India Grand Prix: Bernie Ecclestone is ready to brave the raging storm
The threats of succession and a custodial sentence loom large but the F1 architect is varnishing his legacy
It was classic Bernie Ecclestone. How many chief executives with their life's work under threat from criminal lawyers hold court around a backgammon table in India? Ecclestone turns 82 tomorrow, another significant detail in the storm gathering at the door of the octogenarian billionaire at the helm of Formula One. If the lawyers don't get him, Father Time might. From all sides, then, F1's leadership and its future is under attack like never before.
Yet there was no sense of impending doom when Ecclestone met reporters in the Delhi paddock. An attempt to prosecute him for his part in the deal that saw ownership of Formula One pass from a group of German bankers to a cabal of venture capitalists might disconcert the majority, but not Ecclestone.
That does not mean he is impervious to the threat after allegedly oiling the palm of a corrupt state bank official, or capable of surviving it, only that he is adept at waking up every day with a smile on his face. Maybe he is helped in this by the comedic value inherent in the whopping paradox of lawyers acting for members of the investment banking community, whose ethical standing is at an historic low.
The appetite of the Munich authorities to pursue an 82-year-old man over a $44m payment he made to Gerhard Gribkowski, who is passing the next eight years in a German prison cell, is difficult to establish.
Readers of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, the newspaper on whose patch the alleged offence took place and which appears well connected to the prosecutor's office, believe the serving of papers to be imminent. Some, and high up the F1 food chain, too, offer blank stares when the question is put. Convention suggests that his role as chief executive of F1's commercial arm would be brought to an abrupt end by the sports owners, CVC Captial Partners, who would not tolerate any toxic associations, were charges brought. A conviction might even lead to a jail term.
Ecclestone claims he handed over the cash to prevent Gribkowski creating difficulties for him with the British tax authorities. It emerged in Delhi that Ecclestone was also being pursued in the courts by the selling bank, BayernLB, who claim the price paid by CVC, $470m, was artificially low. A team of lawyers are working day and night to present in the best possible light Ecclestone's position in both matters. The case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce comes to mind, the interminable legal battle that threads through Bleak House like Virginia Creeper. This marvellous narrative device given to us by Charles Dickens illustrates the absurdity of due process in litigation, which can drag on for years draining resources without hope of reaching a conclusion worth having.
If that does not work there is always humour. Asked about the prospect of a custodial outcome Ecclestone said: "I hope not. I really hope not. I wouldn't complain about German prisons, but I'd rather not be in one anywhere to be honest." He was at his forthright best in setting out his position regarding the case brought by BayernLB, who are demanding a settlement of £300m. "I've been blackmailed twice. I don't want it to be a third time. But there's nothing to worry about.
"I'm aggravated with the nonsense I'm being put through for all this. I sold the shares for the bank. It was something they couldn't sell. They had six people look at it and wouldn't buy. I got them out of trouble and now I'm in trouble. Life is like that sometimes.
"They asked our lawyers in Germany for the money. I didn't respond. There's no point, is there? They will sue in England. If they win, they get paid. If they lose, it will cost them. That's all."
In the meantime Ecclestone continues to do business. Before departing for India, he spent the early part of the week in the Paris headquarters of the sport's governing body, the FIA, reaching what for F1 is far more important, an agreement with the teams over the commercial framework of engagement. The Concorde Agreement sets out the terms and conditions of competition for the next eight years, double the standard period.
Read into that the tacit acknowledgement by the man who has built this sport into the behemoth it is today, that he might not be around for the next one. The document awaits only the sanction of the FIA, and that is thought not to be in question.
With the future of the sport safeguarded, Ecclestone has in essence delivered his own succession plan. The talk in Delhi was about the possibility of a second race in India, a return to Mexico, a new frontier in Russia. After the Yas Marina jewel in Abu Dhabi next week, the circus breaks new ground in Austin, Texas. This is Ecclestone's legacy being rolled out before him. Until the grand duke in the sky, or the Munich prosecutor calls time on the architect of grand prix racing in the modern era, Ecclestone is busily putting everything in place for the passing of the baton. To whom or to what has yet to be determined.
The sport Ecclestone is preparing to leave behind is unrecognisable from the rustic entity that fell into his possession. Reflecting on his own involvement as a racing man in the Sixties, former FIA president and Ecclestone ally Max Mosley reminded listeners to Radio 4's Bottom Line programme last Thursday that in 1969 F1 was some way below sports cars in the affections of the common man.
From hay bales and sandwiches Ecclestone hauled F1 into the vanguard of the corporate sporting canon, generating annual profits of more than half a billion dollars. The cars carry sponsorship bullion the envy of the sporting world and in the paddock guests sip Crystal with lunch. It's a mad world, and for the moment at least, Ecclestone remains its beating heart. Happy Birthday!
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