Ecclestone pays £60m, but can he really regain control of F1?

Aug 6, 2014
Jonathan Harwood

How and why the Ecclestone bribery case was abandoned and what it means for Formula 1


Bernie Ecclestone's position as the ringleader for Formula 1 appears secure after he made a payment of £60m to a German court to have his trial on bribery charges abandoned.

The news that he is off the hook will be of little surprise to those who follow F1, but how did he buy his way out of trouble and what does it mean for the future of the sport?

What was the court case about?

Ecclestone's legal woes date back to the sale of the sport to CVC Capital Partners in 2006. The allegation revolved around claims he paid a German banker, Gerhard Gribkowsky, £33m to undervalue the business so that CVC could buy it.

Why has the case been stopped?

The trial, which began in April, has been halted after a payment of around £60m to the German treasury and a children's hospice. In German law cases can be ended under conditions that are "appropriate for resolving the public interest in a prosecution", explains The Guardian. "In practice, wealthy defendants have in the past used this clause to buy their way out of criminal trials. But no one has ever paid so high a sum as has been agreed with Ecclestone."

Why did he pay?

It's a question even Ecclestone is asking. After agreeing to the payment he described himself as "a bit of an idiot" for forking out so much money. Kevin Eason of The Times thinks he knows why. "Even the redoubtable Ecclestone, battle-hardened after four decades at the top of F1, was struggling," he says. "The punishing schedule of combining two days a week in court with running a $1bn business was draining the physical reserves of a man of 83."

But he adds: "There is an almost poetic quality to the story of a billionaire who walks free of serious bribery charges because he writes a cheque."

So is he guilty or innocent?

The court has come to no decision on that. "The genius of the settlement is that there is no suggestion of guilt on his part," says the Daily Telegraph.

Doubts over the prosecution case began to surface before the settlement was reached. "The judge more or less said I was acquitted, and they really didn't have a case," said Ecclestone afterwards.

However, the Telegraph notes that at an earlier, related, High Court case in London the judge ruled in Ecclestone's favour but "found Ecclestone culpable of having paid these monies and accused him of being a wholly unreliable witness".

How will F1 react?

"In F1, there will be either a sigh of relief or sharp intake of breath. There are those loyal to Ecclestone through every legal quagmire and every gaffe, but just as many who were hoping that this would mean the end of the Ecclestone era," says Kevin Eason of the Times.

Tom Cary of the Telegraph does not expect much of a reaction. "A raising of the eyes and a shaking of the head is all it will elicit in the paddock in Spa when Formula One reconvenes later this month."

What does it mean for F1?

That's where the "intrigue" lies, says Kevin Eason. The billionaire turns 84 in October and there is a "substantial boardroom cabal [that] wants to move on from the Ecclestone era".

That could make it tricky for him to reassert his authority on the sport. "Bernie's bribery battles may be behind him, but there are interesting times ahead as the 83-year-old works to regain full control of a sport that has spent much of the past year working in the background to plan for a future without him," says F1 website

Ecclestone still generates money for those in the sport, notes the Telegraph. But there are concerns over his understanding of the younger generation, while F1's hardcore fans feel "increasingly alienated, aghast at how their sport has been hijacked by commercial and corporate elements, by men in suits, by gimmicks and gizmos on the track," writes Tom Cary. "Formula One needs to think very carefully about where it is at the moment and where it is headed."

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