Bernie's 'Houdini' stuns F1

By Daniel Johnson

$120m paid to end bribery trial shocks industry anticipating end of impresario’s career

Bernie Ecclestone's age, 83, and health were cited as factors in his bribery trial being abandoned. Picture / AP
Bernie Ecclestone's age, 83, and health were cited as factors in his bribery trial being abandoned. Picture / AP

Bernie Ecclestone insists he will return to work at the helm of Formula One as normal, despite outrage in Germany at the record 60 million he paid to end his bribery trial.

The F1 chief executive, who has reigned over the sport for four decades, admitted he was relieved after the Munich court dropped his career-threatening charges.

Ecclestone said it was back to business as usual with him regaining his seat on F1's main board, Delta Topco. However, the sport's majority shareholder, CVC Capital Partners, and the board, declined to comment.

"I stood down for obvious reasons, but I'll be back on again now," the 83-year-old said from his London office, just hours after leaving the Munich courtroom for the final time. "Everything is back to normal."

Had Ecclestone been found guilty, he would have faced 10 years in prison and lost his iron grip on the sport he has dominated and largely made in his image.

But Ecclestone, again showing himself to be a great survivor, successfully negotiated a deal with prosecutors in Munich whereby he will hand over 60 million ($120 million) in the next seven days.

It prompted a furious reaction from some quarters in Germany, after prosecutors spent years preparing the legal case against Ecclestone.

A former Justice Minister described the situation as "galling", calling for the closure of the legal loophole that enabled Ecclestone to settle.

"It is not in harmony with the sense and purpose of our legal practices," Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said. However, Peter Noll, the presiding judge in the case, told the court yesterday that a conviction was "not particularly likely". Ecclestone's age and health, as well as the huge public attention on the trial, were also factors in its abandonment. It had been due to run until October.

The dramatic development will be met with shock through the sport, with many having privately anticipated Ecclestone's demise when proceedings began earlier this year.

"At one point in the run-up to the trial, it was pretty bleak," an F1 insider said yesterday. "But yet again he has pulled off a Houdini."

Many had also suspected that CVC was hoping the German court might jettison Ecclestone from the sport as it pursues a stock market flotation.

While Ecclestone always maintained he could run Formula One despite being in court two days a week, he seemed relieved last night that his legal troubles appeared to be finally over.

However, he did describe himself as "a bit of an idiot" for handing over 60 million when in his view he was on his way to being acquitted of bribing a German banker. "What has happened today is good and bad - the good is the judge more or less said I was acquitted, and they [the prosecution] really didn't have a case. So I was a bit of an idiot to do what I did to settle because it wasn't with the judge, it was with the prosecutors.

"Anyway, it's done and finished ... I'm contented, it's all fine." He went on: "This now allows me to do what I do best, which is running F1."

Under Bavarian law a trial such as Ecclestone's can be ended if the accused makes a payment to the Treasury or a non-profit making organisation, if all sides agree.

Prosecutors had argued that Ecclestone paid Gerhard Gribkowsky, formerly the chief risk officer of BayernLB, a 26 million bribe to steer the sale of F1 from the Bavarian bank to CVC, Ecclestone's preferred buyer, in 2006.

Ecclestone has long maintained his innocence.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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