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Ecclestone: Investigation has given F1 clean bill of health

NEWS STORY
22/03/2011

Formula One's boss Bernie Ecclestone has finally broken his silence over the jailed German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky and it is good news for the sport.

Last week it was reported that Ecclestone would be questioned by the prosecutors investigating whether Gribkowsky took a $50m bribe to undervalue shares in F1's holding company SLEC when it was sold to current owner CVC in 2006. Last week Sky News' business editor Mark Kleinman couldn't get Ecclestone to comment on the case against Gribkowsky and neither could several sports reporters. It's not surprising since Ecclestone had previously said he had "been advised not to talk to anyone about it." However, Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt managed to get him to open up and then some.

Gribkowsky was arrested in January on suspicion of bribery, breach of trust and tax evasion. Since then the German media has been awash with speculation that Ecclestone himself paid the $50m to him. Pitpass has proven repeatedly that the shares were not sold on the cheap so Ecclestone could not have paid Gribkowsky for undervaluing them. With that allegation debunked, some sections of the media moved on to even more fanciful allegations by suggesting that Ecclestone may have paid Gribkowsky for selling to CVC because they were prepared to let him remain F1's boss.

According to company documents seen by Sylt, "key to structuring the transaction was allowing Bernie Ecclestone to retain operating control to continue growing the business." However, there is no evidence whatsoever that Ecclestone paid anyone over this. Indeed, last month accountancy firm Ernst & Young and law firm Freshfields began an investigation into the circumstances surrounding CVC's takeover and Ecclestone told Sylt "they haven't found anything."

He suggests that the German authorities have singled out Gribkowsky since they are looking for a scapegoat from Bayern after it made heavy losses. Gribkowsky was fired from Bayern in April 2008 when it reported €4.3bn in write-downs driven by the collapse of the U.S. subprime-mortgage market and a disastrous investment in Austrian bank Hypo Group Alpe Adria. Bayern paid €1.6bn for 50% plus one share in Hypo Group in 2007 but two years later this stake was sold for just one euro.

"I think there is more there than meets the eye," says Ecclestone, adding "that bank has been involved in all sorts of funny things over a period and I think they are just looking for someone."

Gribkowsky was caught out by paying the $50m into a company in Austria which attracted a lower tax rate than it would have if he had paid it into one in his native Germany. This led to Gribkowsky being accused of tax evasion and Ecclestone suggests that his advisers may be to blame. "He probably thought it was all legal and straightforward," he says, adding "he set the company up in Austria otherwise he wouldn't have put the money in and when he set it up he must have set it up on advice."

Ecclestone denies paying $50m to Gribkowsky and CVC has also said that "it has no knowledge of, nor any involvement in, any payment to Mr Gribkowsky or anyone connected with him in relation to CVC's acquisition of Formula One."

Earlier this month Kleinman reported that CVC had spoken to Sir Stuart Rose, the former boss of Marks & Spencer, about becoming non-executive chairman of SLEC's ultimate parent company Delta Topco. However, Ecclestone rubbishes this saying "I don't think they need a chairman. Chairmen don't run companies." He adds "we don't need the board, we don't need any of them to be honest with you."

Ecclestone says that CVC "wish that all this with Gerhard hadn't have happened," however, he says that the private equity firm "isn't looking at selling" its stake in Delta Topco. CVC held its previous motorsport investment, a 75% stake in MotoGP's rights holder Dorna, for eight years until the European Commission forced it to sell when it acquired F1. Ecclestone says that CVC may never sell F1 since it gets a sufficient return from an annual dividend.

In 2009 Delta Topco had revenue of $1.6bn and, according to F1's trade guide Formula Money, it made net profit of over $300m. Its revenue increases by around 10% annually due to escalator clauses in its key contracts. has been a nice little earner for CVC.

It cost CVC $1.7bn to buy F1 in March 2006 and it used $964m (€798m) of its investors' money to buy it. The remainder came from a loan provided by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). The money was paid back to CVC's investors and RBS from a $2.9bn loan which CVC took out on 24 November 2006 secured on the rights to F1. The net profits after making repayments on this loan go straight to the owners according to their shareholding split. CVC has a 63.4% stake in Delta Topco with 5.3% in Ecclestone's hands, 8.5% held by his family trust, 18.4% owned by JP Morgan and Lehman Brothers and the remaining 4.4% split between management and advisers.

So, the $300m profit in 2009 left CVC with $190m to give to its investors and $15.9m going to Ecclestone. It is expected that the profit was even higher last year and this year should follow the same trend. CVC will have made around $1bn from F1 by the end of this year so it will have doubled the $964m it initially put in. No wonder it doesn't want to sell.

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