Bernie Ecclestone has revealed he is "certain" that he will be put on trial in Germany for paying an alleged bribe to former banker Gerhard Gribkowsky.
Yesterday's edition of German publication Handelsblatt carried an interview with Ecclestone in which he revealed that he has made a bid to buy the beleaguered Nürburgring circuit. "We made an offer and we now wait for it to be accepted," said Ecclestone. His comments were soon widely reported by the German and UK media but they were far from the only revelation in the interview.
In May last year German prosecutors charged Ecclestone with paying part of a $44m bribe to Gribkowsky in return for him allegedly steering the sale of F1 to its current owner the private equity firm CVC. Gribkowsky was chief risk officer of German bank BayernLB which sold a 47.2% stake in F1 to CVC for $814m in 2006. Over the following year Ecclestone and his Bambino family trust paid the $44m to Gribkowsky who was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison in 2012 for receiving it.
German prosecutors believe that CVC was Ecclestone's preferred bidder as it had agreed to retain him as F1's boss. Last year they announced that a decision would be made in 2014 on whether Ecclestone would be put on trial for paying the alleged bribe. Handelsblatt asked him how the case in Germany was going and he revealed "I am certain it will come to a trial. After all, I have already been charged. It is now about the date."
In the wake of this, it was reported that "state prosecutors in Munich are poised to end months of speculation by announcing as soon as Thursday that they will bring formal criminal proceedings against Mr Ecclestone."
If this proves to be accurate it could be Ecclestone's biggest challenge since he took over F1's driving seat nearly 40 years ago. The stakes would be high as a jail sentence would be the likely consequence of losing. If Ecclestone ended up in that situation he might not have a job to return to as he revealed in 2012 that CVC "will probably be forced to get rid of me if the Germans come after me. It's pretty obvious, if I'm locked up."
Nevertheless, Ecclestone told Handelsblatt that he could still continue to do his job whilst the trial goes ahead in Germany. "In England there is a presumption of innocence. Someone is only guilty if an appropriate judgement was given."
In November Ecclestone spent several days giving evidence in London's High Court after he was sued by German media rights firm Constantin Medien for conspiring to undervalue BayernLB's stake in F1 through paying the alleged bribe.
Constantin claims that if F1 had not been sold to CVC other buyers offering more money would have come forward. Constantin had an agreement to get 10% of the proceeds if BayernLB's stake sold for more than $1.1bn but it didn't get a penny as CVC paid less than this. Ecclestone denies that the money was a bribe and says that Gribkowsky threatened to make false allegations about his tax affairs if the $44m was not paid.
The verdict in the Constantin trial is due imminently and when Handelsblatt asked Ecclestone if he will step down if he loses, he replied "why should I step down? There is absolutely no need. Constantin Medien is suing for damages. If they win they get money."
When pressed on whether he can really run F1 at the same time as defending a criminal trial Ecclestone said "it's really too early to think about it. During the Constantin trial I was out of the office for about four days for my testimony but even then I could work in the late afternoon and evening." He added "I have not done anything wrong. The point for me is proving my innocence." It looks like he will get his chance.
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