London - Bernie Ecclestone’s command over Formula One has been diluted for the first time in 40 years with the announcement that he is no longer signing the cheques.
The landmark statement came on Thursday from the sport’s parent company Delta Topco, seemingly bringing an end to ‘Bernie’s Game’ - his Svengali-like hold over virtually every aspect of Formula One’s billion-dollar empire.
But on Thursday night Ecclestone defiantly refused to countenance the idea that he was being stripped of his power, posing the question: “If people want to shake someone’s hand (on a deal), whose hand do they shake? It will still be my hand.”
Ecclestone added: “That is how I do business, always have done and it will be the same in the future.
“These changes were discussed a year ago and agreed. They are a bit theatrical really.
“We have to do things more formally than in the past - very formally.
“It has not been my style but it is part of what we need to do because we have been thinking about floating the business. That is all there is to it.”
FOUR BRIBERY CASES
The announcement comes as Ecclestone fights four cases concerning alleged bribery, including a criminal case in Germany, where the prosecutors have formally charged him - the development that prompted Thursday’s restructuring. He could also face charges in Switzerland where, after a complaint from a ‘third party’, investigations are under way to establish whether there was any criminal activity under Swiss law.
Thursday’s statement said: “The board of Delta Topco Limited (the holding company for the Formula One Group of companies) has met today to discuss the decision of the Munich Court to commence proceedings against Mr Ecclestone.
“Mr Ecclestone has reassured the board that he is innocent of the charges and intends to vigorously defend the case which will commence in late April 2014.”
Ecclestone is accused of paying £27.5 million (R490 million) to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky - who has already been sentenced to jail in Germany - so that he would push through the sale of the sport to its current majority owners, CVC, a private equity firm, in 2006.
STEPPING DOWN FOR NOW
However, Delta Topco added: “After discussion with the board, Mr Ecclestone has proposed, and the board has agreed, that until the case has been concluded he will step down as a director with immediate effect, thereby relinquishing his board duties and responsibilities until the case has been resolved.
“The board believes that it is in the best interests of both the F1 business and the sport that Mr Ecclestone should continue to run the business on a day-to-day basis but subject to increased monitoring and control by the Board.
“Mr Ecclestone has agreed to these arrangements. The approval and signing of significant contracts and other material business arrangements shall now be the responsibility of the chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, and deputy chairman, Donald Mackenzie.”
Mackenzie, who is in charge of CVC, declined to talk to Sportsmail.
REPLACED IF FOUND GUILTY
He has generally been loyal to Ecclestone, though told the High Court in London last month that Ecclestone would be replaced if he was found guilty.
There was little reaction from the teams as news broke yesterday.
They do not want to speak out against Ecclestone while he may still be in power and have long believed the “fact” that “Ecclestone still runs Formula One” is the third guarantee of life, along with taxes and death.
Many also feel great affection and admiration towards him for the transformational role he has played in monetising the sport and elevating its status around the world.
The only person who spoke up on Thursday, did so in Ecclestone’s favour.
HORNER SPEAKS UP
Red Bull’s Christian Horner, who holidays with Ecclestone and attended his latest wedding, said: “Bernie is absolutely the best and only guy to do what he does, to take Formula One to the global reach that the sport has achieved, introducing races in Russia this year, going back to the Austrian Grand Prix.
“It’s in all our interests that he’s around as long as possible.”
Ecclestone recently spoke of Horner as his possible replacement - the first time he had publicly contemplated Formula One in a post-Bernie world.
But at least one member of the Formula One board would like to hasten Ecclestone’s demise: Sir Martin Sorrell, the founder and chief executive of multi-national advertising and public relations company WPP.
A Jew, he was angry about comments Ecclestone made lauding Hitler as a man who “got things done” in an interview in The Times five years ago and has since kept a close, and often disapproving, eye on Ecclestone.
While it is clear that Ecclestone’s tenure would entirely end if he went to jail in Germany, it is uncertain whether he would get his place on the board back if cleared of wrongdoing. The German trial starts in April and will drag on for several months - detaining Ecclestone at the hearing which will take place for two days each week - and he will be in his mid-80s by the time it is resolved.
Ecclestone’s change of status throws doubt on the prospect of Formula One agreeing a new Concorde Agreement - the tripartite regulatory and commercial package between the rights holder (represented by Ecclestone), the FIA and the teams. A test of Ecclestone’s status will be whether he is still conducting those negotiations, or will Mackenzie or Brabeck-Letmathe?
Ecclestone, as he told the High Court last month, keeps all the papers in his offices and controls who sees them.
It would, therefore, be difficult for anyone else to pick up the pieces immediately.
And, despite the mighty symbolism of yesterday’s developments, he won’t be handing over the keys readily.