Munich, Germany - Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone denied bribery allegations on Thursday when he went on trial in Germany in a case that threatens to break his decades-long dominance of the motor sport.
Prosecutors have charged Ecclestone, 83, with bribing banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to smooth the sale eight years ago of a stake in Formula One to private equity firm CVC. They say that Ecclestone favoured CVC because it was committed to keeping him on as chief executive.
“I'm confident, the sun is shining,” a dark-suited Ecclestone told camera crews jostling to film his entry into the Munich courtroom.
The former used-car salesman, who became a billionaire by building motor racing into a global money spinner over the past four decades, is fighting to save his job and his reputation.
He faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.
As the trial began, his lawyers issued a brief statement, confirming that he denied the accusations and would fight to clear his name.
“The alleged bribery never happened. The prosecution's claims are based on statements by Dr Gribkowsky, which are wrong, misleading and not conclusive.”
The prosecution, in a 24-page statement, told the packed courtroom that Ecclestone channelled $44 million (R467 million) to former BayernLB banker Gribkowsky for having helped to safeguard his position as head of Formula One.
CVC remains the largest shareholder in the business, which generates annual revenues of more than $1.5 billion (R16 billion) from its series of Grands Prix around the world. CVC co-chairman Donald Mackenzie has said he would fire Ecclestone if he was found guilty of wrongdoing.
Despite his age, Ecclestone attends almost every Grand Prix and remains central to the sport's commercial success. He has always dismissed talk of retirement, and there is no obvious replacement when he does finally quit or is forced out.
Uncertainty over his future makes it hard to revisit stalled efforts to launch a stockmarket flotation of Formula One, after a planned listing in Singapore was abandoned because of turbulent markets two years ago.
Ecclestone listened through an interpreter as his lawyer read a lengthy statement in German to the court, setting out his own version of events surrounding the 2005-6 sale of Formula One.
The Ecclestone statement went back to his childhood during the Second World War and recalled German bomber raids on the town of Dartford, close to London, before taking the court through his business career and the CVC deal.
CVC paid about $830 million (R8.8 billion) for a 47 percent stake in Formula One that BayernLB had held from 2002-6 when banks took control of the business following the collapse of the Kirch media empire.
Gribkowsky, who is expected to give evidence in this trial, was jailed for more than eight years in Munich in 2012 for tax evasion and corruption in relation to payments from Ecclestone.
Ecclestone has said he paid Gribkowsky $10 million (R106 million) but says this was designed to silence him because the German banker was threatening to make false claims about his tax affairs.
Ecclestone denies the payments were linked to the CVC deal.
The case is expected to run until September.
Flanked by his lawyers and with an interpreter at his side, Ecclestone had earlier confirmed the pronunciation of his name and his date of birth to judge Peter Noll.
Ecclestone, who married for a third time in 2012 to a Brazilian woman more than 40 years his junior, defused some of the early tension when asked to clarify confusion over his marital status.
Asked if he was married or divorced, he at first replied “both.”
“I like to remember the divorce part,” he said in English.