Bernie Ecclestone bribery trial: German court told of F1 ringmaster's wartime childhood

Tycoon in defiant mood as his biggest legal test begins

Chutzpah defines Bernie Ecclestone’s rise from car salesman to Formula One billionaire – and so it was that the sport’s commercial supremo entered a Munich court in breezy fashion at the start of his bribery trial.

The charges he denies relate to a €33m (£27.2m) payment to a German banker in 2005 to ease the sale of F1 to a company of his choice. Despite the severity of the case – he could face a maximum of 10 years in jail, as well as the loss of his empire – and his intention to clear his name, it will not alter his idiosyncratic manner.

On his way into court Mr Ecclestone was asked by reporters if he were confident of victory. He replied: “I’m confident the sun is shining.” Asked at the outset of proceedings if he were married or divorced, he replied: “Both. I like to remember the divorce part.”

At 83, Mr Ecclestone has lost none of his ability to mask his real mood and feelings behind such statements. Perhaps that’s because he feels he has seen it all before – and perhaps he could be forgiven for this, as it’s the third – albeit most serious – court challenge he has faced over the affair. In February he won a civil case in the High Court brought by a German media company, Constantin Medien, which claimed it lost out financially when Bayern Landesbank, a German bank, sold its shares in F1 to the venture capital firm CVC Capital Partners for $830m (£494m).

And in the United States, a New York court threw out a case against Mr Ecclestone brought by Bluewaters Communications Holdings, which claimed it was the highest bidder for the Bayern Landesbank shares.

Now, he stands accused of paying Gerhard Gribkowsky to ensure the sale of 47 per cent of F1 to CVC.

Gribkowsky, who is expected to be the prosecution’s principal witness, was jailed for eight-and-a-half years in 2012 for corruption, tax evasion and breach of trust while in the employ of Bayern Landesbank.

Mr Ecclestone admits paying the money between July 2006 and December 2007 but insists he was being blackmailed by Gribkowsky who, he said, threatened to make false claims to the UK tax authorities about his finances.

“The alleged bribery never happened. The prosecution’s claims are based on statements by Dr Gribkowsky, which are wrong, misleading and not conclusive,” Mr Ecclestone’s lawyer told a packed court in a brief opening statement.

Mr Ecclestone listened via an interpreter as his lawyers gave a précis of the key staging posts of his life and career, including childhood memories of German air raids over the town of Dartford in Kent, where he went to school.

Though a custodial sentence is possible, they are rare for defendants of his vintage and a two-year suspended sentence is thought more likely if he is found guilty.

Far more damaging is the potential business impact. He has been allowed to continue his day-to-day involvement in the Formula One business, but Mr Ecclestone was stood down from his chief executive role by the board until the conclusion of a trial that is expected to last until September.

Were the judgment to go against him, all involvement with the sport he has built into a multibillion-pound, global business would cease.

The case continues.

Case to answer: The key issues

* Bernie Ecclestone is being tried on charges of bribery relating to a payment of €33m to a German banker, allegedly to secure the sale of F1 shares to CVC Capital Partners in 2005.

* Mr Ecclestone denies any wrongdoing but admits paying the sum to Gerhard Gribkowsky, who was selling on behalf of Bayern Landesbank.   

* The F1 boss alleges he was being blackmailed by Gribkowsky, who was threatening to make false claims to the British tax authorities.

* Gribkowsky, who is expected to give evidence, was sentenced in Munich in 2012 to an eight-year term after  being convicted of taking illegal payments.

* The trial is scheduled to last until September.

* Mr Ecclestone faces a maximum 10-year custodial sentence if convicted.

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