Ecclestone: banker was like 'Sword of Damocles'

Mr Gribkowsky had strong designs on replacing Mr Ecclestone as Formula One boss

Munich

The banker who blackmailed Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone into paying him millions was like a "Sword of Damocles" for the motor racing manager and made no secret of a burning ambition to oust him as the sport's top representative, a Munich court was told yesterday.

Mr Ecclestone, 81, appeared in a German court for the second day as a witness in the trial of the Munich banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, who is charged with tax evasion, corruption and bribery. He is accused of blackmailing the Formula One chief into paying him £27.5m in 2006 by threatening to disclose delicate financial details about a family trust to the Inland Revenue.

It emerged yesterday that Mr Gribkowsky had strong designs on replacing Mr Ecclestone as Formula One boss and turned up at dozens of motor racing events as a regular guest. "He fell in love with Formula One," Mr Ecclestone told the court. "He acted as if he wanted to become Formula One boss."

The court heard how during the years prior to the Formula One sale to the private equity group CVC Capital Partners in early 2006, Mr Gribkowsky created a role for himself as one of Mr Ecclestone's advisers and made no secret of his ambitions. At a key Formula One meeting in Barcelona, Mr Gribkowsky was said to have deliberately taken the seat normally occupied by Mr Ecclestone. "He sat in it and promptly lit up a cigar," Mr Ecclestone said.

As Mr Gribkowsky realised he stood little chance of realising his Formula One ambitions, he became increasingly like a "Sword of Damocles" for Mr Ecclestone. He repeatedly insinuated that he would reveal unfounded allegations about Bambino, a private trust set up by Mr Ecclestone for his ex-wife, to the Inland Revenue.

The Formula One manager said he deeply feared the disclosures would have prompted an investigation which could have forced him to pay back tax in excess of £2bn. He decided it would be better to pay Mr Gribkowsky "hush money". "If someone is threatening you, even in a nice way, then you need to get rid of that threat," he said.

The Inland Revenue cleared Mr Ecclestone of any liability for back tax for Bambino in 2008. However, Mr Ecclestone said that in 2006 he had not been certain the trust had been set up correctly.

Yesterday's hearing also threw light on the lavish lifestyle of Mr Ecclestone and his family and the close relations Mr Gribkowsky formed with the Formula One chief's Croatian ex-wife, Slavica. Mr Ecclestone revealed that he was infuriated after finding that his wife had squandered £12m on the wedding of his daughter Petra in Italy. "I thought this was absurd," Mr Ecclestone said.

Mr Gribkowsky, it emerged, was a "drinking companion" for Slavica Ecclestone. The two were said to have spent hours at race meetings, talking in a motorised home. "I think my wife was trying to find out if I had any girlfriends," Mr Ecclestone said, "I had one," he admitted to the court.

Mr Gribkowsky denies blackmail and claims the payments were consultancy fees. If convicted he faces a maximum 10-year jail sentence.

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