FORMULA One chief Bernie Ecclestone has revealed a key argument in his defence to charges that he paid a $44m bribe to stay in charge of the sport: his position was virtually ringfenced anyway.
Ecclestone says he would not have needed to bribe anyone to hold onto his job because governing body the FIA was likely to exercise its power of veto should a new owner seek to replace him.
The revelation came in testimony from the 83-year-old billionaire in London’s High Court, where he is being sued in a civil case by German media firm Constantin Medien. It alleges that in 2006 Ecclestone and his Bambino family trust paid $44m – £27.5m on current rates – to Gerhard Gribkowsky, an executive of German bank BayernLB (BLB), so that he would sell a 47.2 per cent stake in F1 to the sport’s current owner, the private equity firm CVC.
Constantin says Ecclestone wanted CVC to buy the stake as it had agreed to retain him as F1’s boss. Constantin was entitled to 10 per cent of the proceeds if the stake fetched more than $1.1bn but missed out on a payment as CVC only paid $814m. It says other buyers would have paid more but Gribkowsky did not explore these opportunities as he had an incentive to sell to CVC.
“BLB and Bambino would not have been able to sell their shares without my support, because the FIA needed to approve any change of control,” Ecclestone told the court on Wednesday. “If I was going to leave or be removed as the representative, or if I had not thought that the new owner was suitable for Formula One, the FIA would have been very concerned and would be likely to refuse its approval.”
It is the first time that Ecclestone has acknowledged this veto right, which is enshrined in the FIA’s F1 contracts. His testimony echoes comments in September from former FIA president Max Mosley.
In June 2012 Gribkowsky was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for receiving the alleged bribe and German authorities have charged Ecclestone with paying it. They have not yet decided whether to bring him to trial, however, so are likely to be monitoring this case closely.
Ecclestone says the veto was almost exercised in 2002, when BLB took over its 47.2 per cent stake in F1. The bank assumed the shares when German media empire Kirch, which it had lent $1bn, went bankrupt.
When that happened, Ecclestone said, he was “asked by the FIA if I was going to remain, otherwise they were going to pull their contract from BLB.”