Vettel hits right note amid discord

 

Abu Dhabi

As Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button battled for supremacy in the twilight at the Yas Marina circuit, other shadows continued to fall upon Formula One off the track.

Bernie Ecclestone was in the paddock yesterday, smiling and glad-handing a delegation of Bahrainis as the latter insisted that all is now well again in their troubled country and that their grand prix will return from exile in 2012.

The sport's ringmaster had come from Munich, where earlier in the week he gave evidence to a court investigating payments he made to the German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky when control of the Formula One Group was sold to CVC Capital Partners in 2005.

Ecclestone admitted that he had paid £27m to Gribkowsky to avoid the possibility of Gribkowsky suggesting to British tax authorities that Ecclestone had control of his family Bambino Trust, which was supposed to operate independently.

"I was under the impression that he [Gribkowsky] might have given some information to the Revenue in England which I did not know much about," Ecclestone said. "If he had done and the Revenue had investigated and been successful it would have been extremely expensive. There was a large amount of money at stake and it would have been so easy for the Revenue to assess me and put the burden on me to prove that it wasn't correct. I couldn't afford to take the risk."

At the same time the first signs of disagreement among the hitherto closely united association of F1 teams were evident at the F1 Commission meeting in Geneva last week, where Ferrari made several unpopular suggestions that ruffled feathers. And on Saturday several team principals denied suggestions that the euro crisiscould have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing.

"It is incredibly tough for any team to go out there and get the funding to go racing," McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh said. "We had a crisis at the end of 2008. We had Honda, Toyota, BMW exiting right at a critical moment. In some ways it brought the best out in Formula One because we react well in a crisis, and perhaps we are all a little bit too comfortable now and another bit of a crisis might focus some minds."

On the track, Vettel upstaged the McLarens at the last gasp in qualifying, after first Button, and then Hamilton, had dominated practice and the first two parts of the qualifying session. On the final run Vettel jumped ahead to equal Nigel Mansell's record of 14 pole positions in a season.

Hamilton was left to start from the outside of the front row, ahead of Button, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso, but was philosophical about the disappointment. "I didn't think we had done enough," he admitted. "We were quick and the car feels good, but neither of my Q3 laps was particularly spectacular. In the first two sessions the car was looking really good, then it started understeering a little and that's the limitation of it. But I'm still happy with the job we did."

Whether Ecclestone remains as happy as he seemed yesterday afternoon remains to be seen. He has been granted immunity in return for his evidence given to the German authorities, but may yet face a challenge to his position from within CVC Capital Partners. And Constantin Medien are suing him in the British courts for the deal he brokered with CVC, alleging that he undervalued the company and that their 47 per cent stake was worth over $2bn rather than the $800m price achieved by Gribkowsky who handled the sale. "Constantin have listened to Mr Ecclestone's evidence in Germany with increasing incredulity," Keith Oliver, the head of commercial fraud litigation at Peters & Peters, said. "It truly beggars belief that Mr Ecclestone could have entered into the bizarre arrangements he has described in his evidence to the court in Munich. Constantin maintain that the F1 rights were sold at a gross undervalue – their losses are at least $171m – and the High Court proceedings in London for conspiracy to defraud will continue to be vigorously pursued."

Constantin Medien have not ruled out action against CVC either, and Revenue & Customs may instigate a fresh investigation into the Bambino Trust. Ecclestone appeared untroubled by any of this conjecture. "Everybody is content. No dramas at all," he said of the Bahraini deal, but from his demeanour he might as well have been talking about his own business life too.

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