts.

At times it seemed as if he just couldn’t help himself. Ecclestone flew around the world negotiating races for the highest bidder. Wealthy Arab countries queued up with their golden chequebooks to win the right to host a grand prix. Under his stewardship a gentlemanly seven-race contest held in Europe expanded into a gruelling 21-race global contest running from March to November.

Bernie Ecclestone may have been F1’s ringmaster but, at heart, he’s always been a wheeler dealer.

Born in Suffolk in 1930, Bernard Charles Ecclestone was the son of a fisherman who left school at 16 to work as an assistant in the chemical laboratory at the local gasworks. The job allowed him to study chemistry at the local polytechnic and, more importantly to young Bernie, funded his love of motorbikes.

After the end of the Second World War, Ecclestone turned his back on chemistry to open a business selling spare parts for bikes. His love of two wheels was matched by a young man’s thirst for speed and four years later he decided to become a racing driver. By all accounts, Ecclestone was a proficient racer but had a reputation as a single circuit specialist (he preferred to race at Brands Hatch because it was close to home, although he did once try to qualify for Monaco and even entered the British Grand Prix). A series of crashes and near-misses convinced him to leave the dangerous bit to someone else and he returned to racing as a manager. This ended in disaster when his friend and driver Stuart Lewis-Evans died after suffering severe burns when the engine in his car exploded.

Ecclestone also managed Jochen Rindt, the only driver to win the F1 title posthumously after he died in a crash at Monza in 1970. Before that tragedy, however, Ecclestone had invested in the Lotus F1 team and in 1972 he bought the ailing Brabham F1 team and formed a partnership with a precocious young designer called Gordon Murray. Together the pair would turn Brabham into a championship-winning outfit – Ecclestone kept the sponsors happy and the money rolling in, while Murray pushed the frontiers of chassis design. Having bought the team for a mere £100,000, Ecclestone sold it for more than $5m to a Swiss businessman.

Brabham’s growing success gave Ecclestone a bigger voice in the running of the sport. Together with Frank Williams, Colin Chapman, Ken Tyrrell and Teddy Mayer, he founded the Formula One Constructor’s Association (FOCA) to represent the teams. This led to a showdown with the sport’s governing body, from which FOCA emerged with the right to negotiate television contracts for grand prix. Sensing his opportunity, Ecclestone formed Formula One Promotions and Administration to secure the broadcast rights and divvy up the money between the various parties.

Ecclestone isn’t afraid to court criticism. He once called for women to be "dressed in white like all other domestic appliances”, claimed they "would not be taken seriously”, said Russian president Vladimir Putin should govern Europe or praised Adolf Hitler for being “able to get things done”. Unsurprisingly, he is a fan of President Trump.

He also has a wicked sense of humour. In an interview in 2005, referring to the urban myth that he was involved in the planning for the Great Train Robbery, he said: “There wasn’t enough money on that train. I could have done something better than that.”

But no one goes on forever. Although amazingly fit for a man in his eighties, there has been talk within the sport of the need to find a successor for several years. He was also damaged by a criminal prosecution for blackmail in 2014 which ended by Ecclestone paying £60m to stop the trial without admitting guilt.

When news first broke that private equity firm CVC Capital Partners - which employed Ecclestone as its spokesperson - wished to sell up, Ecclestone was not informed. He feared his career was over, but remained as chief executive officer after Liberty Media purchased an initial 18.7 per cent stake in the sport last September. At the time, Ecclestone said Liberty wanted him to stay for three years, but in reality he lasted just four months.

By the time of the next race, Chase Carey, the heavily-moustached American, was already installed as the sport's new chairman. And at Carey's debut grand prix, Ecclestone was quite literally pushed to one side. As journalists, television crew and photographers mobbed Carey under the floodlights of the Singapore paddock, Ecclestone was bundled over in the melee. He let out a yelp and fell to the floor before being helped to his feet. It was the beginning of the end.

Bernie Ecclestone was a one-off. He turned a sport which hosted a dozen races scattered across its traditional European heartland into one that now visits every sector of the globe, and, despite a decline in television audiences in recent years, one which attracts tens of millions of viewers every other week. Ecclestone raised a glass of champagne with a select group of British media in Abu Dhabi to bid farewell to a retiring newspaper journalist. Little did he know that he would be toasting his final race as F1's supremo.