Exclusive Nick Fry book extract: The day Bernie Ecclestone tried to buy Brawn GP
In late 2008, Honda shocked the motor racing world by announcing they were pulling out of Formula 1 with immediate effect.
Chief executive Nick Fry and team principal Ross Brawn stepped in to lead a management buyout of the company, and named the new outfit Brawn GP. The new team went on to the win the World Championship title in 2009, before Nick and Ross sold it to Mercedes at the end of the year.
But in the exclusive extract from Nick's new book 'Survive. Drive. Win. The inside Story of Brawn GP and Jenson Button's Incredible F1 Championship Win' – out now – he reveals how Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone tried to buy the team himself...
It was 9.30 a.m. in London. I was sitting in the spacious ground- floor Knightsbridge office of Bernard Charles Ecclestone, the famed ‘ringmaster’ of the Formula One circus.
Usually when I met Bernie in London I was with other team principals and CEOs and usually we would sit on the sofas that faced each other in front of Bernie’s desk – which itself was in front of a large document shredder. Not this time. This time it was just me and Bernie and a chair had been placed right next to his desk.
Bernie rarely raised his voice and did not like to beat around the bush.
‘Hello, Nick. Max thinks you’re a c***,’ he muttered almost under his breath. He was referring to Max Mosley, the head of the FIA and the other half of the double act that ran Formula One for decades, known to one and all in the paddock as the ‘Max and Bernie show’.
‘Yeah, good morning, Bernie,’ I replied cheerfully before adding as nonchalantly as I could: ‘Why does Max think I am a c***?’
Quick as a flash, he replied: ‘Because you were born a c***, you are a c*** and you will always be a c***.’
Hilarious. Yes, I laughed out loud at that. Actually, being treated this way by Bernie was arguably a sign that I had finally made it.
Bernie was very much the power in the land in those days and he would be on the phone to team heads – if not every day, then certainly every other day – and he was always working away at his divide-and-rule tactics.
‘Flav is saying this about you,’ he would mutter in reference to Flavio Briatore, the colourful multi-millionaire head of the Renault team. Or, talking about then McLaren boss Ron Dennis he would say: ‘Ron has been telling everyone you think this or that... and he is threatening to do this, if you don’t do that...’
The whole environment was designed to keep everyone in a state of perpetual uncertainty and subservience to Bernie.
Naturally people were nervous of his power because Bernie could make your life difficult if he wanted to. At one stage I incurred his displeasure for some reason and I discovered this when I arrived at that year’s German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. At the circuits the drivers and team principals enjoy the significant perk of being able to park in designated areas right outside the paddock gates, with spaces marked out in descending order depending on your performance in the previous year’s constructors’ championship.
On this occasion I reached the parking area only to find that there was no space allotted to me. To start with, I thought this was some sort of unintended error and checked again, but every space was either taken or going to be taken, and it suddenly dawned on me that this was Bernie’s way of sending me a message. I spent the best part of an hour trying to find an alternative parking spot and then began a long walk back to the paddock.
After our colourful initial exchange that day in March 2009, Bernie set out his view that Ross and I were out of our depth in thinking we could not just run the new Brawn team but own it too, and he belittled our decision to share some of the ownership with our fellow directors. I guess he had a point – we were not typical Formula One grandees with a proven track record in this area, like Frank Williams or Ron Dennis, and we didn’t have the glamour of Ferrari.
He made clear he was interested in buying the team and seemed not remotely bothered that this might lead to a conflict of interest with him, as the organizer of Formula One, having a stake in one of the players. He didn’t say how much he was willing to pay and the discussion was really about what his share would be. He started off implying he wanted to buy a minority share but I told him that if he wanted the team then he would have to buy more than half. I made it very clear that we were not going to roll over and give up easily and, pretty quickly, I could see that he was not going to do it.
Throughout the conversation I was never sure whether Bernie was being serious or not. There was a level of ambiguity about it that was typical of him. Was Bernie really a possible buyer of Brawn GP? Or was he talking on behalf of CVC Capital Partners, the then-owners of Formula One? Or was he just batting it all around to see what my reaction was? Perhaps this was just a fishing expedition and he hadn’t made his own mind up, but I never let my guard down.
When our chat came to an end he sent me packing in characteristic Bernie fashion, very much in keeping with how the encounter had started: ‘If you think you can f***ing do it yourself, then f*** off out of here and do it.’
Tap the link below to order your copy of the book:
Bernie wasn't the only person who tried to buy the team – in this extract Nick recalls the time a convicted conman attempted to take control of the outfit after Honda pulled out:
Nick also took time out to answer YOUR questions about the Brawn team, that 2009 season – and what it was like to work with Michael Schumacher. Watch here: