An extraordinary insight into the life of a couple widely regarded as among Britain’s most vulgar billionaires--Petra Ecclestone and James Stunt--was on public display this week, as the opening salvos in their mammoth £5.5bn ($7.1bn) divorce battle were fired in London’s family court.
It has been widely reported that the divorce could result in Britain’s biggest ever settlement.
Petra, the cherished eldest child of Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire founder of the Formula 1 motor racing franchise, is the heiress to half of the £5bn ($6.5bn) family fortune (with her sister, Tamara, being the other beneficiary).
Stunt is widely reported to be independently wealthy. The son of a successful publishing director, the source of his fortune is opaque but he is believed to have made a fortune in shipping, and also from trading art and gold bullion.
Typically, such mega-rich individuals try to make private settlements to spare their children trauma and keep their private lives out of the spotlight.
But Stunt--who revealed an oafish side as he flicked a v-sign at waiting photographers and called his father in law a "cunt" at the hearing this week--has never been one to shy away from attention.
Stunt has developed an extraordinary habit in recent years of parading around London escorted by a private fleet of high performance vehicles, aping the habits of the Middle Eastern playboys who descend on London each summer.
The cortege often numbers five vehicles, with Stunt himself tending to drive one of his many open-top sports cars in the parades.
However, he has never given a full interview and once told a reporter for Tatler, “I don't want to be famous. I hate it. I can't stand the scrutiny. If I'd wanted to be famous, I could have been.”
This week, in keeping with his usual overstated style, he arrived at court in a custom Rolls Royce Conquistador, said to be worth £600,000 ($781,000).
He is reputed to own a collection of up to a hundred luxury vehicles.
His alleged drug use was mentioned in court this week, with Ecclestone’s barrister David Williams QC saying, “He admits most of the abusive conduct and says it’s regrettable…The admissions he has made [are] in terms of overdoses and violence.”
Stunt’s legal team appeared to contest the veracity of this statement, however, saying he “strongly disputes” allegations made by his wife.
The couple divide London society; Ben Goldsmith, a friend of Stunt’s, has publicly described him “a genuinely good-hearted and generous soul” but one society source told the Daily Beast: “She is sweet but he’s an idiot. The joke is that the surname is two letters off.”
Stunt certainly didn’t do anything to alter this perception by his behaviour in open court. He spent much of the time exaggeratedly scoffing and laughing and at one stage appeared to make a gun gesture, according to reports. At one point the judge asked him to stop making the "distracting" gestures.
Although they reportedly signed a pre-nuptial agreement before their marriage, the couple are said to be fighting over a fortune estimated at as much as some £5.5billion ($7.1bn), with assets including the LA mansion once owned by Aaron Spelling and a £90 million ($117m) home in Chelsea, West London.
The children have been living with their mother in a rented house for several months, and yesterday’s court hearing was initiated by her in order to force Stunt to move out of the Chelsea family home--a 14 bed townhouse--so they could move back in.
Ecclestone’s legal team includes the legendary divorce lawyer Baroness Fiona Shackleton, who represented Sir Paul McCartney in his divorce battle with Heather Mills.
As they duked it out in court this week, it was a far cry from the lavish wedding in 2011 at an Italian villa, which cost Petra’s father Bernie £12million ($15.6m).
The bride wore a Vera Wang dress and the 350 guests were served £4,000 ($5,200)-a-bottle Chateau Petrus wine and entertained by Eric Clapton, Black Eyed Peas and DJ David Guetta. The epic cost was revealed in a German court during Bernie’s divorce from Petra’s mother, Slavia.
“My younger daughter got married and I thought as father of the bride I should pay for the wedding,” Ecclestone said. “But when it was suggested how much they would be spending on drinks, I thought it was absurd and I managed to upset my daughter and my wife. Then she spent in excess of £12 million ($15.6m) on my daughter’s wedding which I did not know about until afterwards.”
The couple met on a blind date set up by friends when Petra was just 17.
She fell in love with Stunt, whose reputation as a Lamborghini-driving playboy (he once dated Harrods heiress Camilla Fayed) inspired his future father-in-law to have him "checked out" by a team of private detectives.
Ecclestone was apparently satisfied with his research: he told the Daily Express: “I've seen he's a guy who deals in art and I know he really is a billionaire. And most of all, he makes my daughter happy.”
Stunt’s family have been dealing with a personal tragedy in recent months after his brother, Lee, 37, was found dead at his parents home in September last year. An inquest is due to open soon.
It appeared that Stunt’s bizarre behavior in court did him no favors: after this week’s court hearing, Stunt was ordered to immediately leave their £75million marital home so Petra could move back in.