By Keith Weir
Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone said he remained confident as he went on trial on Thursday for bribery in Germany in a case that could end the Briton’s decades-long dominance of the motor sport.
Prosecutors in Munich have charged Ecclestone, 83, with bribing jailed banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to smooth the sale eight years ago of a stake in Formula One to private equity firm CVC. They say that Ecclestone favoured CVC because it was committed to keeping him on as chief executive.
“I’m confident, the sun is shining,” a dark-suited Ecclestone told camera crews jostling to film his entry into the Munich courtroom. He faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.
Flanked by his lawyers and with an interpreter at his side, he confirmed the pronunciation of his name and his date of birth to judge Peter Noll.
Ecclestone, who married for a third time in 2012 to a Brazilian woman more than 40 years his junior, prompted laughter in the court when asked to clarify initial confusion over his marital status.
“I like to remember the divorce part,” he said in English.
The levity was short-lived as the prosecution read out the details of its case that he channelled $44 million to former BayernLB banker Gribkowsky for having helped to safeguard his position as head of Formula One.
Ecclestone, a former used-car salesman who became a billionaire by building the sport into a global money spinner over the past four decades, denies wrongdoing and says he will fight to clear his name.
CVC remains the largest shareholder in Formula One, a business that generates annual revenues of over $1.5 billion from its series of grand prix races held around the world.
CVC co-chairman Donald Mackenzie has said he would fire Ecclestone if he was found guilty of wrongdoing.
Despite his age, Ecclestone attends almost every grand prix race and remains central to the sport’s commercial success. He has always dismissed talk of retirement and there is no obvious replacement when he does finally quit or is forced out.
Uncertainty over Ecclestone’s future makes it hard to revisit stalled efforts to launch an initial public offering of Formula One after a planned listing in Singapore was abandoned because of turbulent markets two years ago.
CVC paid about $830 million for a 47-percent stake in Formula One held by German bank BayernLB from 2002-06.
Prosecutors say that Ecclestone bribed Gribkowsky, chief risk officer at BayernLB, to ensure that CVC took control of the sport rather than any rival bidder.
Gribkowsky, who is expected to give evidence in this trial, was jailed for more than eight years in Munich in 2012 for tax evasion and corruption in relation to the payments.
Noll, who presided over the Gribkowsky trial, is heading the panel of judges hearing this case which is expected to run until September.
Ecclestone has said he paid Gribkowsky $10 million but says this was designed to silence him because the German banker was threatening to make false claims about his tax affairs. Ecclestone denies the payments were linked to the CVC deal.