MUNICH - In early July, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone may come to Germany to attend the F1 race hosted by the Nürburgring south of Cologne.
Ecclestone, the British mogul who has turned motor sports into a billion dollar business, enjoys showing up for the racing events to chat with the drivers, meet sponsors, and work deals. But if he does show up, the visit will be the last comfortable one he takes to Germany. The one after that is a court date in Munich.
Ecclestone has been under investigation for over two years because he secretly gave $44 million to a top banker with a lot of say in F1. Now the investigation phase has been completed and according to information obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung, the long-planned bribery charge planned against Ecclestone should be filed at a Munich court this month, perhaps as early as this week.
But it will still be some time before the indictment reaches Bernie -- as he is mostly referred to. The document has first to be translated into English, so that Ecclestone can read what he is accused of. And then his lawyers, Sven Thomas and Norbert Scharf, get accorded some time to respond.
The lawyers will do everything to convince the court at a preliminary hearing that the charges do not apply and that therefore no trial is necessary. Thomas and Scharf have already tried to prevent an indictment, without success. If the court reaches the decision that the charges warrant a trial, it will most certainly not begin before the fall.
Bribery or blackmail?
Will Ecclestone still be the F1’s big boss by then? Months ago, as it became clear that he might be charged, top managers started thinking about how they could get around this, and the idea was to get Ecclestone to step down. The official reason given would be that he needs all his time and energy to deal with the case. The unofficial reality is that the sponsors and heads of state with whom the racing entity negotiates will not want to deal with someone charged with a crime.
In October, Ecclestone will turn 83. However, he is fit, and retirement is not on the agenda. He also vehemently denies any wrongdoing and says that he only gave BayernLB chairman Gerhard Gribkowsky the $44 million because he was being blackmailed.
BayernLB was at one time majority shareholder in Formula 1 and made life difficult for Bernie, until Gribkowsky suddenly let up on him. The former banker now claims to have been bribed by Ecclestone. He has been condemned to eight and a half years in prison for accepting bribes and other charges. The case will not be appealed. However, the banker’s sentence does not mean that the F1 boss will be found guilty.
The Ecclestone trial is a brand new -- and separate -- proceeding. Neither the prosecution in Munich nor Ecclestone’s two lawyers wished to comment on the filing of the charges.