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For years Formula One has been plagued with the question of how the sport will survive when its 82 year-old boss Bernie Ecclestone is no longer around. It has been more than a decade since Ecclestone missed his first F1 race and back then the sport's insiders thought that his power would be diluted by not being present at the track. In fact, it was strengthened as he managed to wield the same iron grip despite physically being miles away in London. It compounded the question of who will take over from Ecclestone and what F1 will be like without him. The man himself has now shed some light on this.
It comes courtesy of an article in the Independent by Pitpass' business editor Christian Sylt. Ecclestone gave a grim prediction that there will be an exodus of races when he gives up the wheel. It is a significant risk for private equity firm CVC, which controls F1, since each race pays an average fee of £16.9m every year.
"One day I'm not going to be there and one of the biggest problems is I've got really, really good relationships with the race promoters," said Ecclestone. "A few of them said to me if you're not there we're not there. That's what the danger is. They feel that they trust me and wouldn't want to let me down. That's probably a very important issue."
There were 20 Grands Prix on the F1 calendar this year and last week's season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix is perhaps the race which Ecclestone has the closest relationship with. It doesn't just come through his long-standing contact with the race organisers but also through his Brazilian wife Fabiana who used to work for them.
Ron Walker, chairman of both the Australian Grand Prix and the Formula One Promoters Association, the umbrella organisation for F1's races, also revealed to Sylt that some promoters, including himself, will leave when Ecclestone steps down. However, he believes that the Grands Prix will stay because, for the most part, they are funded by governments.
"There will be a number of promoters who will retire when Bernie retires but I firmly believe the races will stay with the countries," he says. "Promoters have a very special relationship with Bernie. He is more of a friend than a business colleague and they are reaching the same age group. They will no doubt retire when he retires and I put myself amongst them. When Bernie retires then I will retire as well and a number of other long-standing promoters that have been friends of Bernie's will do also."
Walker is a prominent businessman who has been chairman of Australian media company Fairfax and the organising body for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. He has been chairman of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation since 1994 and says "when Bernie goes Formula One will change. You won't recognise the sport after Bernie goes because he has done it in his own way as unique as he can. It will be the end of an era. A lot of people say Bernie is the greatest sports promoter in history and he has formed close personal relationships with promoters over the years."
Ecclestone has been running F1 for nearly 40 years and has amassed an estimated £2.4bn fortune from selling stakes in it. He still owns a 5.3% of F1 with CVC holding a 35.5% stake worth an estimated £2.2bn ($3.6bn). Whoever follows Ecclestone will be the custodian of this so will have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders.
No successor has been groomed to replace Ecclestone and advancing age is not the only challenge to his reign as F1's boss. On 16 November US investment firm Bluewaters Communications filed a lawsuit against him in the New York Supreme Court demanding £409m in damages.
Bluewaters says it placed the highest bid when 47.2% of F1 was sold by state-owned German bank BayernLB in 2006. In the end the stake was bought by CVC and the lawsuit claims that the process was corrupt. It alleges that Ecclestone paid a £27.5m bribe to ensure that F1 was sold to CVC since it had agreed to retain him as the sport's boss. Last month BayernLB wrote to Ecclestone demanding £218.5m in damages from him because it believes its F1 shares were undervalued. He also faces threats of prosecution in Germany over the alleged bribe.
It follows the conviction in June of Gerhard Gribkowsky, BayernLB's former chief risk officer. He was found guilty of receiving the money from Ecclestone in return for agreeing to sell the bank's stake in F1 to CVC in 2006.
Ecclestone has admitted to making the payment but says he did this because Gribkowsky threatened that if he did not get the money he would tip off HM Revenue & Customs with false details about his tax affairs.
German prosecutors are investigating Ecclestone although he has not been charged with any wrongdoing. It has been suggested that Ecclestone may reach a settlement with the prosecutors so that they do not charge him. It is hard to see how it could proceed in that way because the prosecutors would presumably not want to receive money from someone in return for not pressing charges against them.
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