I was a bit of an idiot: Bernie Ecclestone on paying US$100m to settle bribery trial

British billionaire agrees 'record' deal, which ends three-month case and allows him to maintain grip as F1 patriarch

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 10:43pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 9:19am


Bernie Ecclestone says he is relieved to be back running Formula One but feels “a bit of an idiot” after settling his bribery trial in Germany.

The 83-year-old F1 supremo was back at his desk in London hours after walking out of the court in Munich, his case brought to a premature end after the British billionaire arranged to make a US$100 million payment.

“The bottom line is it’s been three-and-a-half years of aggravation, travelling, meeting lawyers, and God knows what else, so it is good it is out of the way,” Ecclestone told Britain’s Press Association.

In the end what has happened today is good and bad – the good is the judge more or less said I was acquitted, and they (the prosecution) really didn’t have a case.
Bernie Ecclestone

“This trial has been going on for two days a week and it was going to go on until October. When you’re trying to run businesses it’s not easy trying to resolve things when you’re dealing with lawyers.

“In the end what has happened today is good and bad – the good is the judge more or less said I was acquitted, and they [the prosecution] really didn’t have a case.

“So I was a bit of an idiot to do what I did to settle because it wasn’t with the judge, it was with the prosecutors. Anyway, it’s done and finished, so it’s all right. I’m contented, it’s all fine.

“This now allows me to do what I do best, which is running F1. Another three months out would have been bad. I’ve been working weekends to catch up with what I’ve been missing during the week.

“I’ve not really noticed, but it’s probably taken its toll a little bit.”

It's not just Ecclestone who is likely to have breathed a sigh of relief at the end of his trial, but also the Formula One paddock.

The acceptance by a Munich court of Ecclestone's reported record accord - believed to be the largest of its kind in German criminal justice history - allows the billionaire to maintain his 35-year grip on F1.

Presiding judge Peter Noll said the payment was due within a week, with US$99 million going to the Bavarian state coffers and US$1 million would be donated to a child hospice foundation.

The judges determined that a conviction was "not particularly likely" given the evidence presented.

Ecclestone faced a potential 10-year jail term had he been found guilty of paying a US$44 million bribe to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to ensure a company he favoured bought a stake in F1.

He would have been forced out of his post as the president and chief executive of Formula One Group, and hence take his significant share with him.

The potential turmoil that would have brought to the sport is difficult to quantify, but the reaction from those in the paddock speaks volumes.

No-one in the paddock is ever heard to utter a bad word about the F1 patriarch with a taste for young models who tower over his diminutive frame - his third wife Fabiana Flosi is 46 years his junior and almost a head taller.

His lawyers welcomed the agreement and hit out at accusations that he had orchestrated a "buying out" of German justice.

Ecclestone's management of F1 since the 1980s, more specifically its promotion and commercial rights, has generated huge revenue and created thousands of jobs in Britain and elsewhere.

Despite problems over the level of competitiveness among the teams and the often processional nature of its races, F1 creates interest and earns money, ensuring its principal protagonists are paid huge sums.

No-one dares to complain about Ecclestone's dictatorship and team owners have not stopped offering sound bites such as "Bernie is indispensible to F1".

The 1.59m chief has not let the furore surrounding his case stop him from pushing F1 towards greater security, sustainability and profitability, extending the contracts for the Australian and Canadian Grand Prix and announcing the return of Mexico to the calendar, all while his lawyers worked to provide him with a get-out clause to his Munich troubles.

Crucially, while the process was hanging over his head, Ecclestone was unable to verify those moves, meaning the future of three GPs were dependent on him successfully extrapolating himself from the graft accusations, ensuring some influential people were rooting for him.

Ecclestone has made a lot of friends with the expansion of the F1 calendar over recent years from 16 to 17 to the peak of 20 in the 2010 season.

Austria has returned to the calendar this year, while Sochi will make its bow later in the season and Azerbaijan will be a new addition with a Baku GP in 2016.

On the contrary from potentially losing his control of F1, he is rumoured to be considering buying back a majority share.

He owns 5.3 per cent while his family trust Bambino has another 8.5 per cent, but the British magnate is now looking into the possibility of purchasing back the 35.5 per cent stake held by CVC Capital Partners

"Age does not make it impossible. I feel no different to how I did 40 years ago," he said last month.

If at 83 and with his recent legal problems, Ecclestone still feels the same energy and motivation he had before taking control of F1, what, if anything, could stop him doing so again.