Bernie Ecclestone’s daughter Petra noticed about a year ago that her father had acquired a certain late-life joie de vivre. At 88, he had grown a trendy goatee beard, had his eyesight laser-treated and declared an ambition to live to 120.
He had also, it now emerges, decided to have children with his third wife, Fabiana. And now, at 89 years old, retired from Formula One and a grandfather of six, Bernie has succeeded in writing a final, outlandish chapter of his life story.
For, just as his youngest daughter Petra, 31, announced the birth of a baby girl, so Bernie and Fabiana, 44, revealed that she is due to give birth to a son — Bernie’s first — in July.
Tamara Ecclestone, Bernie Ecclestone and Petra Ecclestone pictured together in 200
By then, Bernie will be just a few months away from turning 90. Babies were always part of the plan, says his biographer Tom Bower. Indeed, the couple, who married in a tiny ceremony at his Swiss chalet in 2012, had been hoping for a baby ten years ago, when Fabiana was in her mid-30s and the romance was in its first flush.
It has not been an easy route to late-life parenthood for Bernie, whose relationship with Fabiana is said to have caused a rift with his daughters in its early years. Neither Petra nor Tamara attended their father’s wedding and Tamara didn’t even send a gift, as her father had been too ‘secretive’ to tell her anything about it.
She described his romance with Brazilian Fabiana as ‘weird’ and added of his engagement: ‘He’s usually such a rational person and this seems like such an irrational thing to do.’
Now, though, those bridges seem to have been mended, as Tamara has long known of her father’s happy news and kept it secret. A spokesman for Tamara, 35, said yesterday: ‘She found out months ago. She is really delighted for both of them. Genuinely, she is thrilled for her dad.’
Petra, who yesterday revealed she has given birth to a daughter with her fiancé Sam Palmer, also knew all about it. She said in a statement: ‘We are delighted by the news and very happy for them.’
Bernie, of course, is delighted too. ‘I’ve got grandchildren and I’m looking forward to another baby,’ he told the Mail. He added: ‘I’m happy really for my wife. She’s been looking forward to this happening for quite a few years, so I’m happy that she’ll have someone after I’m gone.’
So, as the late Mrs Merton might have asked, what is the attraction of having a baby with a billionaire who is pushing 90? Particularly as this man— once memorably described as resembling a tortoise in an Andy Warhol wig — is of such an unromantic bent that he would describe his wedding day as ‘something that needed to be done’?
It seems Fabiana is a titanium-plated butterfly. Her feminine style belies a woman who knows her own mind — and she has used that mind to escape from a middle-class life in Brazil to join the international jet set.
Fabiana Flosi and Bernie Ecclestone attends a party celebrating the launch of ‘Sweet Revenge: The Intimate Life of Simon Cowell’ by Tom Bower at The Serpentine Gallery on April 25, 2012
She now has a £25million chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, a plantation farm in Amparo, Brazil, and a penthouse in London. She travels with Bernie on his Dassault Falcon private jet and drifts around the Adriatic with him on his yacht.
Her loyalty is absolute. When Bernie was embroiled in a nasty court case in Germany and the possibility of a jail term was being discussed, she stepped out in a T-shirt that read ‘Good Girls love Bad Boys’.
Bower, who dined with her and Bernie around Christmas, says: ‘She has gone from being quite well-dressed to having incredible clothes and the most amazing jewellery.’
He adds: ‘She is a wonderful, charming person. She is intelligent, educated, kind and very beautiful. She has been sincerely and deeply in love with Bernie for years and she looks after him immaculately.
Bernie with his ex-wife Slavica and their two daughters Petra (left) and Tamara (right)
‘She has dedicated herself to making sure he stays healthy and stays alive. He no longer drinks much and has salads rather than meat.’ When she met Bernie, he had come through heart trouble and suffered from gout, which led to him whizzing around the pit areas of F1 circuits in a gold buggy, wearing slippers.
He is far more spry — and trendy — these days under her care. The romance started in the summer of 2009, when she joined Bernie and friends sailing around Croatia. A marketing executive with F1 in Brazil, Fabiana had been invited along by Tamas Rohonyi, the Hungarian boss of Brazilian F1.
She was one of several in his party who were on their way to the Hungarian Grand Prix. She had known Bernie, albeit from a distance, for several years. Bernie, divorced from second wife Slavica in March 2009, was struck by Fabiana that summer.
‘Unexpectedly, as the yacht slipped between the islands in the Adriatic, a relationship developed,’ wrote Bower. In October of that year, Fabiana was seen out with Bernie at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
By September 2010, the romance had deepened and they had started talking about marriage and babies.
Bernie said after they first met: ‘She’s gorgeous but, forget everything else, she’s a nice person … she’s the sort of girl I’d want to spend more and more time with, and that’s what you need in a potential partner.’
He later joked that he hadn’t needed to get down on one knee to propose to Fabiana, who, at 5ft 10in, towers over him.
In his biography of Bernie, No Angel: The Secret Life Of Bernie Ecclestone, Tom Bower describes Fabiana as ‘attractive, intelligent, modest and diplomatic’ and ‘the peaceful company he had previously lacked.’
Certainly, Fabiana differs from her predecessor, Slavica, a 6ft2in model a whole foot taller than her ex-husband, with a firecracker temper. Slavica, a docker’s daughter from Croatia, first encountered Bernie in the pits at Monza Grand Prix in 1982, while on a modelling engagement.
