Can Bernie Ecclestone survive latest blow to his F1 rule?
As Formula One's 'ringmaster' faces a trial in Germany, what are the implications for the sport he has dominated for decades?
The decision by a German court to pursue Bernie Ecclestone over an alleged bribe represents the most serious threat yet to his control of Formula One. Following the announcement in Munich that he must stand trial, Ecclestone stepped down from the Formula One board but he continues to operate the sport's day-to-day running pending the hearing.
Q. So what is it all about and how will this development impact on the sport?
A. Ecclestone denies wrongdoing. The Munich prosecutor begs to differ. Here's why: Ecclestone paid £27m to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, engaged to manage the sale in 2005 of a 47 per cent stake in Formula One owned by a number of banks, of which his employer, Bayern Landesbank, was one. For his part in the affair Gribkowsky is serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence after being convicted in 2012 of receiving corrupt payments, non-payment of tax and breach of trust. Ecclestone admits to paying the £27m but claims he was being "shaken down" by Gribkowsky, who, according to Ecclestone, threatened to approach HM Revenue & Customs with "false evidence" about his financial affairs.
Q. Are there any other legal consequences?
A. Ecclestone is already awaiting the outcome of a High Court action at the end of last year in which the German media company Constantin Medien, former owners of Formula One, sued for £117m in damages, claiming the 2005 deal that took the business to CVC Capital partners undervalued the commercial rights to avoid triggering bonus payments that would have been owed to them.
Q. So what happens now?
A. A trial date is expected for April. Ecclestone will step down from the board but will continue to manage things on the ground. Though uncomfortable with the legal proceedings against him, CVC, whose shareholding has shrunk from 63 to 36 per cent, is prepared to allow Ecclestone to continue as chief executive, subject to increased monitoring and control by the board, until a judgment is passed down in Munich. The CVC co-founder Donald Mackenzie said last November: "If it is proven that Mr Ecclestone has done anything that is criminally wrong, we would fire him."
Q. What next if Ecclestone is convicted?
A. The jailing of Gribkowsky and subsequent pursuit of Ecclestone was the trigger for the key players to consider their options. Luca di Montezemolo, president of Ferrari and the sport's most influential figure after Ecclestone, has said governance must be reformed. The end of the one-man show is nigh, Di Montezemolo declared in his end-of-season address last month while announcing his intention to convene a meeting this month at Maranello attended by all the teams to discuss the future post-Ecclestone.
Q. Who are the favourites to assume Ecclestone's chief executive role?
A. Ecclestone's preferred choice is Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, who has overseen the rise of Sebastian Vettel and the team financed by Austrian soft drinks magnate Dieter Mateschitz to the pinnacle of the sport. The commercial deal with CVC runs until 2020. After that Di Montezemolo has floated the idea of the teams taking ownership and control of the sport.
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