Apparently, Slavica’s first words to him were: ‘If you come any nearer, I’ll kick you.’ The scene was set for a fiery marriage. Slavica would furiously accuse him of having affairs when he was simply a workaholic, threaten to leave him and abuse him as he sat in silence during meals.
‘She shouts a lot,’ he once 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.’ Once she was even said to have given him a black eye.
They spent 25 years together before she walked out on him in 2009. Bernie now describes Slavica as ‘a character’. He adds: ‘I didn’t break up with her. She chucked me out. She was 50 years old.
She was quite wealthy and wanted a different life. She didn’t want me disappearing 17 or 18 times a year.’ His first wife was carpenter’s daughter Ivy Bamford. They had daughter, Debbie, but Bernie walked out after falling for Singaporean Tuana Tan.
Not much is known about Debbie, who is now 65, although her son James — Bernie’s grandson — is a watch expert for the auction house Phillips. The birth of Bernie’s baby son will land Debbie with the odd accolade of being one of the world’s oldest big sisters, there being a 65-year age gap between her and her half-brother.
Not that this will faze Fabiana, who has a degree in international trade and also seems to have qualified as a lawyer before she started working for Tamas Rohonyi, a pal of Bernie’s, who promotes the Brazilian Grand Prix via his company International Publicity.
Before meeting Bernie, she had come through one brief, early and unhappy marriage. Her father was a retired civil servant with a background in engineering and her mother Aparecida is a housewife. She has a sister called Fernanda and the family live in a large, stylish home in Sao Paulo, with a holiday home in the country.
Mr Rohonyi, Fabiana’s former boss, said: ‘She started in my company very young and worked her way up. She was working long hours, then going straight to law school and studying long into the night.
She’s very determined. ‘When she left, she was the vice-president of marketing. She was absolutely outstanding at what she did.’ Fabiana’s interests are chiefly her dogs and her family; she is particularly close to her sister.
She is said to be a ‘bloody good cook’ of both Brazilian and international cuisine, and speaks perfect English. The only whiff of scandal came when her former lover, Dr Fernando Nascimento, described in detail how he had been dumped two months after she started seeing Ecclestone.
He complained: ‘We were sharing a bed every day until the day she left me. She simply ran away. She just took her clothes and left.’ He went on: ‘The guy is almost 80, he is about 5ft tall. How can that be? It’s a joke. It’s just unbelievable.’
But unbelievable as it may have seemed, the romance has proved the doubters wrong.
Mr Rohonyi said: ‘I’ve always loved her terrific sense of humour and cheerful disposition. I’m sure she has brought it to her relationship with Bernie. It’s very stupid for people to think she’s a gold-digger — frankly, she’s just not the type.’
Tom Bower concurs: ‘She is very understated and polite but she must be very determined because he always said he wouldn’t marry again, then he married her.’ The extent of Ecclestone’s fortune is moot — estimates vary from £60million to £2.5billion.
Bernie says he will reveal the figure in an autobiography to be released when he dies — with the first dozen copies delivered to the Inland Revenue (he has been in dispute with HMRC for 20 years over tax — apparently they once wanted £1billion).
The son of a Sussex trawlerman, he grew up in Dartford, Kent. He amassed a huge fortune with Formula One but has modest tastes — apparently sandwiches, Hula Hoops and Smarties are served on his private jet.
He was outraged at the £12million spent on daughter Petra’s wedding, declaring it ‘absurd’. Tamara once said: ‘Dad couldn’t bear it when we used to leave the lights on as children. He would follow us around turning them off. And he hated us leaving the water running when we brushed our teeth.’
He has been officially resident in Switzerland, a tax haven, for 30 years. For the record, Bernie claims to be ‘not very rich’ any more, having given Slavica and his daughters most of his money more than 20 years ago.
In 1997, after health troubles, he transferred the Formula One parent company to a Jersey firm, Petara, which then set up the Bambino trust in Liechtenstein. The trust is controlled by Slavica and she, Tamara and Petra are the beneficiaries.
It has since emerged that since his divorce from Slavica, she has been paying him £60million a year in alimony. He remains an extremely wealthy man, though, and as such has been a target for criminals.
In 2016, Fabiana’s mother Aparecida was kidnapped in Brazil, with a ransom demanded of Bernie and threats of beheading. The criminals asked for £28million but after nine days, police found and freed her.
A helicopter pilot who had previously worked for Ecclestone and Fabiana was convicted in 2017 and given a 14-year jail sentence. Bernie joked later: ‘All my friends know I wouldn’t pay a penny for my mother-in-law.’
Since Bernie was finally ousted from Formula One in 2017, he has been helping Fabiana to run a coffee business and also has a hotel and ski area on a glacier in Switzerland. He bought a huge plantation near Sao Paulo in 2012 but their brand, Celebrity Coffee, is currently only available in Brazil.
Tom Bower says: ‘They have built up a quite successful business and it is important to them. It’s based at their home in Brazil, which is about 80 miles north of Sao Paulo. They have rebuilt the main house and have plans to build and extend it. She is running it but business still excites him.’
In Brazil, Bernie enjoys what he calls an ‘Italian’ family lifestyle, with many generations living under the same roof. Bower says: ‘Bernie has not been really lucky with his in-laws up to now but he gets on terribly well with both Fabiana’s mother and her sister, even though he speaks no Portuguese.
Through Fabiana he has a whole new family in Brazil.’ And with a baby on the way, it’s a family that is growing.